Fr Men and John 17
This is a paper from the Alexander Men Summer Conference at Drew University in 1998 by Maureen Klassen. Separately we have An Evangelical in the Russian Orthodox Church by Herb and Maureen Klassen.
When they passed near the Temple, Jesus stopped. -- In the morning a worship service would be performed and thousands of people would bring Paschal lambs to the altar. But the sleeping city did not suspect that that night, at the walls of God's house, surrounded by eleven shy Galileans, the High Priest and Saviour of the world was praying. He asked the Father to maintain his small flock among a world hostile to it. I do not pray for these only -- but for those who believe in Me through their word; that they may be one even as thou Father art in Me and I in Thee, that they also may be in us, so that the world may believe that Thou has sent Me (Jn17). The Coming Temple of Christ's church was illuminated by the light of the Divine Trinity.1
Father Alexander Men shared this prayer poured out from the heart of his Master on his way to the Cross. And like his Master, the life that he lived among us, the death that he died, and the legacy he left in the lives of his followers all illuminate the profound meaning of that prayer. In the above summary of John 17 Jesus prayed for the unity of all those who would believe on him after his death. Sometimes referred to as his High Priestly prayer, coming at the high point of his intercession for the church and just before his sacrificial offering of himself as Lamb of God, it is an outpouring from his heart as he contemplates separating himself from his close circle of friends and followers, and treading the path of ultimate obedience 'unto death'. His simple concern is that they be kept in His love and faith, in holiness and obedience to the Father and in the kind of union with Him and one another that will powerfully demonstrate to the world the legitimacy and authenticity of his mission and Messiahship.
Alexander Men inspired a large circle of followers and admirers drawn from a wide spectrum of different traditions, from Orthodoxy and Catholic to Baptist and Pentecostals. His legacy in Russia and beyond is the continuance of his many converts in their devotion to his God, their study of his writings and the Word of God and their openness to one another and those beyond their tradition in the wider Body of Christ. Throughout his life, Alexander Men has been introducing people from all walks of life and religious persuasions to the person of Jesus Christ.
Like his Master, his tireless dedication led him to devote himself to a faithful impartation of God's truth in the lives of those who came to him. His teaching ministry reached far beyond the narrow confines of his local parish church at Novaya Derevnaya. For throughout his life from the time of his earliest writings in the sixties until the widespread posthumous popularity we see today, Alexander Men has been introducing people from all walks of life and religious persuasions to the person of Jesus Christ. He, perhaps more than any other person, was a light in a dark place though all the years of Communist oppression. And that light has had a unifying quality to it that continues to draw people together. So we recognize that like that praying High Priest surrounded by those shy Galileans, Alexander Men's life too contained within itself that powerful dynamic which not only prays for unity but contains within itself that spiritual quality, indomitable, focussed and all-embracing that is an embodiment of the answer to that prayer. The High Priest is Himself the Body that is offered.
During his life and ministry Alexander Men was uniquely ecumenical, swimming often against the tide of prejudice and suspicion characterizing many of the parts of Christ's Body in Russia. This prevailing spirit of unifying love is evidenced in the nature of the gatherings in his memory which draw people from very diverse faith backgrounds. His witness and influence have truly transcended the walls that divide us. As we celebrate his life among us we are reminded of other lives of the early fathers, the saints of many traditions, martyrs, Protestant and Catholic and those of more recent eras. For the quality of lives of obedience and devotion is a stronger unifying force than the differences of creed, liturgy or doctrine that might divide us. And if we desire to be more than merely academic in our remembrance, we do well to remind ourselves that Alexander Men's unity with his Master's prayer in John 17 can also inspire us as we seek to be faithful with the legacy of his teaching. Today more than ever in Russia the church needs to rise above petty divisions and prejudice within the Body of Christ. Again old animosities are creeping into local scenes, where pride, competitiveness and suspicion are threatening the unity of Christ's followers. We need to remind ourselves of the common bonds we have in Christ and to focus on the common agenda that can draw us together; the proclamation of Christ as Lord and Saviour and the study of the Word of God, tasks to which Alexander Men devoted himself.
At the deepest level the life of Alexander Men inspires us in its similarity to that of his Master in the quality of its discipleship. For the servant must be as his Lord. Three keys to that similarity can point the way for us if we too would, like him, not only pray for unity but truly embody the way to unity. These three keys are mentioned by the writer of the Epistle to the Hebrews. They reflect what Men refers to as the Coming Temple of Christ's Church illuminated by the Divine Trinity:
Hebrews 7:17 speaks of the quality of Jesus' life of holiness and righteousness as it drew on the eternal power of a Holy God as "the power of an indestructible life". The life that partakes of God's holiness cannot be destroyed by the evil powers of this world - even the brutality of the cross or Men's cruel assassins. To partake of that holiness was Men's life's purpose. And ours?
Hebrews 7:25 speaks of the continuing intercession of Christ the Son, the perpetuation of John 17; "he ever lives to make intercession for us". Alexander Men has now entered into that communion of saints where his prayers for the unity of the Church have joined those of the Son of God, Jesus our High Priest. Those prayers, heard by the Father, are already bearing the fruit of unity in our lives and in many in Russia and around the world. But they call us to the ongoing ministry of intercession which will not be complete till the end of the age.
Hebrews 9:14, finally, speaks of Christ's offering of himself in death through the Holy Spirit, "he through the Eternal Spirit offered himself without blemish to God". Men also offered his life not in his own strength but in the power of the Holy Spirit, just as Jesus our High Priest did not lay his life down by sheer human will or by a miraculous divine feat but through the empowering of the third person of the Trinity, God's Holy Spirit.
This is the life of holy obedience to the Father, intercession in the spirit of the Son, and empowerment by the Eternal Spirit that beckons us today.
But if we are to continue to follow the example of Father Alexander as he points the way into the new millennium we do well to take note of the signposts he has left for us, and emulate his own spirit and perspective. He calls for a Christianity whose unity is defined in:
- its recognition of "the presence and activity of Christ in the Church and in all life, even in the simplest and most mundane of its manifestations";
- its realization that we must "respect the ritual forms of devotion without forgetting ... that they are secondary in comparison with love for God and other people";
- its acknowledgment that "the divisions among Christians [are] a sin which is common to all and a violation of Christ's will; believing that in the future this sin will be overcome not by a sense of superiority, pride, complacency or hatred, but rather through a spirit of brotherly love without which the Christian calling cannot be fulfilled."2
May our fidelity to that spirit hasten the day when "all the different fruits [of our diversity] will flow together in one stream in which will be preserved all the best in the spiritual culture of humanity and of each person who is made in the image and likeness of God" -- in Russia, in North America and around the globe. That together we may be the answer to Jesus' prayer, to the glory of God the Father.(3)
- Alexander Men, Son of Man, p.178.
- Alexander Men, "A Credo for Today's Christian", Christianity for the Twenty-First Century, p. 70-71.
- Christianity for the Twenty-First Century, p. 163.