Has this ever happened to you? You’re sitting in your pew at church waiting for Mass to begin, when “he” walks in and sits down in the pew right behind you. “He” (or “she”) could be anyone you are having a hard time with—a noisy neighbor, the parent of a child who was mean to your daughter last year, or just someone who sings too loud or whose political beliefs drive you crazy. Whatever the reason, there is a distance between yourself and him, and his presence makes you feel uncomfortable.
Then comes the sign of peace. What do you do? Do you avoid him? Do you offer him a halfhearted handshake or, worse, a cold glare? Or do you try to put your differences aside and offer him a heartfelt greeting and a sincere “Peace be with you”?
This situation is a simple way to understand the divisions between Catholic, Protestant, and Orthodox Christians. For centuries, there has been distance between us, and the Church is asking us to turn toward each other and sincerely offer each other peace in Christ. This month, we want to look at this call to Christian unity, also known as ecumenism. We want to see how deeply God longs for all believers to overcome their differences so that we may “all be one” as he is one with his Son, Jesus (John 17:22).
The Pain of Division. Parents get upset when their children are at odds with each other, especially when the divisions are serious or long-standing. They grieve over their divided family. So think about how much it grieves God the Father to see his children divided, unable to love one another or work together. Think about how it breaks his heart to see so many divisions among God’s people instead of the one, holy, catholic, and apostolic Church he gave birth to on Pentecost.
Why does God grieve over our divisions? Because he himself lives in a unity that goes to the very core of who he is. Every time we pray “In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit,” we are proclaiming that our God is a communion of divine Persons. God loves unity because he himself is one. He lives in a community of love, and like any father, he delights when he sees his children loving one another and living in unity with each other. It’s why he gave us the gift of family. It’s why he has called us to live our faith together in a Church and not just as individuals. Put simply, God loves unity!
But as much as God longs to see his people united, the poison of division seems to spread in every generation. From the moment Adam and Eve blamed each other for the first sin until today, conflict, misunderstanding, and division have made it harder for us to build the kingdom of God. Just as the serpent in the garden sought to divide us from God and each other, so the devil—the accuser of our brothers and sisters (Revelation 12:10)—is still trying to divide God’s children.
Even the early Church struggled to stay united. Although the cultures, beliefs, and philosophies of Jews and Gentiles were often opposed to each other, because of their faith in Christ, they were able to come together as brothers and sisters. Slaves and masters became members of the same family in Christ. Men and women now were coheirs with Christ, equal in dignity as sons and daughters of God. The poor and the rich learned to love each other.
But this unity was often threatened by both internal and external forces. In fact, many of the letters in the New Testament—like Galatians, Romans, and Ephesians—were written to help Christians understand God’s heart for unity so that they could overcome their divisions. It was not just “good theology” when Paul told the believers at Ephesus that God “has made known to us the mystery of his will . . . , to sum up all things in Christ, in heaven and on earth” (Ephesians 1:9, 10; emphasis added). Paul was telling them how much God desires unity. And if unity is so important to God, imagine how much he longs for all believers to be united!
Imagine a United Church. Can you imagine what a united Church could look like today? Think of the kind of witness it could be to the world. Instead of division and separation, we could become a model of love as we proclaim the good news of Christ side by side. Instead of arguing over our doctrinal differences, we could show the world what it means to care for each other as Christ has cared for us. Or think of our witness as together we reach out to the poor and the outcast, sharing our different gifts and skills. As Jesus promised, the world would know that we are his disciples because of the way we love each other (John 13:35).
But perhaps more than any other kind of witness, a united Church would be a living testimony to the power of forgiveness and reconciliation. “Look at how they have overcome their differences,” people would say. “The fact that they have reconciled after centuries apart is living proof of a God who loves us.” Rather than being a scandal to the world because of our divisions, our example would draw people from every background into a relationship with the Lord.
Father, Make Them One! During his time on earth, Jesus worked and prayed fervently for unity. He reached out to Gentiles as well as Jews. He welcomed the educated and uneducated, women as well as men, Zealots and tax collectors. He spent time with the rich and with the poor. He made no distinction; he invited everyone to follow him.
In fact, unity was so important to Jesus that it was the very last thing he prayed for at the Last Supper: “I pray . . . for those who will believe in me through their word, so that they may all be one, as you, Father, are in me and I in you, that they also may be in us” (John 17:20-21). Jesus’ prayer was not just a hopeful wish. He wasn’t just stating his preference. No, this prayer welled up in him as a result of his own unity with his Father. Jesus knew that his Father wants all of us to share in the unity of the Trinity, and he longed to see it happen. Just as he understood his Father’s desire for unity, Jesus echoed that desire back to his Father in a plea that continues to ring out today.
In a similar way, when we pray for unity, we are echoing back to our heavenly Father the words that flow from deep in his heart. That means that when we pray this prayer, we are drawing from a well of spiritual power. What’s more, we can be confident that, because it is so close to the Father’s heart, God hears our prayer and is right now at work to answer it.
Divided Hearts, a Divided Church. Human history is filled with stories of suffering caused by division and separation. But God doesn’t want our history to make us feel hopeless. In fact, most Christians want to live in unity. We see fractured faith traditions and prejudices against one another, and we know that something is not right. We may wonder, “Why are we so divided?”
Of course, there are real differences in doctrine, practice, and liturgy among faith traditions that are difficult to overcome. But we also have to look at our own heart. We all know what it is like to have divisive thoughts about fellow parishioners or negative judgments about other faith traditions. Closer to home, none of us can go through life without having experienced some kind of division, whether in our families or among our friends. We can nurse suspicions against people who have hurt us. We might even catch ourselves speaking ill of people at times. It can be very easy to focus on some small slight, a contribution not appreciated, or a service overlooked, and let that grow into bitterness, unforgiveness, or envy.
It’s true—each of us has sinned and contributed to the divisions we see in our Church and in the world. But God has not given up hope. Even today, he is inviting us to follow his Son’s example by praying fervently and working persistently for unity.
Thirsting for Unity. So how can we begin to break down these walls of division? As in all things, our first response should be to repent and believe. When we catch ourselves entertaining divisive thoughts, we should turn to the Lord and ask him to forgive us. As we do, we’ll sense God pouring a new grace into our hearts. It’s the grace to believe that unity is possible. It’s the grace described in Jesus’ prayer at the Last Supper: “That they may all be one” (John 17:21). And it’s the grace to become a force for unity.
So let’s pray for unity. Let’s make it a part of our regular prayer time and beg the Lord to heal all divisions and to bring the Church together as one. The more we make the quest for unity a part of our prayer, the more we will thirst for unity—just as Jesus himself did.