Friday 11 February 2011

The Importance of Christian Unity - A Cry From the Heart!

(This is the first half of a two part talk I gave about Christian Unity.  The 2nd half can be found here on A Modest Proposal of Christian Unity.  The slides I used when giving this as a presentation are at the bottom of this post.)

Some of you are hopefully aware that a few weeks ago was the official Week of Prayer for Christian Unity 2011. The idea of this week is what it says on the tin, a period where Christians will devote themselves to praying for God's grace in achieving unity and fellowship among all Christians, as Jesus intended and prayed on the night before he died in the garden of Gethsemane.

Christian Unity is something I feel very strongly about.  It is impossible to seriously doubt that Christians are divided, and that once we were united.  We were together when Jesus was here, and after he left us the Bible tells us that "all the believers were together and had everything in common" and that they "broke bread in their homes and ate together with glad and sincere hearts".  But over time that unity and love between them was broken.  Over the two thousands years since then the Christian community grew and grew beyond all imagination, across centuries and continents, until today there are Christians in every country in the world and 30% of humanity at least identify as Christian.  But sadly this unity and love and closeness we once had is now gone.

If you wanted to make a list of the different types of Christian you could start with breaking them down into Catholic, Protestant, Orthodox and Non-Trinitarian.  Each of these groups number in the hundreds of millions, and internally bear various similarities of origin and structure.  But even these are families of organisations bearing certain similarities rather than single christian communities.  The Roman Catholic church is the closest, constituting 95% of the Catholic strand, but even here there are other groups.  The Orthodox can be broken into Eastern Orthodox, Oriental Orthodox, and Church of the East, the first two of which are themselves communions of a number of, generally, nationally organised Churches.  The Protestant strand is famously disunited, being constituted of hundreds to thousands of organisations, from a huge number of individual independent churches to world-wide families of Churches such as the Anglican Communion. Non-trinitarianism is a vague term for a range of 'churches' who reject the traditional Christian theology in various ways, including Mormons, Christadelphians and extreme 'Liberal' Theology. They are disparate and generally widely different though united by their rejection of the Trinity, and by all being a relatively modern offshoots from the other Christian groups.

This gives the most basic breakdown of the wide range of groups and organisations that claim descent from the Church founded by Jesus Christ, and are based on the joint declaration that 'Christ is Lord'. It is however the most basic of explanations. To properly list all the organisations that fill up these categories would take an encyclopedia all on its own. It would take another one to explain all the (generally far smaller) groups and individuals who don't easily fall into any of these categories.

With the passing of 2000 years and the journey through civilisations, languages, continents and the troubles of war and politics, it is not surprising that some differences and arguments would have emerged between a body that now numbers 2 billion people.  But there is more to the division than a natural floating apart.  At times and in places it has been marked by a brutality, a disregard for others, arrogance, xenophobia and hatred, and too often sectarianism masquerading as principle.  Some of its greatest divisions have grown almost by accident, for reasons that few can recognise even today, but have then gone on to grow into chasms that has led to so much trouble and pain.

Looking back through history our greatest hurt and damage has so often come about not because of any action by those who hate us and Christianity but by our own disunion and inability to work together and love one another. Arguably our greatest loss, the conquest of the Middle East by the Muslims, 1300 years ago, would not have been possible if it were not for the fact the native Christian populations welcomed the Muslim armies, because it freed them from their Government, which had persecuted them because it belonged to a different Christian faction.  And so the land that is now Egypt, Tunisia, Libya, Syria, Jordan, Palestine, Turkey, Iraq, which were once Christian, were lost, and are now overwhelmingly Muslim countries.

Civil Wars are always the most brutal, and for centuries our divisions have led us to do terrible things to each other, and to entrench hatred between nations and peoples.  And in doing so we have disgraced the Gospel and reduced the power of our witness.  Our message is lost and the world laughs at us.  Once upon a time people said about us, these Christians "look how they love one another", but now they say, these Christians, how can we listen to them when they cannot even agree with each other?  How can they talk about how we need to love when they cannot even love each other?  And they ignore the name of God and Jesus Christ because we fight among each other.

