Tonight, the 25th of January, marks the end of the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity. In churches around the world Christians were invited to pray for unity, reflect on scripture, share fellowship, and participate in ecumenical services. My own involvement this year included an ecumenical service at the Church of Pius X on Sunday past where Archbishop Martin Currie of the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of St John’s and I both preached. Many churches held joint services and other forms of commemoration during the eight days set aside for the “week” of prayer.
The theme for the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity this year on the occasion of the 500th anniversary of the beginning of the Lutheran Reformation in Germany is: "Reconciliation – The Love of Christ Compels Us" inspired by St Paul’s Second Letter to the Corinthians. Five hundred years ago, on October 31, 1517, Martin Luther nailed a list of 95 concerns and propositions to All Saints Church in Wittenberg, Germany and the Lutheran Reformation began. Martin Luther, a Roman Catholic monk at the time, engaged with Holy Scripture in a vigorous way and took issue with some of the practices and beliefs of his church regarding the sale of Indulgences for the support of the new St Peter’s Basilica in Rome. Luther, in due course, found himself under sanction by the Catholic Church and eventually, in 1521, was excommunicated. His followers became a church in their own right. The Protestant Reformation, the Re-Form-ing of Christian practice and belief, would dominate religious and civil life in middle and northern Europe for centuries. And to the present-day Christians around the world are distinguished by a multitude of practices and beliefs institutionalized in thousands of denominations.
This year Christians everywhere remember the beginning of the Protestant Reformation but forgive me when I say that I cannot celebrate that great event but only commemorate it. I will hold off on celebrating until that time when the differences and barriers created in the 16th Century for Christians are finally overcome and we find a way to be one in Christ.
In Chapter 15 of John’s Gospel Jesus says to us, "I am the true vine, and my Father is the vinegrower ... Abide in me as I abide in you. Just as the branch cannot bear fruit by itself unless it abides in the vine, neither can you unless you abide in me. I am the vine; you are the branches. Those who abide in me and I in them bear much fruit, because apart from me you can do nothing.”
Jesus’ words remind us that our life as Christians come from him. “I am the true vine, and my Father is the vinegrower.” Through Christ, we also belong to the Father. “Abide in me as I abide in you.” A little later Jesus tells us: “My Father is glorified by this, that you bear much fruit and become my disciples.” And through Christ we are enabled to bear much good fruit as his disciples. The true vine of the Christian Church, whether the branch is Roman Catholic, or Orthodox, or Protestant, or Anglican or whatever, is Jesus Christ. He remains our common link to one another and through him, to God.
Christians are called to take steps toward reconciliation but must also recognize that true reconciliation is a gift from God by whom all is created and from whom every good gift comes. “I am the vine,” Jesus says, “you are the branches, my Father is the vinegrower.”
If we read just a little further in John’s Gospel (Chapter 17) we will hear our Lord pray for his disciples. And what did He want for those closest to him? Jesus prayed that they be one. This is His prayer to God in Heaven for his followers who are to remain in the world after his Ascension: Holy Father, protect them by the power of your name, the name you gave me, so that they may be one as we are one. Jesus asks his Father to ensure that his followers remain one as they strive to fulfill their mission. “Holy Father, protect them ... so that they may be one as we are one.”
At first glance it seems that the answer to Jesus' prayer has not yet come. There are dozens of Christian denominations in our province today, each worshipping God in their own distinctive way, each emphasizing certain aspects of Holy Scripture, and each operating in the community in accordance with their own traditions and teachings. Even within denominations there are differences. In the Diocese of Eastern Newfoundland and Labrador with its nearly 30,000 identifiable members today there are differences over the interpretation of scripture, differences over styles of worship, differences over the Book of Common Prayer and the Book of Alternative Services, differences over morality and ethics, differences over who can be ordained, differences over who can be married, and so on. And yet every Sunday morning we all share the same bread and wine, say the same Lord’s Prayer, and recite the same Confession of Faith together.
There is great unity within our great diversity as Anglicans.
And here I find hope for Christians around the world.
What if the "oneness" Jesus prays for is not what we might expect? Perhaps Jesus is not praying for unity as we might seek it in standardized organizations and denominational merger. Perhaps His prayer is not that diversity be stifled and every single Christian be a carbon-copy of the next. Perhaps his prayer is for something far deeper and far more profound and is already being realized. Perhaps Jesus' prayer is that those who would follow Him have a unity of heart and purpose. Could it be that John Wesley understood this in his sermon "Catholic Spirit, when he preached, "Though we can't think alike, may we not love alike? May we be of one heart, though we are not of one opinion?"
Could it be that Christian unity today might not be based upon total agreement on every single teaching and doctrine, but upon a deep and living faith in Jesus Christ who unites all believers in Himself? Indeed, one of the glories of Christianity lies in its diversity throughout the world where people of countless languages, ethnic backgrounds, and traditions can still believe in the Gospel of Jesus Christ and celebrate that faith in ways appropriate to them.
We have miles to go on this journey but I recognize a sincere desire among most Christians to travel together. A little humility toward one another will go a long way in healing our differences. May the bonds of affection already created strengthen in the years ahead. And let us pray to our Lord to see us through to the end:
Thanks be to you, Lord Jesus, for the gift of your church. By its teachings we have been nurtured in the faith; by its sacraments, strengthened; by its worship, brought to you. Forgive us for those places in our lives that are not as they should be. Forgive us for not loving our brothers and sisters in the faith as much as we love ourselves. Heal us and make us one – one in faith, one in mission, one in ministry to all the world. Amen.