Then Peter began to speak to them: “I truly understand that God shows no partiality, but in every nation anyone who fears him and does what is right is acceptable to him. You know the message he sent to the people of Israel, preaching peace by Jesus Christ-he is Lord of all.
-Acts 10:34-36 (St. Peter’s vision of unity)
In Christ Jesus you are all children of God through faith. As many of you as were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.
-Galatians 3:26-28 (St. Paul’s vision of unity)
A prayer for the Unity of the Church (p. 818, Book of Common Prayer)
O God the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, our only Savior, the Prince of Peace: 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.
Sometimes, it’s crystal clear that the Holy Spirit is at work in the church calendar. Today, January 25, we observe the feast of the Conversion of St. Paul, the story of Paul’s Damascus Road experience. It concludes a week that began on January 18 with the feast of the Confession of St. Peter, which tells about the time when Peter confessed Jesus as Messiah. The week between these two stories, these two celebrations is called a week of Prayer for Christian Unity.
In case you haven’t noticed, unity seems to be on our minds these days, not that we necessarily know how to get it.
Let’s not miss the fact that these two characters, Peter and Paul, bracket this week. They had things in common. Both were capable leaders, innovators, spiritual entrepreneurs. Both had pretty strong ego strength. Both knew failure. Peter denied Jesus. Paul persecuted members of the Jesus movement. The New Testament indicates that they had run-ins. (Church fights are nothing new.) Paul publicly accused Peter of hypocrisy. A letter attributed to Peter notes that some of Paul’s letters were hard to understand. The two guys agreed to disagree, Peter having a mission to those in the Jewish community, Paul directing attention to Gentiles.
With all that, these two pillars of the early church illustrate something about unity. Their unity was not uniformity, not even agreement. I’m not sure they even liked each other that much. But with the help of these two characters, Peter without unexpressed thought and Paul without editor, we can learn something about what unity means, not only in our church, but in our families and workplaces, in our nation and world. According to them (see verses above) unity is about welcome and inclusion, about the wideness of God’s mercy which we hopefully reflect in our lives. Hopefully.
I suspect we all have indelible impressions of the insurrection at the Capitol on January 6. Not the epiphany I was looking for. Particularly unsettling to me were the number of people in that crowd who indicated that what they were doing had something to do with Jesus. If that’s what the Jesus movement is about, count me out.
In response, I felt an urgent need to seek another understanding of what it means to be a Jesus follower. I picked up a book entitled Jesus and the Disinherited by Howard Thurman. He talks about how those who feel disenfranchised (people on all sides of the political spectrum these days) easily resort to fear, deception and hate. We’ve seen all of those in our politics. Thurman says that hate emerges in a situation in which there is “contact without fellowship. “
The ways that lack of fellowship gets expressed need not be as egregious as attacking our capitol, setting up a noose for the Vice President in Jesus’ name. We might ask, for instance: Where does road rage come from? When I’m driving (without my collar on) I can declare someone to be a total idiot, or worse, simply because they drive too slow or hog the left lane or fail to use a signal. I would never do that if I were in the passenger seat with them. Social media allows people to say things they would not otherwise say, not that I would ever participate in such. We retreat into silos of class, race, theology, liturgy, politics, taste which allows us to other-ize folks and feel somehow more secure, more in touch with our “inheritance.” Contact without fellowship.
So a week of prayer for Christian unity is timely, a reminder, a recognition of the importance of relationship, not only with God but with each other. It calls us to the wideness of God’s mercy. Where are the growth edges for you in this? Maybe a lack of fellowship is hampering, hindering relationships in your household, in your neighborhood, in your church. Maybe it’s broader than that. Howard Thurman notes that in the course of our lives, our response can be fear, deception or hate. But he suggests an alternative, the way of Jesus, the way of love, which is the focus of his last chapter in his book. It is God’s work, but it begins in each one of our hearts.
So this week, ask God to create in you (and me while you’re at it) a new heart. If it helps, use the prayer for unity printed above. Then reach across the aisle, whatever that looks like in your life.