The Poverty of Love
The last few decades, more and more evangelicals have been mining the treasures of Eastern Orthodoxy. One reason for their openness is the work of people like Bradley Nassif, professor of biblical and theological studies at North Park University in Chicago. For years he has been, as one editor put it, "a courageous and enthusiastic pioneer of Orthodox-evangelical dialogue around the world." While Nassif was exposed to evangelical faith in his youth, which he says gave his faith vitality, he has remained a faithful member of the Orthodox Church. But while championing the Orthodox cause, he's never been blind to its spiritual needs. As he put it in one article, "The most urgent need in the Orthodox world today is an aggressive 'internal mission' of (re)converting our people to Jesus Christ." In this Christian Vision Project article, Nassif suggests how one element of the Orthodox heritage might help reconvert all of us to the person and mission of Jesus Christ.
"Is our gospel too small?" Shouldn't the answer be obvious? As an Eastern Orthodox theologian, my first impulse was to point out that a small gospel has never been our problem. The name of the great 7th-century saint Maximus the Confessor symbolizes the maximal gospel proclaimed by him and all the Orthodoxone with cosmic implications that embraces the whole of creation. Proclaiming that kind of gospel has always been the Orthodox way. But then I came down to earth. Though Orthodoxy has a grand vision in principle, it often doesn't make a lot of difference in practice. I believe our theological compass is pointed in the right direction, but when it comes to following through on our not-so-small gospel, we are no better than anyone else.
So what's lacking in all our churches, regardless of tradition, that makes this question so necessary? My thoughts turn to the early 300s, to the deserts of Egypt, Palestine, and Syria, along the banks of the River Nile, in remote caves, abandoned forts and tombs, on mountaintops and pillars. There, men and women took up their crosses to fashion the old creation into the newto seek the redemption and renewal of our fallen human nature by the power of the risen Lord. These desert dwellers provide us with the wisdom we seek.
The desert fathers and mothers heard Christ's call to deny themselves, take up the cross daily, and follow him (Luke 9:23) in a time similar to our own. Under Emperor Constantine, large numbers joined the church for the social privileges it bestowed. Many sought status and prosperity more than the cross. This influx of nominal Christians made the church a spiritually sick institution, and a radical illness called for a radical remedy. Ordinary men and women, most of them illiterate, heard the death-call of the gospel and responded by fleeing to the desert to live out their callingeither alone or in community. Peasants, shepherds, camel traders, former slaves, and prostitutes were the first to go.
The desert was not a place of escape as much as a place of countercultural engagement. The desert was the front line of spiritual warfareas in the Bible, a place of testing and death. It was where the heart was purified, the passions conquered, sin destroyed, and humanity renewed.
Like the prophets of old, the desert dwellers reminded the church that the kingdom of God is not of this world. They insisted that if we confuse the gospel's values with our culture's values, it will have lethal results. They exposed the underside of a form of religion that fuels our hunger for self-centered living. Still today, their lives stand against the easy assurance of a too-inculturated gospel. They offer an alternative spiritual order, one based on Trinitarian divine love and human freedom. They offer an alternative portrait of what being human really means. And perhaps most radically, they call us to engage our external challenges by first conquering our own inner passions through the lordship of Christ.