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Mission of the Asian Churches in the household of God — An Orthodox Perspective


This Paper was presented by Dr. Yakob Mar Irenaios, Metropolitan of Malankara Orthodox Syrian Church, India, at the THEOLOGICAL WORKSHOP ON THE THEME FOR THE CCA 14TH CONFERENCE IN 2015 held at Jakarta, Indonesia from 21 – 25 July 2014.

“As you go, proclaim the good news; ‘the kingdom of heaven has come near. Cure the sick, raise the dead, cleanse the lepers, cast out demons. You have Received without payment, give without payment” (Matt. 10:7-8).

“Go ye therefore, and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit” (Matt. 28:19)

The Holy Church is the Household of God with a divine assignment to work for the transformation of the world, in which it finds itself. Thus the vision becomes inclusive to see the whole world as the Household of God. A message of this responsibility of humans is obvious in the beautiful discovery of the psalmist: The heavens are the Lord’s heavens: but the earth he has given to human beings (115:16). In fact, St. Paul talks about the family in heaven and earth,
which is named of the Father (Ephesians 3: 14-15). Thus the household of God consists of all the inhabitants of heaven and earth. Our concern for the earth, which we are called to share with God (cf. Jonah 4:11), is not to harbor any discrimination in terms of faith, language, culture, ethnicity, gender or financial security. In fact, the significance of the ‘household of God on earth’ in the context of the inalienable relationship between heaven and earth is clear and loud in the Lord’s Prayer: “Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven”.

Household of God

Household is a beautiful term: a house becomes a ‘household’, only when its inhabitants (‘partners’ in modern jargon) are ‘held together’ by some unseen but strong, affinity, which may be described as spiritual. If any family fails to ‘hold together’ its members, it ceases to deserve this appellation. In God’s household, what holds everything and everybody together is unselfish and unconditional love, and not mere survival instinct; for, love binds everything together in perfect harmony (Col. 3:14). The one principle of life that the creator God writ large on the face on creations was this: one should serve the other. Even to this day the entire edifice of life on this planet is sustained by this cardinal principle. This principle is behind “living together” and sustenance as well as the essential awareness that this household is owned by God. A faulty understanding and execution of mission is liable to violate this principle.

Two Biblical metaphors of perfect household may be cited here to illustrate the idea of “living together” in the household of God. Both these are from the ‘in the beginning” portions of Old Testament history.

The first obviously is the first ever household known to us – the community life in the Garden of Eden. It was the ideal household of God; where the presence of God was felt, the Tree of Life (symbolizing the Son of God, in Orthodox theology) was at the centre of the ‘household’, the possibility of temptations loomed large, and also the possibility of defeating temptations; and the God-given responsibility to tend and protect the earth (a responsibility in which modern man has miserably failed!). If we borrow from the Bible and the Desert Fathers, what held the inhabitants of that household together was the observation of the twin commandments: Love of God and Love of others. There, they all ‘lived together’: there was zero enmity between human beings and animals; all the creatures could communicate with each other. Perhaps there was one common means of perfect communication for all, known in theological parlance as “Paradisiacal Language’. In that household everyone had to care for everyone else; otherwise they could not continue to exist. Their ‘living together’ was ordained by God, and they enjoyed it too. They knew (but later faltered to honour it) that God was the head of the household, and they had to depend on him for everything: life, sustenance, safety,
consummation and so on.

Man’s disobedience and the “Fall’ upset the whole apple cart: humans lost their “innocence”; ‘being good’ was replaced by mere ‘knowledge of good and evil’; mutual love and respect among the members of the ‘household’ diminished; mutual suspicion and enmity replaced perfect mutual understanding; exploitation emanating from selfishness ruled the roost; ‘privacy’ replaced ‘openness’; even the presence of God was looked askance – in short, there were very few essentials to ‘hold the house together.’

