Sisters and Brothers

I greet you with the traditional Orthodox Paschal salutation: “Christ is risen!” As a sign of our common faith in the resurrection of our Lord and Savior, I hope that throughout this workshop, you might use this salutation and its reply, “Truly” or “Indeed He is risen” to greet one another.

This is not just a nice phrase to use for a few weeks of the year, until the Feast of the Ascension. The entire Christian confession is contained in these words. For as St. Paul wrote, “If Christ has not been raised, then our preaching is in vain and your faith is in vain.” (1 Cor. 15:14). What made the Christian community distinct was the simple statement, “Christ is risen.” As St. Gregory Nazianzus, the Theologian, wrote: “Today salvation has come into the world. Christ is risen from the dead, rise with Him. Christ is returned again to Himself, return yourself. Christ is freed from the tomb, be also free from the bond of sin. The gates of hell are opened and death is destroyed” (Second Paschal Oration). “The resurrection of Jesus Christ is the foundation of the Christian hope that ultimately the future belongs to God and the whole creation is destined to participate in God’s glory through its unity with and in Jesus Christ.” (Clapsis, 2000, p. 198).

I am deeply honored that you would invite me to deliver this talk. Also, I am more than a little humbled as I read the biographies of the other presenters. I am not a professional ecumenist, who has mastered ecumenical language. I am a pastor and for just a few years the leader of the Metropolis of San Francisco, a diocese covering the six western states, including Alaska and Hawaii of sixty-nine parishes and three monastic communities, said to contain as many as 150,000 souls. So, I welcome you to my Metropolis and hope that your time here is productive, both for the cause of Christian reconciliation but also for your personal spiritual journey, your personal desert pilgrimage.

I don’t know to what degree the planners of the Workshop considered this, but the selection of a desert location for our time together is significant. In our common Christian history and tradition, the desert is an important place, both as a physical location but also as a metaphor for Christian living. According to the Life of St. Anthony written by St. Athanasius the Great, the founder of monasticism spent twenty years living in a tomb in the desert, with only occasional visits from comrades who would bring him food. In that desolate place, Anthony wrestled with and defeated demons. According to the biography, one time when the comrades brought him food, they could hear Anthony singing “Let God arise, let His enemies be scattered; let those who hate him flee before him! As smoke is driven away, so drive them away; as wax melts before fire, let the wicked perish before God” (Ps. 67:1-2). These same words are chanted at the Resurrection service in the Orthodox Church, not because of Anthony, but because they announce the victory of Christ over sin, death, and darkness. In the desolation, isolation, and hardships of the desert we too can find the victory of the resurrection.

We should remember the impetus for those first ascetics going to the desert. They wanted to pursue a more rigorous Christian life. The imperatives of the Kingdom of God were being lost amid the daily activities and distractions of city life. The desert fathers felt that even in the early fourth century the Christian Church had become “domesticated” with its connections to Empire. In that early Constantinian, post-Edict of Milan, period, the Church quickly had become connected with the State. Some Christian Traditions, no doubt represented in this room, have long felt that this relationship marked the decline of the Church. The desert fathers remind us that there is a danger of getting too cozy with government, or in general with the things of this world. They remind us that there is a danger in seeing the rulers of the world as ushering the kingdom of God. In the Orthodox liturgy, we regularly hear the phrase from Psalm 146 as translated in the RSV, “Put not your trust in princes, in a son of man, in whom there is no help (Some translations say “salvation”.). When his breath departs he returns to his earth; on that very day his plans perish.” These words were chanted even during the Byzantine period - when Church and State were united. Imagine an Emperor hearing his own people chant that phrase in front of him. But also imagine Christians chanting them during more recent times of occupation or suffering under the persecution of totalitarian regimes! The words of liturgical prayer itself offer sharp critique of systems of abusive power and injustice, and encourage a “critical distance” from any human system no matter how positive it claims to be. Archbishop Anastasios of Albania writes, “Religion must maintain its essential role as critic…. Religion has an obligation to express itself frankly, with prophetic insight and clarity, regarding our need to change our orientation, to repent, and to hold up the stop signs that will turn us from the wrong path we have taken. Religious is called upon to heighten our sense of what life is all about and to provide us with the strength we need to transform the perceptible world by keeping our gaze firmly fixed upon the transcendental.” (Yannoulatos, 2003, p. 19).

