I was asked to speak briefly on Christian unity in our local community as part of an ecumenical Good Friday Cross Walk observance. What can one say about Christian unity in 12 minutes? Here’s what I said.
The signs read “Please walk on grass, but don’t make paths.”
The small, neatly painted white signs could be found on each side of the large lawn at the center of the seminary campus I attended in Louisville, KY. It was a great grass quad, surrounded by a grand collection of southern Greek Classical Revival buildings, with red brick and white columns. The library on one side, administration, classrooms and student center on the other, and student housing on the other two.
“Please walk on grass, but don’t make paths.”
Oh, there were a couple of lovely brick walkways, but mostly a great expanse of grass, the perfect shortcut for students rushing to their classes. The signs were a long-standing sight on the campus, undoubtably placed there by a frustrated grounds keeper, many years ago.
Despite the clear message of the signs, and the ample amount of green grass on which to walk, there were always paths, clearly visible. Not bare dirt, but grass bent over from the many students who walked back and forth across that quad each day.
I’m reminded of those little signs when I hear the words of Jesus’ prayer from the 17th chapter of John, “So that they may all be one, as you Father, are in me and I in you, that they also may be in us, that the world may believe that you sent me.”
Since the 16th century it’s been known as Jesus’ high priestly prayer, a prayer for the unity of the church. It’s his final prayer at his farewell meal with his disciples in Jerusalem–the pinnacle of his farewell address. In the next chapter, Jesus will be arrested and the events of the Passion will unfold.
The only reason I can see for the writer of John’s gospel to have included this petition for the oneness of the followers of Christ is that during his time there was disunity in the church. Because you and I both know, you don’t pray for something when you already have it–there’s no need!
Just like the only reason to have a “Please walk on grass, but don’t make paths” sign is because people were making paths.
An earnest prayer for unity on the lips of Jesus at the eve of his death must reflect the reality that there was disunity among churches for whom the gospel was written, sometime in the last 20 years of the first century–50 to 70 years after the ministry of Jesus.
One might think by reading the first few chapters of the book of Acts, that at least in the early, early days there was an almost utopian unity of the believers in Jerusalem–the early church’s version of Camelot–you may remember, where after the Spirit comes at Pentecost, the first followers spent much time together in the temple, breaking bread and sharing meals with glad and generous hearts, praising God and having the goodwill of all the people…and July and August were never too hot, and the rain never fell till after sundown, and the fog always disappeared by eight in the morning…
and as we heard read a few moments ago, Luke writes, “The community of believers was of one heart and mind.”
So, at least back in Jerusalem–there–for one brief shining moment the church was one…until…we read the very next story in Acts in which two believers break the social and economic covenant of the community and shatter the idyllic story. Soon there will be more division as cultural differences and national barriers intrude.
And we heard Paul’s plea to the strife-filled church in Corinth to come together, “I urge you brothers and sisters, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that you all agree in what you say, and that there be no divisions among you, but that you be united in the same mind and in the same purpose.” Remember Paul was writing a merely 20 years after the life of Jesus, and well before John or Luke.
It seems the church has never truly been of one heart and mind. We certainly have never been one in thought, belief, or practice.
In much of the 20th century, the ecumenical movement focused on dialogue and cooperation from the top down. Many denominations and global churches joined or cooperated with the World Council of Church after WWII. Its Commission on Faith and Order exists to “proclaim the oneness of the church of Jesus Christ and to call the churches to the goal of visible unity.” And the dialogue and documents produced by Faith and Order Commission are wonderful–thoughtful explorations of the beliefs and practices of the Christian Church in its many diverse forms.
But for the most part, for all its good intentions, and for all its insightful work on promoting unity, which I read and consult as part of my work, Faith and Order is largely removed from the life of congregations like yours and mine.
And don’t tell anyone–but I’m skeptical that we can ever come together with a single document that reflects the unity of the church.
But what if that’s not what Christian unity is all about?
What if Christian unity is not found in documents or doctrines?
What if unity is not uniformity?
My hope for the unity of the church is that it will be found not when we are able to recite the same creeds or share the same liturgy, but when we lose ourselves in the call of Christ to love our neighbors as ourselves.
