For the Unity of All, Let us Pray to the Lord
Fr James Graham, Pastor of St Joseph Melkite Church in Lansing delivered this homily at the joint celebration of the Paraklesis for Christian Unity here at Holy Trinity Greek Orthodox Church.
“For peace in the whole world, the well-being of the holy churches of God, and the unity of all, let us pray to the Lord.”
In every Divine Liturgy, every Vespers, every Orthros, and tonight in this Paraklisis, we chant this prayer to the Lord our God, responding “Lord, have mercy” or “Kyrie eleison” or “Ya rab urham.”
I have no special qualifications in the history of liturgy, but I’m pretty sure we Christians of the Byzantine Tradition have been praying this way for at least 1500 years.
What does that tell us?
It tells us that peace, security, and unity have concerned us and our ancestors for a very long time. It also tells us—because we have to pray for them—that we haven’t always had these things we value so much.
Sometimes, external forces have threatened these values—the pagan Roman Empire, the pagan Persian Empire, Islam, the Crusades, the Ottomans. But more often the threat comes from within Christianity, when our sinful pride causes us to believe that we know exactly what God wants—and that what God wants is our way of thinking, of praying, of worshipping, of explaining the Holy Scriptures, of talking about theology.
So we conclude that other Christians who don’t do things our way are wrong—or even worse, they are blasphemers and heretics—and they must either repent and become like us or be anathematized and excluded from the Christian world.
In other words, all kinds of Christians have often concluded that unity means uniformity—that we all have to be the same.
What an extraordinarily wrong-headed attitude that is!
Consider the scriptural basis for Christian unity: in the Gospel of John, chapter 17, verse 21, Jesus asks the Father “that they all may be one,” and in verse 22, “that they may be one, as we are one.” Jesus prays that all believers may be one in the way that He and the Father are one. Jesus and the Father are both God, one in being and one in purpose, but they are not the same. Theologically, we say that they are distinct persons in the One God. So our model for unity shows us unity in diversity.
Consider also the foolishness of insisting that only we have the right way of understanding, explaining, and worshipping God. First, that presumes that our human intelligence can fully comprehend divine will and purpose and creativity. Or, as St Paul might say, that the pot can understand the potter. Second, that involves us humans in putting limits on God. Who are we to say that our Heavenly Father, in whose house there are “many mansions,” cannot inspire various kinds of worship and approve of them, even if we don’t understand them or like them?
Of course, we can be certain of some things, the fundamental truths revealed in the Church and in the Bible, expressed most clearly and authoritatively in the Nicene-Constantinopolitan Creed. But even there, where our holy Fathers were so careful only to use language from the Scriptures, human intelligence runs up against divine mystery. For example, we believe and profess that the Holy Spirit “proceeds from the Father”—but can we explain how? Should we even try?
So there are legitimate limitations to Christian unity. We cannot be in union with people who claim to be Christians but deny the divinity or the humanity of Christ, those who deny that God is three persons in one Being, those who deny the Resurrection of Christ, those who have written new “Scriptures,” and so on.
But Orthodox and Catholics, especially, thanks be to God, in recent times (the past 60 years or so) have increasingly realized that many of the issues that divided us in the past—and over which we fought so bitterly, sometimes even with physical violence—are not so much fundamental differences as they are incidental variations.
And while the theologians work out the implications of these variations and the bishops deal with the politics of how to say that many things we all thought were terribly important aren’t so important after all, the people—like our two congregations here in Lansing—are ready to see what unity without uniformity can look like. When we actually meet each other and pray together, we may discover that some things we have “always” known about the other Church are simply not true. Or should we call them “alternative facts”?
Some of the clergy in the Greek Orthodox Church and the Melkite Catholic Church have experienced this first-hand. For about 30 years, from the mid-1970s, Melkite seminarians in the US attended Holy Cross Greek Orthodox School of Theology, sharing classes with the future priests of the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese. Father Mark and I are both graduates of Holy Cross—but he was there after my time. That shared experience helped to break down barriers and to correct misconceptions. Greek seminarians (and faculty members), for example, discovered that Melkite Catholics were not Latins dressing up in Orthodox vestments. They came to our house to eat together, to study together, and to pray together—in English, much to their delight.
Unfortunately, there aren’t enough Melkite priests so that we can continue these connections in cities and towns across the country. But in some places, like Lansing, we can. And in some places, like Lansing, lay people in both communities want to develop such connections. You understand that what unites us—faith, liturgy, theology, iconography, customs, even food—far outweighs what divides us. You understand that discovering what unites us, and exploring what divides us, can strengthen us and bring us closer to each other and to God.
When we realize that unity doesn’t mean uniformity, we can stop feeling threatened and stop worrying about losing our identity. Sadly, because our Churches are not in communion, we cannot yet share the Body and Blood of our Lord, God, and Savior Jesus Christ in the Divine Liturgy.
But we can pray together at Vespers, as we did for the feast of St John Chrysostom; at the Paraklisis, as we are doing tonight; and in other services, perhaps, that we haven’t yet arranged.
And we can pray together “for peace in the whole world, the well-being of the holy churches of God, and the unity of all,” giving thanks and praise and glory to the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, now and ever and unto ages of ages.
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