For much of this series we are focusing on the actions of the church in the West. But we can’t forget that God is always moving in every part of the world. Today we’ll take a look at how God’s Spirit was at work in the Middle Ages to spread the gospel beyond the lands of Christendom.
A Russian Orthodoxy
In the tenth century, while Christendom was well on its way in Europe, the Orthodox faith expanded into Russia. The Russian ruler Vladimir had been promised the sister of a Byzantine emperor as a bride—if he converted to Eastern Orthodoxy. So, he did, and, probably seeing it as a way to unify his people, Vladimir went to great lengths to promote Orthodoxy. He had his citizens baptized in the Dnieper River by the capital, Kiev, and he imported icons and priests from Byzantium. Despite the questionable political motives that brought Eastern Orthodoxy into the land, it spread throughout Russia and developed its own particular character. Not unlike the West, Russian Orthodoxy experienced its own conflicts with political rulers, its own schisms, and its own monastic tradition, which inspired seasons of revival. Despite King Vladimir’s initially unconvincing conversion, the gospel message has had a lasting impact in Russia through the reach of the Eastern Orthodox Church.
Mendicants on the Move
While Eastern Orthodoxy transplanted the gospel to Russia, the Western half of the church also played a hand in casting seeds for the gospel in other parts of Asia. This was thanks especially to the mendicants we studied last week. Francis himself had gone to Egypt in 1219 to preach the gospel, and his followers had kept up his vision for global missions. One of these Franciscans was named Raymond Lull. At the same time the crusades were wielding the sword against Muslims, Lull developed and executed a plan to peacefully share the gospel with them by wielding the Arabic language and scholarly arguments. In 1314 he was stoned to death, fulfilling his own words: “Missionaries will convert the world by preaching, but also through the shedding of tears and blood and with great labor, and through a bitter death.” Around the same time, the Franciscan John of Montecorvino preached throughout Persia, Ethiopia, and India. By the end of the thirteenth century he had gotten as far as present-day Beijing, and saw several thousand come to Christ. In 1307 Pope, Clement V made him the first archbishop of Peking.88 While his mission work did not survive the downfall of the
Mongol Empire the next century, he was the most effective evangelist to that area of the world in the Middle Ages. Today, we can be encouraged by the way both the Eastern and Western branches of the church served to spread Christ’s message around the world. They also remind us that the gospel can be spread in a variety of ways, whether through the preservation and passing on of tradition, as in the spread of Eastern Orthodoxy to Russia, or through outreach, as with the individual missionaries who carried the gospel beyond the West. We are also reminded that God can use His people to spread His gospel despite poor intentions (like Vladimir) and despite disastrous e orts (like the crusades). Even though today we might get frustrated by the ways the church seems to contradict the gospel, those contradictions don’t prevent God from preserving and spreading it.
Where and how do you see people faithfully serving God by spreading the gospel? How can you take part?
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