The second instance is that of the “corporate” life in Noah’s ark. It was a household seemingly by ‘compulsion’. Yet it is a strong metaphor of living together, despite the fact that it was a conglomerate of myriad disparities. Here was a real commune, where the needs of every one were met. No one could claim superiority over any one else; all of them felt the need to hold together; and there absolutely was no scope for exploitation. They all need each other; they
had all shed their ‘natural’ ferocity, if they had any. Such an understanding called for mutual respect and concern. As we say, ‘all were in the same boat’, meaning that they had to live with the principle’ live and let live’. There is no record of any rancor or struggle among the Arkdwellers! Once the deluge was over, they forgot the principles of the ‘community life’ they enjoyed in the Ark of their ‘salvation’. Noah was inebriate before long; the remnant who survived the Flood by the grace of God soon came together to ‘rebel’ against God.

Life in Asian Countries Today

The general life situation in the 47 Asian countries today is one of unease; and in a few of them, there exists a civil war like situation. It is not assumed here that only Asian countries are experiencing ethnic or political turmoil. Some of the Western countries too are passing through war like situations. Political unrest is not something new in Eastern countries. Today, West Asia and North African (WANA) and Gulf region are no longer citadels of peace, despite material prosperity. The much orchestrated Arab Spring has only brought the greatest social, ethnic and political unrest to some of them. Actually those states which have not been affected by the movement live in mortal fear of its unwelcome visitation. However, the Asian polity has survived so many vicissitudes, but life goes on despite all kinds of unrest with amazing resilience. The latest in order is descent of the movement called SISI (State of Iraq and Syria), in Iraq.

The international media tell us that exists a kind of ‘cold war’ between China and Taiwan. Within China, the elaborate precautionary measures taken by the state to ‘meet’ the Anniversary of the Tiananmen Square incidents a quarter century ago, and the continuing incarceration of votaries of democracy, are ominous enough to reveal the state of things there. Again, there is no love lost between the two Koreas! There appear few parallels for what is
really happening in North Korea, as surmised from what little is leaked out from behind the iron curtain. The tension and lack of trust between China and Japan, China and India, India and Pakistan, Indonesia and Malaysia etc. on territorial issues are only too pronounced. The unrest in the WANA and Gulf region tells on the whole world for several reasons. After the failed Iraqi invasion, Kuwait is apparently calm; Egypt is not yet free from the commotion that
has been going on there for a few years now; Syria and Iraq are literally boiling. A recent UN press release says “one family flees Syria every 60 minutes”1, echoing one of the bloodiest civil wars in this generation. Lebanon, a country no bigger than the North Eastern state of Tripura in India, is today home to a million Syrian refugees. Today one in every four people in Lebanon is a Syrian refugee. These blood-letting events have their international repercussions. Echoing this sentiment, Swamy wrote an article titled: “War in Iraq Hurts Every Home in India”2. If the twitter images are to be believed, the militant group’s squads gunning down Iraqi air force recruits in Tikrit, some 1700 of them, was one of ghastliest images this generation has seen. And there is the ‘perennially’ unresolved problem between Israel and Palestine. The ‘liberation’ of the Tamil dominated north by the security forces appears to boomerang on the Sri Lankan regime with the proposed U.N. enquiry commission into the alleged human rights violations in place. The Nobel laureate democracy icon in Myanmar is kept out of bounds from the democratic process she loves and stands for. Ukraine has proved to be the latest in the lingering spirit of Glasnost and Perestroika; whether it is in the right or wrong direction, history alone would prove.

In India, a new federal government has taken over following the national General Elections, amidst fears of a right wing Hindu extremist backlash. For the time being, everything is quiet; but the attacks from terrorist groups working from across the border with its northeast neighbor continues.

Apart from these political and military details, there are other factors vitiating life in Asian countries. Ethnic or caste conflicts, corruption, gender exploitation, substance abuse, and the latest- “honour killings” (family members or community taking revenge on youngsters for love marriages cutting across caste barriers, in some parts of central and north India) are the hallmarks of the Asian Reality today. This is apart from the overwhelming poverty in certain
patches in Asia, lingering into the present century.

