Earlier today, I sat with a Baptist and ate breakfast prepared by Roman Catholic neighbors in an Episcopal church. All week long, I’ve shared community with Methodists, Catholics, Episcopalians, Baptists, Pentecostals, and folks from lots of other traditions I’m not even aware of. I’m talking about WARM, the intentional network of faith-based organizations who provide shelter and food to persons who are homeless, but it’s obviously bigger than that.
Today, Jan. 18, is the Feast of the Confession of St. Peter — when Simon Peter said, “You’re the Messiah;” to which Jesus said, “Righto! You are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church…” The week between now and next Friday – Jan. 25, the Confession (or Heavenly Knock-down) of St. Paul – is observed around the world as “the week of prayer for Christian unity.” If you count it up it’s actually eight days, that is, an octave. Begun by a Catholic priest in the early 20th century as the Octave of Prayer for Christian Unity, the celebration was blessed by Popes Pius (d. 1914) and Benedict XV (d. 1922) and soon caught on among Protestant churches, as well, such that by the middle of last century the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity was officially sanctioned by the World Council of Churches and is practiced today by 349 different Christian denominations around the world.
It’s fitting that it’s squeezed between celebrations of Peter and Paul, those two bright lights of early Christianity. They were bright and gifted and shining lights, no doubt, but they also struggled, both of them, with pride and power and position. Peter was with Jesus from the earliest days; he helped coordinate the disciples and became, in time, the spokesman for the original twelve and a key leader in the post-Ascension Jesus movement. He had presence and longevity and personal relationships and skill. Paul, on the other hand, was the brash, bold, new upstart. Paul didn’t know Jesus personally, and even if you set aside that whole bit about Saul/Paul persecuting early Christians, he was still the new kid. But that didn’t stop him from speaking his mind and following the Spirit where it led, even if it meant fights over what shape the Jesus movement was going to take. If Paul and Peter, in spite of their very human posturing, could be on the same team and work for the same mission, so can we. Hence, a week of prayer for Christian unity.
When I was in Chicago, serving as curate at the Episcopal church in the Lincoln Park neighborhood, we did a pulpit swap on the Sunday nearest this week. One block down the street there was a Presbyterian church, and two blocks down was the UCC congregation. Three blocks down and two streets over was the big Roman Catholic parish. The clergy got together around the first of the year and made a plan as to who was hopping over to which church at which service that weekend. It was really fun not only to get together, at least once a year, with other Christian ministers but also nice to celebrate and hear different preachers and expose ourselves to the rich diversity of Christian faith and practices.
We don’t do a pulpit swap like that in St. Mary’s County, and one logistical reason is that most of us don’t have multi-staff parishes so one priest can stay back in order to lead the service while the other can go and preach. But we do have WARM, which is, as I’ve said in a previous post, not only about helping people who are homeless but also about helping us, the so-called helpers. WARM, by intention, brings into relationship people who might otherwise not meet, let alone spend quality time together. Maybe it’s the way we set it up at St. George’s, Valley Lee, but from the very beginning (due to the fact that we were afraid we wouldn’t have enough help) we reached out to our partner Episcopal churches as well as our neighbor Methodist church and Catholic parish and Baptist congregation. And they not only help us in the work but they partner with us, such that they are known in this congregation and we are known in theirs, such that we are now more than neighbors, we’re brothers and sisters and, indeed, friends.
Christian unity is a gift, not only to us who follow Jesus but to the world we are called to serve. Christians model, by our very existence, a deep and real unity — not uniformity of belief or practice or custom, but unity in spirit, grounded in relationship, founded in God.
I’ve always thought that one of the greatest things about Christianity is the way in which we’ve preserved our disagreements – theological, doctrinal, liturgical, whatever. I mean, no one ever went back over the New Testament and tried to downplay or “clean up” the disagreement between Peter and Paul or the others. No, they left it all in, warts and blow-ups and screaming matches and all. And we don’t try to water down our worship or diminish our traditions in order to make our modern-day differences less obvious. Some of us handle snakes (yikes!) and some of us use incense. Some base everything on the bible, as it is written, others bring in the traditional writings. Some use the Apocrypha, some only use the Old and New Testaments. There are priests in some churches, pastors in others, parsons, prophets, bishops, evangelists, and whatever else in every which one. And that’s great.
And that’s how it should be, for if we’re not united on the outward things our unity must be deeper, much deeper within. That’s where the Kingdom of God has been, He said, all along.