Today, in the Gospel lesson, Christ tells Peter, “Do not be afraid; henceforth you will be catching men.” What does this mean? Are we, as the Church, still to be fishers of men? And if so, what does this look like in a world that is increasingly intolerant of the Christian faith? Well, first we must recognize that the main reason the world is intolerant of us is because of us. We have caused this. We can attempt to blame secularism, or atheism, or consumerism, or a host of other ‘isms’. But where do all of these ‘isms’ come from? They come from us. They’ve come about because we have forgotten to evangelize. We have forgotten to be the bait so-to-speak that lures people into Christ’s net.
So, let us address what it means to evangelize in this world. We’ll start by stating what evangelism is not. Evangelization is not an ideological argument. We are called to go into all the nations and make disciples, leading them to repentance, and a saving knowledge of Jesus Christ, but so much of our time is spent in argument instead of acquiring the Spirit of peace that not only are people not being saved around us, we are actively encouraging their destruction. We have confused the tools of argument and rhetoric with evangelization itself. In our western world, Christian ‘evangelists’ are trained to make arguments and present proofs about Scripture or God, so if the argument is strong enough then we can gain souls for the Kingdom. But there is a problem in this approach that we may not recognize. This approach requires nothing of us except an intellectual understanding of the subject and the ability to produce a logical syllogism. That’s fine if the Gospel were a debate class, but we are not talking about debate. The Gospel cannot be up for debate. It is the proclamation of reality as it really is.
So, evangelization is not argument. It is not a debate. If it is not these things, then what is it? Here we can say a couple things. Evangelization requires time and effort, and I don’t mean time and effort being spent developing arguments and proof-texts. It requires us to become witnesses and bearers of light. Christ does not immediately send the Apostles out after His proclamation that He will make them fishers of men. They eat with Him, drink with Him, travel with Him, lodge with Him, witness His miracles and sacrifice. They live with the Life of all, and come to know Him. Even then Christ doesn’t give them the great commission until after His death and resurrection and His sending the Holy Spirit. My point here, is that the Apostles shared a life with Jesus that was more than argument or debate. They lived the full Christian life. It is only through this life lived in communion with Christ that the Apostles became bearers of the Light. Only after they lived this life did they become evangelists.
Another thing we must say about evangelization is that it is synergistic. It is not my job, or your job, to convince people to become Orthodox, or to follow Christ through argument or persuasion. Our co-working with Christ involves us going to the Cross. We must die to ourselves that we may live to Christ. We must decrease so that He increases. Our responsibility is to bear witness to the new life in Christ. Our life in the Holy Spirit proclaims the reality of Christ and His Kingdom, and when we are dedicated to Christ, people will be drawn. Many will want to participate in the reality that we do. They will want the Life that we live. They will crave the peace and joy of the everlasting Kingdom, and when they ask you whence comes this freedom, this peace, this joy, you can rightly proclaim the Gospel: that God has become man to unite us to Himself and deliver us from our bondage to sin and death, and raise us up with Himself in an everlasting resurrection. But how can we preach a fearless life and live our own lives afraid? How can we preach peace and joy when we are continually embroiled in anger, division, and judgement? How can we preach that Christ is love when we cannot? How can we look others in the face and demand they carry their Cross when they’ve never seen us do so? How can we proclaim the fullness of the Faith when we, often times, refuse to participate in, and live that fullness?
Evangelism is not a starting point, it is the natural result of a life lived in obedience and communion with Christ. To evangelize the world, we must become martyrs—witnesses to the new life in Christ. We must rid ourselves of ideologies, and be completely devoted to Christ and His Church. This means that for us to be effective Orthodox evangelists, we must accept the whole of Holy Tradition, and this takes time, practice, and humility. We must believe wholeheartedly and without reservation in order to properly proclaim the Orthodox Faith. If I believe that the Church is in error, or if I disagree with her then I cannot be an effective evangelist. If I believe there is anything lacking in the Bride of Christ, in Christ Himself or His love for us, then I cannot evangelize. This means that not only do I have to submit myself to the dogmatic, and canonical, Tradition of the Church, I must submit myself to her sacramental and liturgical life. I must become, wholly and completely, a member of the Bride of Christ.
Lastly, let us say this about evangelizing: we must stand steadfastly against the evil tides of this world. We must not submit, or surrender, to prevailing opinion when it contradicts the loving self-revelation of God Himself. We must not agree simply in order to have peace. We must not be tolerant of sin, but this intolerance that we show sin must begin with our own. We must not hide our heads in the sand to the brutalities and depravations of the world. But we must also accept that the battle for the world is not waged on social media, or airwaves. It is waged in your heart and mine. It is there that we must fight. It is there, and only there, that we can be victorious through Christ. And when our hearts are broken and created anew in Christ, then we have something to offer as evangelists.
Beloved of God, acquire the Spirit of Peace and thousands around you will be saved. To evangelize this city, this country, this world, we must bear witness to the life Christ has given us. We must die to ourselves, and so let us be kind to one another; forgive one another; prefer one another, and allow God to change our hearts in our submission to Him and indeed He will make us fishers of men.
* Icon credit to Jim Forest: https://www.flickr.com/photos/pelegrino/sets/72157624125438256/with/4670641378/