Divisions affect all of us.
From big things to small things, it seems we are constantly trying to differentiate between ourselves, to be different. Differences of opinion about food, clothing, the route to Church, what time to arrive at Church, political parties, family budgets, or any manner of things become an opportunity to separate ourselves, to divide. Most of these decisions are just part of living in the world. Decisions must be made, cars must be purchased, schools must be chosen, so we research, we debate and we decide.
Yet, sometimes decisions and differences take on an entirely different nature altogether. We often invest ourselves in these differences. We become emotionally attached to them; we have a stake in them. Eventually, we build these differences into an identity. When this happens simple decisions become all-consuming. Choosing the color of carpet becomes a death match, picking a restaurant resembles an international peace keeping campaign, being “on time” becomes the most important thing in the world.
When our identity becomes wrapped up in these divisions, relationships can drift apart. Meeting people half way becomes more and more difficult. We convince ourselves that compromise is for the weak and listening is merely being polite (we don’t actually intend to change our mind). The thing, the issue, the debate becomes more important than the person. Their inherent worth becomes dependent upon their ideas, their beliefs, their opinions and how closely these align with ours.
We forget the person.
And when we forget the person, we also forget God. How can we love God whom we cannot see if we cannot love the people around us whom we can see? When our identity is wrapped up in our differences, we isolate others and in turn we become isolated ourselves, from other people, from the community of faith, from our Savior. We forget that in the wild, predators attack individuals. Lions don’t attack a herd of antelope; lions attack one antelope from within the herd. And St. Peter reminds us that the devil roams like a lion seeking someone to devour.
Isolation makes us vulnerable. Division among Christians is a powerful tool of the Enemy, and we are too often too eager to perpetuate divisions and differences within the Church and within our families.
Even the preeminent of the Apostles, Peter and Paul, struggled with division. In Paul’s epistle to the Galatians he writes, “But when Peter came to Antioch I opposed him to his face, because he stood condemned.” Paul opposed Peter to his face over differences of opinion. Yet we know that Paul was correct and Peter needed to be confronted. Did Paul confront Peter about the color of his cloak? Or perhaps his beard was too long? Or too short? Perhaps St. Peter knew nothing about running a parish council meeting or his prosphora was always too crumbly?
No, we know from Galatians that the difference Paul confronts Peter about concerned the only thing – the only person – who really matters: Jesus. Gentile converts do not need to become Jewish in order to be Christian. (Nor do converts need to become Greek, Russian, American, or whatever other label we like to add.)
Paul confronted Peter because Peter was tempted to return to his old identity. He was tempted to re-create Christ into his own image forgetting his own bold and inspired profession of faith found in Matthew 16: Thou art the Christ, the Son of the living God.
Whenever we judge someone by any other standard we pervert Peter’s profession of faith, just as Peter himself did. Instead of proclaiming Jesus as the Christ, we proclaim our own ego as the standard of judgment, making an idol of ourselves. Our ego is not the rock upon which Christ will build his Church.
In 2 Corinthians 11, we read the oft-repeated words our Lord spoke to St Paul: My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness. In Romans 5, St. Paul writes: While we were still weak, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly. These words remind us that that in our weakness, God’s power is known.
Too often when we assert our differences and our right to disagree, when we demand that others listen to and take note of our opinions and our ideas, we demonstrate our power. We declare our authority. We parade our might. Yet, we must acknowledge and integrate the hard truth that in weakness Christ ascended the Cross. In weakness, Christ conquered death. In weakness, Christ’s glory is revealed.
Overcoming divisions begins with making Peter’s profession of faith. Overcoming divisions and differences begins with declaring your allegiance to someone other than yourself. If you are only dedicated to your own ego, then you have no choice but to embrace division because anything other than YOU is a threat to YOU because it is not YOU. However, if your identity is in Christ – and in baptism we have all put on Christ – then other people and their opinions are not a threat. Even their opinions of you are not a threat. Even if those opinions are negative and hurtful. (It doesn’t mean they’re not hurtful, just not a threat to your identity). Ultimately, what matters most about you is something beyond debate. Your identity in Christ is beyond votes, board meetings, raises, equity, mortgages, fancy titles, cassocks, pectoral crosses, or whatever else.
Like Christ, we voluntarily enter into this weakness. Not because we are naive or didn’t have a choice or couldn’t act like everyone else. No, it is because we know that the only thing that will heal our own souls and those of the people we come into contact with is by working with Christ through his Holy Spirit to become a unifying presence in our our own life and the lives of those around us.
Indeed, authentic and lasting unity can only be found when our identity is one with Christ’s. It is only Christ that can unify people, only love for Christ that can move us outside of our own ego, move us beyond differences toward mutual and enduring love that is the hallmark of the Christian faith.
Deacon Joshua was our summer intern this year at Holy Cross. He is currently finishing up his last year at Saint Vladimir’s Orthodox Theological Seminary in NY. Lord willing, he will be ordained to the Holy Priesthood this year, and plans on returning to the Diocese of the South to serve as a mission priest. Please keep him and his family in your prayers.