This month we will see many news reports on the five-hundredth anniversary of the Protestant Reformation. Events will observe the date, the sad history of our divisions will be reviewed and retold, and leaders of different churches will embrace and call for more dialogue. Of course, this is a very good thing. We should never lose sight of the fact that God wants his Church to be united. We should also never lose hope that we will see reconciliation and unity among all Christians. As we said earlier, Jesus himself is praying that we will be one—so it can’t possibly be a hopeless cause!
If we look at Jesus’ prayer from a different angle, we’ll see that the unity he prayed for is not just a matter of doctrinal and liturgical agreement. We’ll see that Jesus wasn’t praying only for the churches that would emerge over the course of history. He was praying for his own disciples—and for us: “I pray not only for them, but also for those who will believe in me through their word, so that they may all be one” (John 17:20-21). It’s a personal prayer, a request that comes from a heart that knows how prone we are to separation and division.
Jesus prays that we will be at unity with everyone, in every relationship we have. He wants us all to know the peace that comes from having a common heart and a mutual love for each other. He knows, in fact, that our willingness to be united in our everyday relationships can go a long way in promoting the kind of unity between the churches that everyone is focused on this month. So let’s take a look at the path that each of us can walk, the path of unity and love, so that we can all become one in Christ.
He “Ran to Meet Him.” For all its talk of peace and hope, Scripture is filled with stories of divisions and family rivalries. In the Book of Genesis alone, we read about Cain and Abel, Jacob and Esau, and Joseph and his brothers. Then there are the stories of David and Saul, of Absalom and Amnon, of Samuel and Saul, and many more. It seems that as soon as our first parents set themselves up as rivals to God, they left a legacy of continued animosity and division.
But even while Scripture tells of so much pain and separation, it also shows us a way out, a way toward reconciliation. Perhaps one of the best examples is the story of Jacob and Esau (Genesis 25–33). Twice Jacob cheated his brother Esau: first out of his birthright and then, out of his father’s blessing. Then to make matters even worse, Jacob ran away to avoid Esau’s wrath (25:27-34; 27:1-45). It seemed that Esau was doomed to hold a lifelong grudge against his scheming younger brother.
After more than fifteen years away, Jacob tried to return home, but he couldn’t get there without passing through his brother’s land. You can imagine how frightened Jacob must have been. “How will Esau act? Will he try to get revenge on me? On my family?” But his fears were unfounded. When the two came together, “Esau ran to meet him, embraced him, and flinging himself on his neck, kissed him as he wept” (Genesis 33:4). There was no grudge. There was no attempt to settle the score. Esau had forgiven Jacob completely. He was just happy to have his brother back.
Esau didn’t wait for Jacob to apologize. He didn’t put his brother on trial or wait for him to admit all his wrongdoings. As far as Esau was concerned, his love for his lost brother was enough to cover “a multitude of sins” (1 Peter 4:8).
The “Face of God.” Jacob was so moved by Esau’s welcome that he told him, “To see your face is for me like seeing the face of God” (Genesis 33:10). Wouldn’t it be wonderful if each of us could become “the face of God” to the people around us? We can do this, but it may take some rethinking on our part before we see this happen.
Some people say that we need to have agreement on truth before we can have any real unity. They might say that Esau should have withheld his love until Jacob showed that he had changed. Others say we can’t come to agreement on truth without first accepting each other completely. In this tug-of-war, “truth” emphasizes doctrines and facts and is suspicious of any deviation from them. “Unity,” on the other hand, emphasizes relationships and cooperation, but it risks losing sight of the truth. Focusing solely on the truth can lead to harsh judgments, unforgiveness, and further division. Focusing only on unity can lead to watered-down relationships that won’t stand the test of time. So this is our challenge: to stay focused on truth and on unity at the same time.
Repeatedly, Pope Francis has called us to be a “field hospital.” “The Church does not exist to condemn people,” he has said, “but to bring about an encounter with the visceral love of God’s mercy.” He has also said, “The Church condemns sin because it has to relay the truth.. . . But at the same time, it embraces the sinner who recognizes himself as such, it welcomes him, it speaks to him of the infinite mercy of God.”
We also have the witness of Jesus, who never once deviated from the truth. Yet over and over, Scripture tells us how he offered love to people before he spoke about the truth of their situations. He reached out to a many-times-divorced woman from Samaria and invited her to drink of his own “living water” before he brought up her sinful living situation (John 4:10). He told a woman caught in adultery, “Neither do I condemn you” before he told her, “Go and from now on do not sin any more” (8:11). He told the tax collector Zacchaeus that he wanted to share a meal with him before Zacchaeus promised to return the money he had stolen (Luke 19:5-8). In each case, there was no prerequisite that said, “We have to agree on truth, or I will not offer you my blessing.” And because of this, people were able to see the face of God—and to see that it is the face of mercy.
Take the Risk. Like these Gospel stories, the story of Jacob and Esau urges us to treasure unity. It asks us to try our best to forgive—even if the person who has hurt us hasn’t yet asked us for forgiveness. Every time we show mercy, every time we forgive without waiting for someone to apologize, the atmosphere in our home or workplace changes. It becomes easier for people to treat each other with love and respect.
Early in his pontificate, Pope Francis encouraged us to go out and “make a mess.” He was speaking mostly about going out into the world and sharing the good news of the gospel. But the pope’s words can also encourage us to risk a little messiness at home. It’s risky taking that first step toward reconciliation. You don’t know how the other person will respond. It’s risky practicing the radical kind of openness that Esau had with Jacob. You don’t know if the other person will take advantage of you.
But those risks are worth taking when the reward is so sweet: a healed relationship, a more loving environment, greater peace in our families. And if you are still hesitant, think about Jesus. He took the greatest risk of all. He came to earth and offered us forgiveness, freedom, and healing “while we were still sinners” (Romans 5:8). He was lavish with his gifts to us at a time when we didn’t deserve any of them. But it didn’t matter. He wanted us to be united with him so much that he risked his very life to bring us back. And God raised him up—just as he will raise us up every time we try to become his instruments of unity.
The Quest for Unity. Jesus wants us all to be united. He wants to heal divisions in families. He wants to heal racial divisions. He wants to heal the divisions between rich and poor. And he wants to heal the divisions among all Christians. Let’s tell him that we want to join him in his quest for unity. Let’s tell him that we want to take the first step in helping to repair a divided relationship. Let’s commit ourselves to being the face of God for everyone we meet—so that we may all be one.