I have a great belief in the importance of Christian Unity.  It has always been something I have thought about a bit ever since I became old enough to understand that we were divided. I couldn't understand why.  But it was not something that bothered me a great deal, I just got on with life, went to Church, sang, prayed, thought, played, studied and grew from a child to an adult.  Then something happened.  Firstly, I had begun reading more about the historical events of our splits and divisions, and how many seemed so ridiculous, and how even at the times of the splits themselves, no one involved had meant such lasting divisions to happen.  I also had begun hearing about the persecution of Christians around the world, who lived in countries less fortunate than ours, where they could not worship God in peace.  And that made me think.

And then it was Christmas of my 1st year at University, and I was at home, and I was washing my hands, of all things, and my mind was wandering, as it does from thing to thing.  I was thinking about my faith in a vague kind of way, but then suddenly my thoughts accelerated tumbling from topic to topic and then in an instant I was hit by a profound religious experience.  A message from God hit me like a punch to the chest and for just a second my mind opened with perfect clarity, the breath caught in my chest and my eyes saw straight through the room around me. In that instant I was utterly convicted of my sin, I felt it in every part of my body. It was the strangest thing, it felt like my body was pulling apart into pieces, like I had lost several limbs all at once and I felt the loss.  And it came into my mind from somewhere precisely what the pain was, and precisely what the sin was I was convicted of.  The pain was the pain of the Body of Christ divided.  It was the pain of Jesus Christ felt from his body being torn apart and his children being separated and distant from each other in their hearts.  And what was that sin I felt fully convicted of in that moment?  It was the sin of Convenience!  The sin of neglect!  I had never broken from my brothers and sisters; I have never encouraged division or sectarianism; I had never operated from an assumption that my kind must know best about everything, or that someone else could have nothing to offer because he was different to me.  I had done nothing.

And that was precisely my sin.  I had done nothing.  I had made sure I was alright, but I had not lifted a finger to heal the division, to bridge the chasms that lie between us.  But that is not enough.  Jesus told us the tale of the Good Samaritan, of the men who walked by on the other side, and the one man who took the time to cross over and repair the damage that had been done.  But all my life I had been walking by on the other side, without realising it.  Unlike the priest and scribe in that story I had not even noticed the man lying on the other side of the road as I walked by.  But this was not just a message that I needed to hear; It is a message we all need to hear.  We are lucky these days that we have largely put an end to sectarianism, contempt and hatred between different Christians, unlike in the bad old days.  But we still suffer from the curse of apathy, of just not caring or being interested.  And this is almost more deadly because it is so invisible.

All Christians and all Christian churches and organisations have been guilty of this in different times and in different ways.  To be insular is a constant temptation, because it's just easier. To make ourselves so busy with what we here are doing, and not think about what lies outside.  But this is not a sustainable or a noble thing before God.  God is the Lord of the whole world, of all humanity.  He is actively concerned with all people, and especially with the children of his word.  we must be actively concerned as well.  passive recognition is not enough. In the divine trinity God is a community of Father, Son and Holy Spirit, and a community that is always engaged in a mutual dance of Love (for want of a better expression).  It is not three parts static and apart, each concerned with its own projects, but three persons utterly joined in a single mission and will, whose thoughts are never apart.  Isaiah talked about a time when all the people's of the Earth would come together to live beneath the throne of God on Mount Zion.  A similar vision of the Christians of the world can be seen in Revelation.  The fact that Jesus' thoughts turned to praying for unity among his disciples on that night before he died shows how important it was to him, that he would devote those last precious free minutes before he was handed over to torture and death.  Jesus was looking beyond his death and resurrection to the life he knew his people must have after he no longer walked among them to teach them and guide them.

