Acts 4:8-13/Psalm 23/1 Peter 5:1-4/Matthew16:13-19
Today we celebrate the Confession of St. Peter. They’re at Caesarea Philippi, a beautiful, rugged place of streams and waterfalls north of the Galilee in the Golan Heights, an area of Syria now controlled by Israel. The splendid Roman city is gone; the many temples and shrines to pagan gods built into the face of a great rock cliff are gone—a couple of small niches remain. It was perhaps directly facing these shrines with their statues that Jesus may have said something like, “That is Pan and that is Aphrodite. But who do you say that I am?” “You are the Anointed, the Messiah, the Christ; the Son of the living God.” You are Son of the living God, not a god carved in stone—says Peter. The shrines and temples were built on the face of the rock cliff; the church would be built on the faith of a human “rock”, that is, Petros, Peter—as Simon came to be known.
And today we also begin the “Week of Prayer for Christian Unity”. The “Week of Prayer for Christian Unity” will close next Tuesday when we celebrate the “Conversion of Paul”, that is, his experience of the Son of the Living God on the Damascus Road. So the week is framed by two great pillars of the early church: Peter and Paul.
“Christian unity”? Christians certainly don’t give much impression of being unified. In any major American city we see dozens, if not hundreds, of Christian denominations: Eastern Orthodox of various national affiliations (Russian, Greek, Armenian, Egyptian, Serbian, Syrian); Roman Catholic; Anglican (mostly Episcopalian, with perhaps an offshoot or two); Protestants expressing a wide range of theologies and national affiliations (from liberal and progressive United Church of Christ to conservative Evangelical and Pentecostal—representing dozens of countries of immigrant populations). Etc., etc…. And more than one of these denominations claim to be the “one, true church”—or in possession of the whole truth and nothing but the truth.
The sheer range and variety is staggering, perhaps even disturbing. Many of these denominations emerged from conflict within denominations, further splintering things. All these groups both agree and disagree on many things, both substantive and trivial—some are openly or covertly hostile to others. Indeed, wars have been fought between Christians. So, of course we pray for Christian unity–why wouldn’t we pray for Christian unity?
It’s a perfectly good question. But in a sense, Christian unity is something that already exists, that has existed all along—in spite of us. Nothing we human beings can do can either create this unity or destroy it. We can argue and fight all we want. We can use different language, different ceremonial, different music and explain doctrine in different ways. But in spite of all this, and in spite of our best efforts to mess things up, unity is something the Church already has. It is for us to see it; it is for us to live into this unity.
One of our Eucharistic Prayers, Prayer D, puts it this way: “Remember, Lord, your one holy catholic and apostolic Church, redeemed by the blood of your Christ. Reveal its unity, guard its faith, and preserve it in peace.” [BCP p375] “Reveal its unity…”
“Reveal its unity…”—perhaps that’s a more accurate way of thinking about and praying about Christian unity. There is one living God; there is one Christ. There can be only one Body of Christ because there is only one Christ. The one Christ is the transcendent unity of the Body of Christ. In spite of the appearance of tremendous multiplicity, the Church, the Body of Christ is a unified entity.
So, who belongs to this Body of Christ, who’s in and who’s out? Ah, wouldn’t we like to know? The baptized? That’s a fairly compelling definition. But, all the baptized—every single one, regardless? Any beyond the baptized? Christians have tried to answer the question of who’s in and who’s out and have come up with different answers. Some require only the sacrament of baptism; some require certain formulations and statements of belief. Some say something like: God is love and wherever love is, God himself is there. Others might point to the 25th chapter of Matthew where Jesus identifies himself with all the suffering, regardless of belief or sacramental status: “…I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink…just as you did to the least of these, you did it to me…” [Matthew 25: 35, 40] So, what are the precise contours of the Body of Christ, the Church?
I think it’s just as well we don’t know for sure. I think it’s just as well we admit that “God only knows”. There is one living God and one Christ; there can be only one Body of Christ—whatever and wherever and whoever that is. Regardless of outward appearance, this Body of Christ is one because it is the one and only Body of Christ.
In the Gospel of John, at the Last Supper, Jesus prays to the Father: “The glory you have given me I have given them, so that they may be one, as we are one, I in them and you in me, that they may become completely one…” [John 17:22-23] “That they may be one, as we are one…” Jesus and the Father are one—but they are also distinct persons. The doctrine of the Holy Trinity I think is a helpful guide for thinking about the Church and its unity. The doctrine of the Trinity conveys the idea that there is one God, but in three persons. This is paradoxical and hard to wrap the mind around, but one thing being conveyed is that the Divine Life is a transcendent unity that preserves differentiation, a oneness that embraces multiplicity.
And we see a similar pattern in the Church, this “Mystical Body”: a multiplicity bound by a transcendent unity, differentiation of identities united by the transcendent oneness of God.
So, we could call this the “Week of Prayer for Christian Unity”. Or, we could call it the “Week of Prayer for the Revealing of Christian Unity”. Or we could call it the “Week of Celebration of Christian Multiplicity”. We Christians are one as Jesus and the Father are one: one with each other in Christ, yet, having distinct identities—as individuals and as denominations.
So, let’s celebrate who we are. And let’s celebrate who “they” are, whoever “they” may be. Let’s be glad we are who we are, whoever we are. I sometimes think the best metaphor for the Body of Christ is not a loaf of bread with a smooth, homogenized texture, but a fruit cake. The Church, the Body of Christ, is more like a fruit and nut cake. It’s one cake, but cherries are still cherries and nuts are still nuts. And Episcopalians are still Episcopalians—which, of course, can mean many different things.
We can celebrate who we are and celebrate who other Christians are at the same time. I’m imagining a future in which congregations in a town make gifts to all the other congregations– just to say “we love you and we’re glad you’re here, too”? The Orthodox contributing to Baptists, the Catholics to Pentecostals, the Anglicans to Evangelicals–just to say, “we love you”. When we’ve arrived at the point where this seems like a perfectly natural thing to do, we will have begun to see the unity binding this splendidly, gloriously diversified Body of Christ.
When we can acknowledge that the full Truth about the Living God is too much for one person to bear and too much even for one denomination to bear, we will have begun to see that which makes us one, as he and the Father are one. When we’ve become so confident in our own identity that we can cheer others on in theirs, then we will have come closer to that clear vision that reveals the unity of all disparate things in Christ.
I’ll close with a prayer from the Great Vigil of Easter:
O God of unchangeable power and eternal light: Look
favorably on your whole Church, that wonderful and sacred
mystery; by the effectual working of your providence, carry
out in tranquillity the plan of salvation; let the whole world
see and know that things which were cast down are being
raised up, and things which had grown old are being made
new, and that all things are being brought to their perfection
by him through whom all things were made, your Son Jesus
Christ our Lord. Amen. [BCP 291]
Please support the Brothers work.
The brothers of SSJE rely on the inspired kindness of friends to sustain our life and our work. We are grateful for the prayers and support provided to us.