Evangelism: First Things First 

But when Paul perceived that one part were Sadducees and the other Pharisees, he cried out in the council, “Men and brethren, I am a Pharisee, the son of a Pharisee; concerning the hope and resurrection of the dead I am being judged!” And when he had said this, a dissension arose between the Pharisees and the Sadducees; and the assembly was divided. For Sadducees say that there is no resurrection – and no angel or spirit; but the Pharisees confess both. Then there arose a loud outcry. And the scribes of the Pharisees’ party arose and protested, saying, “We find no evil in this man; but if a spirit or an angel has spoken to him, let us not fight against God.”  (Acts 23:6-9)

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As Roman Catholic scholar Peter Kreeft points out, and as we can see in the above passage from the Acts of the Apostles, it was Christ’s resurrection that was the original Good News proclaimed by the Apostles.  St Paul obviously realized it was exactly the resurrection which showed that Jesus, though executed as a criminal by crucifixion, was in fact God’s chosen Messiah.

When Christianity was proclaimed throughout the world, the proclamation (kerygma) was not ‘Love your enemies!’ but ‘Christ is risen!’  This was not a new ideal but a new event, that God became man, died, and rose for our salvation. Christianity is first of all not ideal but real, an event, news, the gospel, the ‘good news’.  The essence of Christianity is not Christianity; the essence of Christianity is Christ.   (BACK TO VIRTUE, p 83)

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The resurrection of Jesus was the primary proclamation of the Apostles.  They didn’t go forth proclaiming some new ideals for humanity (as Kreeft points out above), but offered the event of Christ’s resurrection as evidence of God’s own life and activity breaking into our lives and world.   The resurrection  was the message they first wanted the world to accept – His commandment to love one another, only is important if one accepts the fact that Jesus is Lord, God, Savior and Christ.  What is essential and primary is that people become aware of God’s love and desire to be reconciled to all humans which is what the resurrection shows – death is overcome in Christ, it is no longer something that separates us from God and one another.   God’s love for His creation and creatures is the conclusion we draw from God’s own actions in our world.  As Orthodox scholar Olivier Clement writes:

“In fact, if Christ is not risen, death will always have the last word, the days following the feast will be days of ashes and loneliness.

But if Christ is risen, Easter is the ‘feast of feasts’, and we are henceforth capable of ‘giving thanks in all things’, so that in the course of our daily struggle, even in martyrdom, we can be in a state of celebration.

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The feast of the church is closely allied to contemplation. The feast gives to each of us a first experience of the living God. It opens ‘the eye of the heart’ to his presence and makes us able to see for a moment the icon of the face, the fire at the heart of things. In the feast any being and anything is revealed as a miracle, so that, around the sanctified person, the world itself enters into feasting and in the miracle recovers its original transparency.

The Saint is the person consumed by the joy of Easter, the ‘feast of feasts’, who, like Seraphim of Sarov, can greet a neighbor with words, ‘My joy! Christ is risen!’

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Then we realize that the feast in the world and the feast in the church are rather alike, but there is a difference in order. In the world there is first exaltation, then bitterness; first the intensity of life, then sadness at the taste of death. In the church there is first bitterness, then death to self, repentance that breaks down our insensitivity; then immense joy and peace, from having been forgiven, loved and recreated, the joy of thus being all together, so many wondering children.”   (ON HUMAN BEING, p 154)

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In the Old Testament God delivered Israel from slavery in Egypt before giving Israel the Law.  The Law was guidance in how to live for those saved from enslavement in Egypt.  In the New Testament this same pattern is followed in the preaching of the Apostles: first, we hear about and experience God’s salvation from death in Jesus Christ, and only after hearing the Good News are we given the Gospel commandments about how to live in and for the Kingdom.  Christians fail in evangelism when they first proclaim all kinds of moral laws and regulations which they want to impose on others to change their behavior.  Rather, the biblical way is to experience salvation first and only then to begin answering the questions about what the resurrection means for our daily lives.