That We All May Be One


The times I have written on the boundaries and borders of Church are occasions for a great deal of comment. Generally the comments run in two directions: Orthodox who agree that “we are the Church,” and defend my thoughts, and others who are challenged, or offended by the suggestion that “one,” might not include them. This is all too easy – especially for my Orthodox readers. Many settle for their own comfortable form of institutional unity – “everyone permitted at the cup is part of us!” It’s both true and not true.

When Christ prayed, “That they all may be one,” there was no thought of a divided Christendom. His prayer was not a primitive effort at ecumenism: it is a prayer for a mode of existence that it His gift to the world – that is first manifested in the life of the Church.  The mode of existence that He gifts to us is to be “one,” even as “He and the Father are one.” It is a communion a “community of union” (as one translation of St. Irenaeus phrases it) that heals the fragmentation of our individual lives and unites them in a common existence that is the ultimate revelation of love.

St. Paul makes reference to this:

[God has] made known to us the mystery of His will, according to His good pleasure which He purposed in Himself, that in the dispensation of the fullness of the times He might gather together in one all things in Christ, both which are in heaven and which are on earth– in Him.  (Eph 1:9-10 NKJ)

The phrase “gather together in one” is an attempt to translate the Greek anakephalaiomai (ἀνακεφαλαίομαι) to “recapitulate.” St. Irenaeus propounds a version of the atonement under the heading of recapitulation. It is the “gathering together again under a single head.” There is a sense that everything was once under the “headship” of Adam and is now being restored to a proper unity by being “recapitulated” (“re-headed”) in Christ. Thus, the manner of existence given to us is more than union – it is a union in the proper order – a union with “headship.” Christ and the Father are “one,” though the Father is always Father to the Son, and the Son is always Son to the Father. There is a hierarchy, a “holy order” in the Godhead. This holy order has no compulsion, nor oppression, no forced submission, no assertion of rights and no defense. It is a communion in love in which one person empties themselves towards the other.

We hear this in a number of Christ’s sayings:

I do not seek My own will but the will of the Father who sent Me. (Joh 5:30 NKJ)

Therefore, whatever I speak, just as the Father has told Me, so I speak. (Joh 12:50 NKJ)

Most assuredly, I say to you, the Son can do nothing of Himself, but what He sees the Father do; for whatever He does, the Son also does in like manner. (Joh 5:19 NKJ)

“Nothing of Himself…” This is the true nature of love and a “nothing” that is itself the fullness of life. As the Son empties Himself towards the Father, so the Father gives all things to the Son:

The Father loves the Son, and has given all things into His hand. (Joh 3:35 NKJ)

This is the heart of what it means to be one.

…that they all may be one, as You, Father, are in Me, and I in You; that they also may be one in Us, that the world may believe that You sent Me. And the glory which You gave Me I have given them, that they may be one just as We are one: I in them, and You in Me; that they may be made perfect in one, and that the world may know that You have sent Me, and have loved them as You have loved Me. (Joh 17:20-23 NKJ)

This is the one life that is found in the Cup. Not one as the world understands one – but as the Son is in the Father and the Father is in the Son – self-emptied and glorified.

It is this one life that is the work of the Son in the world, the work that is the life of the Spirit in the Church. And it is this mystery which makes all discussion of the One Church and the One Cup problematic. It does not make such discussion fruitless or without merit – but it challenges us to actually recognize the character of what is being discussed. The one mystery is the gift of God, and all things are being drawn towards that one. The action that draws us (the work of the Holy Spirit) both smashes the false idol of the ego, the boundaries that are imaginary, as well as raising up and exalting our true existence as persons.

That personal existence, however, is the same as we find in Christ:

Let each of you look out not only for his own interests, but also for the interests of others. Let this mind be in you which was also in Christ Jesus, who, being in the form of God, did not consider it robbery to be equal with God, but emptied Himself, taking the form of a bondservant, and coming in the likeness of men. And being found in appearance as a man, He humbled Himself and became obedient to the point of death, even the death of the cross. Therefore God also has highly exalted Him and given Him the name which is above every name, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, of those in heaven, and of those on earth, and of those under the earth, and that every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father. (Phi 2:4-11)

All of creation is being drawn toward union with Christ – it is God’s revealed intended purpose. I frequently think that we narrow the meaning of Church (the “assembly”) in a severe manner. The institutional manifestation of the Church can be seen as somehow exhausting the content of the word. In the Eucharist, however, the bread and wine that are offered, are but tokens of creation itself. The Divine Liturgy is not an institution’s worship of God – it is the voice of the whole of creation. That is the “priestly” role of the Church. Thus it’s inaccurate to say (as the bumper sticker proclaims) that the Orthodox Church was founded in 33 a.d. It is more accurate to place that date contemporaneous with “Let there be light.” For the assembly of the firstborn (Heb. 12:23) includes the whole of creation.

