Do not insult God

I’m slowly making my way through St. John Chrysostom’s homilies on the Acts of the Apostles.

Most contemporary Scripture commentaries spend the bulk of their time sorting through what other scholars have said about a particular passage.  As one of the very earliest commentators, Chrysostom was spared such mucking about– few scholars had said anything about these passages before he did.  His commentaries are also transcripts of sermons.  While they do comment on Scripture, and in detail, their function is primarily exhortation rather than any scholarly exegesis.  “Here’s what Scripture says, and here’s what to do about it.”

This gives his sermons a really delightful warmth and directness.  Chrysostom is fun to read.

He writes from a world very different from the one I live in.  As Archbishop of Constantinople, Chrysostom was preacher of the Christian empire from the imperial city.  But he was deposed from his see more than once and died in exile and disgrace.  And when you read his sermons, you know why.  St. John spoke truth to power, he was not afraid to chastise emperors and patricians.  And his writings are filled with an evangelistic fervor that one normally expects from authors whose surroundings are not so thoroughly Christianized.

Preaching on St. Paul’s conversion and baptism in Damascus, Chrysostom goes so far as to say that a Christian who does not evangelize is no Christian at all– and that there is no excuse for avoiding such a calling:

Nothing is more frigid than a Christian, who cares not for the salvation of others.  Thou canst not plead poverty : for she that cast down the two mites, shall be thine accuser.  And Peter said, “Silvel and gold have I none.”  And Paul was so poor, that he was often hungered, and wanted necessary food.  Thou canst not plead lowness of birth : for they too were ignoble men, and of ignoble parents.  Thou canst not allege want of education : for they too were “unlearned men.”  Even if thou be a slave therefore and a runaway slave, thou canst perform thy part : for such was Onesimus : yet see to what Paul calls him, and to how great honor he advances him… Thou canst not plead infirmity : for such was Timothy, having often infirmities.

Chrysostom uses trees as an analogy– great, beautiful trees that stand out in the landscape generally provide no fruit. They’re good only for lumber and firewood.  Trees that bear pomegranates, olives, and the like are usually quite small.  Likewise, those who consider only their own interest may grow tall and beautiful but, like fruitless trees, are only fit for burning.  But those who care always for others remain small and humble in appearance while bearing immense fruit for the nourishment of all.

He concludes his sermon with a powerful exhortation:

Do not insult God.

Proclaiming the Gospel is part of the very nature of a Christian.  As it would insult God to say that the sun he created does not shine, so it would insult him to say that a Christian cannot do good– it would be calling God a liar.

For it is easier for the sun not to give heat, nor to shine, than for the Christian not to send forth light : it is easier for the light to be darkness, than for this to be so.  Tell me not that it is impossible : the contrary is the impossible.  Do not insult God.

It is sometimes thought by Evangelicals that we Orthodox Christians do not care for the lost.  It is sometimes thought by us Orthodox Christians that evangelism is a job for the experts; that if you don’t have a Th.D then you’re not qualified to point others towards Christ.  But St. John Chrysostom’s fiery words confirm that evangelism is the tradition of the ancient Church, and that it is indeed a task for every Christian.  Of course you’re not worthy.  But the Holy Spirit within you is.  Do not insult God.

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2 Comments

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2 responses to “Do not insult God

  1. lemur

    One potential plea not addressed in the passage you quote is modesty. What if a Christian does not fully believe that Christianity is the only light? Especially in our particular cultural environment, there is a perception of Christian evangelicals as arrogant in the belief that they have a monopoly on cosmic truth. If one goes about proclaiming the gospel, especially to people who are happy, fulfilled and moral in some other religion or in none, then many interactions may do more harm than good.

    Maybe the answer is that an evangelist should modify his/her evangelism appropriately to the audience, that the best way of caring for the salvation of some non-Christians is not to ask them to change their beliefs, but to support them in their own understanding of morality and to help them refine it through intellectual discussion – or, on the other hand, would an approach of such timidity be worthless, in that the gospel does not end up getting spread? Would it be better to ignore such vexatious customers and instead go and seek out a population more likely to welcome the message? Would that imply that evangelism should take priority over any other vocation you have – that it’s not just something everyone should do, but the main thing everyone should do?

  2. lemur, your response is making me think hard. Thank you.

    I suppose this hinges on what the Gospel is, what evangelism means, and what Christianity is all about.

    I’ll start by offering that Christ (not Christianity) is the light which enlightens the world, and to be a Christian is precisely to have seen and embraced this light. The Gospel is that Christ is risen from the dead and has restored life to the world. And evangelism is to live in the reality of the Resurrection, carrying this light to others.

    Intellectual discussion, among intellectuals, is a worthy pursuit. But evangelism– carrying the light of Christ to illumine and enliven the world– is often a less heady and more sweaty endeavor. Unconditional love is always a precondition. But the firm conviction that Christ is risen need not be antithetical to modesty or even extreme humility.

    I agree that the best way of caring for the salvation of others is not to ask them to change their beliefs, though a shift in worldview may be in order. Rather, to care for the salvation of others is to bear their burdens and offer up one’s life in their service, for Christ’s sake.

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