With the unending political cycle that is America’s public life, there is also an endless identification of enemies. And, of course, this year the enemies seem to come out of central casting – it would be hard to invent characters more susceptible to caricature. The Church has entered something of a political season as well. The upcoming Holy and Great Council has already revealed various fault lines that have long existed within Orthodoxy. And, I have already begun to see various forms of blame as the lines threaten to become fissures. Unity is a difficult thing, perhaps the most elusive of all Christian realities.
St. Paul identifies the very central purpose of God’s work in creation with a final union (truly greater than mere unity):
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)
It is easy in considering this to contemplate a gathering in which some are willing and some are unwilling. This differentiation belongs to the same phenomenon as friends and enemies. “Those people” are going to have a rough time being gathered together into one in Christ. This great gathering is the subject of much consideration in the work of St. Maximus the Confessor. At the end of all things, he says, we will see the reconciliation of opposites: heaven and earth, male and female, created and uncreated, etc. That reconciliation is a key to understanding even our daily reconciliation and the work of salvation.
Here is a key passage to consider:
…God was in Christ reconciling the world to Himself, not imputing their trespasses to them, and has committed to us the word of reconciliation. Now then, we are ambassadors for Christ, as though God were pleading through us: we implore you on Christ’s behalf, be reconciled to God. For He made Him who knew no sin to be sin for us, that we might become the righteousness of God in Him. (2Co 5:19-21)
Our reconciliation with God through Christ is accomplished through Christ becoming “sin for us.” He does not come among us, separating Himself, but unites Himself. This is the character of our salvation at every moment. We are not saved by some external action, nor by anything extrinsic to us. Christ unites Himself to us, taking the whole of our humanity on Himself, and carries that with Him into His death and resurrection. We then, in Baptism, unite ourselves to Him and enter into His death and resurrection, thereby being forgiven of our sins and united to His righteousness. This action refers not only to Baptism but is the pattern of the whole Christian life. We are saved through communion – a true union with Christ. Furthermore, our salvation extends to others in the very mystery of existence as we live in communion with them.
…if one member suffers, all the members suffer with it; or if one member is honored, all the members rejoice with it (1Co 12:26).
We share one common life, the life of Christ. We dwell in Him and He dwells in us. This is true koinonia.
And here, if we continue to understand, things become rather difficult. Just as Christ saves us by becoming what we are, so, we save our brother by becoming what he is. If my brother is a thief, this doesn’t mean I must go out and steal. But neither can I say that my brother is a thief and now I have nothing to do with him. In love, if my brother is a thief, then I must become his thieving. I voluntarily share in the burden of his crime and his brokenness.
Of course, nothing can be more outrageous. Something within us immediately rushes to deny this as a possibility. We immediately begin the search for Scriptures to proclaim that each man must bear his own sin, and his sin has nothing to do with me. This is both naïve and a very facile philosophical construct. It fails to look directly into the depth of human sin.
Many people draw comfort from a legal construct of our relationship with God. Legal things are extrinsic. I can say that I am not legally responsible for my brother’s actions. But legality is simply a convenient fiction for the sake of the extremely limited justice that we can know in this world. But it is not ontologically true (really and actually). We are all profoundly connected in almost every possible way. We are biologically, linguistically, culturally, spiritually connected in a manner that makes human life a shared life. There are no simple analyses of cause and effect that are more than legal caricatures. Nothing in our lives happens in isolation from the world and everything in it. By the same token, our salvation does not happen in isolation. “No man is saved alone,” the Fathers say.
But when we begin thinking about what this truly means, we immediately draw back. There is nothing about another human being that does not have some root within me, both in general and in particular. No one’s sin is purely his own, nor is his repentance. St. John the Forerunner doesn’t understand when Christ asks him to baptize Him. “I have need to be baptized by you!” he protests. Indeed, what possible repentance can be required of One who has no sin? But Christ does not turn away from our sin nor our repentance. He first takes our sin and our repentance on Himself. He does not begin His ministry with the proclamation, “Repent! For the Kingdom of God is at hand,” except that He first Himself repents (as impossible as that may seem). His repentance, on our behalf, makes our own repentance possible. We cannot repent apart from Him.
We can never stand back as though we were bystanders and speak of others’ need for repentance. We can only cry, “Repent!” if we ourselves have repented first (and not for ourselves alone, but for the very ones whom we call to repentance). We only have permission to invite others into what we already know and live ourselves.