Of course, taken the wrong way, we affirm so much that we have said nothing. There remains a boundary at the Cup, but that boundary is the communion of the firstborn which we must always strive to reach.

Therefore, brethren, be even more diligent to make your call and election sure, for if you do these things you will never stumble; (2Pe 1:10 NKJ)



About Fr. Stephen Freeman

Fr. Stephen is a priest of the Orthodox Church in America, Pastor Emeritus of St. Anne Orthodox Church in Oak Ridge, Tennessee. He is also author of Everywhere Present and the Glory to God podcast series.


14 responses to “That We All May Be One”

  1. Charlie Avatar

    There was something that upset me for a long time – from when I first started attending the Divine Liturgy until about half way through my cathecumenate –which ended today!
    Anyway, I thought very ‘exclusive’ and not very ‘one’ when there prayers were spoken on behalf of ‘all Orthodox Christians.’
    My priest explained this as – we know where the Church is, but we can’t say where it isn’t.
    This resonates I think, Father, to your essay above?

  2. jeff Avatar

    I know Father Alexander Schmemann reminds us in his writings, the Divine Liturgy begins before we arrive in Church. For Church means ekklesia, a convocation, not just a congregation that has come together. And I think the leaders of both Orthodox and Catholic have always said , sharing the Cup is always going to be a work of the Spirit.

  3. fatherstephen Avatar

    If possible, I would like to steer comments away from ecclesiastical issues, and more towards the personal. It is the “One” as a mode of existence that should be of primary concern – for this I can do something about as I respond to God. I cannot do anything about the larger picture other than have opinions, complaints, and the like. The drive towards the truly personal is the intended thrust of the article.

  4. dino Avatar

    So much to ponder…
    Elder Sophrony’s who died 20 years exactly loved this very subject, as did Saint Porphyrios.
    Fr. Lev Gillet (in his book ‘Jesus)’has talked about ‘the gift’ described by Christ’s words to the Samaritan woman (St Photini) “If you knew the gift of God…”, as pertaining to this ‘Sonship’ offered us a ‘mode of being’, that “all may be one” in this manner, as the Father is in the Son, and the Son in the Father; and that this is in fact “the glory which the Father gave the Son” the Glory that the prophets, apostles and saints beheld when they saw the Divine Logos (which is when they were made perfect in one).

  5. Mary Lanser Avatar

    Dear Father: I think that your exhortation to keep this at a personal level fails because, as a Catholic [and you know from past history that I include Orthodoxy when I speak of being Catholic] I do not see myself in a personal relationship with Christ outside of the Church.

    I may speak of St. Paul’s teaching concerning that natural inclination to know God and keep his laws to the best of one’s abilities, outside of the Body of Christ. But there’s nothing I can say about myself without the mediation of the Body since I was baptised into the Body and have partaken of the mysteries of Christ’s initiation.

    Hope this makes sense and does not terribly rub against the grain of your post….Mary

  6. fatherstephen Avatar

    Mary Lanser,
    Ah, you misunderstand me. The word “personal” has been co-opted by the culture and changed to me “private” or “that which concerns me.” Here, I mean personal in the fullness of its theological intent and origin.

    We cannot, and do not, separate ourselves from the ecclesia when we engage the personal – indeed, I only begin to find what it means to be person within the life of the ecclesia. But I wanted to draw us away from the more or less objectified discussion of the ecclesia. There is a place where we speak about the Church in a manner in which anyone, without cost, can say almost anything. It is the Church ultimately deprived of its existential mystery.

    One way to say this is the struggle for the “One life” that exists within the congregation in which I dwell. The point of this article is to push the conversation to the place where we cannot speak of “them and us.” Thus, within Orthodox or Catholic circles alone, without even mentioning anyone else, the struggle for the “One Life,” is there, moment by moment, almost disguised by the ease with which we sometimes approach the One Cup. And that ease lulls us into a zone of comfort that no longer struggles. We become comfortably a Catholic individual, or an Orthodox individual, at ease now that I belong. And in that, I no longer struggle to rise to the level of a personal existence – personal fully in the sense described in the article.