A word about the churches and Christians in Asian countries today: in several Asian countries, not only Christians, but religious minorities are discriminated against; and do not enjoy the regular citizen’s rights; it would be worse, if we talk about religious freedom in such countries. The notion of a ‘state religion’ is not a bygone idea!

This is a brief, but very incomplete, picture of human life in Asia today. No wonder, if somebody would exclaim that some places in this continent are the most unlivable on the earth! We need to brood over how the Church could discharge its God-assigned task of ‘mission’ in such a scenario. The assignment is to “baptize the nations”! There is likelihood to misunderstand this command to mean that ‘conversion and giving baptism’ is what the Lord meant. Aggressive movements of preaching mission and conversions are discouraged, if not banned, in several states in Asia. In this context, Churches in Asia need to go after the real meaning of “baptizing the nations”. We call it as the real mission of the Church.

Mission – an Orthodox Point of View

To put it briefly, the Church exists in the world to work for its transformation. Here is a poignant statement from an Oriental Orthodox theologian:

The ministry of the Church consists in carrying forward the work which our Lord did while he was on earth. As the gospels testify, he came to the world to do the will of the Father who sent him, and to fulfill his work, and he enjoined on the Church to complete what he had initiated in himself with reference to the world as a whole, in the power of the Holy Spirit3.

Thus we have before us a world, to be specific in the context of this paper, ‘an Asia, to be transfigured’. This is the core and principle of the mission of the Church in Asia.

This process has two aspects:
1. To build up the Christian community on the basis of the life and ideals of Jesus Christ.
2. To work for the transformation of the world at large in the light of the life and ideals of Jesus Christ.

The former emphasizes the fact that the Church is a community organized by God, in which we are members by God’s grace; and this community, which is and has to be a fellowship which reflects the fellowship in heaven, has to have unique characteristics becoming the household of God. The central point is that this community has the duty to keep herself faithful to her Lord. Jesus had exhorted his disciples to be his witnesses everywhere (Acts 1:8). The archetype of life style before them was the life of Jesus himself. Their life style and spirituality were to transcend those of the Pharisees and Sadducees (Matt. 5:20). They were asked not to hate or take revenge on those who hated them or created trouble for them, but to love those who hated them and to pray for those who caused them harm (Matt.5: 43-48). Therefore, it would appear to suggest a suffering community. This ideal of not hating those who oppose us and praying for those who put us in trouble was dear to the heart of Mahatma Gandhi, who had great respect for Jesus Christ.

The latter is the second part of mission; while the former asked us “to be”. The heart of the matter is that the presence of a Christian or the Christian community is expected to be a transforming presence in this world of violence, exploitation, corruption, discrimination and injustice. The greatest example is the early Church which was a ‘suffering’ Church, for the sake of Truth and justice. Martyrdom which was the distinguishing feature of the Church of the first four centuries is reckoned as the greatest force, along with asceticism, in the witness and spreading of the Church. The small mission minded community that was the early Church was convinced that it was ‘called and elected’ to be the salt and light of the earth (Matt. 5:13-14).

The theological bases for these ideas are the following:

1. God made the world in the beginning and guides it to the final goal of reflecting his will only. Though the world as a whole and man in particular have fallen away from this divine plan, God is working unceasingly to accomplish his purpose. The Church is the pre-eminent instrument for realizing this goal.

2. St. Paul says that he is completing in his flesh what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions for the sake of his Body, the Church (Colossians 1:24). The sufferings of Christ should become the means of salvation through the entire human race through the Church; and we, the members of the household of God have got a role to play in the attainment of this goal. The risen Christ, before he ascended to heaven said to his disciples that they would receive power when the Holy Spirit came up on them, and they would be his witnesses to the end of the earth (Acts 1: 7-8).