And now I will be more troublesome. The point of the unity of the Church is the union of all things with Christ, the “gathering together in one of all things….” This is not the establishing of a unity that does not exist, nor finding a way to get along. The union of Ephesians 1 is truly ontological and real. It is initiated by God in Christ (“reconciling the world to Himself”) and continues through the grace of God. The Church is the “center-point” of that union. This is the mystery of the Body of Christ.
The Church is the reconciliation that begins in Christ and through Christ. It is, at any given moment, a dynamic movement of union. And it is precisely there that we find difficulties.
How can enemies be reconciled? Or, yet, how can friends with difficulties be reconciled? On some level, we have to “become our enemies.” I make this statement in the manner that St. Paul says that Christ “became sin.” In becoming sin for our sake, Christ did not become a sinner. However, in His Divine self-emptying, He refused to differentiate Himself from sinners. He became what we are, and, within Himself, reconciled us to God.
There remains a dynamic in this process. Christ does not force or coerce us into this reconciliation. We are free to refuse that which has been given to us. In the same manner, our enemies can refuse reconciliation. But the reconciliation occurs first in us, and there it must truly occur. Almost anyone can reconcile with a humbled, repentant enemy. That is mere generosity. Self-emptying works out the reconciliation while they are yet enemies. “While we were yet sinners, Christ died for us.”
In the life of the Church, this must be the constant dynamic within its members. For while we wait for and yearn for reconciliation, we must know and understand that it begins within our own heart, not by changing position, or negotiation or compromise, but through a true reconciliation in which we become what the other is, so that they might become what we are.
Our age is deeply marked by a political understanding of reality. The modern project has, since its inception, sought to achieve almost utopian goals through political means. This is so common to our minds that it is difficult not to conceive everything in the same terms. Our reconciliation with God through Christ has not even the slightest hint of political effort. It is completed even as it begins, and yet waits for a greater completion to come. In the life of the Church this reconciliation is primarily expressed in the eucharistic life. It is the only truly authentic mode of existence. Everything else defiles the Cup and brings condemnation. For if we do not partake of the Cup in true authenticity, how will we be saved?
It is true that the fissures are not created by this gathering but revealed. Although I have only been Orthodox for 30 years I have been dealing with them in one form or another that whoke time and they pre-date me probably by centuries.
It is all too easy to become angry, defensive and “right”.
Christ’s mercy will prevail in any case. It is a great service if the only thing accomplished is to reveal clearly what the fissures are and where they live in my heart.
The Orthodox Christian life is deeply radical. It is so radical that most, especially me, shy away from the implications and requirements on the way we live.
God forgive me.
Thank you, Father Stephen, for your words here. I had a momentary blinding flash of understanding of this concept when I first read Brothers K a few years ago, and your writing here has helped my eyes begin to adjust a bit more to that brilliant truth.
Thank you Father. There is plenty here to chew on and to drive me to look at myself more deeply looking for things to repent from.
“If my brother is a thief, this doesn’t mean I must go out and steal. But neither can I say that my brother is a thief and now I have nothing to do with him. In love, if my brother is a thief, then I must become his thieving. I voluntarily share in the burden of his crime and his brokenness.”
Thank you, Father Stephen!
So for one who is a member of the so called Islamic State, I enter to share the burden of his sin which has blinded and crushed him to the point of killing. Lord have mercy!
I hope I am understanding you correctly.
In the Homily given by your friend, Fr. John Bethancourt, this evening in the Feast of the Ascension was referenced the Confessors (5?) Reconciliations due the Ascension. As there were several others that seemed dallying to speak to him, I did not pursue the reference. Your recollection of such piques my curiosity to overcome my gross ignorance.
Lord, have mercy.
Thank you Father. May God give us courage to live in Christ.
“In love, if my brother is a thief, then I must become his thieving. I voluntarily share in the burden of his crime and his brokenness.”
Can you elaborate please? What does this look like?
When I was a child, I came across this poem (by Edwin Markham), to which I was drawn (even as I was to the Lion of Narnia!). It was short and easy to memorize, and I immediately owned it as expressing an utterly beautiful and desirable mode of being to which I would always aspire (and which I still struggle to obtain):
The difficult part is getting past the legal stuff and beginning to think ontologically. Shame is part of it. If someone you truly love commits a crime, you experience deep shame. If you continue to love them, then you somehow enter into their crime and their shame. In not abandoning them you help them bear their shame. Elder Sophrony taught that shame can be psychological, but also ontological. That is much harder and deeper, and is ultimately a gift of grace. But we can begin on the psychological level. Essentially, this is what love looks like.
