Week of Prayer for Christian Unity: Day Five

Today’s excerpt from the WCC resources for the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity will be abbreviated, and I will add some of my own thoughts in response to the questions for reflection.

Day Five: Changed by the peace of the Risen Lord

Jesus stood among them and said: Peace be with you! (Jn 20:19)

– Mal 4:5-6 He will turn the hearts of parents to their children and the hearts of children to their parents
– Ps 133 How good and pleasant it is when kindred live together in unity!
– Eph 2:14-20 To reconcile both groups to God in one body, putting to death hostility
– Jn 20:19-23 Jesus stood among them and said: Peace be with you!

Today we celebrate the peace of the Risen Lord. The Risen One is the great Victor over death and the world of darkness. He unites His disciples, who were paralysed with fear. He opens up before us new prospects of life and of acting for His coming kingdom. The Risen Lord unites and strengthens all believers. Peace and unity are the hallmarks of our transformation in the resurrection.

The gospel recalls the gift of the risen Lord, given to His uncertain and terrified disciples. Peace be with you – that is Christ’s greeting and also His gift. It is also an invitation to seek peace with God and establish new, lasting relationships within the human family and all of creation. Jesus has trampled down death and sin. By the gift of the Holy Spirit, the Risen Lord invites His disciples into His mission of bringing peace, healing and forgiveness to all the world. As long as Christians remain divided, the world will not be convinced of the full truth of the Gospel message that Christ has brought about one new humanity. Peace and unity are the hallmarks of this transformation. The Churches need to appropriate and witness to these gifts as members of the one household of God built upon the sure foundation of Jesus as the cornerstone.

Prayer

Loving and merciful God, teach us the joy of sharing in Your peace.
Fill us with Your Holy Spirit so that we may tear down the walls of hostility separating us.
May the risen Christ, who is our peace, help us to overcome all division and unite us as members of His household.
We ask this in the name of Jesus Christ, to whom with You and the Holy Spirit be all honour and glory, world without end. Amen

Questions for reflection

1. What forms of violence in our community can we as Christians confront together?

2. How do we experience hidden hostilities that affect our relationship to each other as
Christian communities?

3. How can we learn to welcome each other as Christ welcomes us?

My reflections

The question about “hidden hostilities” resonated for me, in light of my recent studies. In September, I was fortunate enough to be able to attend the annual meeting of the North American Academy of Ecumenists, and one of the talks was given by Nancy Heisey, a Mennonite theologian who participated in the formal talks between the Mennonite and Roman Catholic churches. An important and difficult issue in these talks concerned the healing of memories between communities in which, even now, as described in a poignant poem, a little Mennonite girl could say to a little Catholic girl, Your people killed my people.

This made a tremendous impact on me. I knew, as a matter of vague history, that the time of the Reformation had not been bloodless; that the Roman Catholic church had persecuted and killed those whom it considered heretics; that Christians had martyred each other, each considering the other heretical. But that was all in the past, surely: I’m a descendant of two generations of Catholic-Protestant marriages, and although we still disagreed about matters of faith, it was polite disagreement, and anyway we’re all Christians together, isn’t that the important point?

It had never occurred to me that there were living communities whose identity as a people of faith included stories of having been persecuted and martyred by Roman Catholics that might be as detailed, and as deeply felt, as the stories of early Christians, who had been persecuted and martyred by the Romans.

Dr. Heisey’s talk concerned how memory and history can interact in an ecumenical context. She discussed how memory and history each have their own truths, and both need to be honored. She raised the question of “right remembering” and described her experiences on the Mennonite side of the dialogue that produced the document Called to be Peacemakers. The Mennonites are part of the family of historic peace churches, descended from the Anabaptists among the Radical Reformers.

She opened her talk by sharing with us a story, iconic among Mennonites, of Dirk Willems, a 16th century Anabaptist who had been arrested and imprisoned for his religious beliefs. He escaped from prison and was fleeing across a frozen river, pursued by a guard. When the ice broke under his pursuer, Dirk stopped
Dirk Willems engraving

and turned

and rescued him

and was recaptured
and was, ultimately, burned at the stake.

I had never heard of him.

When I got home, I re-told that story all week, to everyone with whom I have that sort of conversation. What an inspiring, powerful example of what it really means to live out the gospel mandate, Love your enemies!

For my ecclesiology course last semester, I wrote a paper exploring the question of whether denominational differences could be understood as cultural differences. I researched reports from Consultation of United and Uniting Churches, and read stories of how the process of unity was bogged down by issues that weren’t theological at all, but had to do with how much ministers should be paid, or cultural sensitivities, or lingering racism. Even some arguably theological issues such as church polity clearly had some non-theological aspects to them. And if the focus of ecumenical discussion is always structured in terms of the theological issues, then these non-theological items never get surfaced: they lurk in the background, as “hidden hostilities”.

Contemplating questions like those in my last post about the relationship between the Holy Spirit and the institutional church, and especially how to interpret statements made by the institutional church on that subject, has only deepened the conviction I expressed in the conclusion of that paper:

We began the semester by reflecting on Karl Barth’s unabashed framing of the divisions among the churches as sin, for which we must repent. I suggest that the areas that particularly call for humility and repentance are areas that are, in the language of my own tradition, universal occasions of sin: matters of power, authority, finances, conflict, and any other area that is a universal source of temptation. Any theological issues touching such areas should be approached with great caution and with an explicit, careful, excruciatingly honest assessment of the non-theological issues that come into play. Such an examination of conscience integrated into our ecumenical discussions will help us live and grow together in the love of which St. Paul wrote:

Love is patient, love is kind. It is not jealous, it is not pompous, it is not inflated, it is not rude, it does not seek its own interests, it is not quick-tempered, it does not brood over injury. (1 Cor 13:4-6)

May the Holy Spirit fill all Christians with the grace and courage to engage in such excruciatingly honest examinations of conscience, as we devoutly seek to be transformed by the peace, healing, and forgiveness of the Risen Lord. Amen.

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