Gospel: John 17:20-26 (NAB)
I pray not only for them, but also for those who will believe in me through their word, so that they may all be one, as you, Father, are in me and I in you, that they also may be in us, that the world may believe that you sent me. And I have given them the glory you gave me, so that they may be one, as we are one, I in them and you in me, that they may be brought to perfection as one, that the world may know that you sent me, and that you loved them even as you loved me. Father, they are your gift to me. I wish that where I am they also may be with me, that they may see my glory that you gave me, because you loved me before the foundation of the world. Righteous Father, the world also does not know you, but I know you, and they know that you sent me. I made known to them your name and I will make it known, that the love with which you loved me may be in them and I in them.
When we talk about our faith, we're often thinking about our Church and the doctrine defined by the Church. The "tenets of our faith" are statements of dogma, doctrines that have been defined in response to theological discussions that often had very practical consequences.
Even among Christians who trace their churches back to apostolic times, there is dispute about some of these doctrines. Even among those who share Communion, we know that there are differences of opinion about how to state the important dimensions of our faith.
But there is a dimension of our faith that is deeper than any linguistic question: faith, at its root, is a kind of trust. We reflect on and pray for this kind of faith when we face death, when we are confronted with the need to forgive someone who has hurt us badly, or when we struggle with the loneliness that often afflicts us in a culture that is at risk of forgetting how to build meaningful relationships beyond the electronic pulses of technology.
We trust God rather than horses (Psalm 20:7) when we act with confidence in the grace of God rather than seeking to dominate others, to use power to force them to do what we want, even to protect ourselves. We name as heroes, when we find them, those who risk their lives, standing between warring parties to bring peace in strife-torn neighborhoods. More common but still rare are those who stake their reputations and careers on bringing peace in the political and military turmoil of global politics. Yet there is a violence without guns or fists that still permeates our lives.
St John Chrysostom, referring to one of the divisions in the Church in his day, wrote: Are not all the other heresies enough without our tearing each other apart? You must listen to Paul when he says: "But if you bite and devour one another, take heed or you will be consumed by one another." (Galatians 5:15)
A college-aged Orthodox Christian asked a Byzantine bishop if he thought that the Orthodox are heretics. The bishop replied that he had not thought about the question. The young man was furious, confused, and offended that the bishop had not considered such an important question. But as I told him, the bishop may be making a more profound statement.
We might consider the situation of Christians in the Middle East, where Orthodox and Catholic Christians have more lenient attitudes toward sharing Communion than we do in America; in our "freedom," we can afford to keep strict divisions alive. Is every significant difference of wording or belief a heresy, a difference so strong as to force a break in our communion? Some respected theologians on both sides of the divide between Catholic and Orthodox find that the doctrinal issues separating us are open to clarification and that what divides us is as much a broken relationship as different understanding or articulation of doctrines.
Before we can adequately understand another church's statements of doctrine, we must be able to look on that church and its members with love. If we despise anyone different from us, or if we hold too fast to the hurts imposed on us, then it becomes impossible to understand or even see that there is good in what the other might say. If we ignore or are simply unaware of someone, we cannot claim to love them, either.
Much of the work of ecumenism is simply becoming aware of each other, various groups of Christians and the values and doctrines and expressions each of us lives out. Before any theological dialogue can arrive at a joint statement, the members have to listen to each other with open hearts. This happens in a much smaller way within the Roman Catholic Church as some parishes bless Easter baskets, a custom popular in Slavic lands, and others share a rich musical tradition that might be embraced by parishes with people not originally from that background, as with African-American music.
The deepest question of faith is indeed this basic relationship: not simply me and my idea of God, but can I, will I trust God and God's presence in the Church? (See Matthew 16:18.) Am I willing to trust that God is present even when He feels distant? (See Mark 15:34 and Psalm 22.) Am I willing to trust God and the prayer Jesus uttered at the Mystical Supper (Last Supper), that we would all be one? (John 17:20-21)
In the Christian Communities Gathering that I attend, there is a basic trust that we are all brothers and sisters. There is a genuine concern for each other and each others' ecclesial communities, and we pray for each other. I believe firmly that the first witness that we give to the world is the attitude we cultivate in our hearts as we face the world. This is especially true when the world looks at us and sees how we treat our fellow Christians. Issues of doctrine are important, but doctrine directs our minds to consequences that form our hearts. And ultimately, God seeks to help us grow in His likeness (Genesis 1:26); mind and body, heart and soul, all our being and strength. Each and every doctrine of faith is founded on this basic attitude of faith, so critical to our witness to faith in our Lord and God, Jesus Christ.
Fr Jerome Wolbert, OFM, resides at Holy Dormition Friary in Sybertsville, PA. Learn more about the Byzantine Franciscans at < http://www.facebook.com/byzantine.franciscans >.