Church geek alert: Today finds us half way through a special week in the church calendar. It’s called the week of Prayer for Christian Unity. It runs from January 18 through January 25 and is bracketed by two feast days.
January 18 is called the Feast of the Confession of Saint Peter. It is dedicated to the first ever-recorded example of public opinion polling. Jesus asks his disciples: What’s the buzz? Who do people say that I am? The disciples give a variety of rather detached, risk-free answers. Then Jesus zooms in with laser-like focus, posing one of the most important questions in the New Testament: But who do you say that I am? Peter, always the first to speak, says that Jesus is the Messiah. That’s his confession, a turning point for Peter, and for the church.
January 25 is called the Feast of the Conversion of Saint Paul, when the apostle was knocked off his donkey on the road to Damascus with a vision of Jesus who asks Paul: Why are you persecuting me? Paul responds with his own question, another important question in the New Testament: Who are you Lord? It’s the moment of his conversion, a turning point for St. Paul, and for the church.
Why does any of this matter?
What’s interesting to me as I read the New Testament is that I’m guessing there was no bromance between Peter and Paul. Each with strong ego, they had several run-ins. They saw ministry from different perspectives. They agreed that their work would not be done side by side. But they each made remarkable contributions to the growth of the church, to the spread of the news about Jesus. We’re indebted to them, beneficiaries of their ministries.
Their stories indicate that the church is not a place where we will always agree. In the church, we may bump up against people who are different, people we may not like all that much. From the first days of the church, there has been conflict. It’s been true since. Which is why this week matters.
The week says to me, first of all, that we are to pray for unity. We are to recognize that when it happens in our world, it comes as gift. Our inclination is to focus on self. We need help if we are to experience unity, not only in the church, but in families, offices and, Lord knows, in our politics. Where do you need that grace this morning?
It says to me that we pray this week as Christians, as a group of people trying to figure out what it means to follow Jesus. We need some help with that too. Neitzsche once said: Jesus’ disciples will need to look more saved if I am to believe in their savior. Those of us whose journey unfolds in the Christian tradition (there are some readers whose journeys unfold in other traditions) commit to that pathway of grace, compassion and service exhibited by Jesus, a pathway haltingly traveled by his followers. How might we follow his example today?
It says to me that we are praying for unity, not uniformity, homogeneity, agreement, or even orthodoxy. Too often Christian communities of all kind, progressive and conservative, add conditions to the gospel of grace. (Something that made St Paul angry, and that’s not a pretty sight). The most persistent image for the church in the New Testament is the body of Christ, an image of unity comprised of diverse parts. We get another image in the architecture of the National Cathedral. It is really called the Cathedral of St. Peter and St. Paul. The two stories highlighted this morning are depicted on the front exterior, but notably as far away from each other as possible. How can you see yourself as part of the body of Christ, unity out of diversity?
Pray this week for unity, in the church, for sure, but also in any place where human relationships are broken, dividing walls are built, where disregard is trumping confidence in the dignity of every human being. Let your prayer be offered not only with your lips but in your life. Somehow.
From Presiding Bishop Michael Curry’s recent Georgia Revival Sermon:
Jesus said love your neighbor. You don’t have to like everybody. Like is a personal preference. Love is a commitment. That’s the way of love we get from Jesus.
The story of the Confession of St. Peter
When Jesus came into the district of Caesarea Philippi, he asked his disciples, “Who do people say that the Son of Man is?” And they said, “Some say John the Baptist, but others Elijah, and still others Jeremiah or one of the prophets.” He said to them, “But who do you say that I am?” Simon Peter answered, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.” And Jesus answered him, “Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah! For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father in heaven. And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church.”
The story of the Conversion of St. Paul
I want you to know, brothers and sisters, that the gospel that was proclaimed by me is not of human origin; for I did not receive it from a human source, nor was I taught it, but I received it through a revelation of Jesus Christ. You have heard, no doubt, of my earlier life in Judaism. I was violently persecuting the church of God and was trying to destroy it. I advanced in Judaism beyond many among my people of the same age, for I was far more zealous for the traditions of my ancestors. But when God, who had set me apart before I was born and called me through his grace, was pleased to reveal his Son to me, so that I might proclaim him among the Gentiles, I did not confer with any human being, nor did I go up to Jerusalem to those who were already apostles before me.
If you’d like to join in this donor-based ministry, donate here.