Christian Unity and Peace

Speech of His Holiness
Mor Ignatius Aphrem II
Patriarch of Antioch and All the East
and Supreme Head of the Universal Syrian Orthodox Church
at Panel 9 of the “Peace is the Future” Conference
on September 8, 2014, in Antwerp – Belgium

Christian Unity and Peace:
St. Paul’s Call Since the Early Church

In his epistle to the Ephesians, St. Paul writes: “endeavoring to keep the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace” (Ephesians 4: 3). This was addressed to the Ephesians when St. Paul was in prison in Rome instructing them on how to live their faith. He emphasized that they should keep the unity of the Spirit and in the bond of peace.

Unity in the Early Church

Since the early days of Christianity, divisions were known among the faithful. There were many strange teachings finding their way into the community of Christians. Those teachings led to divisions because each held strongly to their beliefs and defended powerfully what they trusted to be the only truth. The faithful were still young in faith and had newly responded to the call of the Holy Spirit which moved them to accept Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior. They were fragile and susceptible to all currents that were emerging. The unity of the church was a necessity to keep peace in the church. Unity and peace in the church go hand in hand. Our the church needs unity to have peace and the unity of its members produces internal peace among them.

However, “every kingdom divided against itself, will be ruined” (Matthew 12: 25) as the Lord said. Therefore, it was necessary to instruct the faithful about the importance of keeping unity in the Holy Spirit.

Keeping the church united in those days was not an easy task. Indeed, St. Paul had to constantly remind the faithful of the importance of unity. He compared the church to the body of Christ and Christ himself being her head (cf. I Corinthians 12: 27). He spoke also of the one Spirit (cf. Philippians 1: 27). This unity is what can relate all the faithful together and bond them in an eternal strong bond. They are united through this fellowship because the Spirit is one (cf. Philippians 1: 27).

In our prayers on the feast of Transfiguration, we read what a fifth century church father, St. Jacob of Sarough, wrote about the unity of the church:

ܐܰܠܦܶܗ ܐܰܒܐ ܒܰܚܕܐ ܡܛܰܠܠܬܐ ܕܢܽܘܗܪܐ ܕܰܥܒܰܕ:

ܕܰܚܕܐ ܗ̱ܝ ܥܺܕܬܐ ܘܚܰܕ ܗ̱ܽܘ ܝܰܠܕܐ ܕܡܶܫܬܰܡܰܫ ܒܳܗ̇.

ܠܐ ܗܘܐ ܡܛܰܠ̈ܠܶܐ ܐܶܠܐ ܡܛܰܠܠܬܐ ܠܚܰܕ ܝܺܚܺܝܕܐ:

ܘܠܐ ܥܺܕ̈ܳܬܐ ܐܶܠܐ ܥܺܕܬܐ ܠܒܰܪ ܐܰܠܳܗܐ܀

Which can be translated into:

“The Father taught him (Peter) through the one tent of light He made,

That the Church is one and one is the Son that is worshipped in it;

Not many tents, but one tent for the Only One,

And not many churches, but one Church for the Son of God.”[1]

Indeed, these wise words which extract the symbol of unity from the events described in the account of the Transfiguration of the Lord, affirm that the church has always sought unity. It is also an indication that divisions exist since the early days of the church. Likewise, it gives an idea about the concerns of the church fathers about unity and how they deemed it vital and essential in the life of the church. Very often, divisions in the church of Christ resulted in losing peace. The break-up of the church following the Council of Chalcedon in 451 shattered the peace of the church and caused a great deal of violence among the faithful.

Christian Unity in Recent Times

Unity is a simple concept; yet, it seems to be the most difficult thing to achieve. What are the requirements for unity?

In the mid twentieth century, many ecumenical movements started to form bodies that aim at reconciling the different churches and building bridges between families of churches. The mere openness towards one another was a step that showed that unity is still possible. These ecumenical movements opened a way to those who desired to come together and examine with a new mind the differences that exist, determining whether they are essential and worthy or not. Most importantly, it was an opportunity also to assess the many points in common that connect the different churches together.

In the Middle East, having five patriarchates of Antioch as well as other patriarchates, we were practically required to cooperate and work closely together on many levels especially in the pastoral care of our people. This collaboration, based on a genuine desire to serve the Gospel as one, was fruitful in bringing us together and allowed us to share the troubles and well as joys that we come across together. However, our collaboration falls short of the expectations of Christians in the Middle East. For them, Christian unity must manifest itself through practical steps such as uniting the dates of Easter and receiving holy communion from each other.

The Need for Christian Unity Today

Today, a united Christian position is mostly needed. Evil is spreading all over the world and especially in the Middle East where our oriental churches are suffering from a persecution like no other. In fact, our divisions made us weak and vulnerable. When we work together, we show that unity is strength and power.

The foundation of our faith is the Lord Jesus Christ (cf. I Corinthians 3: 11). This is what constitutes a church, which is holy and blameless (Ephesians 5: 27).

Diversity in the church is neither a sign of division nor a mark of weakness. Diversity is a positive feature of the church: it brings to light the individual contribution of each community influenced by and influencing the history and culture of the nation or people where it exists. Most importantly, diversity is an enrichment to the church and reflects its universal character. Moreover, the early church gives us a model of local churches united in the one faith though they were many.

We cannot afford to remain divided anymore. The Lord suffers at our division while evil rejoices. We live at a time where communication is essential and the means for it are widespread. With a little humility and love, we can work together to bring closer our differences and lift our hearts in One Spirit to the Lord God.

The current events in the Middle East and the persecution of Christians elsewhere, compels us to work together in order to offer a credible witness of our faith, as well as, to be able to contribute to the real and lasting peace in the society.

The Role of Peace in Christian Unity

Dearly beloved,

Such an endeavor is only possible when peace is the bond that binds us all together (cf. Ephesians 4: 3). Indeed, we recall here the words of St. Paul who teaches us to: “follow after peace with all men, and the sanctification without which no man shall see the Lord:” (Hebrews 12: 14). It is clear hence that peace with all men is God’s will. It is what pleases the Lord most and what leads us to a better life.

Though sometimes it is very difficult to keep peace because of the injustice that men create; but this should not be among the churches. On the contrary, the Churches should be an archetype of how we can achieve peace with understanding, patience, love and humility.

The Church has lost the “bond of peace” when the schism happened and we started accusing one another with heresy. It was a difficult time for the church, a time when the one house was divided against itself (cf. Luke 11: 17).

Let us be messengers of peace (cf. Matthew 5: 9) and show the power that is within Christianity. Hence, we will truly bare the fruits of the Holy Spirit (cf. Galatians 5: 22).

In conclusion, peace and unity are inseparable. It is God’s gift to us to carry to others. It is best done when we are united in the Spirit. “Let your light shine before people that they may see your good deeds and glorify your Father in heaven” (Matthew 5: 16) “endeavoring to keep the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace” (Ephesians 4: 3).

Thank you for your attention, God bless you all.

[1] From the prayer of St. Jacob of Sarrough found in the Penqitho of the Transfiguration.