Bishop Stokes’ message to the Diocese on Jan. 21 focused on the “Week of Prayer for Christian Unity”. The letter contained a story of the Society of the Atonement, an Episcopal order founded in the early 1900s upon a vision of unity. Their name is based on the understanding of atonement as “at-one-ment.” The Bishop’s letter also talked about how the founders of this Society were severely ostracized when they petitioned and were accepted by the Vatican while allowing them to continue with their Episcopal traditions.
As I read the prayers for Christian unity offer by Archbishop Justin Welby and by Pope Francis, I began to wonder, “Aren’t we already one body of Christ?” As long as we “keep our eyes fixed on Jesus,” are those things that separate us really important?
A few years ago, clergy members from different traditions were meeting in Toms River to discuss what we can do to help those among us who are homeless. There was a Catholic priest, a Lutheran pastor, a minister from a large Evangelical mega-church, a pastor from a small storefront Pentecostal church, and me, a deacon serving at the local Episcopal Church.
If you spend any time thinking about the differences in our traditions and about the enmities that sometimes surfaced in our various histories, you might be amazed that we were all able to sit in the same room let alone work together for a common purpose. And yet, that’s what we did.
This group of disparate Christian clergy continued to meet over a long period. Any ministry to the homeless involves many issues and it takes time and many deep discussions to move forward. However, not once in any of those deep discussions did we talk about “the primacy of the Pope,” or the “infallibility of scripture,” or whether the Eucharist undergoes “transubstantiation, consubstantiation, or real presence.” We focused on our mission. We kept our eyes fixed on Jesus.
In fact, I believe that over time our love and respect for one another grew. And the fruit of this love for one another and the love of Jesus recently became a reality. Earlier this month we opened a Housing Resource Center in Toms River where people who are homeless or facing the prospect of becoming homeless can come for assistance and obtain many of the services they need for safe, affordable, and stable housing. Our unstated rule is to see the face of Jesus in every person that walks through our door.
And now, just like those five disparate Christian clergy that focused on the mission of Jesus, we have parishioners from each church (and community members who are not churched) coming together at the Center to volunteer for this Christ-centered ministry. What a great way to witness to the Way of Jesus.
During this Week of Prayer for Christian Unity, I am grateful for the prayers of Archbishop Welby and Pope Francis. The differences among our many thousands of Christian traditions are real and can have real-world implications particularly for those who are treated unjustly. However, maybe it’s time to rally around that which holds us together—the love of Jesus. I am just grateful that I have been graced with the opportunity to serve with clergy from other traditions and keep our eyes fixed on Jesus.