Archimandrite Vasilios in the booklet, I Came That They May Have Life, And Have It Abundantly, Available from Alexander Press, makes this statement: “The open door that leads to freedom is the same one that leads to unity.” The powerful irony here is no less true for being ironic. Unity only comes in freedom. The Inquisition of the late Middle Ages and the Communist movement of the 20th century should be sufficient for us to prove at least that coercion does not bring unity.
Archimandrite Vasileios makes this statement in a discussion of Jesus as the Shepherd and as the Door: “I am the door of the sheepfold,” Jesus says. Jesus is the door of freedom that leads to unity.
Unity is extremely important, important not only for the practical reason that we can get very little done in the world if we are continually fighting with one another, but it is also important because Jesus both prayed for and commanded that we be one. But like everything else in the Kingdom of Heaven, the way is the thing. How we become one is more important than that we seem to be one because we can never be truly united by external, worldly means. Just as many of the first are last and the last are first in the Kingdom of Heaven, so unity only comes about through freedom–the freedom in Christ, the freedom of love, the freedom of self sacrifice and letting go of our illusion of control over others (dying to our visions and plans and ideas of what aught to be to let become what is).
On the family, parish, diocesan and the catholic (universal or ecumenical) levels, the only path to unity is to lovingly let go. The Father of the prodigal son let go of His son and received him again. They had to suffer, the Father more than the son, so that the son could freely choose the Father’s home. The older son did not suffer, except in his own mind, except in the fantasy of his own sense of justice–not receiving even a goat from his employer (notice the older son never calls Him Father), even while a whole fatted calf has been slaughtered and is waiting for him to share in. The older son’s suffering was caused by an idol, a mental image of justice and equality, of “what is right,” that would not let him rejoice in what was true, beautiful and life-giving. The older son could not let go, he could not set his brother free from his expectations of what should be. The younger son had to suffer to “come to himself.” But the older brother did not know this. He could not conceive of the possibility that someone might have to fall in order to rise.
And the older son could not even grant his Father freedom to be Father. He could not set his Father free from his own understanding of things, of the way things ought to be. And because he bound his Father in his own mind to his own logic, the older son even lost his Father. Although the Father came out to him, as He did for the younger son, the older son cannot see him as Father, only as employer, only as an employer who is unfair. Love is seen by the older brother as injustice.
I wonder how often I am like that older brother? How often does my vision of what is right become my own stumbling block to apprehending what is true and life-giving, that which creates unity? How often do I bind in my mind those I should set free to be themselves? How often do I fail to see God as He comes out to me (in the Liturgy, in prayer, in the person of those around me) because in my mind I have not set God free, but keep Him bound by the logic, justice and expectations I have put on Him?
Judas was a disciple, but he entered hell before Pontius Pilate; and Thief entered Paradise before any of the disciples. Judas thought he knew what Jesus should do. He was offended at the waste of the perfumed oil that could have been sold and the money given to the poor. He could not die to his own expectation, his own logic, his own sense of justice; and thus, he could not see Jesus the God-man even as He washed his feet and dipped His bread together with him at the Last Supper. The Thief, on the other hand, said simply, “remember me.” In a single moment, as the hymns of Holy Week tell us, the “Wise Thief became worthy of Paradise.” He did not come with an agenda. He did not have a plan, a better way, the right understanding of how it ought to be done. The Wise Thief brought only faith, trust, and a humble and contrite heart. He knew he had nothing to offer. The King was free to remember him in His Kingdom however He saw fit.
I must confess, that I am much more like Judas than I am like the wise thief. Perhaps I am not the only one. Perhaps this why we review the story of Judas and the Wise Thief every year: to remind us. To remind us zealous ones who actually attend the services of Holy Week of the fate of Judas, Judas the disciple who thought he knew the way things ought to be. And to remind us of the Thief who had nothing but the plea: “remember me.”
Unity in the home or in the ecumene is a gift, it is Paradise. Unity will never come to us so long as we think we know, so long as we have an agenda, a restriction that we feel we must put on others. Rather, like the Wise Thief, we have to die together with Christ on the cross, the cross of trust in God’s power to save both us and others through freedom, the cross of letting go of our idols of how “it ought to be done.” And as we die, we must continually whisper to the One who changes hearts and bring prodigals to their senses: “Remember me, O Lord, remember me when You come into Your Kingdom.”