On Christian Unity and the Church
By Augustine Sokolovski, Doctor of Theology, priest
One of the Gospel texts that are the hardest to understand is the passage from Matthew 17, verses 14–23, which relates the healing of a man’s son who was seized by a grave malady. In Church language, this Gospel passage is called section 72, ‘On the Healing of the Possessed Child’.
The text is read at the Liturgy of the tenth Sunday after Pentecost and it quite often falls in early September. Let’s try to recall it briefly, clarify for ourselves and identify the moral sense, which, as the Church believes, is always observed in every Gospel text.
It should be realised that this Gospel passage is extremely difficult
to understand. It contains words that puzzled not only Bible scholars and theologians, but also the Fathers and Teachers of the Church – that is, those who knew the Bible by heart. For the Scriptures were written in the fleshly tables of their hearts (cf. 2 Cor. 3:3).
They suggested and admitted various interpretations. In fact, it had to be so, because, according to the apostle, ‘the Word of God is quick and powerful’ (Heb. 4:12). It cannot be exhausted and every day refers to the Church, this community of the faithful that wanders across history, to inspire, strengthen, heal and admonish all those who turn to it all the days of their lives. To comprehend the fullness of the meanings of this text we should know that in the same seventeenth chapter of the Gospel of Matthew it is preceded by the description of the Transfiguration of the Lord. Then, according to the Gospel, the Lord Jesus ascended Mount Tabor with the Apostles Peter, James and John and was transfigured.
The Prophets Moses and Elias appeared to and conversed with Jesus of Nazareth. The voice of God the Father testified that He was ‘well pleased’ in Jesus. The further development of the redemptive mystery showed that God’s benevolence was the Lord Jesus Himself. This event is described in the Gospels of Matthew, Mark and Luke (Mt.17:1–6; Mk.9:1-8; Lk.9:28–36).
The end of the description of the Transfiguration in the Gospel testifies that it is directly related to the Cross of Christ. The Lord reveals His glory, after which He announces to the apostles His upcoming Passion. ‘And as they came down from the mountain, Jesus charged them, saying, Tell the vision to no man, until the Son of man be risen again from the dead. Shall also the Son of man suffer of them’ (Mt. 17:9, 12).
In the context of the sequence of liturgical celebrations of the Church it is important that the celebration in honour of the Cross of Christ, the feast of the Exaltation of the Holy Cross, takes place on 27th September – that is, on the fortieth day after the Transfiguration. The Transfiguration of the Lord was a historical event -that is, it took place once in history. The first Christian communities, which were at the origin of the Gospel texts, and, after them, Patristic theology, gave the Transfiguration an ‘economic’ meaning. This means that it has a special place in the history of salvation, and, most importantly, in the Divine economy or dispensation – that is, God’s administration of the world. The Lord created this world and continues to maintain it with His almighty hand. So, after His Transfiguration, the Lord comes down Mount Tabor and a man in distress approaches Him. His son ‘is lunatick, and sore vexed: for ofttimes he falleth into the fire, and oft into the water’ (15). The apostles were unable to help him. ‘I brought him to Thy disciples, and they could not cure him’ (16). Hearing these reproach and indignation, this cry of despair from the desperate father of the boy who continued to be possessed, the Lord uttered amazing words, ‘O faithless and perverse generation, how long shall I be with you? How long shall I suffer you?’ (17). To whom is this denunciation of unbelief addressed?
To understand what happened then and the Lord’s words we should keep in mind that the Bible is a great collection of books of the Old and New Testaments. Any event of the New Testament is inseparable from Biblical history of the Old Testament.
When the Lord Jesus was transfigured on Mount Tabor, being with the Apostles Peter, James and John, ‘there appeared unto them Moses and Elias talking with him’ (2). The Lord always took His three chosen apostles with Him in moments of His great Glory, miracles, the resurrection of the dead, His discourses on mysteries, or, as it was in the Garden of Gethsemane, in moments of the greatest sorrow. The Prophets Moses and Elias appeared to Jesus, or rather were with Him on Mount Tabor, to demonstrate His messiahship. He is not a mere prophet, not even the prophet of prophets, but the King of Glory, the Lord and Messiah Whom the Israelites had been expecting.
In fulfilment of Moses’ words in Deuteronomy, ‘The Lord thy God will raise up unto thee a Prophet from the midst of thee, of thy brethren, like unto me; unto Him ye shall hearken’ (Deut. 18:15) – in support of these words God did not remain silent on Mount Tabor. God Himself testified to His Son, ‘This is My beloved Son…, hear ye Him!’ (Mt. 17:5).