Thank you for this post, Fr. Stephen! I have been shown much of these things recently through an extremely difficult circumstance with my former employer and, of course, it is the grace of God that I see/experience anything like what you describe. It was especially difficult for me to confess knowing that I also bear this shame, but of course that is only knowledge allowed to me by God who is a Good God and loves mankind. Your words hear help my heart to better understand what is going on “ontologically”, thank you! Glory to God for All Things!
It’s hard to love Hitler, and the Islamic State terrorist, who torture young and old in the most heinous, disgusting ways. What I try to do when I think of those committing such evil is to imagine them as my own son or daughter. If my own children grew up to be that depraved I would weep in repentance day and night.
I also often imagine such people as little babies and toddlers, when they were most innocent. My heart sinks when thinking about what must have happen both internally and externally to those poor little ones to become so disfigured by hate and perversion.
But the devil tries to squash any compassion we have for these poor, pitiful people. While its perfectly natural to experience fear and anger at the horrifying acts of these people, the devil tries to snuff out love with raging vengeance, and blinding fear and anxiety. But Christ can give us the peace that surpasses all understanding.
I can’t help but think of the modern psychological word “empathy” with all this. Although the word empathy seems to also convey a narrow understanding of the “communion” you’re describing.
Yes. I think of empathy, but it is simply psychological, a sort of compassion towards the other. But, our words have been demeaned through psychology. Empathy and compassion both have an original meaning of shared suffering. They do not really mean that today.
What I am describing is closer to thinking about the Holy Eucharist. The bread and wine are truly the Body and Blood of Christ, and though such a statement boggles the mind, we, nevertheless embrace it as true. It is “ontologically” true – it is a matter of actual being and reality, regardless of how I might feel.
In the same manner (or very similar manner), my enemy’s crime becomes my crime. Christ did not just die for our sins. He actually “became sin.” He took our sins upon Himself. We are not Christ and cannot do what He did to the extent He did it. But, we are to love as He loves. That love “bears all things.”
And we cannot bear anything like the level that Christ bears. So, don’t think of Hitler. None of us are ready for that. We’re not called to it. Start with family, with friends, with bosses, with fellow parishioners, with people you meet. And in prayer, as God to give you the grace of this sharing. It’s not something we can do of ourselves – it is the gift of God.
Thank you Fr Stephen and Micheal Bauman for your reflections. I will speak about my own heart here, knowing that there are ontological realities that I’m only vaguely understanding. When I discover I disagree with someone, my heart grows dark very quickly, mired into tracks of ‘old ways of thinking’. It is easy to slip into confrontational behavior, and thinking. Lord have Mercy on me a sinner.
My apologies for my typo and misspelling your name Michael!
This article reminds me a bit of the article where you described Abraham pleading for the righteous people in Sodom. Perhaps that type of pleading is a means to save the nonrepentant among them as well?
Is it OK to be aware of other people’s sins, to know that a thief is a thief, to recognize that people are doing things not according to God’s way, but to plead for God’s mercy for them rather than to think ‘that person is not saved.’ or try to ignore their sin as a way of not judging. ?
In the prayer of St. Ephraim are we praying not to be aware of the sinful behavior of others & not to judge them or are we just praying not to judge them?
Also, is it appropriate to say ‘thank you Jesus for being this person’s Savior’ even if that person is not a Christian? Jesus is the Savior of the world, so it seems like I can recognize and affirm that even if the person I care about does not seek Christ as King and God.
This is an opportunity for the believer to sanctify the unbeliever, correct?
….in some cases even if we haven’t met and our politics are opposite….
I think generally, “yes,” to your questions. And, as God gives grace, to know that the “other” person, is somehow “me.”
I believe some of what father wrote came to me when the video of the youth in Syria whose head was cut, came out.
I wrote that this crime and a lot of other crimes that are being now filmed instead of being hidden, like in any normal crime, are committed because of our leniency, which caused the world to fall.
I felt (for a short time,due to the fact that Im not a good person) that we need to bere with those killers to be able to help them.
To make the story easier: father Christo was the Abbot of AlBalamnd Monastery in Lebanon. One day one of the semenarians fought with him and it was jhis fault. The next morning when the youth woke up and opened his room door, saw Fr. Christo kneeling infront of it. He knelt the whole night.
I guess this is what father wanted to say