How can this structure which emerges from the eschata be translated into concrete historical terms? And how can this translation take place without turning the Kingdom into sheer history? It is at this point that institutions appear to be threatening the nature of the Church.
The way the Church faced this problem from the beginning is, and I think will always be, the only way to face it. Our Lord, before He left His disciples, offered them a sort of “diagram” of the Kingdom when He gathered them together in the Upper Room. It was not one “sacrament” out of “two” or “seven” that He offered them, nor simply a memorial of Himself, but a real image of the Kingdom. At least this is how the Church saw it from the beginning. In the eucharist, therefore, the Church found the structure of the Kingdom, and it was this structure that she transferred to her own structure. In the eucharist the “many” become “one” (I Cor. 10:17), the people of God become the Church by being called from their dispersion (ek-klesia) to one place (e)pi\ to\ au)to). Through her communion in the eternal life of the Trinity, the Church becomes “the body of Christ,” that body in which death has been conquered and by virtue of which the eschatological unity of all is offered as a promise to the entire world. The historical Jesus and the eschatological Christ in this way become one reality, and thus a real synthesis of history with eschatology takes place.
John D. Zizioulas. Being as Communion. Studies in Personhood and the Church. London, DLT, 1985 (2004). 206.
Zizioulas ends this chapter on Apostolic continuity and succession by looking at the implications of what he has been discussing from the ecumenical debate. He argues that the “classical concept” has been formed in a one-sided way which has ignored the eschatological image of the apostles as a college surrounding Christ in His Kingdom, focussing instead on apostolic succession as an historical process. While the eschatological approach is largely absent from Orthodox theology manuals it nevertheless “survives vividly in iconological and liturgical approaches to the mystery of the Church.” (205)
While this eschatological imagery, as visit and presence, might seem to have little to do with continuity, so that these images do exist in a certain tension, for the early Church they were nevertheless related in a synthesis which was no mere theoretical construction. Rather, the Kingdom of God was always present with a structure that allows us to move beyond the dilemma of “institution” or “event”. The Kingdom necessarily implies communion in the Holy Spirit and thus implies demarcation and a structure. Moreover, the Kingdom is centred around Christ and the apostles and thus implies a specificity of relations. It is the Eucharist that provides both the structure and the context for the perpetuation of this structure in history.
For the eucharist is perhaps the only reality in the Church which is at once an institution and an event; it is the uniquely privileged moment of the Church’s existence in which the Kingdom comes epicletically, i.e. without emerging as an expression of the historical process, although it is manifested through historical forms. In this context the Church relates to the apostles simultaneously by looking backwards and forward, to the past and to the future – always, however, by letting the eschaton determine history and its structures. (206-207)
Zizioulas ends this chapter by suggesting that such a synthesis raises fundamental questions for ecumenical discussion, for it moves the question of apostolicity beyond questions of a derived ministry and highlights the importance of the Church as community and of the structure of this community which emerges from an eschatological vision. Both history and the historical needs of the present, which seem to preoccupy the current ecumenical movement, will have to be judged by the vision of the eschata.