So, it’s the week of prayer for Christian Unity, or week of ecumenism as it’s called. There’s no question that this is a difficult thing. Even the word ecumenism is difficult: it sounds something to do with the environment!
There are all kinds of reasons why divisions appeared in the Christian Church but at root they come down to pride. The pride was not on one side only, the side breaking away, but on the other side and indeed on the other sides, plural, as the splinters multiplied. There were already smaller groups that broke away from the Catholic Church (as it was then called in the early centuries) as the result of heresy, or doctrinal differences (e.g. those who believed that Christ was not true man, or who believed that Christ was not equal with the Father as God). But the main breaks took place in 1054, when the Eastern Catholic Church became what we today call the Orthodox Church, and in 1517, the Reformation led by Martin Luther. Today the Orthodox Church is now really a grouping of Orthodox Churches, plural. The Reformation did not end with Lutheranism, but has now given birth to thousands of Protestant congregations.
I repeat, ecumenism is difficult! All of these different communities, including the Catholic Church, make their claim to be the true holders of the Truth of Christ. Centuries have passed since the Orthodox break, which means centuries of traditions and teachings and a way of life have grown up around them. How do they suddenly let go of even some of that? Indeed, how does the Catholic Church compromise without betraying its belief to be the one, true Church of Christ?
So, are we praying for the impossible? If so, should we not just stop it?
If ecumenism depended on us alone, Christian Unity would never be attained. But it depends primarily on the power and will of God, so it shall be attained. Yet the Father depends on us to work with Him towards what He wants. And we can work with Him in different ways. First, by accepting and recognising that He wants all followers of Christ his Son to form one body. At the last supper, Jesus himself prayed for it very simply, “Father, that they may be one. As I am in you and you are in me, so may they be in us so completely one that the world will believe that you sent me.” Elsewhere Jesus said that he had come to die in order to reunite the scattered children of God.
So, the first thing to have clear in our minds is: God wants the unity of Christians. The second thing is to recognize that Jesus is the one who brings this about. He died to unite us. How does his death unite us? Because in his death he breathes out the Holy Spirit into humanity, and the Spirit draws order from chaos, unity from division, peace from enmity. The Spirit is the instrument of Christian Unity, the power that makes it happen by the will of Jesus and the Father.
So, God wants the unity of Christians. Jesus brings this about by breathing out the Spirit in his death to draw us together. The third thing is that we let the Spirit work in us. I don’t say explicitly, let the Spirit work in us to bring about Christian Unity. The priority is just to let Him work in us every day, by prayer and by listening to His inspirations to do good. By all means, it is good at times, as during this week, to pray specifically for Christian Unity. But by the very fact we pray at all about anything and listen to His inspirations we are already letting Him bring that unity about in and through us.
So, God wants the unity of Christians; Jesus died and gave us the Spirit to make that happen; and we let it happen when we pray and live according to the Spirit’s inspirations. But it can go further. Pope Francis speaks of the ecumenism of blood, referring to the Christians of all denominations who have been martyred by terrorism for their faith in Christ. We may not be called to that kind of ecumenism, but there is the ecumenism of common witness. For example, when Christians of different denominations perform works of charity together, or when they work or even demonstrate together for the freedom of religion or for social justice. The ecumenism of witness is buttressed by the ecumenism of prayer, meeting together in one another’s places of worship and humbly adoring the same Father, Son and Holy Spirit. There are other kinds of ecumenism such as academic or theological ecumenism, where experts get down to the nitty gritty of the differences in doctrine between our communities. But this is something most probably beyond us.
Finally, though, there is another ecumenism, one I’ve invented! I would call it the ecumenism of the self. I said earlier that pride was usually at the root of the divisions between Christians. In other words, the divisions have nothing to do with Christ himself or with the truth that he gave us, but only with ourselves, with our egos. St. Paul in a beautiful and dramatic passage from the letter to the Romans expresses powerfully the divisions each of us experiences within. He says, paraphrasing, I really want to do what I know is right and good, but find myself doing the exact opposite. I think we all experience this division within. We often don’t or can’t understand it. It pains us. It humiliates us. The temptation can be to ignore it. Yet, we must not ignore it for, if we do, it will destroy us. St. Paul asks, who will rescue me from this situation? And he cries out with joy, praise be to God who gives me the victory through Christ Jesus our Lord!
What I mean, then, by the ecumenism of the self is that we accept the division within, we accept that only Jesus can give us the Spirit to free us from it, that we pray and work with the Spirit to get rid of our sin and so experience, not so much Christian Unity, but the inner unity of the Christian that I am. If every Christian committed to that, heart and soul, the unity of Christians would not be so difficult, for each of us would bring to the other a self that was deeply united and at peace with Christ.
This evening, as you know, we will celebrate here Vespers with our sister communities of Sherbrooke St. Gilbert Presbyterian church and St. Ninian’s Episcopal church. This will be a moment of the ecumenism of prayer. I invite you to make an effort to attend, not so much to “keep up our side” as to make it a moment of prayer in which you recommit yourself to the ecumenism of the self. Make it a deliberate decision to surrender yourself to the workings of the Spirit within you so that you may experience that inner peace for which Jesus Christ did not hesitate to surrender himself to death on the Cross and rise again on the third day.