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The Unity of the Church: Sunday of the First Ecumenical Council


Content of the Gospel reading of the last Sunday before Pentecost is an excerpt from the last prayer of Jesus addressed to his Father just before his crucifixion.


After Jesus had finished speaking to his disciples, he looked up toward heaven and prayed: Father, the time has come for you to bring glory to your Son, in order that he may bring glory to you. And you gave him power over all people, so he would give eternal life to everyone you give him. Eternal life is to know you, the only true God, and to know Jesus Christ, the one you sent. I have brought glory to you here on earth by doing everything you gave me to do. Now, Father, give me back the glory I had with you before the world was created. You have given me some followers from this world, and I have shown them what you are like. They were yours, but you gave them to me, and they have obeyed you. They know that you gave me everything I have. I told my followers what you told me, and they accepted it. They know I came from you, and they believe you are the one who sent me. I am praying for them, but not for those who belong to this world.a My followers belong to you, and I am praying for them. All I have is yours, and all you have is mine, and they will bring glory to me. Holy Father, I am no longer in the world. I am coming to you, but my followers are still in the world. So keep them safe by the power of the name you have given me. Then they will be one with each other, just as you and I are one. While I was with them, I kept them safe by the power you have given me. I guarded them, and not one of them was lost, except the one who had to be lost. This happened so that what the Scriptures say would come true. I am on my way to you. But I say these things while I am still in the world, so my followers will have the same complete joy that I do .

Gospel According to John: xvii 1-38

Jesus Pray for His Disciples

Content of the Gospel reading of the last Sunday before Pentecost is an excerpt from the last prayer of Jesus addressed to his Father just before his crucifixion. The main concern of Jesus in his last pray before the end of his mission on the earth is about his disciples. He asks from his Father to keep them safe and in unity. Presupposition for both is that they understand what “Eternal Life” means, in other words, that they know the only true God. This equation includes the biblical definition of what the orthodox tradition understands under the term “Theology”. Theology is not a theoretical knowledge of God, but the capability to see the work of God in the History. During the whole period between Eastern and Pentecost, Orthodox Christians have the task to study the work of the Holy Spirit in the History. And because the unity of the Church is understood as the work of the Holy Spirit in the History, the last Sunday before Pentecost is dedicated to the memory of the 318 Fathers who participated in the first Ecumenical Synod in Nicea of Asia Minor at 325 aD.

In order to understand the connection between this feast and the work of the Holy Spirit in the History one has to go back in the first period of the Church. Of course History cannot be written with “if” or “whether”. So nobody could answer the question what would be happened if Hellenism and Judaism didn’t meet each other. Nobody can imagine what would be the evolution of the Greek philosophical thought, if it wouldn’t be adopted by the Christians in order to express their faith with it. Nobody can imagine the future of that unimportant Judaic sect, if it didn’t exploit the possibilities that the Hellenistic thought gave to it. But it is sure that the contact of the two cultural traditions in the ages before the birth of Jesus Christ created the presuppositions for the birth of a totally new civilization that changed to world. The most important thing in this contact between Judaism and Hellenism was that two totally different views of the world cooperated in the process of formatting Christian theology. According to Judaic approach, the world presupposes the existence of a sovereign God who is totally independent from it. On the contrary Hellenism, although never argued the existence of God, never saw him as the presupposition of the world; God is not the presupposition but the conclusion to which somebody comes exploring the world. As it is known, Philosophy started with the effort of Thales from Miletus to interpret the origin of the beings from the water. His successor at the School of Miletus was Anaximander, who founded the idea that everything comes from an initial and beyond the time element which is continuously trasformatted into different elements. That means that from the very beginning the thought of the ancient Greeks was orientated to the nature, the essence which remains firm. Under these circumstances the concept of time doesn’t play any important role. The central idea of Anaximander was that the different elements, regarded as gods, try to expand their domination over the others, but there is a kind of necessity, a kind of nature’s law, which continuously restores the balance. This concept of “justice”, that means keeping the defined limits, was one of the stronger greek convictions. Gods were underlied this justice in the same way humane beings were. But this supreme power was not a personal one, was not a supreme god. Therefore, if according to the Judaic thought everything that exists is the result of the unconditional, even arbitrary, freedom of God and his interventions in the space and time, for the greek mentality such a freedom is considered to be an “ὕβρις” (hyvris). For this reason, the Jews focus on what occurs, what happens, and therefore they understand everything from a historical point of view, but the Greeks focus on what exists, on the beings. For a Jew who becomes Christian the ontological question concerning Christ does not really exist. He can easily understand Christ as an intervention of God in the world. On the contrary, a Greek in order to understand the Gospel he has firstly to solve the ontological problem of the existence of Jesus Christ. It was a very difficult task. Many of those who tried to transform the narrative biblical word in an abstractive philosophical word failed. Some of them succeeded and to those who succeeded belong undoubtedly the participants of the First Ecumenical Synod.

That is proved by the evidence that the resolution of that Synod remains till today the main credo of all Christianity. Of course the main concern of the Fathers who participated in that Synod was the unity of the Church. And, following the biblical understanding of unity, as it is illustrated in the last pray of Jesus, they try to establish it on the fundament of the true faith. Unfortunately, very soon confession of true faith became almost identical with loyalty to the secular power. This identification led in the fifth century to the schism of the Oriental Churches and in the eleventh century to the great schism between East and West. But the desire for unity remains alive till today, and the best way to achieve this is to cultivate the love to each other and the mutual respect. In the orthodox liturgy, before the recitation of the Credo, the deacon invites the flock to “love each other in order to confess in peace’’. That means that loves is always the presupposition for the common confession of faith and never vise versa.

In this context there is a very interesting story said by the Russian philosopher and poet Vladimir Sergejevits Soloviov who lived in the last half of the nineteenth century (1853-1900). In this story the Antichrist appears as a universal emperor, who intents to unite all the Christian traditions under his authority. For this purpose he establishes in Jerusalem a global organization and he promises to the leaders of the three Churches the preservation of all their values. To the Orthodox he promises a global museum for the preservation of all their holy relics and the treasures of their tradition. To the Catholics he promises the reservation of the primacy of the Pope. And to the Protestants, he promises an international institute of Biblical Studies. The proposal of Antichrist was accept with great enthusiasm by the leaders of the three Confessions, who submit in this way under his authority. Nevertheless, some small groups from the three Confessions do not accept this plan. The leaders of these groups were the Greek priest Johannes, the catholic pope Peter II and the German professor Dr Ernst Pauli. These three persons decided to quit of the security provided by the certainties of their faith, such as holy Tradition, central governance of the Church, biblical research, and to go away from Jerusalem. On their way out of the city they saw in heaven the Church, like the woman described in cap 12 of the Revelation, trying to escape from the dragon. This vision accompanied them to the Sinai desert, where they decided to dwell, waiting for the coming of the Lord. There, in the desert, this small rest, that worships God without any secular intent, achieves for the first time in History the real unity of the Christianity. This nice story emerges that the unity of the Christianity can be achieved only through the way of love, that reaches the point of sacrificing everything Christians consider as precious, all their certainties, and through the emulation of Christ. This sacrifice doesn’t mean that Christians have to bring in question all the principals of their faith, but that they have to cultivate their spirituality in order to gain humiliation and, above all, discernment, which is, according to the orthodox ascetics, a gift of God and the supreme virtue. Through the discernment Christians of different traditions will be able to discern between the authentic expressions of our faith and the other ones that are implicit desires for dominance over the others.

by Prof Dr Miltiadis Konstantinou