He also prophesied about the danger of disunity while he was alive: "A house divided against itself cannot stand". And from the history of the Christian community, where, as I said, so often damage came about not because of the actions of our enemies but because we are either fighting amongst ourselves or just ignoring one another, we know this prophecy to be true. If we look later in the Bible, we see the model of unity that existed under the Apostles.  After Jesus left they tried to carry as they had when he was there: sharing everything, being close as a family, being intimately concerned with one another, breaking bread together.  Later on as the Christian community spread around the eastern Mediterranean we see the concern among its people and leaders to maintain this active unity and concern as far as possible.  St Paul and St Peter, Barnabas and the others, all travelled constantly between the communities, and wrote to them when they could not travel despite the difficulties in that primitive time, with few good roads and no postal service (for a start).  They organised charity and help when there was shortage of food or other things, they were constantly on their mind and in their actions.  And in the letters from the Apostles that have come down to us we see their concern, their care, "for I would have you know how hard I work for you".

Obviously this sense of closeness, this profound knowledge and love with the whole Christian community will decrease in intensity as that community grows.  A level of closeness possible among a group of friends who fit in an upstairs room will not be possible among a community scattered around the eastern Mediterranean; a closeness possible then will not be possible among a worldwide community numbering in the billions, and neither does it need to.  But what is needed is the same will, the same love and determination to care and to know as much as we can.  God doesn't ask that we do everything, know everything, care for everybody, or do anything we just cannot do.  But he does ask that we do everything we can do.

These statements may seem exaggerated, hyperbolic even, but I believe they are fundamentally correct.  We are called by Christ to be perfect as our Father in Heaven is perfect. Now there is a statement that should qualify as hyperbole if any ever should.  But the truth is that nothing less is necessary.  We must always be scanning the horizon, looking out for where our help and care may be needed, because as soon as we do not then we miss something and then it is so easy for someone to slip between the cracks and be lost and abandoned with their problems, without anyone to help them. And suddenly We find that we have walked by on the other side without even realising it.  The distance and the distrust that lies between us profoundly weakens our ability to support one another and our ability to fight for the Gospel because we do not work together.  It is without doubt a sin, and as long as a single sin or injustice remains in the world and we  are not fighting it then the New Jerusalem remains always just beyond the horizon.

I have always been confused by the attitude some Protestant groups take to Christian Unity, whereby they do not seem to feel that the lack of visible, institutional unity, of one organisation across the world, is a thing to be worried about.  Some of them seem to actively like having different scattered denominations of all types, due to the protection it gives to diversity. They talk about a unity of belief, such that as long as we share the same fundamental beliefs it does not matter that we can not join together under the same leaders and structure.  But this is so strange.  We take for granted in other areas of life that we need joint organisations, joint leadership to join together to solve our problems.  Across our world we have the United Nations to try to forge unity between the nations, among our continent we understand that European Union relies on joint institutions and shared responsibility to co-ordinate and make sure that there are no gaps for people and communities to fall down alone without anyone to help them.  If everywhere else in our life we acknowledge that together we are stronger how much more true in our faith, when unity is so much at the heart of God's will for us.

St Paul spoke about the nature of this unity that was needed in words more poetic than any I can hope to produce.  The Body of Christ is a body of many parts, none of which can deny the other. Thinking about our own bodies it is clear that the body is only really a body, only acts as a body, when it acts with a synthetic unity and purpose that stands over and above its individual elements, and as far as all its elements inter-relate and depend. A body is not just a clump of cells each acting on their own, although it is made up of this, and it does not act as a body in the action of each of its organs on their own. As important as each of these is.  My heart pumping, lungs breathing, stomach digesting hand moving, another hand moving etc, do not act as a body in as far as they act individually and in isolation. They only act as a body as far as they form an interdependent system, where each has its purpose, and all their action is to the higher purpose of being an instrument to do and express the things I want them to do, which stand over and above their individual actions and purpose.

In the same the Church, the Body of Christ that Paul so movingly describes, only acts fully as that Body in as far as its acts together in unity, connection and interdependence between its elements to the greater goal, that of making the Kingdom of God Jesus described the constant reality and truth of life on this earth so that the Lion can lie down with the Lamb the swords are beaten into ploughshares and everything is made alright.

