On Unity: Finding Unity in Christ

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This year’s OCF theme is unity, centered around Psalm 132:1 (OSB),

“Behold, what is so good or so pleasant as for brothers to dwell together in unity.”

This week is part two of a six part series centered around Orthodox perspectives on unity. The series will consist of reflections from student leaders and College Conference workshop speakers, leading up to College Conference at the end of December.

This is a guest post from Fr. Brendan Pelphrey, parish priest at Assumption of the Virgin Mary Greek Orthodox Church in Price, Utah and a workshop speaker at this year’s College Conference West. Fr. Brendan is an expert on Orthodox Christian apologetics and missionary work. He has published four books and about a hundred articles, book chapters, reviews, and monographs on Christian theology, prayer, mission, world religions, and medieval studies.

There are different kinds of unity. People can tolerate one another, and so appear unified. Better, they can become friends. But far beyond these is the unity which is ours in Christ. It is the communion (koinonia) of the Holy Spirit, in the Body of Christ. It makes us truly one and transcends friendship, human love, even time and space and leads into eternity.

The Apostle Paul teaches that Christ fills all things, and in Him all things hold together (Ephesians 1:22, Colossians 1:17). Thus, communion with Christ leads to communion with all that exists. We discover this communion when, in the words of the ascetics, the mind “descends into the heart.” Here, in stillness, we draw close to God. Only then, we begin to understand our real purpose in life as God’s children, and we discover the awesome beauty and worth of everything that God has made.

When this happens, we realize that all people are icons of Christ. They become the presence of Christ for us. Paradoxically, people who do not know Christ at all discover Him in us, but we do not necessarily see Christ in ourselves because we are aware of our own sins. Strangely, it is only because of this awareness, in repentance and humility, that we are empowered to bring others to Christ.

Orthodox Christians know that we do not tell other people what to believe or how to live. Instead, we pray for them and demonstrate the love of Christ for them. This makes it possible for us to enter into dialogue about the nature of God and His Church; about our communion with the Earth and all that God has made.

Going to college or university is an awesome opportunity to experience the miraculous work of the Holy Spirit in creating unity. Here we encounter—sometimes for the first time—people of other ethnic backgrounds and ways of life, of all religions and no religion. Without going anywhere, we inevitably find ourselves in the position of world missionaries, presenting the Orthodox Way simply by being who we are.

As a college professor and OCF spiritual advisor, I have enjoyed watching the Holy Spirit draw students into communion from all backgrounds. On one campus, for several years the entire Orthodox Christian Fellowship was made up of non-Orthodox students who had simply stumbled upon a celebration of Great Vespers by accident. Becoming Orthodox, one of them later graduated from Holy Cross School of Theology and is now awaiting ordination as an Orthodox priest.

At another university, some Orthodox students made friends with members of the Pagan Society. Soon, Pagans began attending our weekly Bible studies and did so until they graduated. They were surprised to learn, for example, that St. Ephrem the Syrian spoke of the Earth as our Mother; that there were Christians saints who befriended bears and lions; and that the Bible teaches that all things are alive to God. Similarly, on still another campus, a group of Native Americans were deeply moved to learn about Orthodox spirituality, and asked for special prayers at Pascha just with themselves (we sat on deerskins, and out of respect, the warriors left their medicine bags outside).

It is exciting to realize that our Orthodox Way resonates strongly with followers of many world religions and spiritual paths. Hindus readily understand our view that Christ is the Center of all that exists. Buddhists appreciate the practice of compassion and of apatheia (“passionless-ness”). Jews and Muslims alike see in us that God is not merely justice, but forgiving Love. Wiccans and Native Americans are amazed that in our view, even rocks and seas are alive to God and that our task is to live in harmony with them, as caretakers of God’s creation. Atheists respond readily to the realization that, as St. John says in his first letter, anyone who has ever loved has known God, because God is Love.

All this has led me, in the few years of my own priesthood, to the privilege of baptizing followers of many religious backgrounds. When we speak of unity, then, let us practice it in truth. We can invite anyone to share in fellowship with us, whether they are Orthodox Christians or not.

Who knows which of them will meet Christ in us, and ask for baptism? Or, perhaps, decide to become teachers of our faith or to enter into the holy priesthood of the Church?

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