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World Religions in Assisi with Pope Francis

Sunday Vigil

The Everyday Prayer

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November 17 2008 16:30 | Hilton Cyprus - Othello Hall

Seraphim Kykkotis

Seraphim Kykkotis

Orthodox Archbishop of the Patriarchate of Alexandria

Faith and hope are indeed highly significant concepts in all of the religions of the world. In Christianity, God as the Creator, speaks with humanity (Gen. 1:28; 17:1-2, Exod. 3:4-6) and He reveals to us the special nature of His divine existence (Deut. 6:4). In the New Testament, God reveals Himself to us in the person of the incarnated Logos, Jesus Christ., (John 1:14) He calls everyone to repent (Mark 1:15) and to be saved (John 1:13-19). We are called upon to demonstrate love and tolerance and mutual respect as well as to live in peaceful co-existence with people of different beliefs and religions. A spirit of truth and love permeates all religions and Agape (love) is the paramount objective. For example in the Old Testament, the Hebrew word for love is ahab.  This word was used in the same general ways and contexts as the English terms: sexual love, love of a spouse or child, love of humanity by God, and friendship. In the Song of Solomon, love is given an erotic meaning. In other Old Testament books it does not connote sexual love. The Greek word, Agape is essentiality the word used for “love” in the New Testament.

There are of course three Greek words which can be translated as “love” in the English language. These words are eros, which refers to physical love, and philos, which refers to brotherly love. Agape was the least used in Greek and least specific in its meaning of love. To the early Christian community the word agape came to connote the unmerited love of God for humanity — a love so great that God was willing to send His only begotten son to suffer and die on our behalf. This agape is a pure act of Grace. The concept of agape was however not just limited to God’s love for humanity. It was also be used to describe the love one person feels for another. In the term agape we are thus describing a selfless kind of love that involves giving without the expectation of personal gain or getting any anything back in return.

The theology of St. Paul makes it abundantly clear love is a direct consequence of faith in God the Father. When humanity places its trust and faith in God, the Holy Spirit or Paraclete (Comforter) infuses us with gives the gracious gift of love as a precursor of what is to come in the Kingdom of God. For the Christian, Agape is not derived from human emotions but is a divine gift which occurs only once believers allow Christ to live within them. It is therefore clear that love strengthens our faith. In Galatians 5:6, in the King James version, we read: “For in Jesus Christ neither circumcision availeth anything, nor uncircumcision: but faith which worketh by love.” It makes no difference to God whether we are circumcised or not circumcised. What is important is that our faith expresses itself in agape which is the energizing source of our faith. Orthodox Christianity is committed to the truth claim of the Christian Faith. This claim includes the Biblical truth that all human beings are created by God in His image and as such it becomes imperative to serve humanity. The interfaith dialogue and attitudes of the non-Christian religions is important in the quest for the promotion of agape and in creating stronger faith in the world and the Church is thus committed to the tolerance of other religious expressions. Orthodox Christian people live in societies of multi-cultural, multi-linguistic and religious pluralism. Consequently, the Orthodox have developed an attitude of respect for others, and a great tolerance and deep understanding for people of other faiths.

It is a strong Orthodox view that our deep commitment to the Christian truth claim we uphold, must strongly affirm a multi-grouping democratic setting for all people to live in peace and harmony. Orthodoxy thus holds fast to the truth of Christianity and defends the right of other religious expressions to co-exist in harmony in a democratic system where the law equally protects all and where justice prevails in a spirit of tolerance and freedom.

A highly significant teaching of tolerance in Orthodoxy is encapsulated in an encyclical letter of Ecumenical Patriarch Metrophanes III (1520-1580). In this document, written to the Greek Orthodox in Crete (1568) upon hearing of the mistreatment of the Jews, he states, "Injustice, therefore, is and stands, regardless to whomever acted upon or performed against, as still injustice.

Jesus Christ tells us, "Do not oppress or accuse anyone falsely; do not make any distinction or give room to the believers to injure those of another belief." All human beings are the children of God created in His image, and agape and tolerance of other people having different faith is an imperative given by Christ himself to us: "I am the Way, the Truth, and the Life" (John 14:6).

How do we show this love to our fellow human beings and in society?  All Christians are obliged to seek to make the will of Christ supreme in their own lives and in society (Exodus 20:3-17; Leviticus 6:2-5; Deuteronomy 10:12; 27:17.) We need to seek means to improve the condition of human life for all the citizens of the world in which we co-exist (Matthew 5:13-16,43-48; 22:36-40).  We must strive to improve society and establishment of righteousness amongst all men and women (John 15:12; 17:15; Romans 12–14). Christians should oppose intolerance, racism, greed, selfishness and all forms of sexual immorality, including adultery, and pornography. We should work tirelessly to provide for the sick and the orphaned, the needy and the abused, the aged and the helpless. We should seek the sanctity of all human life from conception to natural death. The governments of the world and the captains of industry should be made accountable for environmental degradation. In this regard we should seek to bring all of society under the sway of the principles of righteousness, truth and agape. Consequently, we should be ready to work with all men of good will in uplifting society and always be careful to act within the spirit of agape (1 Thessalonians 3:12; Philemon; James 1:27; 2:8). It is the duty of all Christians to seek peace with all men on the principles of righteousness.

