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“For the Life of the World”


Tertullian famously asked: “What has Athens to do with Jerusalem”? In the same way, one might ask why I am speaking to you today. 

The OCA has a very diverse membership in three countries spread out over a hemisphere; the Church of Finland ministers in but one country, and to a rather homogenous, but more and more international population, of which more than a quarter live in metro Helsinki alone. We are under the canonical protection of Constantinople; you are tied to neither Constantinople nor Russia.  It is true that one of our parishes, Ilomantsi, St. Elijah’s pogost, village, was founded in 1492 - the same year Columbusdiscovered your continent; but it is your language that is spoken around the world; while Finns are most famous for being quiet. So, what does the Church of Finland have to share with the Church in America? 

The fact is that we share a special vocation among Orthodox Churches today.  Unlike other Orthodox Churches, neither the OCA nor the Finnish Church have a large Orthodox population to sustain us, nor great monuments that have existed for thousands of years to keep us in society’s memory.  Unlike other Orthodox Churches we have been given the unique challenge to witness Orthodoxy as minority churches (even among the Christians of our countries) in western, secular democracies.  Our present requires, no, demands, that our two Churches, unlike other Orthodox Churches, focus not on the past but the future.  In America, as in Finland, we are required to evangelize if we are to survive. Or to use Tertullian’s imagery again, our two Churches do not have the luxury of living in either Athens or Jerusalem. 

The World

Thus, the importance of the theme of this Council: “For the Life of the World”. It is phrase that reminds us that we must always be looking to the future. It tells us that not only must we be evangelists, but why. 

In Finnish the phrase “For the Life of the World” is but three words: “Maailman elämän edestä”. For once, and only this once, Finnish is shorter than English.  The first word, maailma, speaks of the world. 

“The world” can refer to the wonderous creation fashioned by the God in the beginning; but it can also refer to the fallen existence that this creation (and we humans) now find ourselves in. As the Church we live in the tension in-between these two meanings. It is not a tension that we can fully resolve in this age, nor is it a tension we can escape.

The fallen world is full of noise – and full of answers. As evangelists if we do no more than offer the same answers over and over again, we are simply adding to the noise. It is no accident that the icon of the great evangelist and apostle John, shows his finger to his lips, indicating silence.  Such silence is not from weariness, fear, shame or lack of faith. It is a reminder that if we are truly to be partners in dialogue with the world, we must sometimes listen. Only by taking problems of those who hear us as seriously as we recommend God’s solutions, can we establish trust, so our words might be revealed in all their life-giving power -- no matter whether spoken, texted or tweeted.

Perhaps, though, our most evangelical task in the modern western secular world is not to give answers, but to help society ask the right, the important, questions. Our world is forgetting the very questions to which the Gospel is the answer. Our societies are like the young man of St. Matthew’s Gospel (Matthew 19) – very rich – but fewer and fewer people are asking his question – the question that makes us fully human: “Lord what must I do to have eternal life?

While the tension in the double meanings of the word “world” can not be fully resolved in this life, it can be transfigured through the Kingdom of God – a Kingdom we may partake of through the Divine Eucharist.   

For almost a thousand years the great banquet of our Church – the Eucharist – was increasingly declined by those who had been invited. Unworthiness, ritual impurity, fasting rules – the excuses were many until the Lord sent out his servants – or rather scattered them – through the tragedies of the 20th century, to remind his people that they were still invited and welcome to His Banquet. Like St. John Chrysostom before them, our late Archbishop Paul of Finland and your late Fr. Alexander Schmemann returned again and again to the importance of the Divine Liturgy. They helped us understand it not as a performance to be watched, but a living, vital inspiring experience that leads, through Eucharist, to that day without evening, the Kingdom of God.  Neither man invented liturgical theology, nor eucharistic ecclesiology, but these two were its most profound exponents and champions, in Finland, in America, and throughout the world.  

More importantly, they lived what they preached. Their lives were centered on the Eucharist, and their joy was the Divine Liturgy. In the Eucharist they witnessed the reality of Kingdom -- despite revolution, civil war, intolerance, profound loss and the laborious task of rebuilding they both experienced.

