Friday, January 23, 2009

Homily on Christian Unity

Almost one thousand years ago, a man entered the Great Church of Haghia Sophia in Constantinople, marched up to the high altar and threw down a piece of paper. This event symbolically marked the formal division between the Eastern and Western halves of the Christian Church. Five hundred years after that, another man nailed a piece of paper to the doors of his local Church. This symbolically marked the division between the Roman Catholic Church and the Protestant Reformers.

These watershed moments aside, division and disunity have always shadowed Christians since the time our Lord called us to "love one another" as He loved us, and to be one, even as He and His Father are one. In the early centuries, bishops and church communities went in and out of communion with one another on an almost weekly basis!

Today, those who call themselves Christians exist in three Christian groups, all struggling with internal divisions and conflicts of their own. Protestant churches exist in thousands of denominations separated by doctrinal emphasis or politics. The Roman Catholic Church has seen internal conflicts between various factions, between traditionalists and liberals. The Orthodox Church suffers from divisions according to culture, language, calendar, and numerous overlapping jurisdictions throughout the world.

But whatever the divisions we face, whether between Catholic, Protestant or Orthodox; whether external or internal; whether doctrinal, political or cultural—our divisions and disunities can be traced to a single source, a single collective and individual failure on the part of all Christians in all places: the failure of love. Christ has called us to love one another and to be one, utterly united in that love, and we have failed that calling.

And what is this failure to love? Is it the failure to meet with one another, to listen to one another, to seek to understand one another? That is certainly a part of the matter. But it goes beyond that. As Saint Paul tells us in the Epistle we just read, the failure to love derives from our loss of focus on the One who is the Source of love: our Lord Jesus Christ, who was born, who lived, suffered and died on the Cross, who rose bodily from the dead and ascended into heaven and will come again to judge the living and the dead.

The Gospels of Matthew, Mark and Luke record a crucial question that Jesus asked his disciples: "Who do men say that the Son of man is?" And they said, "Some say John the Baptist, others say Elijah, and others Jeremiah or one of the prophets." He said to them, "But who do you say that I am?" Simon Peter replied, "You are the Christ, the Son of the living God." Peter's confession, his answer to that question is the very definition of divine love. "For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life." If this man Jesus is the Christ, the Son of the living God, then God's love is defined as His giving of Himself in His Son to us, that we might have life.

The failure of our unity, then, derives from our inability or our refusal to echo Peter and the other Apostles' single answer to Jesus' question, the answer that they taught and proclaimed throughout the world. And because we have not answered the Lord's question in the same way that they did, we have been cut off from the wellspring of divine love incarnate in Jesus Himself, and our love for one another has dried up.

So what do we do about all this? Perhaps the greatest temptation of Christians who are divided and are somehow at a loss for a point of reconciliation, is to retreat into generalizations. It is easy to speak about God and even God's love in the abstract, to define terms so broadly that virtually everyone can agree with them, to not look too closely into the real implications of terms that we use, and so gain a false sense of unity.

The reality is, however, much more inconvenient. We are Christians. Our faith is not just built upon some notion of God; that would be easy. Our faith is built upon the man Jesus Christ, who lived in Palestine 2000 years ago. And who He is, who exactly He is, is the very content and substance of what we believe. So if we want Christian unity, we must seek the answer to the Lord's question, "Who do you say that I am?" More than that, far more inconveniently than that, we must seek a single answer, one answer to the question, because there was only one Jesus Christ. As Saint Paul says, There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called to the one hope that belongs to your call, one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of us all, who is above all and through all and in all.

If we can't or won't find that single answer, let's not pretend to look for Christian unity. Let's call this week the Week of Prayer for Christian friendship or fellowship or dialogue. But not Christian unity. If we want Christian unity, we have a much more difficult task ahead of us, a much more onerous path to follow.

Our leaders must blaze the way on this path. Through preaching and teaching and example, they must boldly seek and proclaim the single apostolic answer to Jesus' question, whatever the cost to themselves. But the task is not theirs alone. The answer to Jesus' question is not merely a matter for preachers, teachers and theologians. We must answer too, with our words perhaps, but more with our lives. Saint Francis of Assisi once said, "Preach the Gospel always. Use words when necessary."

Our answer to Jesus' question will make a difference to how we live in relation to one another. If we believe Jesus is a mere prophet, a wise teacher, but no more, then the sum total of God's love is to instruct us, to show us the meaning of a good life, but no more. And the sum total of our love for others will also be no more than to teach and preach, to set an example for them to follow. But if we believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of the living God, then God's love is far more than that; it is nothing less than the unapproachable, inconceivable, eternal God entering into and participating in the suffering of His own creatures, that He might raise them up with Himself to divine life. And if that's the case, then our love for one another will also be the act of suffering with one another, walk beside one another faithfully, bearing one another's burdens, and so fulfilling the law of Christ. How we love is what we proclaim, and what we proclaim will govern how we love.

Today, then, let us be courageous. Let us give up dishonesty, coldness of heart, indifference, pride, and take up instead the difficult and inconvenient path that leads to real unity. In Christ, God calls us to become one in His hand. That calling begins with death, death to ourselves, to our agendas and prejudices, but it ends with life, life together in love, with Him whom we glorify through Christ our Lord in the Holy Spirit forever. Amen.

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