ARE WE IN COMMUNION?
For Orthodox Christians this is a most important question, for it strikes at the heart of what it means to belong. But belong to whom or what? How we answer this question tells much about who we are,where we belong, and to whom are we going. This is a natural outflow of our quest for Godmanhood. That they all may be one is a phrase derived from a verse in the Gospel of St. John 17:21, which says:
“….that they may all be one. As you, Father, are in me and I am in you, may they also be in us, so that the world may believe that you have sent me”.
This oneness that Christ addresses is a union of persons, united to the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit in order to fulfill a common goal., to bring all persons to Christ and in communion with one another. It is essential that we understand that this communion in Christ is a Communion in Love, for Christ loves his people even unto the shedding of His Blood, Therefore our love for each other must have the same marks (wounds if you will) as His, a sacrificial love for our brothers and sisters no matter who they may be. Therefore to be in communion has the starting point of Christ. We must be in communion with Him for he tells us:
I am the vine, you are the branches. John 15:5a.
In this very short phrase Christ lets us know that we are no longer just individuals in isolation from one another, but rather we are called to a greater fellowship of believers in the Gospel preached by Christ and by His Holy Orthodox Church throughout the centuries. So now we come to the second dimension of how to be in communion—we must be united or at one with the Holy Church that He established to fulfill until the end of the ages, the mission given to her throughout the earthly ministry of Christ.
HOW ARE WE TO BE IN COMMUNION WITH THE ORTHODOX CHURCH ?
In our lessons on the Sacraments of the Orthodox Church we addressed the sacramental unity of Christians, beginning with Holy Baptism and Chrismation. We know that in the Sacrament of the Holy Eucharist, which is a participation in the Body and Blood of Christ, we are most perfectly united with Christ present in each of us. Toward the end of the Liturgy all of us in communion with Christ and each other are now sent forth into the world to proclaim the good news and the proclamation of the wonderous works of God done in the midst of His People. You and I are sent therefore as missionaries to the world, especially to those who do not know Christ nor have they united themselves to Him. In the Baptismal Rite the catechumen is asked if he or she believe in Christ and “do you unite yourself to Christ?”. Our answer yes is the first dynamic step toward being in communion. As missionaries now we must ask the same questions of those whom we encounter. The simple adage of “make a friend, be a friend , bring a friend to Christ” is our purpose of being in communion on this level.
So it should be clear now that being in communion means living our lives in communion with the Holy Orthodox Church, participating in the life of prayer, spiritual reading, repentance, reception of the sacraments of Christ, and then ministering to those outside the confines of the church. In this way we are to be in communion with all mankind, believers and non-believers alike, in order to witness to the saving action of Christ’s Love for all His people.. We therefore are sent forth to proclaim this call to all our brothers and sisters to join us in this magnificent communion of faith.
THE ORTHODOX CHURCHES ARE A COMMUNION OF CHURCHES IN LOVE
We often speak of Orthodox Churches being in communion with one another. What that statement means is that the Universal Church exists only to the degree that the particular churches in a locality form a brotherhood of faith, sacraments, and practices in communion with one another. It is often said of the Orthodox Church that the bishop, presiding at the Divine Liturgy with the priesthood and deaconate in Christ along with the faithful( laos) or people is the fullest expression of the Church. Nothing is lacking because of that very intimate sense of being in communion. But a local church does not exist in isolation just as an individual Christian does not exist in isolation from the Church. Ther e are no “solo Christians” just as there are no solo local churches. Perhaps America ,in its unusual multiple jurisdictions, can help us to understand this principle more fully. Currently we have many dioceses that reflect their beginings as missionary/pastoral efforts of Orthodox Churches from Europe and the Near East.to minister to their people in a perceived diaspora While each maintains some customs and practices peculiar to their own cultures, nevertheless, they are all in communion. In fact what we are witnessing today is a greater visible unity under the guidance of the newly-formed Assembly of Orthodox Bishops in North America. While much work has to be done in order for the more practical unity found in a single geographical church,to emerge, most assuring signs of new purpose in mission is emerging in the Orthodox Churches in America, which are finding new ways to cope, to minister to the faithful, and to evangelize a nation so sorely in need of the healing hand of Christ. Worldwide the Orthodox Churches, organized in Patriarchates and Metropolitanates are in communion of love, of Word and Sacraments, with each other through a common faith and sacraments of Christ. Languages, musical traditions, and local customs may and do vary; ultimately the one thing necessary is found in all, like Mary seated at the feet of Christ, listening and then proclaiming the one gospel to all the peoples of the earth.
8 As Jesus and his disciples were on their way, he came to a village where a woman named Martha opened her home to him. She had a sister called Mary, who sat at the Lord’s feet listening to what he said. 40 But Martha was distracted by all the preparations that had to be made. She came to him and asked, “Lord, don’t you care that my sister has left me to do the work by myself? Tell her to help me!”
41 “Martha, Martha,” the Lord answered, “you are worried and upset about many things,42 but few things are needed—or indeed only one.[a] Mary has chosen what is better, and it will not be taken away from her.” Luke 10
IN COMMUNION WITH ALL PEOPLE OF GOODWILL?
Let us begin with the premise that not all people are in agreement with us on the fullness of the doctrines and practices of the Orthodox Church. Hence an unfortunate disunity does exist and does present many difficulties in reaching out to such people. Even among those who are called by the name of Christ a rupture of faith and practice exists on some very vital topics. The Orthodox Church can never nor will we compromise on the Truth, which is rooted in Christ. However, we have in the past and now in the present are called to blend our voices with those outside our household of faith on matters that we hold in common. Metropolitan Hilarion from the Moscow Patriarchate has summarized the current situation.
“ But today a different problem is acquiring primary importance — the problem of the unity of Orthodox and Catholics in the cause of defending traditional Christianity. To our great regret, a significant part of Protestant confessions by the beginning of the 21st century has adopted the liberal values of the modern world and in essence has renounced fidelity to Biblical principles in the realm of morality. Today in the West, the Roman Catholic Church remains the main bulwark in the defence of traditional moral values — such, for example, as marital fidelity, the inadmissibility of artificially ending human life, the possibility of marital union as a union only between man and woman. We are faced with the common task of defending traditional Christian values, and joint efforts are essential today not out of certain theological considerations but primarily because we ought to help our nations to survive. These are the priorities which we espouse in this dialogue. I am convinced that the laity — both Catholic and Orthodox — can play and is already playing a most important role in this cause, each in his own place, to where the Lord has called him, by bearing witness to the values of the Gospel which our Churches preserve.”
Perhaps this is the great call that all Christians and other people of good will have in our present world of ideas– a limited but effective state of” in communion” as we proclaim these values which we hold in common. Benjamin Franklin was quoted as saying after the signing of the Declaration of Independence: “Gentlemen, we must hang together, or most assuredly we will hang separately.”
Wise and relevant advice for us today as we see the unfolding of some unhealthy and dangerous values, often sponsored by our political leaders. May the unity of our voices on these issues usher in a new day of clarity in the proclamation of vital truths. Perhaps it will be in these new “Mars Hill” experiences that we will see acceptance of the more spiritual aspects of Orthodoxy fostered and embraced. May God so bless our holy endeavor to proclaim the Love of Christ in Word and in Action.