The conversation about Church often turns on history and doctrine. Each ecclesiological claim is shored up or torn down. In the middle of the fray, it is very easy to lose sight of what is being discussed. Church is reduced to its most institutional form. I want to suggest a larger view.
My first thought is to understand the true nature of the Church. I have seen bumper stickers that proclaim, “Orthodox Christianity, since 33 a.d.” Of course, viewed in a certain manner, this is correct. It is our trite American way of saying, “My Church is older than yours!” But it also diminishes the Church. A more accurate statement would be to say that the Church begins when God says, “Let there be light!”
This understanding is made manifest in St. Paul’s letter to the Ephesians:
…having made known to us the mystery of His will, according to His good pleasure which He purposed in Himself, that in the dispensation of the fullness of the times He might gather together in one all things in Christ, both which are in heaven and which are on earth– in Him. (Eph 1:9-10)
And this from Colossians:
For it pleased the Father that in [Christ] all the fullness should dwell, and by Him to reconcile all things to Himself, by Him, whether things on earth or things in heaven, having made peace through the blood of His cross. (Col 1:19-20)
This is a vision of the Church as a cosmic unity. That which we name “Church” is the instrument through which God gathers and reconciles all things to Himself. Thus naming “Church” should not be an effort to create division and separation. The purpose of God is the gathering together of all things in One.
Of course, that cosmic unity is not something we see at present. Simply declaring, “We are one!” does not make it so. The divisions and separations that exist on account of sin cannot be abolished through mental gymnastics or by force of the will. It occurs through the reconciling work of the Cross.
It is correct to declare that the Orthodox Church is the One Church (the Church can only be One, as we confess in the Creed). But this is not a declaration of competition or an excuse for triumphalism. The divisions that exist in the world are the result of sin, the same sin that infects every life of every member of the Orthodox Church. Taunting the sins of others only serves the purpose of sin itself. Being gathered into the One Church should never be an occasion for shouting, “I’m gathered and you’re not!”
In this cosmic vision of the Church, it is possible to say that all of creation is “Orthodox,” although such a statement could immediately be misunderstood. Perhaps it would be better to say that all creation is destined for unity in the One Church.
Equally important in this vision is the understanding that the Church includes all of creation. All of the sacraments of the Church involve the material of creation. Wine, oil, bread, water, incense, fire, wax, the minerals of pigments, wood, metal, trees, dirt, flowers, etc. are all incorporated into the fullness of the life of the Church. In this, the life of the Church extends to the whole of creation. The life of the Church is the life of the whole world.
This cosmic unity also makes sense of Christ’s commandments regarding the love of enemies. Our refusal to forgive, our clinging to resentments and injuries are manifestations of the division and separation of sin. Rather, when we pray, we should stand in unity with the whole of creation and every human being, particularly our enemies. To “forgive everyone for everything” is an essential act in fulfillment of the final union of all things.
I am not suggesting in any of this the blurring of lines in the nature or integrity of the Church. However, it is to say that the primary direction and focus of our lives should be towards union with God. It is clear that for many the center of attention is on the boundaries of the Church – those points at which we must say, “I am not this,” or “This is not us.” This is a spiritual mystery. Obviously, we are aware of the lines and boundaries, and yet the lines and boundaries are themselves occasioned by sin. If they become the focal point of our spiritual existence we will discover them to have been a means of death in our lives.
The mystery of our existence then is found in moving ever closer to God, carrying within ourselves the whole of creation. And though boundaries and lines exist, they must not consume us. I have frequently encountered people who seem to be on permanent border-patrol in the Orthodox Church. Something always seems to be missing (most often it is joy).
God grant us to joyfully unite ourselves to Christ as Christ unites all things to Himself.