3. The Christian understanding of God and the work of Christ imply the need for the transformation of the whole creation, not merely the human race. The creation itself, he says, would one day be set free from its slavery to decay and would share the glorious freedom of the children of God. Thus the mission of Christ is not merely for a section of the human race, but for the entire human race, i.e. the household of God. He is the Lord of the entire world and the human race as a whole. His concern is not limited, but is cosmic.

4. Jesus did not act or pray for the external conversion of people into the Church. On the contrary, his prayer was that his disciples may be united with him and with one another in love, as he himself was with the Father in love. It is such unity among them, and their being together united with the Triune God that will lead the world to believe in the Christian message (cf. John 17:21).

This community is asked to heal the sick, cast out demons, raise the dead and to preach the Good News of the Kingdom of God. This community is asked to feed the hungry, instead of sending them away famished after feeding them from the Word of God (Matt.14:16; Mark 6:37; Luke 9:13). This community is asked to be perfect as the heavenly Father is perfect (Matt 5: 48). The members of this community are asked to wash each other’s feet as a sign of humility and mutual service (John 13:14). This community is asked to love each other to prove that it belongs to God; and is told that the greatest expression of love is to lay down one’s life for the sake of others (John 15:14). These were the major and attractive features of the life of our Lord. In other words, the household of God is one with a difference, though it is in the world. Mission of Asian Churches

Asian Churches cannot run away from their responsibility to minister unto this household of God as God wills, which means simply ‘to be’ and ‘to do’ what He would have said and done in this complex and formidable environment.

Conflicts, Civil War, Border Disputes, etc.

Churches together, for instance, through the National Councils, could engage the political regimes, whether democratic or authoritarian, as regards the safety of innocent people, especially because of the fact that children and women bear most of the brunt of conflicts and wars. Churches and Church agencies could offer free services to the affected population. Churches shall try to win the confidence of the authoritarian regimes by their sincerity of intent,
and commitment to Justice, Truth and Peace. There might come instances where the Churches themselves would be the afflicted group. It is in such circumstances the moral and spiritual mettle of the Church is tested, and its commitment to Peace and Justice verified. Prominent examples for the recognition won by Christian mission services are the work of the Red Cross/ Red Crescent Society, Mother Teresa’s Sisters of Charity, and the like, in every society.

Poverty and Luxury

Alleviating the misery of the poor is fundamental to Christian mission. Situations of poverty and starvation have not been effaced from certain parts of Asia. Assurance of food security is still a mirage in several Asian countries. Recently, the Indian Parliament has approved a National Food Security Act. Public Distribution network of essential commodities does help to ameliorate poverty in backward states.

As a foil to the issue of poverty alleviation, the sin of luxury raises its head. Christians and Churches have not extricated themselves from the sin of luxury and worldliness. A recurring theme in the speeches and writings of the late Metropolitan of the Orthodox Church, Geevarghese Mar Osthathios was about “the sin of being rich in a poor world”. Church history bears witness to the prevalence of luxury in the Churches and monasteries of Europe in the
Middle Ages, that led to corruption and to their obvious decadence. The mission of the Asian Churches in the household of God has to seriously ponder over this, i.e. whether history is being allowed to get repeated!

Corruption, Authoritarianism, Gender discrimination, Exploitation etc.

One hallmark of life in Asian countries is corruption that eats into the vitals of polity. However, it is no consolation to bask in the thinking that this bane is worldwide. Poor, illiterate villagers being exploited by the bureaucrats is a common phenomenon in several Asian states. (of course, this can hardly be generalized). Harassment of women in workplaces, ill-treatment of migrant workers, denial of human rights etc. are problems that stare into the conscience of the Asian people and Churches.

In this situation, several Churches have started educating and the poor as to their rights as citizens and the right to enjoy the welfare measures provided by the state. In some places this programme is being resisted by the rich, who exploit the poor.