Thus, the Lord was transfigured on Mount Tabor and reminded the apostles about that glorious and great story, the central and key one, the cornerstone of human words about God when Moses ascended Mount Sinai and received the Law from God. The Ten Commandments were written by the finger of God on tablets to be given to mankind. Moses’ face was shining! His face was shining so brightly in Divine splendour that Moses had to cover it. ‘And the children of Israel saw the face of Moses, that the skin of Moses’ face shone: and Moses put the vail upon his face again, until he went in to speak with Him’ (Exod. 34:35). Moses spoke to God, but God Himself bore witness to Jesus. Moses covered his face, but the apostles were overshadowed by a cloud from God (5).
Repeating, in effect, what had happened to the greatest prophet, the Lord pointed to His messiahship so that there could be no doubt among the apostles. Next to the Lord was Elias – the most venerated prophet, beloved by the Israelites. He had not known death and had been taken to Heaven in a chariot of fire to return again before the Second Coming of the Messiah.
The apostles remembered all this and were naturally stunned by such a great manifestation of Christ’s glory! Everything testified to the messiahship, the Kingdom and, as it would become clear after His Resurrection, the Divinity of Christ!
The Lord was transfigured on Mount Tabor. After that He came down to the apostles who had remained at the foot of the Mountain. Peter, James and John had not been with them. The community of the apostles symbolised the future Church of Christ, which at the moment of waiting for the Lord during the Transfiguration was, as it were, divided and incomplete.
So, the Lord descended Mount Tabor. And what happened? In a strange, unexpected and incomprehensible way something that had once happened to Moses and his people repeated itself. When Moses on Mount Sinai received the Commandments of the Law, the people grew tired of waiting. Time was dragging on, Moses was staying on the mountain a long time, so they made themselves a calf and worshipped it as a god. ‘When the people saw that Moses delayed to come down out of the mount, the people… made a molten calf…, built an altar before it… and offered burnt offerings and brought peace offerings’ (Exod. 32; 1-6).
Indeed, the Gospel repeats and, when necessary, supplements the Old Testament. Staying at the foot of Mount Tabor during the Transfiguration, the apostles did not know what exactly was happening, but, undoubtedly, they realised that it was a mystery. They were called to wait for the Lord. They were supposed to wait for the Great Wanderer in peace and silence and keep the great Sabbath rest of God’s people.
But, like ancient Israel, they grew tired of waiting. They hastened to heal… but could not do anything. They brought the demoniac child’s father to despair, added unbelief to him and aroused the Lord’s wrath! It was a bold desire to perform a quick miracle and see a sign separately from the other apostles. Lastly, it showed the impossibility of receiving from God what is given only to those who listen to the voice of the ‘beloved Son of God’ (Mt. 17:5).
The Lord acts like Moses, or, rather, Moses acted like this as the Lord’s prototype. The servant of God Moses broke the tablets in anger. The Lord of Moses, Jesus, who was ‘meek and lowly in heart’ (Mt. 11:29), rebuked the apostles and immediately healed the boy who had suffered from demonic possession! ‘Bring him hither to Me. And Jesus rebuked the devil; and he departed out of him: and the child was cured from that very hour’ (Mt. 17:18).
‘Then came the disciples to Jesus apart, and said, Why could not we cast him out? And Jesus said unto them, Because of your unbelief’ (Mt. 17:19).
The repetition of the Old Testament in the New Testament Event of the Transfiguration requires further actualization in our times. It gives the Church as a community of Believers a lesson, surprising in its edifying and denunciative power, which teaches us how believers in Christ in history and modern times should act here and now.
The present time is that of division. The world is divided within itself. The confrontation of everybody against everybody is becoming boundless, and it seems as if the Lord’s words are already being fulfilled: And the brother shall deliver up the brother to death, and the father the child: and the children shall rise up against their parents, and cause them to be put to death. And ye shall be hated of all men for My name’s sake: but he that endureth to the end shall be saved’ (Mt. 10:21). The strife of this world embraces the Universe. But the most incomprehensible thing in its hopelessness is the division of Christ’s disciples.
Earlier division had existed in Christianity as a whole. Thus, in 1453, after the capture of Constantinople by the Ottomans, the Orthodox Ecumenical Patriarchate of Constantinople, which then formally and ideologically headed Orthodoxy, found itself subordinate to the Sultan. The split between Orthodoxy and Catholicism occurred. From 1517 on the Reformation began. The Western Roman Church split into the Catholic Church and Protestantism. Since then there have been three main branches of Christianity in the world: Orthodoxy, Catholicism and Protestantism. Orthodoxy, in contrast to Protestantism, kept its unity and lived in truth, conciliarity and mutual communion. Now division seems to have permeated the community of Orthodox faithful as well. The world, in the words of Till Lindemann’s song, ‘screams about redemption.’
