18th October 2016, Feast Day of St Luke. Some Reflections on Christian Unity While Living in Greece.
Recently I accompanied three young LDS missionaries to the home of a woman who was happy to receive them and listen to their message. She was a committed Christian from a protestant church and at the close of the meeting their invitation was bluntly rejected. She would not accept a copy of and declared she would never read, the Book of Mormon. Although we departed on good terms, any kind of rejection can be painful when it comes to matters that are dear to the heart. Pride is always close by when it comes to rejection.
Since that meeting I have been contemplating how from its beginning deep divisions have marred Christianity. A religion with love and forgiveness at the heart of its message, has during the past two thousand years, established a reputation of quite the opposite virtues that has turned so many away. But perhaps that is a distorted view of history. Yes, there were heresies that were put down in the early centuries. Yes, there was a split in the 5th century after the council of Chalcedon (451) and the Great Schism when eastern and western churches separated in 1054. But most of the internal violent divisions and persecutions have happened only in the last five hundred years and they have been largely confined to the west.
From my point of view the primary cause of these divisions within western Christianity has been the universal availability of that book of books, the Holy Bible. Sadly, additional scripture has not made things better. Those Churches like my own that claim to be a ‘restored’ rather than a ‘reformed’ root or branch, have simply added to the Christian malaise. In the east however things have been different.
From what I understand so far, whilst there is some division between Eastern and Oriental Orthodox Churches, this does not appear to have produced the kind of conflict we have experienced in the west, like between the Roman Church and the Church of England or between the Church of England and the Separatists which led to them leaving first for Holland and eventually for the New World.
When I first arrived in Greece, a member of my own church who is Albanian brought up in Orthodoxy, explained to me a major difference between our traditions. He said that whilst we focus a great deal on the written word, at the heart of Greek Orthodox worship is ‘the image’. At first I did not understand what he meant. Although I had been inside the Greek Church near where I live and was amazed at the amount of imagery there was, I did not appreciate how to look at it. After some investigation into iconography I learnt that an icon is not simply religious art like we produce to aid teaching. Icons are scripture written under the inspiration of God. Their tradition holds that Luke, the writer of the Gospel, was also the first to write icons, which too were regarded as scripture. Unfortunately these icons are lost to the world.
The significance of icons, how they are looked upon by the faithful I believe is highly significant when it comes to church unity. I ask, if an icon is a source of inspiration rather than a written verse of scripture, which is more likely to raise contention between believers? It reminds me of that controversial discussion Jesus has with his disciples in the 16th chapter of the Gospel of Matthew verses 13 to 19.
He first asks them:
‘Whom do men say that I the Son of man am?’
After they answer Him He asks them directly:
‘But whom say ye that I am?’
Peter’s answer was unambiguous. Unlike those others who speculated on Jesus true identity, Peter declared:
‘Thou art the Christ, the Son of the living God.’
How had Peter come to that knowledge? Jesus said to Peter:
‘Blessed art thou, Simon Bar-jona, for flesh and blood hath not revealed it unto thee, but my Father which is in heaven.’
What had happened in Peter’s life for him to receive this revealed knowledge from God? Was it the words and deeds of Jesus that he had witnessed? Others had heard the same words and seen the same events but some followed for whatever reason and others left His company, offended or disillusioned. We know that Peter was impulsive and that he was susceptible to the fears of the flesh. Could it be that Peter had opened his heart to this man and in his heart received the knowledge of Jesus true identity?
Often it is not words but impressions of the heart tell us so much. Although it is reassuring to also have a rational understanding of things, when it comes to spiritual matters, the heart as well as the mind must be open. I believe that icons reach the heart; they open the channel between heart and the Father.
Now you might suggest that any gospel art might do the same, but so often gospel art, and in particular paintings depicting the Saviour, appeal more to our cultural back ground than to our spirits. I personally find particularly concerning the cropping of masterpieces to provide portraits of the Saviour. They disturb me far more than any icon I have ever seen. But I concede to those who see them in a different light and find inspiration from them and at least they are never hung in our chapels where the sacrament is administered.
I suppose the effect which such imagery has on followers of Christ can be simply called reverence. They can be simple reminders in our hearts of who we worship, His love for us and our relationship with the Father. But in the Church I attend it is not so much imagery that induces reverence but once again it is the word, but not the meaning of the words. I shall explain.
In my Church the form of English that is preferred when praying, reading scripture or performing ordinances, is 17th Century English as contained in the King James Bible. The sound of that form of language inspires reverence. I feel that this is similar to why the ancient craft of the iconographer is preferred over modern forms of the art. The restrained subtlety of expression and symbolism rather than realism that characterises Orthodox icons also induces a similar feeling of reverence.
On the day I write this, (18th October) I am surprised to discover that it is the feast day of St. Luke. I therefore include this taken from Orthodoxwiki.org:
‘Saint Luke, was of Greek origin born in the Hellenistic city of Antioch and was extremely educated. His studies included Greek philosophy, medicine, and art in his youth. He was also a professional physician. St. Luke came to Jerusalem where he came to believe in the Lord. He and Cleopas met the resurrected Lord on the road to Emmaus (Luke 24).
After Pentecost, Luke returned to Antioch and worked with the Apostle Paul, travelling with him to Rome and converting Jews and pagans to the Christian Faith. "Luke, the beloved physician, ... greets you," writes the Apostle Paul to the Colossians (Colossians 4:14). At the request of Christians, St. Luke wrote his Gospel in the first century. According to some accounts this took place around 60 A.D., and according to others around 80 A.D. After St. Paul's martyrdom, St. Luke preached the Gospel throughout Italy, Dalmatia, Macedonia, and other regions. He painted icons of the Most-holy Theotokos—not just one, but three—as well as icons of the Holy Apostles Peter and Paul. For this reason, St. Luke is considered the founder of Christian iconography. In his old age, he visited Libya and Upper Egypt; from Egypt he returned to Greece, where he continued to preach and convert many with great zeal despite his age.
In addition to his Gospel, St. Luke wrote the Acts of the Apostles and dedicated each of these works to Theophilus, the governor of Achaia. Luke was 84 years old when the wicked idolaters tortured him for the sake of Christ and hanged him from an olive tree in the town of Thebes, in Beothia of Greece.’
In the Saviours prayer recorded by St. John the Saviour prayed for us all to be one even as He and His father are one. He prayed for us to obtain eternal life by knowing the Father and the Son. He also gave a new commandment to those who are his followers which is 'to love one another as He had loved them' and that by this all might know we are His true followers, by how we treat others that have come to know the true identity of the man Jesus, as the Christ, the Son of the living God.
Whenever Christian meets with Christian, may they part company strengthened by the faith and commitment of each other, despite the theological differences that separate them. Amen.