The Church as a Culture of Love

Here are extracts from a talk given November 11, 2008, by Bishop Jonah (Paffhausen) to the All-American Council of the Orthodox Church in America. The following day he was elected as the OCA’s new Metropolitan.

We are called to be the very presence of the one, holy, catholic, apostolic Church, constituted by the Gospel, by our faith, by the canons and traditions of the Holy Fathers that have been passed down to us. What is the ecclesiology of the Church? How do we understand how the Church is supposed to operate? Who are we and what are we trying to do?

We are a hierarchical church, but what does that mean? History has given to us an inheritance where hierarchy has been confused with imperial aristocracy.

First and foremost, that leadership of the Church, that element that comes from above, is the divine element. The leadership within the Church, the leadership of bishops, is different. If, as a parish priest, you lord it over your parishioners with the idea that you can do whatever you want and spend the money however you like without accountability, you are not going to go very far. In fact you are likely to get thrown out because you will get into all sorts of problems. That form of leadership is over. It doesn’t work, nor does it work on the diocesan or national level.

Our leadership is leadership within, and underlying this is the essential theological principle that is in every aspect of our theology. It underlies our soteriology, it underlies our Christology, it underlies our ecclesiology C and that’s the principle of synergy, of cooperation. It has to be a voluntary cooperation. Obedience, within that context, is not doing whatever you’re told by someone who lords it over you and who, if you disobey, will get you in trouble. Obedience is cooperation out of love and respect.

When love and respect break down, when the passions take over, when jealousy comes in, or anger, bitterness, resentment or revenge, it all breaks down.

Our whole life in this Church together is a life of synergy, a life of voluntary cooperation, a life of obedience to Jesus Christ and to the Gospel. If it is not about obedience to Jesus Christ and the Gospel, what are we doing here? The Gospel must be, above all other considerations, the canon by which we measure ourselves.

So when we look at our ecclesiology, when we look to see what the Church is and what the Church can be, it is always in the process of entering into that divine synergy which is nothing else than the process of our deification together as one body with one spirit, one heart, one mind. It’s a mutual decision to cut off our own will, our own selfishness, our own ideas, to enter into that living synergy which is communion. Otherwise our Eucharist is a sham and we are alienated from Christ.

We are called to be at peace with one another. This doesn’t mean that we don’t  have to work out disagreements, but we need to work them out so that we can enter into that experience of communion in cooperation and mutual obedience and mutual submission in love and mutual respect.

A culture of intimidation is alien to Christ. Unfortunately, this has been something that has prevailed, and still prevails, in certain sectors of the Orthodox Church. It is a demon that needs to be exorcized. Intimidation and the promotion of fear is never appropriate. This doesn’t mean that you aren’t going to get a rebuke. What father, out of love, doesn’t rebuke his children? God chastises those whom he loves. But our life in the Church must not be controlled by fear and intimidation. Because power corrupts, power needs to be renounced. It is only in our powerlessness, in our weakness, that we can become vessels for Jesus Christ. We need to be able to speak our minds, but in a sober way. Sobriety is just not about the use of substances. Sobriety concerns the passions – anger, bitterness, resentment, vengeance. Whenever we are possessed by those passions, we need to sit down and shut up, because otherwise all we are doing is sinning and compounding our sin by the words that come out of our mouths. It is so important for us to keep watch over ourselves, to keep watch over our words and thoughts. Have they sinned? Obviously. Do you sin? Obviously. How can you judge?

It’s the kind of hypocrisy that St. Paul condemned. We must mercilessly persecute hypocrisy within ourselves. If we can do this, as a community, the Gospel of Jesus Christ will shine through us. If we maintain resentments, it’s a cancer that will eat away our soul and destroy us. And it will destroy community with those other persons – and who do we resent the most, but the people we love the most?

What it the essence of the Gospel? It is repentance and forgiveness. And what is that repentance? It is to see that our distractions became ends in themselves that made us lose sight of God; and, upon seeing this, to turn back to God again.

Repentance means conversion; it means transformation of the mind. And that is a constant process for every single committed Christian. It is a constant process that we have to engage in both personally and corporately. When we engage in that process, we have to confront the anger and the bitterness and the hurts and the pain and the resentment that we have borne within us as reactions against people who have hurt us. Forgiveness doesn’t mean we are excusing or justifying anything. What we are saying is: My reaction is destroying me, and I need to stop it. If I value Jesus Christ, the Gospel and communion with God, I need to stop it and move on.

The renewal of the Church involves each of us. All of us are leaders of the Church. Our authority is founded on the responsibility to convey the Gospel, to convey the message of Christ, 95 percent by our actions and attitudes and five percent by our words. Authority is responsibility and accountability. It is not power. Hierarchy is only about responsibility. It’s not all this imperial nonsense.

The Church is our responsibility, personally and collectively, individually and corporately. What are you going to do with it? What you are going to do with your part of that responsibility? Maybe you haven’t been entrusted with the leadership of a parish. Maybe you think, “Oh, I’m just a housewife.” But what an incredible responsibility you have to your children, to your friends, to your neighbors, to the parish – what an incredible responsibility to bear witness to Jesus Christ by how you love and respect one another.

If you are a priest, think of the responsibility that you bear as spiritual father for your parishioners. One of the hardest things that happened in my ministry was the death of a 22-year-old brother who had happened to decide to go out river rafting on the spring thaw thinking, of course, as a 22-year-old would, that he is immortal. As his spiritual father I knew this mystery of spiritual fatherhood. After his death, there were times when I knew I was standing before God with him at the last judgment pleading for his soul. As priests, you have the same responsibility – to stand at the last judgment before the throne of God with those whom God has entrusted to you. It is an awesome mystery. As bishops, think of that responsibility We need to come together, in love and respect, to be willing to put aside the anger and the bitterness and show love for one another, show respect for one another, recognize the awesome responsibility of those who will give account for your souls. We will stand before God for you at the last judgment, whether it is your personal last judgment or the general judgment. This is the Scriptures, and this is the reality of this great mystery of our union in Christ.

How do we reestablish trust? There’s only one way. It is to choose to love. There is no other way. There are no organizational methods, no kinds of business practices we can invoke, no corporate ideologies. If we are Christians, we have the choice: Do we choose to enter into the love of Jesus Christ for one another – including our hierarchs, including our priests, including those who have betrayed us, including those who have failed us miserably, including those whom we judge and criticize and – all to our own damnation? We have to choose to love, we have to choose to forgive. This is the only way, if we are Christians.

It’s not about religion. It’s about our souls. It is about our salvation. It is about our life, our life as one body united by the Holy Spirit in Jesus Christ, sharing his own relationship with the Father. If we choose that, everything will be clear.

Fall 2008 issue of In Communion / IC 51