What of “Faith” (from the latin fidere – to trust)? This is typically defined as a belief which expresses confidence in the truth or veracity of something or someone. It is very often characterized by the absence of verifiable empirical evidence or any kind of logical proof. If we have agape as our guiding light we must support the fundamental human right of religious freedom and work to secure this right for all people in the world. This implies that religious communities are not free to ignore the basic and fundamental human rights of their adherents. All policies of governments and the private sector in all countries of the world must be scrutinized carefully to see where injustice prevails. Policies that tend to denigrate other human beings, because of their race, creed, sex or culture, should be challenged, and practices based on these beliefs may need to be challenged and then prohibited by law. This is what it means to have religious freedom. There must be consensus on human rights among Christians and all other faiths based on love. We must thus initially seek to bridge the  historic divisions in the church—between Orthodox, Roman Catholics, Protestants and between different Protestant denominations as a first step to our objective of spreading true agape. The Holy Scriptures in many instances set standards that are even higher than international law. We read in Hebrews 12:2 that Jesus Christ is the author and finisher of our faith.

God is the source of all our blessings, both the material and the spiritual; all that we have and are we owe to Him. Christians have a spiritual debt to the entire world. We are therefore all somewhat obliged to serve Him with our time, talents, and material possessions; and should recognize all these as entrusted to us to use for the glory of God’s Kingdom and for helping others by demonstrating true faith and agape. Communication and co-operation between all religions is essential as we seek to contribute to the abolition of religious fanaticism but rather seek to serve humanity as a one. We all need to co-operate in finding solutions to the contemporary problems of mankind as these will assist in our peaceful coexistence and intensify efforts to common understanding and fellowship in love. Where our efforts are tainted by religious fanaticism, this can bring only new social and religious problems upon the people who are ruled under its sway. Productive dialogue can help us to realize heavenly peace on Earth, and allow us to protect the sanctity of life and uplift man's dignity.

For example, the Greek Orthodox Patriarchate of Alexandria, which for thirteen centuries has been based in the United Arab Republic of Egypt, is involved in beneficial dialogue with the Islamic world. This is not something new to Orthodoxy. The meeting and coexistence of the second-ranking Patriarchate of Orthodox Christianity with the eastern civilizations goes way back in history. This is a very productive spiritual communion between the Orthodox and Islamic world, has enlightened and benefited the people of both East and West. Christians and those of other faiths are duty bound to respect each others religious beliefs in a true spirit of agape and tolerance. A dialogue which is based on agape and genuine faith, not only on theological matters, but on pressing global issues, will be very uplifting for the world.

The destruction of the environment and the huge lack of world justice and peace, the increasing levels of hunger and poverty, are issues which pull at the heartstrings of all of humanity. The world is more than tired of conflicts and the degradation of God’s creation. The Holy Bible teaches us that we are the custodians of his creation (Genesis 14:20; Leviticus 27:30-32; Deuteronomy 8:18; Malachi 3:8-12). What we require is a growing faith and if faith is empowered by agape then our love experience must be growing. In 1 Corinthians 10:13 St. Paul says, “There is faith, hope and love. But the greatest of these is love.” Here the word of God says that the proper kind of love is more important than faith. Life is all about relationship rooted in agape.

We must all believe that there is a universal moral law transcending our own culture and civilization in which we seek to uphold society. Christians should at least agree that human rights are rooted in the created order of the world. From the idea of creation Christians understand the whole world as a sacred order, dominated by the idea that God is bound to rights as a just God and a God of agape. Agape is the most powerful weapon God has given us. Romans 10:17 tells us that, “Faith comes by hearing and hearing by the word of God.”

The real essence of the idea of human rights as embodied in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights is a concept which gives priority to the recognition and protection of the fundamental rights of all individuals. We must seek to uphold these rights through agape.  When we love God wholeheartedly, our minds can be commanded to love our neighbours as we love ourselves. At a time when many social institutions appear to be morally bankrupt or endangered, and people tend to flounder morally and spiritually, Christianity holds the promise of being both a guiding and a transforming agent of both people and institutions. 

Cooperation is desirable between the various Christian denominations, when the end to be attained, namely the promotion of agape and the building of faith, is itself justified.  To affirm religious freedom for all is to confess that we come closer to the truth by opening ourselves to the experience and understanding of others. If we speak of love we need to also speak of human rights as these are also grounded in God. Christians agree that all affirmations about human rights begin with faith in God, who transcends the world and yet is present within it.

Human rights are not based on any idea of intrinsic goodness in people or on any human act of government, but are rooted in the creation and redemptive acts of God who is a God of agape. We cannot present our rights independently of God, seeing that all we are and have comes from Him and His agape grace (Ps 24:1; 1 Cor. 4:7; 2 Cor. 5:18). Christians must affirm human dignity by supporting all endeavours relating to human rights, because God has created and redeemed us. All Christians for one, accept as totally binding, the commandments to love God and to demonstrate agape towards their neighbors. For many Christians, this means that we must support human rights and take a stand to fight for justice and freedom for all. Consequently, all Christians should be affirming that human rights are derived from agape and faith. Our right to life is derived from the value the Creator gives to life, by firstly creating and then redeeming it. We have a responsibility towards others which must of necessity transcend political ideologies and cultural lines.

Every person must be respected and afforded dignity and worth in a true spirit of agape. Such a mindset will intersect all the Christian communities, and serve to unite those that are divided on various issues. All Orthodox believers as well as Anglicans, Protestants and Roman Catholics are united in their support for the promotion of human rights advocacy in the world.

God has given us all dignity and He thus calls all peoples to be the true custodians of agape which is responsible for safeguarding human rights. Human rights should be as clear as God's creative and redemptive presence. Where agape prevails, Human rights and their protection and promotion must the essence of what Christians believe and affirm as their common faith.

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