For me, the beauty of the unity of the body of Christ universal is seen in the very particular ways in which we live out Christ’s call to servanthood in our communities.
When Presbyterians and Methodists volunteer with one another at St. Francis House.
When Catholics and Baptists are sorting food together at the Puyallup Food Bank.
There, in the midst of them, is Christian unity.
As the last vestiges of Christendom fall, in order to be faithful we must recognize that we are not in competition with one another. As Jesus said, “For those who lose their life for my sake will save it,” so the church that loses itself in Christ’s ministry to the poor and outcast will find itself.
The health of my congregation is tied to the health of yours, to all the churches in our community. Too often we size up our own congregations by comparing ourselves to one another. But the body of Christ is not a competitive sport. Indeed, the Apostle Paul urges the church to understand that the Spirit gives a variety of gifts for the common good.
The task for the church in our day is not to chase after some illusive dream of doctrinal unity, but rather to practice the graciousness of God in our diversity, to embody Christ’s radical hospitality in all of our ministries.
I think of Peace Lutheran Church which years ago looked around its community and saw a large number of individuals living in difficult economic circumstances. Seeing that need, they responded by starting a weekend lunch program, providing a free meal on Saturdays. They put out an invitation to churches and groups to help with this meal. And my congregation, First Christian, responded. Now we could have said, “A free meal on Saturdays? That’s a great idea. Let’s do it at our place, instead.” Or we could have said, “Oh, if we help out at Peace Lutheran, what’s in it for us? What if our folks get tired of volunteering? What if our ministries suffer?”
With foresight and grace, Peace Lutheran exhibited hospitality in extending the opportunity for joint ministry to other churches in Puyallup.
Freezing Nights, Puyallup’s winter sheltering program for adults, is another example of churches seeing a need and responding to that need. Churches of all theological persuasions coming together, not waiting for a unity of belief, but responding to the call of Christ to shelter the least of those among us. I smile when I see the great variety of volunteers on Friday nights when our church is the host site–Lutherans and Baptists, Mormons and Disciples, Presbyterians and Methodists, why, even some great atheists–with all of our differences of belief and practice–cooking meals and washing dishes, listening to stories, playing Bingo together, providing transportation.
It’s the vision of The One Another Foundation in Puyallup — connecting individuals and churches to ministries already at work in our community. Not creating new ministries but strengthening the great work that so many of our congregations and community members are doing right now.
I wonder if we can consider the possibility that Christian unity might be better understood not as uniformity but rather as a complex system of networking. Perhaps Christian unity will not come from the top down, from denominational headquarters or the upper ranks of church hierarchy, but rather bubble up in communities large and small, as the people of God practice hospitality both in our ministries and in our service.
In fact, what we may be called to do in our time and place is to embrace the amazing plurality that is the universal church. Our great diversity may in the end be our strength.
Back to those little signs at my seminary, “Please walk on grass, but don’t make paths.” The invitation to Christian unity is not a mandate to retrace the exact steps of those who have gone before us, or even those who are traveling today,or to force others to follow.
It is an invitation to walk on the grass;
it is a wide open field for creativity and flexibility;
it is an invitation to embrace diversity, and not fear it.
To be the church, the body of Christ, a mosaic of congregations–not becoming mirror images of one another–but embodying the gifts we have been given by God for the common good of all.
I’ll share with you a little dream I have for the churches in Puyallup. Someday I’d love to see all of our churches on Pentecost Sunday, the day we celebrate the gift of the Spirit to the church, cancel their Pentecost Sunday worship services.
And instead of worshipping in our separate sanctuaries, wearing our finest red, and singing songs about the Holy Spirit, we would send everyone out in a great sea of Pentecost red, to live out the servanthood of Jesus in our community.
Catholics and Baptists, Lutherans and Methodists, Episcopalians and Disciples, Nazarenes and Community of Christ and so many more…working side by side to stock food bank shelves, build furniture for people moving into a new apartment, replanting creek restoration sites, mowing lawns and painting houses, serving meals, installing a peace pole in a city park….the sky’s the limit. It would be a marvelous sight; the gifts of the people of God being poured out in our community.
That’s a vision of Christian unity.
And that’s a patch of grass just waiting to be walked upon.