The Harvest is Plentiful, But the Laborers are Few
Immediately before he ascended into heaven, our Lord Jesus Christ gave his disciples a Great Commission: “Go… and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to obey all things that I have commanded you…” (Matt. 28:19-20). And that is exactly what they did. The eleven disciples, the seventy, and hundreds of others who became Christians on the day of Pentecost, traveled throughout the known world, taking the Gospel of Jesus Christ with them. Soon afterward, St. Paul and his missionary band traveled all throughout Asia Minor and southeastern Europe, eventually reaching Rome and even Spain. Everywhere they went, they preached the Gospel and established churches, all the while enduring much hardship and persecution. By the end of the first century, there were thousands of churches and millions of Christians, despite the fact that Christianity was not legal. As one persecutor of Christians quoted in the book of Acts said, the first-century Christians “turned the world upside down” with their teaching.
The spread of Christ’s Church did not stop with the passing of the first generation of Christians. Throughout the second and third centuries, the Church grew and spread all throughout Europe, even as millions of Christians lost their lives at the hands of pagan Roman emperors. The Gospel spread throughout North Africa, Spain, France, Mesopotamia, Persia, and northern Europe, even reaching a wild, untamed land called “England.” In the centuries after Christianity was legalized, the church continued to grow in both numbers and influence. Missionaries like Ss. Cyril and Methodius took the gospel to the Slavs, and eventually millions of Czechs, Slovaks, Serbs, Bulgarians, Croats, and finally Russians became Orthodox Christians. Even after the Great Schism of 1054, the Orthodox Church continued to send missionaries to foreign lands to take the Good News of Christ to those who had never heard the name of Jesus.
The Russian Church was particularly active in missionary work, converting the pagan peoples of eastern Russia and many in the south. And we all know the stories of St. Nicholas Kasatkin, whose missionary efforts in Japan led to the establishment of an indigenous Orthodox community of 33,000 faithful, and the great efforts of the many missionaries who took the Gospel to the native peoples of Alaska, including St. Herman, St. Innocent, St. Jacob Netsvetov, St. Juvenaly. Finally, I would be remiss if I did not mention the many pioneers of Orthodoxy in the “lower 48:” St. John Maximovitch, St. Raphael of Brooklyn, St. Tikhon, and St. Nikolai Velimirovitch, who labored to bring Orthodoxy to the mainland U. S., while planting churches and training leaders. Their work has continued to this day, and most of us here today are here due at least in part to their ground-breaking work.
Truly, the Orthodox Church has always been a missionary Church. But unfortunately, since the early part of the twentieth century, the Church has not always been as active in mission work as it once was. To be sure, this relative lack of mission activity has been caused in part by factors beyond the Church’s control, such as the Soviet takeover of Russia and the two World Wars. But the fact remains that the Orthodox Church has allowed the Protestants, despite their lesser numbers, to surpass us in missionary zeal and effort. This is truly a tragedy. As Jesus said in today’s Gospel, “The harvest truly is plentiful, but the laborers are few.” This is true today no less than it was in Jesus’ day. Many claim that we live in a post-modern, post-Christian age, in which most people are secular in their mindset and opposed to any type of religion. But this is true only in the West (and even in the “secular” West, people buy religious books and watch and listen to religious programs in record numbers). Worldwide, people are searching for something more than just secular materialism. They are looking for hope and purpose. In short, they are looking for exactly what we Orthodox have to offer.