Monday, July 28, 2008

Unity and salvation

"Neither pray I for these alone, but for them also which shall believe on me through their word; That they all may be one; as thou, Father, art in me, and I in thee, that they also may be one in us: that the world may believe that thou hast sent me." John 17:20,21

We hear this quoted often, and alluded to even more often. Almost never do we actually hear the full quotation. This should not be surprising in an age that thinks in sound bites, and that places greater emphasis on how people feel about issues, than on what they think about them. When we are treated to these allusions and partial quotations, the message seems to be this: Jesus really wants us to become one, and we have to make it happen. Put another way, God is praying to us, and we ought to hear his prayer.

And, if that seems wrong to you, good; well it should.

The emphasis of the Gospel according to St. John is twofold: It is the Trinity and the Incarnation. As it opens, John takes us behind the scenes of Genesis. The Hebrew name of the first book of the Bible means, "In the beginning." ( B'Rasheet, בְּרֵאשִׁית). John opens with this same phrase recognized by readers of the Septuagint (LXX), the standard Greek translation of the Old Testament; He too opens with, "In the beginning," (En Arche, ἐν ἀρχῇ ). In the Book of B'Rasheet, or Genesis, we are told what God did, the word "created" (bora, בָּרָא) following as the second word ("In the beginning" is all one word). If translated into English words, but retaining Hebrew syntax, it would say, "In the beginning created God the heavens and the earth." The emphasis is not on God himself, but on his work of creation. John, using the expression known to Greek readers of the LXX (ἐν ἀρχῇ ) alludes to the opening of Genesis in a very obvious way, but does not immediatley speak of God's work. First he lingers on God as God, and presents God as the Trinity.

"In the beginning was the Word (Logos, Λόγος), and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. The same was in the beginning with God." (1:1,2)

Verse 2 is not superflous; it mentions God the third time because, as this Gospel unfolds, we see the Son and we hear him speak of the other Comforter, that is the Spirit of Truth. The theme of God as Trinity is presented immediately. Then, with a bow to the Genesis narrative, John speaks of creation (בָּרָא): "All things were made by him; and without him was not any thing made that was made. " He speaks of the Logos as the One in whom there is life, that is, life that gives life, suggesting most strongly the creation of Man: "In him was life; and the life was the light of men." When we keep reading, and get to verse 14, the second great theme of John's Gospel is introduced. "And the Word was made flesh, and dwelt among us, (and we beheld his glory, the glory as of the only begotten of the Father,) full of grace and truth."

It is only in the context of these two great themes that dominate this Gospel, the Trinity and the Incarnation of the Word, that we have any business interpreting the meaning of the High Priestly prayer of chapter 17. The first Unity that we must consider in the words of this prayer is the Unity of the Trinity. So, it opens: "These words spake Jesus, and lifted up his eyes to heaven, and said, Father, the hour is come; glorify thy Son, that thy Son also may glorify thee: As thou hast given him power over all flesh, that he should give eternal life to as many as thou hast given him. And this is life eternal, that they might know thee the only true God, and Jesus Christ, whom thou hast sent. " (17:1-3) Our salvation is knowing God, and because whoever sees the Son sees the Father, and no man comes to the Father but by the Son (14:6-10), because God cannot be separated from God (for each Person is distinct, but inseparable), to know the Father requires that we know Jesus Christ. The only true God is known truly only by revelation, namely, Jesus Christ Whom he has sent; that is, the Word Incarnate.

By the time we get to the place where Jesus says, "Holy Father, keep through thine own name those whom thou hast given me, that they may be one, as we are" (v.11), it ought to be clear that he is speaking to the Father, one Divine Person to another Divine Person, about our common salvation in himself. The meaning is eternal and salvific. It means, in effect, keep them in me. For, "this is life eternal, that they might know thee the only true God, and Jesus Christ, whom thou hast sent. "

Understood correctly, "that may all be one" gives greater motivation to be unified among ourselves in common faith and thought, with charity; because we are one whether we live like it or not. A prayer spoken within the Godhead, which we are privileged to overhear, the Son addressing the Father, is as much a declaration as "Let there be light," or "Let us make man in our image." God has pronounced that his people are one, that is, that the Church is, as St. Paul says many times, "in Christ." The Church as a whole is "in Christ," and each member of the Church is "in Christ."