Retreating to life in the desert was a sharp critique of life in the city. The desert fathers’ chief concerns were those things most essential to defeat sin, creating lessons for the Church in the city, in order that all could live as God intended for humanity. Again, as Archbishop Anastasios says, “The Church ... cultivates consciousness and shapes the personalities of people who, by leading responsible lives, can strengthen and revitalize society’s immune system. What we need most in the modern era are people with character, vision, and tenacity; people with love that is not hypocritical; people who oppose self-centeredness - whether it be individual, national, or racial. Arrogance, lust for power, and hypocrisy are not only characteristics of large and powerful states, but lurk in the souls of us all.” (Yannoulatos, p 197).

Abandoning the comforts of city life for the harsh realities of the desert taught those early ascetics many lessons: humility, patience, labor, silence and stillness. Central among them was their dependence on their neighbor. St. Anthony the Great said, “From our neighbor is life and death. If we gain our brother, we gain God; but if we cause our brother to stumble, we sin against Christ.”

Metropolitan Kallistos Ware writes about this saying, “St. Antony was a hermit, but he was acutely conscious of the bonds linking him to his fellow humans. Life in Christ, so he recognized, is not solitary but corporate and social: not the private search of an individual for his God, but a life lived in and for other people. Christianity means solidarity, identification with others, coinherence. We are, in St. Paul’s words, ‘one body in Christ’ (Rom. 12:5), ‘members of one another’ (Eph. 4:25). The Christian is the one who has brothers and sisters, the one who shares, who comes before God as the member of a family. The Paraclete, the Spirit of Truth, is given to each one of us personally, but to none of us in isolation. ‘If one member suffers, all the other members suffer with it’ (1 Cor 12:26). This is said of the Church; and if we do not feel this, we are not within the Church. Unity is of the Church’s very essence.” (Ware, 1983, p. 1)

There is an ecumenical point here that should not be underestimated. “The Church as the body of Christ and the temple of the Holy Spirit can only be one. Its life should be a reflection of that unity as well as the difference that exists in God’s triune life. Throughout the history of the Church, every division has been viewed as a denial of its nature, a separation from Christ’s Body, a departure from the temple of the Holy Spirit.” (Clapsis, 2000, p. 7)

Another lesson of the desert was the obedience of novice to elder. Obedience is a hard term for American ears. We don’t like to think of ourselves as necessarily obedient to another or anyone for that matter. But at the root of the concept of obedience is the ability to listen. Akouo means to listen in Greek and is the root of the word for obedience - hypakoe. Hypakoe means to listen carefully, “hyper listening” - as it were.

A story from the desert fathers about the fruits of obedience would seem quite apropos for our time and our theme from Ezekiel these days:

“It was related that Abba John withdrew to live at Scetis with an elder from Thebes and settled down in the desert. His abba, taking a dry stick, planted it and said to him, ‘Every day give it a pitcher of water, until it bears fruit.’ The water was at a considerable distance from them, so that he had to leave in the evening and return in the morning. After three years the stick came to life and bore fruit. And taking its fruit, the elder brought it to the church and said to the brothers, ‘Take and eat the fruit of obedience.’”

Obedience or “faithfulness is commitment - irrevocable commitment.” (Neuhaus, 2008, p. 23). Imagine what would have happened to that stick if Abba John would have neglected to water it for just one day. In the harsh conditions of the desert, it would have died very quickly.

The stick that we have been asked to plant in the desert is our vision of a reconciled Christianity. Ezekiel challenges us to join our respective sticks together. As the story from the desert fathers requires though, we cannot merely bring forth our sticks and plant them; we must water that stick daily so that it may blossom. Our ecumenical task is to water and nourish that stick. All of us are necessary to bring water, to nurture, and to cultivate what we have planted. The water and nourishment we offer in this case are the gifts of our respective Traditions. And because there are so many of us, if one cannot water the stick for a time, there is always another who can. As Patriarch Bartholomew of Constantinople has said, it is “a duty for all of us participating in the ecumenical movement not to permit any damage to the successes obtained to date and to not permit any slipping backwards.” That is the power of our irrevocable commitment to support one another in our journey to together. But, none of us will be able to take credit when the stick we have planted and watered faithfully for however many years it will take finally blossoms and bears fruit. And all of us will partake of that fruit from our collective endeavor.

