Sunday, January 22, 2012

Christian Unity

I have been praying this week with images of two great Christian leaders, St. Peter and St. Paul. I have been imagining St. Peter as a Gloucester, Massachusetts fisherman. And St. Paul as a Harvard professor. Both images, admittedly, take a bit of a hermeneutical leap, but not a huge one. The images below don't totally capture what I have been seeing with my mind's eye, but they come close enough. (And the images were not copyrighted!)

What we know from the New Testament is that Peter was not a formally educated man. Sometimes formally educated people mistakenly believe that people without access to formal education aren't smart but in my experience that is a giant mistake.
Some of the wisest people I have ever known didn't go to college - and well, quite frankly, I've known some people who hold PhD's who aren't so smart. But that's another post, for another day...

St. Peter is "street smart," as I imagine him. Or, more accurately, "water smart." Wise about the ways of the world. St. Paul, in contrast, is sitting at a desk, comfortable in the world of ideas and formally trained in both Jewish and Roman traditions.

This past Wednesday, January 18, the Church remembered the Confession of St. Peter at Caesarea Phillipi, where he says to Jesus, "you are the Messiah, the Christ." This coming Wednesday, January 25, we will remember the Conversion of St. Paul and his Damascus Road encounter with the Risen Christ. These two feast days mark either end of The Week of Prayer for Christian Unity.

We tend to focus in this week on denominations, because that is the Church we know. And there is nothing wrong with that, although I do think there is a danger of a certain kind of hubris to which no Christian I know is immune: often when we pray for "unity" what we are really praying for is that others will see the light that we have seen. That if they grow into the full stature of Christ they will see what we see and become more like us. This takes on various forms depending on whether one is Roman Catholic, Orthodox, Anglican, or Protestant but the premise is the same: unity implies agreement, as if somehow when Jesus' prayer that we may all be one is fulfilled that we will all be the same.

I think this is silly. For me this is a week to celebrate our diversity, and in the midst of that diversity a unity that holds us together in spite of ourselves.

But increasingly we live in a world where denominations mean less and less. Increasingly it's no big deal for a Roman priest and an evangelical pastor to co-officiate at a wedding or funeral. Yesterday I was at an ordination for an Episcopal priest. A local Roman priest sat with us and while he did not feel comfortable receiving Holy Communion, he did come up and ask the new priest for a blessing. I think that's pretty good, and surely progress over the past fifty years or so since the opening days of Vatican II.

But pre-denominationally and post-denominationally we will still face a challenge, and it's captured by the two images above. Peter and Paul were very different people. Their journeys were very different too. But one was not "better" than the other. Peter seems to embody in some respect what we might call the "catholic" tradition--small c. Among other things, the conversion that leads to his confession that Jesus is the Christ seems gradual. In contrast, Paul seems to embody in some respect what we might call the "protestant" tradition--small p. Among othe things, the conversion that leads to his confession that Jesus is the Christ seems rather dramatic.

In the first-century Church as in the twenty-first century Church, the differences tend to be more along the lines of personality than denomination. Within the congregation I serve we have people whose faith-journeys tend to be either more like Peter's or more like Paul's. Often they speak very different languages about what this means for them. Often their relationships can be as difficult as the Scriptures tell us Paul and Peter's relationship was.

But they both loved Jesus. They both served Jesus. They were one, not because they were the same; but because of the risen Christ. In this week of Prayer for Christian Unity that is worth remembering, and emulating.

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