We know that a married couple is no longer two, but one flesh. This is clear in Genesis, in the Gospels where Jesus explains that divorce is a mere fiction, and in the Epistles of Paul when he warns us to live within the boundaries of God's moral laws. To suggest that the eternal unity of the Church in Christ can really be broken, is akin to believing that human courts can undo the work of God in a valid sacramental marriage. The Church's various divorces, whether in 1054 or in the 16th century, do not annul its unity in Christ; for if it did, members would be cut off and die simply because of human failing. Where true faith is present, we are in Christ; and, unless one can rob a Christian of his faith, he cannot cut him off from Christ (Romans 4:16).

Our unity is both a present and eternal fact, because we are in Christ. We should make efforts to understand each other, to be very clear in communication, to work for the resolution of theological and political separation, and to cultivate charity by the grace of the Holy Spirit who is within us all. But, we must not let this become mere sentimentality, and neither must we feel anxiety or pressure to leap forward faster than honest and clear communication allow. We already are one in Christ, and can proceed toward a resolution of differences in polity only with theological clarity and respect for everyone's conscience.


Anonymous said...

I accept that there is a level on which divorce is a fiction, but try telling that to the children who only see Daddy every second weekend. Likewise, I accept that there's a level at which all who hold the true faith and administer and receive valid sacraments are at unity, but try telling that to a world scandalised by the multitude of Christian denominations. Fr Hart, I think you've been erecting straw bishops--I haven't seen any of them leaping anywhere. Their clarion cry is the same one raised by Abp Ramsey of blessed memory: united but not absorbed. That's what's radical about the TAC's proposal of corporate union, for which Abp Hepworth appears to have taken a lot of stick in the commentary to an earlier post.

As for our consciences, perhaps we should examine them for insistence on peripheral doctrines that give us an excuse for remaining separated from larger ecclesial bodies that have the essentials of the faith and valid sacraments. Perhaps we should each be on guard against concluding too readily that our own particular branch of the Anglican Continuum is the One True Church.

I agree, we shouldn't rush and jump, but we can't set up a dialogue with a view to just talking for ever. Children also know there's something wrong when Mummy and Daddy are 'still good friends' and speak civilly on the phone, but they still only see Daddy every second weekend, and that's at his place.

poetreader said...

I'm in 100% agreement with both Fr. Hart and Sandra.

Unity, in its deepest sense. is indeed a present reality, or else none of us are saved. Christ's prayer most assuredly was God speaking to God, and not to us, and thus is effective, whether we sign on or not. However, His words are recorded, in part, that we might know His mind for us in a world and a church where that unity is veiled from human eyes.

We cannot make visible unity happen. We are simply not equal to the task. We know that it will come to be, for it is spoken by the Word who proclaimed, 'Fiat lux', and that Word is infallibly effectual. However, the reporting of that prayer for our ears is intended, or so I am convinced, to aid us in putting our thoughts and actions in accord with His.

Are we erecting barriers against the fulfillment of His prayer? I am convinced that we indeed are. Are we failing to reach out as best as we can in the direction for which He prayed? I find that also to be the case. Why are we permitted to eavesdrop on this most sacred of prayers? Is it not that our own thinking may be changed? "The word of God is living and powerful, sharper than a two-edged sword ..."

I continually harp upon this, as I do believe that our divisions (while not separating us from unity in Christ) at least appear to illustrate a rebellion against what He has revealed to be His purpose. Does this mean jumping quickly? Does it necessarily even mean that the leadership of TAC is acting entirely correctly? I think those questions need to be addressed with care. There are barriers in place, and those barriers cannot simply be disregarded. They need to be recognized, discussed, agonized over, and dealt with honestly.

In short, the problem of disunion is one that must be in our prayers and in our deeds. His desire must be our desire. But none of this justifies surrendering truth, and none of it justifies affirming untruth. There is work ahead. We must be doing it -- but we just can't be in a hurry for results.


John Dixon said...

you wrote- "As for our consciences, perhaps we should examine them for insistence on peripheral doctrines that give us an excuse for remaining separated from larger ecclesial bodies that have the essentials of the faith and valid sacraments."

These are hardly peripheral because these issues have been elevated to dogma. In Rome you cannot sidestep their dogma. In Rome you have to be as the Romans!

This is the stumbling block(s): adoption of pious beliefs as dogma!