Our irrevocable commitment in the ecumenical journey - until we have arrived at the envisioned goal - is to listen to one another. To be so committed to the relationships that we have formed to be ready to sit in silence together for awhile, and to be comfortable just sitting together. This is not easily achieved. We are very uncomfortable with long periods of silence. We are practical people, ready to speak, looking for quick answers. It seems like a waste of time. Most of us cannot go more than 15 seconds or so. But the desert teaches us that we must listen to one another and train ourselves for silence. In the desert, the ascetics found the inner stillness, the inner quiet to hear and discern the voice of the Holy Spirit within their hearts by cultivating the inner discipline of silence. There are many stories of the elders being asked for guidance from their novices, with the elder and novice sitting in silence for a day or more before responding. So it is in our commitment to work for Christian unity: we need to listen. (Ware, 1983), and be prepared to wait upon one another.

Our task as Christians is to keep the Body of Christ united and where we find division, we must become agents of healing and reconciliation. Dialogue in all its manifestations - bilateral, multilateral and other exchanges - is still the most critical pathway to reconciliation. Christians have been explaining their doctrine and theology to one another since the beginning of the Church, in order to maintain the integrity of the Body of Christ and to restore unity when divisions occurred. We can find examples of this from the earliest days of Christianity. The language of orthodoxy and heresy, lapsed and restored all emerged from the continual efforts of Church leaders - in those days usually the bishops - to maintain and pursue the unity of the Church.

Today’s ecumenical dialogues are heirs of this concern. Of course the context has changed and the actors are different, but the concerns are the same. Like in the past, we are all concerned about who we understand Jesus Christ to be and what we understand His Church to be. The Orthodox Churches have been involved since the beginnings of the modern ecumenical movement of the last century. It has not always been an easy journey for us, but who among us can honestly say that a pilgrimage through the desert was easy?

Nevertheless, as we look back, all of us have benefited tremendously from our ecumenical journey thus far. We have offered and received the treasures of our respective heritages from one another. We Orthodox have shared our gift of conciliar decision making; the gift of liturgy, the gift of over a millennium of theological reflection in our patristic literature. While we believe we have offered much and our theological claim is that we lack nothing, we must also humbly acknowledge the gifts that we have received from others: the gift of biblical foundations; the gift of coming to clarity and precision in theological matters; the gift of social justice and action, to name a few. And as we have been recipients of these gifts, it has challenged us to recognize their existence within ourselves, just as the gifts we have offered we hope have challenged you to retrieve them from within yourself. Let me be clearer: the Orthodox church has always been a biblical church, but through our ecumenical work, we have become increasingly cognizant of our biblical roots. Other churches have begun quoting their liturgical hymns as often as their biblical passages. As the poet R. D. Laing said, “because we fail to notice that we fail to notice there is little we can do to change until we notice how we have failed to notice.”

Over the decades there has been considerable progress in the ecumenical journey. We have been talking and listening to one another and coming to notice things in one another and in the process we have all been transformed. Christian Churches have made strides discussing the theological issues that both unite and continue to divide. Arriving at theological agreement must remain at the core of our ecumenical pilgrimage. Much of that work has happened through the Faith and Order process. There was the considerable breakthrough with Baptism, Eucharist, and Ministry, which bore witness to the high degree of consensus among Orthodox, Roman Catholic, and Protestant Churches on these three critical areas of Church life and teaching. Yet there is more to do still with BEM, more investigation needed on the issues themselves as well as discussion of the areas of serious divergence. As Metropolitan John Zizioulas wrote (1995, p. 2), “what we should stress is that this document has not exhausted its significance with the passage of time. It is a starting point…. We cannot go back to the situation before it; we can only go beyond.”

Then there was Confessing the One Faith, or as it was commonly called, the Apostolic Faith, which explored the Nicene-Constantinopolitan Creed produced at the First and Second Ecumenical Councils in 325 and 381. For us Orthodox, this discussion was critical, because we have consistently emphasized that agreement in the Apostolic faith is an absolute necessity for the restoration of full visible unity among the churches. About a decade ago, there was an important consultation on the Date of Easter. As we should remember, establishing a common Easter date was one of the reasons for the First Ecumenical Council and now with the divergence in calendars, Christians once again do not celebrate the most important event in our faith together. Establishing a common Easter date in the twentieth century was an impetus for the Ecumenical movement itself. As early as the1920s, there was a call for a common Easter date. In 1997, the consultation recommended that the date of Easter be set by remaining faithful to the process set in 325, with up to date astronomical calculations. Making progress on a common Easter date would still be a valuable expression of the movement towards visible unity. What I find interesting in these three is that they are connected to the life of our common history, the first millennium of Christian history. Each of these are connected to the central theme that Christian unity must be rooted in unity in and about Christ.

