What follows prayers for Christian unity?
A man is reading his Bible on an airplane. The man next to him sees and strikes up a conversation. They both find their faith in Jesus an important part of their life, but one is of one denomination than the other.
Here you can make your own joke by inserting the denominations of your choice. The two men come to see through the conversation how much they share and how little the denominational differences matter to their daily lives. When parting, one man tells the other, ďIím glad we had this chat. It helps me to see how much we share.Ē The other replies, ďYes, we really do share the same faith. And you keep worshipping God in your way and Iíll keep worshipping God in His.Ē
Thatís how Christian unity usually works. I bring this up as for the one hundredth year in a row, January 18-25 was set aside as a time of prayer for Christian unity. Now that the time of prayer is over, what happens next? The usual disunity, or something else?
The original prayer for Christian unity was prayed by Jesus. Johnís Gospel tells us that on the night before he died, Jesus prayed for those who would come to believe because of his disciples, ďthat they may all be one. As you Father, are in me and I am in you, may they also be in us, so that the world may believe that you have sent meĒ (John 17:20-21).
We can readily see the flip side of Jesusí prayer. If he wanted Christians to be united so that the world will see and believe, perhaps the world seeing a divided Christianity sees and shrugs its shoulders. If Christians canít even agree on what they believe, then why should others believe?
At its worst, Christian unity is about one group trying to get all other Christians to join. So attempts at dialogue are really only attempts to convert someone to a given expression of Christianity.
But at its best, Christian unity is about understanding that we already are the body of Christ. We already are one because we worship the one God as revealed through his Son, Jesus. We share a common desire to follow Jesusí command to love God and to love our neighbors as ourselves. This makes us one whether we agree about the details or not.
From this understanding of the unity which already exists, we can set aside attempts to convert fellow Christians and instead concentrate on transforming our communities by being the salt and light Jesus asked us to be. We should add flavor and bring enlightenment through the mission of the Church to share the love of God.
We can see the ways in which this is already happening in Camden County. Habitat for Humanity offers an opportunity to lay down differences and pick up a hammer to build safe, decent and affordable housing.
Holy Week services in St. Marys each year offer a chance for people of different choirs to join voices in praising God while the congregation made up of persons of different churches gather to hear Godís word together.
I remember when the mill closed that churches gathered together at the mill and at the high school to mark the occasion with prayer, trusting God with the future of Camden County. We also joined together in seeing how best to reach out to those effected closely by the loss of jobs and health benefits. This is another example of how much more we can accomplish when we work together.
We donít work together more often as we see one another as competition. But churches are not and canít be in competition until the whole world comes to believe in God as revealed in his son Jesus by the power of the Holy Spirit.
There are only about 110 churches or so in Camden County. I say only, because if everyone wanted to go to church this coming Sunday, each one of us would have more than 500 people in church and we donít have that kind of worship capacity.
The problem isnít too many churches. Clearly we are not competing with each other. We are competing with all the rest of the things that keep people way from church. One of those things that keep people away is the way we Christians canít seem to agree on anything but disagreeing about doctrine or how to worship or who to allow and who to exclude.
I am not saying that we Christians should all be the same. The diversity within Christianity is a gift of the Holy Spirit. We should celebrate the many ways in which we worship God in our community. I have said before that I wish everyone could be Baptist long enough to get saved; Pentecostal long enough to put some spirit in your spirituality; Methodist long enough to learn to sing hymns with gusto; Catholic long enough to get a backbone about social justice issues; and I could go on as I know none of us have a corner on the God market.
The Christian faith needs us all. That is why God blesses so many different churches and ministries, because we are all needed. What is also needed are some ways in which we can live into our unity without giving up the diverse ways in which we live into our faith.
With the annual time of prayer for Christian unity behind us, it is time to move ahead with the unity. Rather than praying for it, we need to live it out. If every church in the county found a way to do something with a church of a different denomination, we would quickly begin to dismantle the walls that divide and build a solid foundation of unity.
Jesus prayed for this the night before he died. The next day he suffered not so that we could argue fine points of doctrine, but so that we could know the love of God and then reach out to others in sharing that love.
(The Rev. Frank Logue is pastor of King of Peace Episcopal Church in Kingsland.)
King of Peace Episcopal Church + P.O. Box 2526 + Kingsland, Georgia 31548-2526