If Rome can create dogma out of thin air or at least outside the context of the Church Fathers, Creeds, Councils and Scripture then how is it profitable to run from one set of errors to another? As has been pointed out many times the USA RCC has many 'Episcopagans' running the show as in the USA..

At the end of the day, if Rome is sincere about Pope Benedict's stated desire for closer ties between the churches in his opening homily then they (despite popular thought the office of the Pope does have constraints) will need to provide room for conscience and dissent on certain issues. Rome has never been able to deal with dissent I believe that even Thomas Aquinas got himself into deep trouble with his Summa for a while. Even though none of us believe it will happen Rome will have to either provide a measure of freedom from these dogma's, or downgrade them to pious belief in order to mend the fences they erected.

Rome has contributed to continued separation by denouncing Anglican orders based on pharisaical technicalities and rolling their own doctrine. There is no more biblical support for the Blessed Virgin being born immaculate or her assumption than there is for women's ordination or homo-ordination. If Rome had been a little less political and a form of unity had been achieved in the 60’s we would not likely be seeing the Anglican Communion dissolve over WO related issues. Until we all can sit down with willingness to dispose of our pet accretions then corporate unity is impossible. That does not mean we cannot be closer than we are now.

Further: Athanasius, in regard to the Scriptures says "these are the wells of salvation - let no one add to them or take away from them" Dogma can only come from Scripture. If you create dogma from something else you set a dangerous precedent. I could live with these ideas as pious belief as long as I am not commanded to accept them as anything else and forced to practice them. The act of forcing such peripheral belief into dogma and then forcing people to accept myth equal to Biblical truth is over the top and is a bridge to far. Now the point here is while the TAC and a few Bishops of the ACA have been flirting with this for a while it is the new Pope who has said he wants a closer walk with the rest of us. The question is is he sincere or were the remarks Griswaldian for 'we will assimilate you- resistance is futile'

BTW "Get out of jail free" passes (indulgences) are available at the local Roman Book Store if you buy 50 bucks worth of books!!! My priest was offered one just last year!

Fr. Robert Hart said...

The similarity to marriage has limited application. The fact that what God joins together is one, and men cannot change that fact, is the entire length of what makes the Oneness of the Church and the oneness of a married couple similar. I do not want to suggest allegorical discussions using marriage as a pattern for the Church (other than Christ as the groom, and the whole Church as his bride, which quite a different matter).

When St. Paul addressed the problem of disunity among the Corinthian Christians, he never said that one party ("I am of Cephas") was right. He rebuked all of them equally. Even those who said "I am of Christ," perhaps feeling more spiritual than their partisan brethren, were rebuked along with all the others.

In fact, his hypothetical question cuts to the heart of the issue: "Is Christ divided?" (I Cor. 1:13)

poetreader said...

I think you are speaking for me as well.

If Rome would practice more official toleration in these more peripheral matters and less unofficial toleration for the rank heresy so often found within her ranks, this thorny matter of unity would be far easier to pursue.

Fr. Hart,
Exactly! The Corinthians were doing everything in their power to make the Church look divided -- just as we Christians have been doing for lo these many centuries. If Christ is not divided, what business have Christians (all of us, not just particular sects) acting as though He is? Yes, there are difficult issues. Yes, it will take a miracle (several miracles, actually) for Christians to be reunited, and I have faith that this is just the kind of miracle Our Lord wants to give us; but is He likely to deliver miracles to those who actually don't want them? What He said is, "Seek and ye shall find."


Anonymous said...

I've always believed, and have practiced, the concept that we can be united in Christ, whether, or not, we share the same Bishop and/or jurisdictional government.

Roman Catholics, Continuing Anglicans, Orthodox, & Protestants
can, and should, should join together in prayer. In our community we have ecumenical prayer services that include Anglican, RC, United Methodist, Presbyterian, and Nazarenes joining together in love and unity to pray together.

Complete jurisdictional unity might never happen; but there is no excuse not to have unity of love and prayer together.

I belong to a religious order where there is love, respect and unity among members including Continuing Anglicans, Episcopalians, Old Catholics, Melkite Catholics, and United Methodists. It is possible,
and, I believe, how Christ would want it.

Because of denominational red tape, from all directions, we can't
receive the Eucharist together. But we don't allow that to stop us from praying together.

1928 BCP Supporter