image of jerusalem 2013

Unity in Uniformity or in Diversity?
Let us give thanks to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ!...

24 January   |   2001   |   Subject  Middle East & North Africa (MENA)

... For in our union with Christ he has blessed us by giving us every spiritual blessing in the heavenly world. Even before the world was made, God had already chosen us to be his through our union with Christ, so that we would be holy and without fault before him.

Because of his love God had already decided that through Jesus Christ he would make us his sons - this was his pleasure and purpose. Let us praise God for his glorious grace, for the free gift he gave us in his dear Son! For by the sacrificial death of Christ we are set free, that is, our sins are forgiven. How great is the grace of God, which he gave to us in such large measure!

In all his wisdom and insight God did what he had purposed, and made known to us the secret plan he had already decided to complete by means of Christ. This plan, which God will complete when the time is right, is to bring all creation together, everything in heaven and on earth, with Christ as head. All things are done according to God’s plan and decision; and God chose us to be his own people in union with Christ because of his own purpose, based on what he had decided from the very beginning. Let us, then, who were the first to hope in Christ, praise God’s glory!

And you also became God’s people when you heard the true message, the Good News that brought you salvation. You believed in Christ, and God put his stamp of ownership on you by giving you the Holy Spirit he had promised. The Spirit is the guarantee that we shall receive what God has promised his people, and this assures us that God will give complete freedom to those who are his. Let us praise his glory!”

These challenging words are taken from St Paul’s Letter to the Ephesians in the New Testament (Eph 1:3-14). They constitute an appeal to God’s people to live out the meaning of his great plan for the unity of humankind through oneness with Jesus Christ. In the first part of Ephesians, whence come the verses I have just quoted, the writer develops the theme of unity by explaining the way in which God the Father has chosen his people, how they are forgiven and set free from their sins through Jesus Christ the Son, and how God’s great promise is guaranteed by the Holy Spirit.

These scriptural verses from the Letter to the Ephesians link me today to the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity 2001 currently taking place in many of our churches of Jerusalem. They constitute a plea for unity at a unique moment in the history of our Christian faith. We are praying for unity almost immediately after having celebrated the Feast of the Nativity, when we contemplated the mystery of Incarnation and the coming in human flesh of our God and Saviour Jesus Christ. But this event acquires an additional resonance since they are the first prayers for unity in the new Christian third millennium, and come at a time of great hardship and uncertainty for the political region as a whole.

But where are we on the road toward unity after two millennia of Christian presence and witness in the Holy Land? How do our history and reality here - let alone elsewhere around the world - correspond with our most fervent prayers and perfervid hopes? Do we all share the same understanding of the Bible, and are our perceptions of the significance of the Word of God synchronous with the teachings of Jesus Christ himself?

Or do we practise (dare I add that we sometimes only pay lip service?) different ‘versions’ of Christianity rather than living in truth and love the one catholic and apostolic faith as the Nicene Creed calls us to do?

This week, as I attended a number of the services in the different Churches of Jerusalem celebrating the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity 2001, I heard the representatives of those churches preaching about unity and ecumenical fellowship with strength, persuasion and even a touch of passion at times. But listening to their sermons, one quotation that constantly intruded in my mind was from the late Mahatma Gandhi (referred to by the Anglican Bishop some while ago) who once said that he himself would not wish to be known as Christian, but rather as Christ-like. And therein lies the crux of the ecumenical quest for unity in our own churches.

It seems to me that a majority of people see unity as being the ‘timeless time’ (Abbott Jean-Pierre) when all the churches recite the same version of the Lord’s Prayer and the Nicene Creed, or when they celebrate Christmas, Easter and other major feasts together. It is almost self-evident that these goals are laudable and ought to be pursued with vigour and determination. This becomes even more important this year when all the Churches celebrate the Glory of the Resurrection at Easter together. However, this is not the heart of the matter, more so since I personally believe that the diversity of the local Churches - such as the Greek Melkites, Syrian and Coptic Orthodox or Anglicans - is an enrichment to the Church of Christ as a whole. How beautiful to be able to enter different churches in the Holy Land and to enjoy the wealth of rites, traditions, icons, smells, colours and hymns One need not subscribe necessarily to such ‘high church’ or ‘low church’ liturgies, theosophies and definitions, but one needs to respect them.

And this is what I mean by the search for unity in the rawest sense of the word. We simply need to learn how to talk better to each other. We need to regard each other not as strangers, but rather as brothers and sisters in Christ, and as fellow pilgrims on the way to God’s kingdom. But if my own ecumenical experiences in the Holy Land - let alone in the Middle Eastern region - are anything to go by, we have a long way to go yet! As His Beatitude Patriarch Michel Sabbah, International President of Pax Christi, told me some long months ago, “Ecumenism is not only smiles and handshakes!” How true, but also how sad that we have not yet reached the stage where we can relate to each other not only in confessional terms, but rather as followers of Christ, and in that sense clearly as Christ-ians!

I recall talking to a priest one day about the impact of ecumenism in the Holy Land and the minefields in the way toward eventual Christian ‘unity’. He asked me whether I was Armenian Orthodox or Armenian Catholic. I was quite surprised by his question, and attempted side-stepping it by saying that I was simply Armenian - and a practising Christian to boot! He looked at me almost amused, (perhaps ‘bemused’ could apply better to this situation) and advised me that I should ‘attach’ myself to a church for I cannot live in Jerusalem in limbo without an identity! An identity? I had thought that I had acquired my identity through the sacraments of the Church and the profession of the creed that Jesus Christ was made incarnate, died and was resurrected? But, in a sense, he was right! We - just like Christians elsewhere, as much as members of other faiths - are not yet ready to take that qualitative leap from the exclusive ‘i’ to the inclusive ‘we’.

It is true that the ecumenical movement today has managed to paper over some of the obvious cracks, but it has failed to encourage seriously and persistently a greater commitment to the oneness that Christ called for when he said “Holy Father, keep them safe by the power of your name, the name you gave me, so that they may be one just as you and I are one” (Jn 17:11b).

As I get ready to shift gear and assume different challenges in the very near future, let me express yet again the wish that all Christians in the Holy Land - Churches, institutions and grassroots alike - will learn to rise above their power-centred, self-defining and material differences, “to preserve the unity which the spirit gives by means of the peace that binds [them] together.” (Eph 4:3). And this, in itself, is a mammoth task that requires exercising a concerted effort of love and truth by all Christians here - clergy and laity alike. Otherwise, the day might well come when we will not be so easily forgiven about the un-Christ-like privileges and institutionalised divisions that we are maintaining in the name of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ.

All Churches should strive to ensure that the Christian unity in its rich and resplendent diversity would signify more than mere platitudes or minimal inter-relationship! Do we have the confidence of our faith and the faithfulness of our forefathers to forge ahead and re-establish in truth and love the koinonia of believers that St Paul refers to in his writings?

As an Armenian Christian believer, I should hope that we could – truly! Eventually!

© Dr Harry Hagopian   |   2001   |   24 January


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