The Impact of Christian Unity

I think it’s unlikely that when Jesus called Simon and Andrew to follow him – as we heard in today’s Gospel – he could possibly have imagined that his little band would one day turn into a worldwide church of some 2.2 billion members. If the truth be known, I don’t believe that Jesus ever intended to found a church.  He came to do what the first line of today’s Gospel said he would do: to renew his people Israel and to proclaim something called the kingdom of God – to announce the fact that God is king… and that Caesar is not!

But that little apostolic band eventually turned into a movement;  and for movements to perpetuate themselves across time and space they inevitably institutionalize (for better or worse).  And so the church was born.  For a thousand years we were one church (although not monochrome even in those early days, there were local variations, but we were one church!). Then, in the Great Schism of 1054, the Western and Eastern branches shattered apart for political as well as theological reasons.

Five hundred years later – for different political and theological reasons – the Reformation produced Lutherans and Reformed Christians and Calvinists and Anglicans, and we’ve been pretty much dividing ever since. By some estimates there are over 30,000 denominations across the world today. That’s pretty depressing for those of us who still say in our creeds that we believe in one, holy, catholic, and apostolic church!

And so every year we observe something called the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity. From January 18th (the feast of the Confession of St. Peter) to January 25th (the feast of the Conversion of St. Paul) Christians around the world pray for an end to our scandalous divisions and for greater unity among us all.  It’s easy to get discouraged about the slow pace of ecumenical unity…until we remember how far we’ve come even since World War II…in my lifetime.

In those days Roman Catholics were not to enter Protestant churches and most Protestants would not dare enter a Catholic church. Mainline Protestants made cruel jokes about Baptists and “holy rollers.”  And there were instances of discrimination and lack of preferment in the workplace perpetrated by Christians against other Christians. Most of us remember all too well the concerns raised about John F. Kennedy’s Catholicism when he ran for President in 1960.

The modern ecumenical movement has made all kinds of strides over these last decades, both in the realm of “Faith and Order” and also what used to be called the “Life and Work” movement.   In line with our Epiphany theme here at New Song about the plight of immigrants and refugees around the world, I’d like to hold up an example of the Life and Work movement known as Church World Service.

In 1946, in the aftermath of World War II, seventeen denominations (including the Episcopal Church) came together to form an agency to do in partnership what none of them could hope to do as well alone. The mission: Feed the hungry, clothe the naked, heal the sick, comfort the aged, and shelter the homeless.

In that same year “… churches opened their hearts and provided more than 11 million pounds of food, clothing, and medical supplies to war-torn Europe and Asia. Protestants and Catholics pooled talent and resources to meet a staggering refugee crisis. Today the Immigration and Refugee Program of Church World Service is a vital, internationally-recognized operation, having resettled nearly half a million refugees since its inception.”

“… in 1947, Lutheran World Relief and the National Catholic Welfare Program created a joint community hunger appeal, the Christian Rural Overseas Program, also known as CROP. (Some of you have no doubt participated in CROP walks, but may not even have realized where they came from.) The early CROP initiative captured the imagination of American’s heartland”.

“Soon ‘Friendship Trains’ roared across the country, picking up commodities such as corn, wheat, rice, and beans to be shared around the world. The experience of the trains led to ‘Friendship Food Ships.’ And, a multi-denominational program called the One Great Hour of Sharing was formed to raise in-church gifts to help fill these ships.” (From the CWS website)

Well, I could go on and on with the history. But, suffice it to say, Church World Service continues today its refugee resettlement and food security programs as well as many more efforts. When I served on the Board of the National Council of Churches in New York, I was regularly blown away by the annual reports of those efforts.

We face new challenges to immigrants and refugees in our day. Fueled in part by fears of terrorism and economic insecurity and in part by a new wave of nativism reinforced in the highest levels of government, there are new barriers being raised against immigrants and refugees coming into our country.  The government was shut down yesterday because of this!

Last Tuesday, before the shut-down, I went with about a dozen colleagues from the Center for Worker Justice to plead with staff persons for Chuck Grassley and Joni Ernst at their offices in Cedar Rapids. We asked them why our senators could not support a “clean Dream Act” (which has overwhelming bipartisan support in Congress) and end the fear of deportation for some 700,000 primarily young DACA residents. And we got the same old tired arguments about the need for border security and the same old hysteria about human trafficking and terrorism as reasons for that heightened security.

But this is not the first time Americans have confronted a sudden influx of refugees and it’s not the first time the impulse has been to close the door. Even in the era I’ve been talking about, after World War II, when the Soviet Union was tightening its grip on Eastern Europe, President Eisenhower released a plan to bring a quarter-of-a-million asylum-seekers to the U.S.  That was our President’s plan!

But the end of WW II sent waves of refugees in many directions. And the popular reaction here was resistance. Not the kind of “resistance” many of us are engaged in today….not the kind of resistance we saw in the streets yesterday…resistance to refugees! A Gallup poll in 1946 found that fifty-nine per cent of Americans disapproved of a plan to accept those displaced by the war – including Jews who had survived the Holocaust.

We’ve been here before, dear friends. But in those dark days it was people of faith who made the difference – not least ecumenically minded Christians such as those who banded together in the fledging Church World Service, The National Council of Churches and World Council.. Those we celebrate in this Week of Prayer for Christian Unity.

So, Jesus may not have intended to found a church. But he surely intended that his followers — and the followers of Simon and Andrew in today’s Gospel — would heed his central message: “The time is fulfilled… the kingdom of God has come near… repent, and believe in the good news!”

Part of that good news for us is that “all are welcome, all are welcome, all are welcome…in this place.”

 

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