What Does It Mean to Have Communion with God?

communion.jpg

I am sure that the title of this post seems obvious and as though I had pulled a question out of a catechism. And yet, my experience tells me that things that seem as though they ought to be obvious often are not, particularly the more basic and fundamental they are in our life as Orthodox believers. In an earlier post I noted that the world fellowship is often found in English Bibles as a mistranslation of the Greek word koinonia, the result being that frequently when Scripture is giving us information about communion with God, our translations are giving us something completely different.

One of the best places to begin thinking about communion with God is to ask the question: “What’s wrong with the human race anyway?” What is it about us such that we need saving?

The answer to that question is perhaps the linchpin of Christian theology (at least what has been revealed to us). Among the most central of Orthodox Christians doctrines is that human beings have fallen out of communion with God – we have severed the bond of communion with which we were created and thus we are no longer in communion with the Lord and Giver of Life, we no longer have a share in His Divine Life, but instead have become partakers of death.

This lack of communion with God, this process of death at work in us, manifests itself in a myriad of ways, extending from moral failure, to death and disease itself. It corrupts everything around us – our relationships with other people and our families, our institutions and our best intentions.

Without intervention, the process of death results in the most final form of death – complete alienation and enmity with God (from our point of view). We come to hate all things righteous and good. We despise the Light and prefer darkness. Since this is the state of human beings who have cut themselves off from communion with God, we substitute many things and create a “false” life, mistaking wealth, fame, youth, sex, emotions, etc., for true life.

Seeing all of this as true of humanity – Orthodoxy, it can be said, does not generally view humanity as having a “legal” problem. It is not that we did something wrong and now owe a debt we cannot pay, or are being punished with death  – though such a metaphor can be used and has its usefulness. Be we need more than a change in our legal status – we need a change in our ontological status – that is we must be filled with nothing less than the Life of God in order to be healed, forgiven and made new. Jesus did not come to make bad men good; He came to make dead men live.

Thus God came into our world, becoming one of us, so that by His sharing in our life, we might have a share in His life. In Holy Baptism we are united to Him, and everything else He gives us in the Life of His Church, is for the purpose of strengthening, nurturing, and renewing this Life within us. All of the sacraments have this as their focus. It is the primary purpose of prayer.

Thus, stated simply, to have communion with God means to have a share in His Divine Life. He lives in me and I in Him. I come to know God even as I know myself. I come to love even as God loves because it is His love that dwells in me. I come to forgive as God forgives because it His mercy that dwells within me.

Without such an understanding of communion, these vitally important parts of the Christian life usually become reduced to mere moralisms. We are told to love our enemies as though it were a simple moral obligation. Instead, we love our enemies because God loves our enemies, and we want to live in the Life of God. We’re not trying to be good, or to prove anything to God by loving our enemies. It is simply the case that if the Love of God dwells in us, then we will love as God loves.

Of course all of this is the free gift of God, though living daily in communion with God is difficult. The disease of broken communion that was so long at work in us is difficult to cure. It takes time and we must be patient with ourselves and our broken humanity – though never using this as an excuse not to seek the healing that God gives.

If you have lived your Christian life and never heard the story of our relationship with God put in the sort of terms used above, then you have missed out on hearing most of the New Testament. You have missed the story as told by the Fathers of the Eastern Church (which means, most of the Church Fathers). It is possible that you have heard such a distortion of the Christian faith that you have wanted nothing to do with it.

But if what I have described above sounds like good news – then the news is very good – because this is the teaching of the New Testament and the Church founded by Jesus Christ and which continues to be proclaimed by the Orthodox Church.

14 Responses to “What Does It Mean to Have Communion with God?”

  1. Sophocles Says:

    Father bless,

    Thank you so much for this post!

    Balm(eleyeson=oil) for the entire person to know the truth of our condition. Not to be made good but to be made alive through and in our Lord, the Second Person of the Blessed Trinity who participates in the Life of God and we partake of this Life by being made alive in Him who were aliens to Life and denizens of death, children of the night.

    May the fragrance of the Holy Spirit exude from our being as we die to this world and are found in Him, living in Him and He in us.

  2. FrGregACCA Says:

    You know, it’s ironic. This has been my basic understanding of the Faith my entire life, an understanding I first learned in Pentecostal/Holiness/Evangelical circles. (Of course, conspicuously absent was any reference to the Church as the privileged place of such communion, together with its Divine Mysteries and Spirit-bearing Tradition).

    In any event, Father Stephen, given this understanding, I would be interested in reading anything you may wish to write concerning Mother Teresa’s experience, or lack thereof, of communion with God.

  3. amtog Says:

    The news is very good not because it’s delivered by the Orthodox Church (or any body of believers) but because it is TRUE…as one day, all who are called by His Name will see.

  4. kevinburt Says:

    Father,

    Do you or have you ever considered making short posts like this into something that could be handed out to inquirers as a brief introduction to Orthodoxy? I frequently wish that I had something like this post in a small pamphlet or the like that I could hand to someone who wanted to know a bit about Orthodoxy before they would agree to come to Church with me.

    Anyway, thanks for this post. Do you mind if it is printed off and given to a small group of people at in inquirer’s group?

    Kevin B.