For the Life Of....

And this brings us to the second and third word: elämän edestä, which in English means “For the life of”.  Fr. Alexander, who did not speak Finnish, nevertheless offered a wonderful explanation of what this term means in all its fullness He wrote: “It is the very joy of the Kingdom that makes us remember the world and pray for it. It is the very communion with the Holy Spirit that enables us to love the world with the love of Christ....here we see the world in Christ, as it really is, and not from our particular and therefore limited and partial points of view. ...It is when, ‘having put aside all earthly care,’ we seem to have left this world, that we, in fact, recover it in all its reality.

It is in the Kingdom of God that the tension of the world seeks resolution, where the world finally finds its expression, in all its reality. 

Maailman elämän edestä – For the life of the world. No phrase better describes the life work of Archbishop Paul and Fr. Alexander than this. By pointing us in their writings to the most sublime experience of the real in the Eucharist, through recovering the Liturgy itself, they help us, even today, to recover the world, in all its reality. 

This task of recovery never ends. The world hungers to experience reality; and it is the task of the Church today to call the world back to reality, to life in the Kingdom of God. As I said earlier, it is the unique challenge and privilege of our two Churches to have the common task to witness as minority Churches in our secular, western democratic societies. This unique challenge is external -- which is why our Metropolitan Tikhon and I signed a cooperation agreement last year covering five areas of mutual witness: promoting seminary exchanges; joining in dialogue on ethical issues; reaching out in pastoral care for indigenous peoples of the Arctic, whether in Alaska, Canada or Finnish Lapland; and promoting exchanges among our youth, clergy and monastics. By working together, we shall be more equipped to effectively preach the life of the Kingdom in our countries. 

Our common challenge is also internal. After the 2016 Great and Holy Synod it is rather clear that the Churches still speaking about Orthodox unity today are the Orthodox Church in America, and the Churches of the Ecumenical Patriarchate. Sadly, so many Orthodox Churches seem less concerned about Orthodox unity these days than nationalist or ethnic concerns. The Kingdom of God is not a nation, nor a people; the Kingdom to which we witness, the Kingdom of which we partake in the Eucharist is neither national, nor ethnic, but is open to all nations and all peoples through baptism and chrismation. Those of us in the secular democratic west know that Orthodox unity, not just sacramental unity, but real canonical unity, is not a luxury, but a necessity for our future -- and the future of the whole Orthodox Church if we are to fully manifest the reality we claim to possess. 

If our three churches, the Church of Constantinople, the Church of Finland and the OCA all agree on the need for visible unity, I would add that such unity among our Churches requires leadership. It requires the OCA to continue its leadership in promoting Orthodox unity, here and abroad.  I would also encourage the OCA to continue in dialogue with the Ecumenical Patriarchate as to how leadership can best manifested among the autocephalous and autonomous Churches that make up the Orthodox world today.  Visible unity requires more than a symbolic head. Someone has to be able to act in authority when need requires action.

I conclude, therefore, as I began with the imagery of Tertullian. Tertullian failed to realize that the events of Jerusalem led St. Paul to the Aeropagus in Athens even in Apostolic times. Jerusalem has everything to do with Athens; and so too Helsinki with New York, or even St. Louis. Our Church is about to celebrate the hundredth anniversary of its legal establishment as one of the State Churches of the Republic of Finland; you are about to celebrate your 50th anniversary as the Orthodox Church in America. Let us not fear, but rejoice, that God has placed us, one in north of Europe, and one in North America, to preach His Gospel in democracies of free peoples.  Thank you for inviting me to listen, learn, and share with you.

Most of all, I thank God that we have partaken of the Eucharist together, that we entered, albeit briefly, into the Kingdom of God together; and that we shall now go into the future, together.  

May God bless the Orthodox Church in America.

© Suomen ortodoksisen arkkipiispan kanslia, Liisankatu 29 A 8, 00170 Helsinki, puh. 020 6100 240, helsingin.hiippakunta@ort.fi