Unity In The Church

The Reading from the Holy Gospel according to St. John. (17:1-13) 

In today’s gospel reading, which is given to us for the commemoration of the First Ecumenical Council, we hear these words of our Lord and savior Jesus Christ “And now I am no more in the world, but they are in the world, and I am coming to Thee. Holy Father, keep them in Thy name, which Thou hast given Me, that they may be one, even as We are one.”

It is an amazing thought to contemplate this prayer of our Lord Jesus Christ. This is part of what is often called His “high priestly prayer.” As the Lord is preparing to be betrayed and arrested and preparing to suffer the worst of all shameful treatment and suffering, Our Lord is praying to God our Father. He is coming to His Father as The Son. He teaches each of us that we also have access to God our Father. We can reach out to Him, seek Him, receive strength from Him for whatever we are going to face. 

We also see that Our Lord Jesus cares so much for His people that He prays for them. He is on His way to a terrible and agonizing death, yet His mind is fixed on His people. And this prayer is not something that is said once. It is an eternal prayer. What is it that He prays for? He prays that they will be kept together, that they will be one even as He is one with His Father.

What does oneness, or unity look like for Christians? Where do we find it? Well, we hear it in the words of the creed that Christians have been reciting from nearly 1700 years. “I believe in One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic Church.” That is a good place to start. We don’t believe in 2 churches. We don’t believe in the thousands of denominations or “non-denominations” that have split and resplit from one another over the last 400 years or so. We believe that the Church is one. That it is united in it’s Dogma. Dogma is defined as the unchanging truth, the core beliefs. St. Ignatius, bishop of Antioch once wrote, 

“The Church dispersed throughout the whole world to the ends of the earth has received from the apostles and their disciples this faith……While scattered throughout the whole world, the Church has received this message and this faith and still, as if living in only one house, carefully preserves it. She believes these points of doctrine as if she had only one soul, and one and the same heart. She proclaims them, teaches them and hands them down harmoniously, as if she had only one mouth. Although the languages of the world are dissimilar, yet the meaning of the tradition has remained one and the same, for the churches in Germany do not believe or hand down anything different thanthose of Spain or in Gaul or in the East or in Egypt or in Libya.”

The Church is also one in it’s leadership. In fact, the outward sign of the unity of the Church is found in the position and role of the bishop, as we see in our historical writings that have passed down to us from antiquity. If a person wants to know what the Church taught and believed, we have the resources to search for the answers. We don’t need to invent the answers or interpret the Bible in new and novel ways. The Church has left us a treasure through the writings of historians and Church fathers and the lives of the saints. 

The unity of the Church is clearly seen in the person of the bishop. The bishops were appointed by the Apostles and tasked with guarding the faith and shepherding the faithful. As the church grew, so did the number of problems and especially false teachings, false dogmas, which we call heresies. The Church would protect itself from false doctrine and from breaking communion with the apostles by making sure that those who served and led (bishops, priests and deacons) were appointed from within the community and did not take the authority from an unknown source. So deacons, priests and bishops were always ordained by bishops who were already within the one Christian Church.

Listen to what St. Ignatius writes about the role of the bishop. He is writing in the early second century. “It is therefore befitting that you should in every way glorify Jesus Christ, who has glorified you, that by a unanimous obedience you may be perfectly joined together in the same mind, and in the same judgment, and may all speak the same thing concerning the same thing [1 Cor. 1:10], and that, being subject to the bishop and the presbytery, you may in all respects be sanctified.” He also writes “forwhere the bishop is, there is the church.”

We believe that the Church is also one in it’s worship and sacraments. St. Ignatiusalso writes “At these meetings you should heed the bishop and the presbytery attentively, and break one loaf, which is the medicine of immortality, and the antidote which wards offdeath but yields continuous life in union with Jesus Christ.”

So not only do we get a glimpse into the importance of the clergy of the Church, under the guidance of the bishop, but we also get a glimpse into the importance of receiving the Eucharist (holy communion). We are told that unity in Christ comesthrough obedience and living peaceably under the guidance of the clergy and this unity comes to fruition and is made powerfully present in our receiving of the body and blood of Jesus Christ. 

Have you noticed that we are living in a divided time? Whenever there are worries, fears and anxieties there is division. Whenever people lack a unifying goal and purpose, they are divided.Whenever people are afraid of death, there is alsosin and this causes great division. Satan is now working overtime to confuse and divide the people of God. He divides them from one another and then he attacks once they are isolated and alone. As Christians we protect ourselves by running to Christ and to His Church. It is not enough that we run to a church. We must run to The Church which has remained united in her life giving teachings. This is our safe space. We need fellowship with God and with our fellow Christians. Alone, we perish.

Our only hope as Christians is to cleave to the unity of the Church. The Church is the place of unity that Our Lord Jesus Christ prayed for to His heavenly Father. Within the spiritual and physical walls of the Church, there is hope and salvation. Even if you are not yet comfortable coming to the church building, you can live as a united member of the Church in your homes and daily lives by honoring God’s commandments. By studying the Scriptures and the lives of the saints. Through prayer for yourself and others. Through lives of sacrifice and love for others. Through times of contemplation and silence, not filling every minute with noise and chatter.

Our Lord Jesus prayed for our unity. Whether we are here physically or virtually, we are called to be united. Our Christian life is a life of struggling to become united in our bodies, hearts and souls. To harmonize everything within us to the service of Christ. So this is our life in the Church, unity within, unity with our neighbors, unity with the teachings and life of the Church itself, which is the body of Christ. Unity with the Holy Trinity. All of this ensures that we will not be lost, misguided or misdirected. It ensures that we are on the right path, this path of salvation. And He has prayed for us and given us His bride, theone Church as a place for this unity to be made powerfully present in our lives. May Christ our God unite our hearts and minds and bring us to true worship and love. Glory be to God forever AMEN.

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