Again, some Asian countries are still under some form of authoritarian or military rule, which rarely respects human rights. In Pakistan and Afghanistan, ‘rule of law’ has become what the military or some tribal war lords dictate. Minorities are far from secure in such states.

In some Asian states, women are not as independent as their counterparts in other countries; so much so that it has become a slur on womanhood. In these situations the value of human life is degraded to a totally unacceptable low. Christianity teaches that life is God-given and it is precious; and blatant violation of this shall be confronted in a ‘Christian’ manner, through education, coercion, counseling, legal measures, and through whatever other means possible. “Almost all women in India, from the most docile and submissive to the seemingly liberated, are forced to lead lives that straddle the extremities of brash sexual objectification and abject domestication”, said the Toronto-based documentary film maker Nisha Pahuja, whose award winning documentary, “The World Before Her” was screened in the city of Kochi recently. This situation may not be duplicated as such elsewhere in Asia, but this is a reflection on the patriarchal culture still in vogue in many places. The Church has to show the way by respecting womanhood and resisting atrocities against woman in an enlightened manner.

Religious Persecution and Ethnic Cleansing

This malady usually based on religious beliefs or caste considerations is not unknown in history, and it continues to our times. Certain states in Asia, take pride in declaring that they are founded on religion; the laws in such states correspond to their specific religious beliefs; any citizen in that state who harbours some other religious persuasion will be in mortal danger of being arrested for ‘blasphemy’ charges, for some flimsy reason or the other. Such an
environment is current in many of the ‘Islamic States’, and also a few other Hindu and Buddhist majority states.

The situation in the pronounced Communist countries is different; they allow neither individual nor religious freedom to their citizens. One may or may not call it oppression, for no religion which does not toe the line of the ruling class, is ‘visible’. (At the same time it is acknowledged that there are underground churches in mainland China). Besides, some states have reported instances of regional ethnic cleansing.

A dispassionate look at these situations gives the constraint to the Asian Churches to be aware of the Asian realities and device Christian responses as part of its mission. Here are a few suggestions:

1. The Church has the basic missionary duty to take the gospel to the ‘unreached’. Having said so, it is only too obvious that such initiatives are not generally welcome in a religiously awakening Asia. Therefore, the Christian dispensation, as it did in the past, needs to engage other faiths in dialogue, without condemning them as ‘demonic ‘or false. In turn, such dialogic engagements are certain to give a new life to the Christian faith as it enters the thought world of different religious and cultural situations. Amartya Sen, the Nobel Laureate economist, a non-resident Indian, living in the U. K., talks about the time-tested method of fruitful dialogue that was the hallmark of India of old. India could welcome every new thought or philosophy, but there was always room for dialogue. In such dialogical situations, instead of fighting and hate which are the familiar “mode” in modern times, people of different religious or thinking persuasions would engage in a healthy “talk” without undermining the human dignity. Asian Churches today, are in a vital situation to engage other faiths in dialogue.

2. The Orthodox Church, as different from the Augustinian teaching, emphasizes that human nature is “good” (cf. Gregory of Nyssa), and respect for the ‘person” is the crux of human relations; and that every individual is precious. Therefore human freedom, which is a gift from God, has to be respected at every initiative – mission, peace or “Good Samaritan” activities.

3. The Orthodox Churches consider the liturgy as inseparably related to all mission activities. Liturgy is the soul of Christian life; history says that the Church did sustain itself through the centuries of persecution solely through its liturgy. What is meant is not an over dominance of the liturgical part, for Orthodox theology talks about “liturgy after liturgy’, referring to works of love.

4. A related and beautiful corollary is a distinguishing feature of the Indian “psyche”, that “always there is room for one more person”. This supreme sense of accommodation seems a unique characteristic of the “household of God”. “Mission” has to consider this seriously- Asia is not just the ripe field for “converting” people by any means, but it is the household of God, waiting to be transformed by the “salt’- like presence of the Church. One instance of accommodation among Churches themselves is the short-lived cooperation of the Orthodox Church in India with the CMS missionaries in theological education, which, of course, did bear some good fruits.

