Unity - But at What Price?

May 13 2018


A pastor who visited the Church of the Holy Sepulcher in Jerusalem told this story to his congregation:

‘We had been delayed on the way and it was getting dark when our group arrived. We stumbled into the darkened church of the Holy Sepulcher, the traditional site of Jesus' crucifixion and resurrection and they gave each one of us a little candle. I looked through the candlelight and noticed that there were plenty of light fixtures but none had been turned on.

"Why," I asked, do we have to stumble around with candles?" The Muslim policeman on duty patiently explained to me that Christian groups who use the church fight among themselves about who should pay the light bills. Consequently, the Muslims, who were in control of the city, had to shut the power off in order to stop the fighting.

This is the Middle East I'm talking about. Where in the world is there a more urgent need for a witness of unity and brotherhood? Here were the Christians, in this great Christian church, witnessing to disunity. That's not the end of it. At precisely 5:00 PM the Muslim policeman gently but firmly requested us to leave. I protested because we hadn't really seen much of the church yet.

Again, the Muslim policeman patiently explained that because Christian groups constantly fight among themselves about who is to have the right to open and close the church, the key had to be taken from them. This sorry episode opened my eyes to the urgent need for us Christians to be signs of unity which we are called to be, rather than the signs of division we so often are.”

For our next example of the lack of Christian unity, we turn to the Catholic Church and the era of Pope Pius X. In the early 20th century there arose a group of thinkers referred to as the modernists. The movement started mainly in France. Because the thinking was progressive and liberal, it threatened the unity of the church and the power of the papacy. Pius X succeeded in putting all of the canon law gathered over the centuries into what became known as the Canon Law of the Church. But because papal authority was being threatened, what was really accomplished by placing all of the rules and regulations that had been gathered into a formula code was also the establishment of the infallible nature of the decrees that come from the Pope - a concept unheard of before the early 1900's. Listen to the words of Canon Law 218 which grants full authority to the Pope:

"The supreme and most complete jurisdiction, throughout the church, both in matters of faith and morals and those that affect discipline and church government throughout the world."

Canon 1325 curbed peer-group ecumenical discussion: "Catholics are to avoid disputations or conferences about matters of faith with non-Catholics, especially in public, unless the Holy See, or, in case of emergency, the Bishop of the place, has given permission."

The actual Cardinals’ vote regarding total allegiance to the Pope was so close that those supporting it had to do quite a bit of politicking in order to get it passed. Ultimately, what occurred is the immediate elimination of any thought or reliance on conscience which for years was part of Catholic Church doctrine. As a result, there was much dissension, both in France and America regarding this development.

In our Gospel lesson for today Jesus is praying what has come to be known as the high priestly prayer. It is a prayer for unity - for unity among the disciples, for unity among people, for unity with God. Much of the prayer deals with how Jesus and God are one, and that as they are one, so should the disciples strive to be one.

But Jesus makes this statement, "Sanctify them in the truth; your word is truth." How do we go about finding the truth of God if we cannot question? And how do we go about creating the unity of Christians on this earth if we cannot even agree about something as simple as paying an electric bill or locking up a church?

We are all aware that in addition to the many denominations and religious approaches in the world, there are many Christian denominations. We are also aware that within those denominations there has always been a wide range of belief and interpretation. In light of all of that, there have always been questions about which one is more correct.

I would submit to you today that none of us has the whole truth - not the Christian denominations, not the Jewish faith, not the Muslims, not any other world religion or individual religion. I would submit to you that a relationship with God is based on faith and truth as we have been privileged to understand it within our individual minds, our hearts and our consciences. I would submit to you that it is within our individual spirituality that we form a relationship with God, that we form our beliefs and that we form those rules, for lack of a better term, that govern our behavior.

Does it send a poor message to the world when Christians cannot agree? Perhaps. But then most religions have sects within those religions that view their faith and their responsibility differently. With this world shrinking at a faster and faster rate each moment, we cannot be so gullible as to think that there is only one way of approaching God - at least not as long as we continue to think in denominational terms.

But - if we are willing to view God as the creator of all people; if we are willing to accept that ways of relating to that God can often be influenced more by culture than anything else; if we are willing to accept that while people can choose different ways of worshipping, we are all worshipping the same God, then how much farther do you think that we could extend that unity that Jesus prayed about?

More than anything, Jesus wanted unity among His disciples, but he also prayed that they might be sanctified in the truth, and that they might be protected from those who would seek to do them harm, or from what some would deem evil, satanic forces.

The most that we can hope and strive for is to develop our individual relationships with God, then strive to openly develop our corporate spirituality as we interact with others, and finally, to be open enough to the interpretations and spirituality of others to genuinely seek the Spirit of God within each and everyone of them.

Because we are human, because most of us do not have highly developed personal spirituality, it will continue to be difficult to get denominations to realize that they must think through God, not to God.

But the future of this world depends on how well we will be able to develop that spirituality in the 21st century and how well we will be able to communicate with, understand and accept those who believe or think differently from us. If we continue to think that the answers will come through God, we will be on the road to success. If we continue to think that the answers will reside in contracts and laws, we will not succeed. In that case, the unity for which Jesus so fervently prayed to his father will still be a long time coming. Amen.