Pulpit Reflections By Father Donald Imming Over in St. Agnes' gym there are a number of posters on the wall. One of them says: "We're all in the same boat. Let's row together!" Every January many Churches in the U.S. observe what is called The Week of Prayer for Christian Unity. Most mainline Protestant churches, the Catholic Church and the Orthodox churches, observe it.
We didn't do anything through the Ministerial Association this year during that time frame to demonstrate our desire to work for unity, but at the February meeting it was decided to have a series of devotionals during Lent which would travel from church to church and which would be ecumenical in character. A definite schedule will probably be worked out and released soon. The plan is for different churches to take part in each devotional no matter where the service is held. Twenty minutes of the noon hour will be devoted to the service and another 20 minutes for a lunch of meatless soup and bread, provided by the host church, for those who attend. It is a small scale gesture, but a positive one. And I am excited about it.
There have been times in my own life when I have been more excited by the idea of working for Christian or church unity than others. Deep down there is a suspicion, perhaps even conviction, that things will never change. We've always been divided. Why should things ever change?
But the fact of the matter is we haven't always been divided. Yes, there have been some divisions and breakoffs within the Christian church from the very beginning. But the main body of Christians at least believed in the ideal for church unity, and generally it was realized in fact.
Secondly the New Testament itself makes a powerful case for unity. Jesus prays at the Last Supper as recorded in John's gospel "… that they may be one, just as you (the Father) and I are one, … that the world may know that you sent me…" (John 17:22-23). And when St. Paul is confronted with divisions within the church at Corinth in Greece, his retort is: "Is Christ divided?" That's not just rhetorical flourish. In that same letter, as elsewhere, Paul argues that the church is so closely associated with Christ, that it is no stretch to call it the Body of Christ.
Within the last 1,000 years the big tears in the fabric of the church have been the division of the church into the Western Church and the Eastern Church, the West under the Pope at Rome, and the East under the Patriarch of Constantinople (Istanbul). Each blamed the other of course. But it was never considered permanent, even today.
The other big split happened about 500 years ago from the Western, or Catholic Church, by various groups which called themselves Protestant. At first only three divisions, Lutheran, Calvinist, and Anglican. But they in turn splintered over and over again until we have a situation of fragmentation. The temptation is to leave things as they are after 500 years. But we should see it for what it is, a temptation. It should be otherwise.
Aren't we all in the same boat? That boat is the church of Christ. We have divided him against his will. Competition may be a healthy thing, if you are selling pharmaceuticals. I am not so sure when it comes to speaking for Christ. What chaos would result if 100 different people claimed to be the ambassador of the U.S. to another foreign country! What scandal occurs when it appears to the world that a religion that preaches love is itself divided by hatred and acrimony!
Is there anything happening to give us hope that Christian or church unity is not simply pie in the sky, a delusion? So much has happened that is positive in my own lifetime, I will not attempt to recite it all. Two hopeful things have occurred recently that are pretty momentous on the world stage that give me hope.
Some Lutherans and Episcopalians have decided to recognize one another's ministries in practice. Some Lutherans and Catholics have decided at the highest levels to agree on a statement that makes the most significant doctrinal dispute since the Reformation moot, namely, the doctrine of salvation by faith alone. As important as these events are, perhaps just as important are little things on the local stage, such as praying together at a series of Lenten devotionals and drinking soup and breaking bread together.
Father Donald Imming is the pastor of St. Agnes Catholic Church in Vermillion.