Some Christian groups of Churches may not wish to focus on the work of building unity because they are fully engaged in evangelism.  But this is to have the whole thing the wrong way round.  The work of faith and of the Gospel can never be a choice between working to draw other Christians closer and working to draw non-Christians closer, just as it can never be a choice between physical acts of charity and good deeds, and converting souls to God.  It must of course be both  and all of them.  The Gospel is God's remaking of all creation.  There is no corner or thing it does not effect.  we can not decide to work for one part but not another for the Kingdom of God involves all the elements.  Though the different parts of the work will of course be different, just as feeding the hungry is different to preaching Jesus Christ, each is as essential as the other.  Indeed the gospels themselves describe a plan for Christian mission that focuses first on reconciling the people of God before moving beyond that; first to the Jews, and then to the Gentiles.

For these and other reasons I think that the fight for closer Christian unity and fellowship is absolutely essential and profoundly urgent.  We are divided by chasms of apathy that we do not even see because we are so used to them being there and the cost of this is daily incalculable, and directly against the intentions and wishes of God Almighty.  We are called to Love our enemies, and at least to love our neighbours, but we cannot even love our brothers and sisters, with whom we are as close as parts of the one great Body.  How doomed then are we.  We are meant to be a family, but we are sadly torn apart.  And like the tearing apart of any family the damage is often invisible but still powerful and long-lasting.  Except we cannot just move on and try to forget and build a new family for ourself.  This one is all we got, so we've got to make it work, despite the pain and difficulty so far.    

Of course true Unity is not all being nominally part of the same organisation, as much as I think that is a powerful part of it. It is the care and compassion that draws us constantly closer to each other and means we are always looking out for each other such that a hurt on one is felt as a hurt to everyone.  Jesus said it as "Love your neighbour as yourself"; Centuries later John Donne said "no man is an island, complete on its own", but both say essentially the same thing.

It is so tempting, even if one thinks about this at all, to be overwhelmed by the state of the problem.  The distance between us cross millenia, and span the world.  Where does one even start to bridge such a chasm?  Each on our own we can not, but we must always remember that God does not ask that we heal all the world alone, only that we do all that we can.  If we can only firmly turn our faces towards and place our feet on the path of constantly working to closer unity and care, step by step, and encourage other to do so, to overcome the barriers that are littered by history and apathy between us, one by one, then eventually, through the grace of God, we will arrive at our destination.  It requires each one of us individually makes this decision to change our mindset so this is at its centre, to do our individual part, of what we can, to draw and hold us together and thus to imperceptibly, person by person, change the direction of flow and assumptions that shape our world. This means it is even more important for us each to make the choice ourself. No raindrop thinks that it is itself responsible for the flood, no one drop of water dictates the flow of the river.  But if we change their direction one by one then eventually the river flows in a new direction.  It requires making this a foremost priority in our minds and what we do, and a relentless determination that it is an important thing that we cannot ignore.  And this is so easy to do, it is a choice that we can make and there are so many small things that we can do to do our part in achieving it.

You will have to excuse me for stopping there for now, having left myself in rather woolly territory.  The reason I wrote this was because I do actually have some 'practical' suggestions about how we can at least begin to achieve this, and good intentions be turned into something concrete despite the immense issues and difficulties we face.  But I've already gone on for quite a while so I want to leave it there for now and return to this in another article.  The practicalities are essential, but without a call to the heart first, to explain why the whole thing is so important then they will not do any good, which is why I've started with this.  What I want to do is to stir up thought and discussion about this, at least a little bit, and hopefully thus to do my tiny part in redirecting the river.  I don't for a second suspect that I've got it all right about this.  So if you disagree with me do please leave a comment.  I truly believe that it's not the talking or even the arguing between one another that is the problem, it's when we stop talking, it's when we close our mouths and our minds and turn our backs on the issue entirely.

Here are the slides I used when giving this as a presentation.  They're relatively basic, mostly constituting the full text of quotes I use and some illustrating pictures.


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