  5. fatherstephen Says:

    amtog,

    It is indeed true, but it cannot stand apart from a body of believers. Salvation is not something that is separate from what Christ has done in His Church – precisely because it is communion. This message should not be divorced from the Church, else you’re saying something the NT is not saying. The Church is part of the Gospel.

  6. fatherstephen Says:

    I did not know Mother Teresa, and haven’t looked at the material they are all talking about. I’ve heard she had doubts. Who hasn’t? The tragedy is to put stuff in the hands of the media. They hate us.

  7. Christopher Orr Says:

    we need more than a change in our legal status – we need a change in our ontological status – that is we must be filled with nothing less than the Life of God in order to be healed, forgiven and made new. Jesus did not come to make bad men good; He came to make dead men live.

    How does this perspective effect our understanding of Jesus forgiving sins prior to healing? or, of our receiving forgiveness in Baptism, Confession, Unction, etc.?

    What is forgiveness of sins apart from a legal metaphor? and, if it is used so often, is there something more than metaphoric in its use?

  8. fatherstephen Says:

    Christopher:

    Matthew 9:1 And he entered into a ship, and passed over, and came into his own city. 2 And, behold, they brought to him a man sick of the palsy, lying on a bed: and Jesus seeing their faith said unto the sick of the palsy; Son, be of good cheer; thy sins be forgiven thee. 3 And, behold, certain of the scribes said within themselves, This man blasphemeth. 4 And Jesus knowing their thoughts said, Wherefore think ye evil in your hearts? 5 For whether is easier, to say, Thy sins be forgiven thee; or to say, Arise, and walk? 6 But that ye may know that the Son of man hath power on earth to forgive sins, (then saith he to the sick of the palsy,) Arise, take up thy bed, and go unto thine house. 7 And he arose, and departed to his house. 8 But when the multitudes saw it, they marvelled, and glorified God, which had given such power unto men.

    In this passage there is perhaps one of the clearest examples of forgiveness not being legal. Christ makes no particular distinction between forgiveness and healing. This is not the only place.

    In James, we call for the elders and confess our sins, and pray for one another and are healed. Again, the link.

    Sickness is not a legal punishment, for that is not the God we serve. But it can be a consequence of the brokenness of our communion with God and with others. Forgiveness as a legal matter would only make sense if, as in all legal matters, there is a legal authority enforcing consequences. God is not a cosmic policeman, for He makes His sun to shine on the just and the unjust, etc. If you spend enough time with the understanding of communion it falls into place. It’s just that we’ve been pommeled with the legal metaphor for so long it’s hard at first to hear in fact what the gospel is saying. In the passages I’ve cited, the legal understanding would not only not make sense, it would make bad sense.

  9. fatherstephen Says:

    I might add, as an afterthought, that in all my years of hearing confessions, I cannot think of anytime when the sacrament has seemed to be about a legal standing question between the believer and God. It has always been about the healing of the soul. Even the words that the priest says in bidding a person to confess their sins are clear on this:

    “Take hee, that having come to a Physician, you not depart unhealed.”

    In fact, I would be afraid if the penitent thought of it a a legal matter. That is shallow, and dangerous, and does not give a proper perspective on the depths and destructiveness of sin. We often come back to confession with much the same sin, not because we are so insincere that we have thoughtlessly done again what we repented of last time, but because the nature of the disease that infects us is such that I am not yet whole and remain in need of Christ’s forgiveness and healing. In some cases this could continue for the better part of life.

    Also, it stresses the fact that the proper attitude of a believer is that of constant repentance not just sorrow for sins and an apology at confession. Our hearts need to be broken and contrite and remain that way – when they are not broken, they become hard and diseased.

    The legal metaphor is both bad theology and tragically bad pastoral care.

    I apologize for being as strong about this as I am, but I can think of few things that I believe more strongly.

  10. Christopher Orr Says:

    Thank you very much for being so strong about it. As an Orthodox convert from Lutheranism this is something my heart understands (I especially remember a ‘regular’ Confession on a weekday evening that left me with the joy of Pascha) but that my head has not had time to catch up with and ‘explain’, put into words. As I prepare for the Colloquium for Lutherans, I am trying to have some ‘explanation’s ready on issues that are likely to come up – this is one of them. You have put it quite well. Thank you.

  11. Jason Says:

    Father Stephen,

    Do you have some reading recommendations regarding Orthodoxy and their understanding of the cross? Especially how it differs from the Western emphasis on the “legal” aspect of cross of Christ?

    As always, thanks for your time and consideration.

    Jason

  12. fatherstephen Says:

    I would recommend reading Fr. John Behr, though he does not concentrate on drawing differences. His latest book which treats Christ and the Cross is the best I’ve seen on the subject.

  13. Church and Gospel I « All My Thoughts on God Says:

    […] « Where is God? Church and Gospel I September 5th, 2007 The Orthodox Priest wrote: If you have lived your Christian life and never heard the story of our relationship with God put […]

  14. fatherstephen Says:

    All my thoughts,

    Forgive my misunderstanding of your statement – I did indeed hear it divorcing the good news of Christ from the Church which would be less than the Gospel. If I sounded to triumphalist about Orthodoxy, I did not mean that statement in quite as sanguine a manner as it came across. But it is indeed good news that the fullness of the gospel is preached. However much of that fullness is proclaimed – wherever – may God be thanked.

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