5. Asian Churches need to shed their “foreign” tag”, if any; and transform themselves to be the “serving” Church to millions of Asians.

6. Asian Christians, along with their brothers and sisters in the West, need to be worried about the decadence of Christianity at the level of holiness – its credibility and practice. Perhaps Asian Churches might claim to be relatively better placed on this point, but still, there remains the indelible “foreign” tag attached to it owing to various reasons. One would ask: “What is Christian in the Christian Church of today? “We may recall a joke of a bygone era regarding the “Holy Roman Empire”- that it was neither “Holy” nor “Roman”. Divisions and faulty witnessing are to be taken seriously.

Perhaps, mission in Asian countries in more challenging and formidable than in other countries!

Foot Note_____________________________
1 Priyanka Bhattacharya Dutt, “A Syrian Tragedy of many Dimensions”, article in The Hindu, Daily, Kochi, India, dated 20, June 2014.
2 Praveen Swamy, article published in The Hindu dated 18 June 20, 2014.
3 Rev. Dr. V. C. Samuel, An Orthodox Catechism on the Faith and Life of the Church, Kottayam: MGOCSM Bookshop &Publishing house, 2008, 111.

Articles Devotional

Devotional Thoughts For The New Year


Anything new is fascinating to the human mind. But, alas! novelty created by man “will not endure” and man goes ahead discontent in search of something newer and fascinating. This is equally true of earthly and carnal pleasure-generating environments and stimulants.

It is in this context that we need to listen to Heaven’s promise and assurance,” Behold I make all things new”. Creation was in the beginning all new and beautiful, with innocence, holiness and wisdom and the accompanying creative curiosity. Since those blessed days, creation has been marred by disobedience, selfishness, covetousness and rivalry-all of which attempted to defy and negate the enduring Love of God. While it was love that moved God to create us, it is again his love that moved to renew andre-create us to what we should be. Thus the joy of Christmas that marks the incarnation of God’s love and goodness to humanity, brings us glad tidings of great joy and the promise of a renewed and restored humanity.

As 2004 is pealed out and the new year is ushered in with prayers and revelries, it comes to us as a challenge to realize it as a transforming moment in our lives- to share a moment of a deep sense of humility and gratitude. “Hope” is the word that accompanies may a New Year Greeting . In truth it rests in our mental readiness to surrender our lives to the One who has promised to make us all new!. A new year obviously would bring in its train lots of opportunities and challenges as usual. They are to be faced and negotiated with “Christ “our Companion. The emerging situations and the environment may not proclaim any substantial change, but the change occurs in us, as we say to ourselves, “it’s a new day”! The situations may change ,but the willingness to get transformed, rests with us alone. May our New Year Resolutions be perched on a genuine desire to let God Change our lives, and to carry some Good News to those around us, of love hope and peace. That, of course, would change lives and be part of the “newness” that is promised to all.

It is significant that the Church exhorts us to welcome the Birth of Jesus with 25 days of lent, and greet the New Year morn with the Holy Liturgy and communion. Every festival has got a spiritual and a cultural aspect. Much care needs to be taken to ensure that one does not eclipse the other!

These are days when religious passion is ignited- not for the sake of human love, but for hate and war. Even religion and religious leaders stand bereft of the much needed credibility. Hence the need for strong moorings in human love, compassion and sacrifice as part of our spiritual convictions.

The New Years Day is one to ponder deep on the relevance of our existence, to feel humble and grateful before God, and to be a “good news “to those around us. The New Year becomes new ,only where it is opened and lived with the Lord who transforms everything.

May the readers be blessed and be filled with the spirit of compassion, love and an unquenchable thirst to seek after Truth, and thus to be NEW!