Division is a great temptation for those who do not yet belong to the Church. It must never occur in the Universal Church, among Orthodox Christians, or among God’s people. People of goodwill turn their eyes towards Christianity, but Christ’s disciples cannot heal it (cf. Mt. 15:16)! Division is a barrier. Not the partitions between the Christian denominations, of which some twentieth-century theologians said that ‘they do not reach Heaven’. The division between Christ’s disciples is a barrier set up by people between earth and Heaven. ‘There is a war between heaven and earth,’ as the Russian rock star Viktor Tsoi (1962–1990) once prophetically sang. Division is a deliberately created inability to entrust sorrows for the calamities of the world to the Lord Jesus, Who since His Resurrection and Ascension has been seated at the right hand of the Father. ‘It is Christ that died, yea rather, that is risen again, Who is even at the right hand of God, Who also maketh intercession for us’ (Rom. 8:34), Paul says. These words are hard to understand, but they must be taken as the very essence of the New Testament between man and God. The intercession of the Lord Jesus before God the Father cannot go unheard. The prayers of Orthodox Christians living in unity will certainly be heard by God and fulfilled.
By His power the Lord overcame death. Only God Himself, in Christ Jesus, by the power of the Holy Spirit, can stop the evil that is spreading ever more aggressively in the world. Only Jesus, by the power of His Cross, is able to expel the demons that keep tormenting the world and people in it and send them to hell. God hears His people when they are not divided.
After His Transfiguration Jesus again said to them, ‘The Son of Man shall be betrayed into the hands of men: And they shall kill Him, and the third day He shall be raised again’ (Mt. 17:22–23). The story of the healing of the possessed youth, ends precisely with these words. Indeed, the Cross of Christ is inseparable from the Resurrection.
According to the New Testament, the Church is Christ’s Body. Wandering across History, the poor and persecuted Body of the Lord Jesus hath not where to lay its head (cf. Mt. 8:20). The Church is also a community of the faithful. This is why in the orthodox Church in prayers we not only mention Christ’s Cross, but also address it as a Person.
‘The King of Glory, the Lamb of God, the Angel of the Great Council, the High Priest, the Faithful and True Witness, the Word, Amen’ – these and many other Names of the Lord can be found in the Gospel. The Cross is the instrument of our redemption. At the same time, it is a name of the Lord Jesus. The Cross is the Lord Himself.
Like the youth who is possessed, ‘is lunatick, and sore vexed: for ofttimes he falleth into the fire, and oft into the water’ (Mt. 17:16), our world is really sick today. It is being shaken by terrible events, heat waves, droughts, floods and so on. When, according to John the Evangelist, ‘One woe is past; and, behold, there come two woes more hereafter’ (Rev. 9:12), our world is suffering a great tragedy. We prayed that we would avoid a pandemic. We asked God to stop it. This prayer would have surely been heard if our unity had testified to our faith in a visible way. ‘Because of your unbelief; for assuredly, I say to you, if you have faith as a mustard seed, you will say to this mountain, ‘Move from here to there,’ and it will move; and nothing will be impossible for you’ (Mt. 17:20). The Lord Jesus’ words about a mustard seed, about faith of its size capable of moving mountains, caused confusion among interpreters throughout 2000 years of history of Christianity. And especially from the Age of Enlightenment Christians and the Church became the object of ridicule for many because of these words. It should be remembered that from the very first centuries of its history Christianity was never afraid of its seeming vulnerability, but (consciously, following the example of the Lord Himself) chose the simplest images for its definition that everyone could understand. So Christians have always tried to create unity blessed by Christ in everything.
The mustard seed, as a symbol of strength and unity, as the indivisible atom of the word of plants, in the understanding of divinely inspired semantics of the Biblical text is simply impossible to divide! But not only this. Like the Cross (which is a Name of Christ and Christ Himself, and which casts out demons and gives life), the Mustard Seed is one of the amazing symbolic names of the Lord Jesus (Mt. 31–36).
Jesus Himself bestows upon His chosen people the Gift of Faith. For He Himself through the Holy Spirit dwells in the hearts of the faithful. ‘…To be strengthened with might by His Spirit in the inner man; That Christ may dwell in your hearts by faith’, the apostle writes in his Epistle (Eph. 3:16–17).
True, man is capable of building almost indestructible pyramids and destroying mountains. But he cannot undermine the integrity of the Orthodox Faith. After all, if this unity, by the power of grace, is created by the faithful, then God Himself guarantees it by the power of signs and miracles.