Today, our nation honors Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., a leader who showed us what it means to apply Jesus’ teaching to the complex realities of our world.
In the church calendar, today is also the feast of the Confession of St. Peter, marking the moment when Peter figured out who Jesus was. This feast launches a week, bracketed at its end by the story of the Conversion of St. Paul. The week between the days honoring St. Peter and St. Paul is called a week of prayer for Christian unity. Lord knows, we could use that prayer, in our congregations, in our denomination, in the Anglican communion, in the interface of Christian traditions, as well as in interfaith conversation.
In my reading of the New Testament, which involves reading between the lines, there was no bromance between Peter and Paul. I’m not sure they liked each other much. Both gifted with strong ego, they jabbed at each other, and had a couple of public clashes. But there is no doubt that they shared common purpose, the spread of the good news of Jesus. So it’s fitting that they delineate a week in which we pray for Christian unity. Not uniformity. Not agreement. Unity.
Which is where the collision of calendars helps, as today we give thanks for the witness of Dr. King today, honored not only with a federal holiday, but with a saint’s day in the church. He had much to say about the need for Christian unity, part of a dream for all God’s children. He shared a vision for this common life when he wrote a challenging letter from a Birmingham prison cell to white clergy who had criticized him: “In a real sense all life is inter-related. All men are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly. I can never be what I ought to be until you are what you ought to be, and you can never be what you ought to be until I am what I ought to be…This is the inter-related structure of reality.”
Dr. King’s ministry was animated by the teaching of Jesus, expressed in the passage from Luke’s gospel printed in the column on the left, selected for the day we remember him in the church. Dr. King’s embrace of this teaching witnesses to its own intriguing network of mutuality. King was a student of Mahatma Gandhi whose embrace of non-violence was informed by the Sermon on the Mount. Gandhi was a student of Leo Tolstoy whose life was transformed by the Sermon on the Mount. Three very different, strong minded leaders brought together by Jesus’ vision, a vision of a network of mutuality, a single garment of destiny.
Pray for Christian unity this week. In the wake of disappointing discord in the Anglican Communion, consider these words from our new Presiding Bishop, Michael Curry: “Our commitment to be an inclusive church is not based on a social theory or capitulation to the ways of the culture, but on our belief that the outstretched arms of Jesus on the cross are a sign of the very love of God reaching out to us all.” He spoke of his vision for the Anglican Communion, as a “network of relationships that have been built on mission partnerships; relationships that are grounded in a common faith; relationships in companion diocese relationships; relationships with parish to parish across the world; relationships that are profoundly committed to serving and following the way of Jesus of Nazareth by helping the poorest of the poor, and helping this world to be a place where no child goes to bed hungry ever. “
In this week of Prayer for Christian Unity, offer the prayer below each morning. And may our prayers be offered not only with our lips but with our lives, as we consider opportunities to love those who may be enemies, or opponents, or critics, or simply annoying. This Monday, find a way to practice that love in the spirit of Dr. King, St. Peter, St. Paul, Jesus.
A Prayer for Christian Unity, from the Book of Common Prayer:Give us grace seriously to lay to heart the great dangers we are in by our unhappy divisions; take away all hatred and prejudice, and whatever else may hinder us from godly union and concord; that, as there is but one Body and one Spirit, one hope of our calling, one Lord, one Faith, one Baptism, one God and Father of us all, so we may be all of one heart and of one soul, united in one holy bond of truth and peace, of faith and charity, and may with one mind and one mouth glorify thee; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
Jesus said, “I say to you that listen, Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you. If anyone strikes you on the cheek, offer the other also; and from anyone who takes away your coat do not withhold even your shirt. Give to everyone who begs from you; and if anyone takes away your goods, do not ask for them again. Do to others as you would have them do to you.
If you love those who love you, what credit is that to you? For even sinners love those who love them. If you do good to those who do good to you, what credit is that to you? For even sinners do the same. If you lend to those from whom you hope to receive, what credit is that to you? Even sinners lend to sinners, to receive as much again. But love your enemies, do good, and lend, expecting nothing in return. Your reward will be great, and you will be children of the Most High; for he is kind to the ungrateful and the wicked. Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful.”