Some of the more recent work being done seems to stem from later developments, especially emerging from the Reformation. Today Faith and Order in the United States has been engaged in a study titled, “Justification and Salvation.” For the past five years, Orthodox, Roman Catholic, and Protestant scholars have wrestled with our differing uses and understandings of the terms and concepts about justification, theosis, and salvation. This study was prompted by the Roman Catholic-Lutheran World Federation “Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification,” an important breakthrough in Roman Catholic and Lutheran relations, but challenging all of us to consider our theological anthropologies.

The recent document “Authority of the Church in the World,” from Faith and Order in the United States, should be read and studied by all of us because it addresses the significant challenge facing all of our churches today: the ability of our churches to speak and be heard in a globalized, pluralized world, where Christianity is often marginalized. It wrestles with how theology “must open up its frontiers and become meaningful and relevant to culture” (Zizioulas, p. 4). As the document states in its early paragraphs:

“What is at stake is more than just the churches’ several commentaries on moral issues. At stake is the ability of the Church itself to proclaim, in word and deed, the good news of Jesus Christ in the midst of a fractured society. Many of the churches are only beginning to struggle with the question of what it means to proclaim the gospel in a society that openly contests the legitimacy of the authority of any voice that claims to speak for Christ.” (Authority, 2007, par. 4)

Towards the end of the document, in the documents recommendations, I found myself thinking about what the desert fathers would have said about the following statement.

“In exercising authority the Church must practice vigilant discernment. At times the Church needs to listen to the world humbly before it speaks, in order to discover whether the Spirit has prepared the world’s ears to hear the voice of Christ. At other times the Spirit may call the Church to speak a word of judgment, whether or not the world is ready to hear it.” (Authority, 2007, par. 68c).

The desert fathers called continually for discernment in their followers. Abba Poemen said that Abba Ammonas said, “A person can spend all his time wielding an axe yet not be able to cut down the tree. But another person, experienced in felling, brings down the tree with a few blows. He used to say that the axe was discernment.” As the document states, in order for the Church to speak with authority in the world its leaders and those who decide what to speak about must acquire virtues sought out by that first generation of ascetics. In short, and I don’t want to make light of an important document, the scholars of Faith and Order learned after eight years of intense study something that one of the desert fathers knew hundreds of years ago.

These few examples from our more recent ecumenical journey may have slipped by without much notice. That is unfortunate, but points to the challenge of reception in our churches and the importance of reaching into the grassroots of parish life. Metropolitan John Zizioulas asked, “To what extent are 16th and 17th, or even 4th and 1st century theological debates meaningful today? For even if divided Christians manage to reach agreement on issues of the past, their unity will leave indifferent the rest of the world if it is not relevant to the challenges of the time” (Zizioulas, p. 3). Ecumenical work should not be an ivory-tower affair. I cannot speak about the members of your congregations, but I would assume that most of the faithful in my Metropolis know very little about any of what I have just reviewed. Yet, they live “ecumenically,” and by this I mean - they live “in the world,” not in ethnic or religious enclaves. Their neighbor is just as likely to be a non-Christian as a member of another Christian communion. No doubt in the last week or so Orthodox had to explain to their neighbors the difference in Easter dates. They intermarry with other Christians and families engage in significant inter-Christian dialogue about their differences and similarities, whether or not to observe one particular Christian communion’s practices or to mix them, and in which Church to baptize children. Thus, we must as leaders in our communities, encourage our clergy and our faithful to pay more attention to our work, to share it and to study it.

Even here, the desert fathers have an important piece of wisdom to share with us:

Abba John the Dwarf said, ‘a house is not built by beginning at the top and working down. You must begin with the foundations in order to reach the top. They said to him, ‘What does this saying mean?’ He said, ‘The foundation is our neighbor, whom we must win, and that is the place to begin. For all the commandments of Christ depend on this one.’

On this front, all of us can do better. But again, I can only speak for my own congregations. We as Orthodox have benefited from ecumenical work, but our involvement appears erratic and locally we don’t always appear interested. This requires some explanation.

The Orthodox Churches have been involved in many forums, internationally and nationally. Our polity however places most of this activity and directs it at a global level. None of the Orthodox Churches in America could proclaim unity with any other Christian body. That will require agreements made on a far larger, pan-Orthodox, global scale. Our relative small size also makes our involvement challenging. The Orthodox in America don’t have large offices staffed with people who work only on ecumenical and interfaith matters. We rely on our seminary faculties and some of our other dedicated personnel. In general, we have too few people doing too many things in our bureaucracies and for many of them, ecumenical involvement is one more thing to do. But, you should know that globally we are in a dialogue with the Lutheran, the Reformed, the Anglican Communion, and the Old Catholic Churches. In the past, we have had some dialogue with Evangelicals, and have attempted to begin a dialogue with the Baptists. In North America, the Orthodox-Roman Catholic Consultation is actually older than the international dialogue, and has never been interrupted. We are members of the National Council of Churches, Christian Churches Together, Church World Service, and founding members of the World Council of Churches. Finally, we are very involved with Faith and Order, both internationally and here in the US.

