KENOTIC ECUMENISM by John A. Jillions

Welcome to our first article of 2019!
In our Looking Ahead to January we solicited reflections on the annual Week of Prayer for Christian Unity. We thank Father Jillions for being the first to respond.

Christ_washes_apostles'_feet_(Monreale)

Without tampering with any church’s ecclesiological assumptions, there is nothing that should prevent churches from being generous and self-emptying, following the pattern set by the Lord Jesus Christ.

Let each of you look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others. Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus, who, though He was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited but emptied Himself [ekenosen], taking the form of a slave. (Phil 2:4–7)

Kenotic ecumenism begins with a conscious rereading of the Gospels, and seeing that Jesus regularly consorts with the “wrong” types of people. He puts the Kingdom of God and the pastoral needs of real people ahead of ideology and rules, in line with a vision that placed mercy above sacrifice (Mt 12:7).

• He mixes with outsiders and sinners despite the appearance of scandal (Mk 2:15–17; Lk 19:7).
• He affirms that nothing from outside can defile a person (Mk 7:1–23).
• He is dismayed by the hard-heartedness of His own people (Mk 6:1–6).
• He repeatedly shows that His flock includes those who are outsiders (Mk 9:38–41; Lk 17:11–19; Mt 8:5–13).
• He says that whoever believes in Him “I will not cast out” (Jn 6:37).
• He says that whoever does the will of the Father is “my brother, sister, mother” (Mt 12:49–50).
• He insists that His Father’s house is to be a house of prayer for all nations (Mk 11:15–18).
• He warns that “the vineyard” will be given to others “from east and west” while the unfruitful “sons of the kingdom” will be cast out (Mk 12:1–12; Mt 8:5–13; Lk 11:29–32).
• He has sheep unknown to His current flock and plans to bring them together into one fold (Jn 10:16).

At the heart of the Gospel, Jesus teaches His disciples that the one who wishes to be great must be the servant of all (Mt 20:26), and He pictures His community as a very mixed and imperfect assembly: a fishing net full of good and bad fish, a field with wheat and weeds, a flock of sheep and goats. Only at the end will God determine which is which (Mt 13:24–30, 36–43; Mt 25). For now, “let them grow together” (Mt 13:30).

Christ’s self-emptying generosity became the pattern for the early church, which was revolutionized by the inclusion of the Gentiles. But this expansive ecclesiology was also the single greatest threat to the peace of the early church, as traditionalists held on to an exclusivist model of the body of Christ.

The kenotic way of Christ points the church to a refreshing yet ancient way of looking at others, and it could open a new ecumenical method. Up to now, Orthodox have proceeded from the presupposition that ecumenical dialogue is successful when they recognize in other churches the beauty, if only partial, of the Tradition they alone have retained in all its fulness. But Christ’s self-emptying for the sake of the other turns this idea on its head.

Metropolitan John Zizioulas (born 1931) underlines this essential point, saying that Christ’s love—precisely as love of the ungodly and ugly—overturned the classic Greek formula of love for the good and the beautiful. The more one is purified in Christ of “self- affirmation,” the more one will be willing to shed one’s glory and to love what is debased and ugly, even as Christ did.

In the ascetic experience, based on kenotic christology, one loves precisely what is debased and ugly, and this means that one loves free from all rational or moral necessity or causality.

…The ascetic loves first of all and above all the sinner, not out of condescension and compassion but out of a free existential involvement in the fallen human condition. (John D. Zizioulas, Communion and Otherness: Further Studies in Personhood and the Church, T. and T. Clark, 2006: 304)

The Lord embraces the one who is ugly, weak, and sinful—beginning with ourselves—not just because He embraces the fallen human condition, but because He sees past that to the beauty of the divine image that can never be eradicated. If the Orthodox have questions about the imperfection and “ugliness” of others—including other churches— then those very questions should be the motivation not to stand apart from them, but to engage with them, and to look for and see their beauty in Christ.

Excerpted from “Kenotic Ecumenism” in The Oxford Handbook of Ecumenical Studies, eds. Geoffrey Wainwright and Paul McPartlan, 2018. The full article is available gratis at Oxford Handbooks Online if your computer is on the system of a library or educational institution that subscribes to it.
See our Looking Ahead to January if you would like to write for us on the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity or the March for Life.

The Very Rev. Dr. John A. Jillions holds a BA from McGill University in Montreal, an MDiv and DMin from St. Vladimir’s Orthodox Theological Seminary, and a PhD in New Testament from Aristotle University of Thessaloniki. He served as Chancellor of the Orthodox Church in America from 2011 to 2018. Currently he serves as pastor of Holy Ghost Church (OCA) in Bridgeport CT and teaches at St. Vladimir’s Seminary and Fordham University. He was founding principal of the Institute for Orthodox Christian Studies in Cambridge UK, has taught at the Sheptytsky Institute for Eastern Christian Studies in Canada, and has served parishes in Australia, Greece, England, Canada, and the United States. His forthcoming book, Divine Guidance, will be published by Oxford University Press.

Orthodoxy in Dialogue seeks to promote the free exchange of ideas by offering a wide range of perspectives on an unlimited variety of topics. Our decision to publish implies neither our agreement nor disagreement with an author, in whole or in part.
A blessed Feast of the Circumcision and St. Basil the Great, and a Happy New Year!