    My greatest concern on any given Sunday, when in the Great Litany we pray for the unity of the Holy Church, is for the Holy Church standing within 50 feet of me – for a life entering into a mode of existence that is actually salvific and not just more of the same, disguised by its presence within the walls of the building.

    I have a deep sense of emerging personhood when I am hearing confessions. People striving to move beyond the borders of sin that threaten to draw us into life of increasing non-existence. Self-disclosure, risk, vunerability in the presence of Christ, a true act of faith that trusts in a salvation by grace, this act of self-emptying, kenosis is the mode of existence that can rightly be termed “personal.” It is for that reason that in the Orthodox Church, before approaching the Cup, the congregation prays,

    I believe, O Lord, and I confess that Thou art truly the Christ, the Son of the Living God, Who camest into the world to save sinners, of whom I am first. I believe also that this is truly Thine own pure Body, and that this is truly Thine own precious Blood. Therefore I pray Thee: have mercy upon me and forgive my transgressions both voluntary and involuntary, of word and of deed, of knowledge and of ignorance. And make me worthy to partake without condemnation of Thy most pure Mysteries, for the remission of my sins, and unto life everlasting.

  7. Mary Lanser Avatar

    Oh! Father I feel so foolish for misunderstanding you so terribly. I should have known; should have trusted you to mean just this. Forgive me please. I must be much like one of those for whom you worry.

    Yes. I see now. We think to come to the chalice because we are truly entitled by membership in the Body and all that entails and it is real and it is true and we confess so that we may be worthy…or perhaps, “allowed” then to come to the cup. And then in a separate moment we think about our devotional and spiritual lives and all that entails and somehow or other, those two frameworks for thinking and being remain separated and should rather be one…

    And I think I am catching up a bit and recognize at least some of the ground you are plowing here. I need to recover from my poor estimations and will think more about it all.

    Thank you!


  8. Dino Avatar

    It is worth mentioning something here, concerning ‘the personal level of existence’, as portrayed especially in Saint Maximus the confessor, on the way God views us. In a word, every single person is, in His eyes, a unique “aspect/facet” of the entire cosmos.. The person ‘prosopon’ contains this further Theological overtone – it is a “face” (prosopon) with which and through which God communes with the entire creation (in the image of the ‘recapitulating’ incarnate Logos)…

  9. Mary Lanser Avatar

    Dino: And I have always understood that this uniqueness is a great gift, but that also means that the only way we can be one is through union in the Trinity Undivided through the Incarnate One. And that is all right and good, but how does one convey that to a parish community, if there is parish community, and how do we image that unity in our separate lives?


  10. Dino Avatar

    Ok. the short answer (at least) is known to us all: by ‘walking’ as Christ walked. His unbroken ‘orientation’ towards the Father, is the gift he has given us, the mode of existence he bestows on His followers.
    It is God who has and is love and unity, not us, and therefore this vertical ‘orientation’ is the way to partake of the horizontal (towards neighbour) love too…
    It might sound theoretical but this is also very practical at every breath we take…

  11. Jeff Avatar

    Non ecclesial Christians move in this direction, always a personal relationship with Jesus, that grows in character because of few institutional blockages , I prefer the ecclesial because of the historic connection , but, yes, we can get complacent too

  12. Lina Avatar

    I think what I am hearing in this is echoed in a book I just finished reading called Sober Mercies by Heather Kopp. She could not understand how she could be a Christian and a drunk at the same time. In the process of going through the AA recovery program she realized that she had everything in her head but not in her heart. Our hearts are where God gets personal.

  13. drewster2000 Avatar

    Fr. Stephen, thank you for this post.

    Lina: I like that. “Our hearts are where God gets personal.”

  14. Victor Avatar

    “Whom thinkest thou the aged woman, from whom thou receivedst the book, to be?” I say, “The Sibyl” “Thou art wrong,” saith he, “she is not.” “Who then is she?” I say. “The Church,” saith he. I said unto him, “Wherefore then is she aged?” “Because,” saith he, “she was created before all things; therefore is she aged; and for her sake the world was framed.”
    Shepherd of Hermas 4[8]:1 (Lightfoot’a translation)

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