This past week was the one of each year designated as the “Week of Prayer for Christian Unity.”
It runs from Jan. 18 to Jan. 25 and, as in many years, included the Birthday of Martin Luther King Jr. Dr. King, of course, was a true example of unity, calling Christians of all denominations to embrace their common responsibility to carry out the teachings of Jesus.
The tradition, however, dates far before King’s ministry. It originated in 1908 with a Catholic priest who was concerned with the reuniting of Anglicans and Roman Catholics, but this move towards unity soon expanded to address the divisions between the many Christian churches in the world.
In 1958, the French Catholic group Unité Chrétienne and the Faith and Order Commission of the World Council of Churches began to produce materials each year that could be used by congregations to accent the message of this special week. The World Council of Churches, based in Geneva, Switzerland, includes representatives from, among others, most of the world’s Orthodox churches as well as many Anglican, Baptist, Lutheran, Methodist, Reformed, United and Independent churches.
In the celebrations of this special week, Christians around the world proclaim their unity with one another in their common faith in Jesus Christ. At his Last Supper with his disciples, Jesus’ prayed, “My prayer is not for them alone. I pray also for those who will believe in me through their message, that all of them may be one, Father, just as you are in me and I am in you” (John 17:20-21).
Jesus knew already, from the little arguments and debates that broke out among the apostles, that humans are always struggling to reconcile their individual, personal beliefs with those of others. Even when they were in the actual physical presence of Jesus, hearing the same words spoken, each one heard something a little different and made personal interpretations.
We hear this again a number of times in the epistles of St. Paul, where disputes break out among the members of a Christian community as to how they will express their belief in Jesus and his message.
They also have added the factor of their attraction to different preachers of the Christian word. In his first letter to the Corinthians, St. Paul makes clear that we have always struggled with division among Christ’s people. He says, “Now I appeal to you, brothers and sisters, by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that all of you be in agreement and that there be no divisions among you, but that you be united in the same mind and the same purpose. …
“What I mean is that each of you says, ‘I belong to Paul,’ or ‘I belong to Apollos,’ or ‘I belong to Cephas,’ or ‘I belong to Christ.’ Has Christ been divided? Was Paul crucified for you? Or were you baptized in the name of Paul?”
So it is obvious that differences in belief and interpretation are nothing new. Every Christian, we can presume, wants to be faithful to Christ, but how we go about it can lead to large differences.
There are some Christian faiths that suggest other Christians are totally wrong, as with the ones that believe Catholics or some other group of believers are not really Christians at all. There are some that seize on small differences in belief and make them central to their practice.
We can find all kinds of ways to exclude, shun or criticize others who love and honor Jesus as surely and devotedly as we do. The message of this week is that we all love Jesus and Jesus loves all of us.
We should start from that basis and work together to all be one in Him.