For us, we have two ecumenical challenges. The first is our dialogue with the Oriental Orthodox, which our Ecumenical Patriarchate has continually ranked as the most important. This dialogue, not even fifty years old, has rebuilt bridges that had been damaged for nearly 1400 years. As their joint commission has repeatedly concluded: “there is complete agreement between us on the Christological dogma (at the roots of the division) as well as the faith of the early church transmitted by the Apostles.” There is still work to do before Eucharistic communion is restored, but there is optimism that the divides can be overcome and soon. Second, within Orthodoxy itself we face another ecumenical challenge - the very strong voices of those within our Church who are against ecumenical activity. They are prolific creators of blogs and websites; some are within the canonical boundaries of Orthodox Churches; others are Orthodox in form but outside the boundaries. In both cases they reject this work.

For me, these two challenges are instructive for the greater ecumenical task. The first challenge should remind us that our ecumenical focus should perhaps first be with those in our religious “backyards,” church bodies that we share the greatest similarity, common history and tradition, similar theological presuppositions and teachings. Reaching across the very large divides between some of our communions is needed, but will take a great deal of time. Reaching across the smaller divides to our neighbor may be more fruitful in the short run and in the long run open additional pathways for the more distant neighbors.

The second challenge should remind us that there are those within our ecclesial families who do not agree with us. We cannot ignore a voice because we don’t like its message. We should not turn ecumenical dialogue into a self-referencing body of the like minded. Part of our ecumenical task is to share our common experience of life and work together with those who have thus far refused to walk with us or with those who have misunderstood our journey we share.

In our increasingly fragmented world, there are no monopolies of ideas. Anyone with a laser printer and an account at a copy center can publish a book. Anyone with the right hardware and software can publish that book with, create a website or blog, post a video on you tube, or start a new interest group on Facebook. What was once the “Ecumenical Movement,” directed from Geneva, Riverside Drive, or church bureaucracies, has become a network of movements, dialogues, and official and unofficial engagements. They include Christians on the left and right on most issues, Christians who focus on their creeds and those who focus on their deeds, Churches with hierarchies and Churches of democracies. While God Himself will ultimately decide, I suspect the fullness of the Body of Christ will somehow include them all.

So, permit me to conclude with these words from the Paschal homily read in every Orthodox parish last week, words that are attributed to St. John Chrysostom. They point us to the vision of the Church, constituted in the resurrection. They remind us that what matters most is not when started the ecumenical journey or how diligently one toiled along the path, but that all arrive at the same destination:

“Whosoever is a grateful servant, let him rejoice and enter into the joy of his Lord. ... If any have toiled from the first hour, let him receive his due reward. If any have come after the third hour, let him with gratitude join the Feast. And he that arrived after the sixth hour, let him not doubt; for he to shall sustain no loss. And if any have delayed to the ninth hour, let him not hesitate, but let him come too. And he that arrived only at the eleventh hour, let him not be afraid by reason of his delay, for the Lord is gracious and receives the last even as the first. Yes, to this one he gives and upon that one he bestows. He accepts works as he greets the endeavor. The deed he honors and the intention he commends. Let all then enter into the joy of the Lord.”

Christ is risen!

Originally given in Phoenix, Arizona


  • Archbishop Anastasios Yannoulatos (2003). Facing the World: Orthodox Christian Essays on Global Concerns (Crestwood, NY: SVS Press).
  • Authority of the Church in the World (2007), Faith and Order Commission, National Council of Churches in Christ, USA.
  • Emmanuel Clapsis (2000). “Ecumenical Solidarity” in Orthodoxy in Conversation: Orthodox Ecumenical Engagements (Geneva: WCC Publications).
  • Thomas FitzGerald, (1990, 1997). The Ecumenical Patriarchate and the Quest for Christian Unity(Brookline, MA: Holy Cross Orthodox Press).
  • Richard John Neuhaus (2008). “Reconciling East and West,” First Things (December, pp. 23-28).
  • Bishop Kallistos Ware of Diokleia (1983). “Unity and mission.”
  • Metropolitan John Zizioulas (1995) “Faith and Order, yesterday, today, and tomorrow.”