Unity Sermon and Scripture
Unity in the Christian Scriptures
For scriptural resources on themes of Christian Unity, see the One Light, One World material published by Churches Together in England.
To listen to a Bible Study on 1 Corinthians, led by Archbishops Rowan Williams and Vincent Nicholls, click here. The Bible Study was part of the 2009 Forum of Churches Together in England.
Unity Week Address, 2008
The Revd. Dr. Clive Barrett
West Yorkshire County Ecumenical Development Officer
1 Thessalonians 5.12-18.
We appeal to you, brothers and sisters, to respect those who labour among you, and have charge of you in the Lord and admonish you; esteem them very highly in love because of their work. Be at peace among yourselves. And we urge you, beloved, to admonish the idlers, encourage the faint hearted, help the weak, be patient with all of them. See that none of you repays evil for eviil, but always seek to do good to one another and to all. Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you.
The Spirit leads to peace and unity
As a university chaplain I once asked students what they understood by peace. They had all been watching the television and their answers related to battles and wars in the world. As a vicar in a deprived parish I once asked my congregation what they understood by peace, and their answers related to how they got on with friends and family and to the stress in their lives
Shalom, the peace of the Bible, involves all of our society/world, our relationships and our spirituality.
So too Unity:
Not only our prayers but our very being and how we get on with those among whom we are set - not theoretically, but incarnationally, with the awkward ‘so-and-so’s in the other church down the road and a unity that impinges on society, not only that the world may believe, but that God’s love can be shown in mission initiatives that would otherwise be impossible.
So let’s look more at those three themes: unity in our being, our relationships, our world.
I said the Spirit leads us into unity, and so the fruits of the spirit would be expected to be seen in the person of one committed to unity. So, drawing on Galatians 5.22-23, the prerequisites for unity are the indwelling in Christian people of love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. The extent to which we make those attributes our own is a reflection of how seriously we are committed to fulfilling Jesus’ prayer that we may be one.
To what extent do you reflect the love of God in your being, possess the joy of the Spirit, have peace with God and with yourself, commit yourself to patience? That’s an important one: in matters of conflict, the virtue of patience could as easily be translated as ‘nonviolence’. It means approaching a conflict with no desire to diminish the other but to seek resolution in God’s good time (which may be far removed from human urgencies). So, despite those heady peaks when it looked like full, visible Christian unity would happen the week after next, reflection upon the past one hundred years since Paul Wattson and Spencer Jones started of the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity, later boosted by Paul Couturier, shows what an enormous amount has been achieved. A century back it was a highly controversial, radical act to suggest that churches that defined themselves as not being like that other lot might kneel down together in the presence of Almighty God and open their hearts in humble prayer for Christian Unity. We are called to patience with persistence.
Kindness and generosity imply respect for others, and faithfulness respect for one’s own intergrity, whilst acknowledging that one’s own dogmatic interpretations may not necessarily mark the fulfilment of the kingdom, but be stepping stones on our journey towards it.
The last of Paul’s fruits of the spirit, gentleness and self-control, return us to the agenda of respect, for ourselves as much as others. Love your neighbour as yourself. As we pursue and foster these attributes in our being, we become more effectively God’s agents for untiy in the body of Christian people.
Our being, our relationships, our world.
The second dimension of Christian unity is the nature of our relationships, the one with the other. We might think unity in theory is a good idea, but find it really hard to get on with that lot in the ... church down the road. Whether we like it or not, whether we like them or not, our neighbours are God’s gifts to us.
See your neighbours as a gift from God. Peace and patience can be severely tried, but this is the incarnational dimension of Christian unity. Here is where we are set. We didn’t choose the other churches locally, or their ministers, but these are precisely the people with whom it is our responsibility, our vocation, to build relationships. How can we possibly expect to impact on our neighbourhood, to present ourselves as agents of the Prince of Peace, if we can’t even get on with fellow Christians round the corner? And it’s not their responsibility to take the first step, it’s ours. It’s not up to leaders and synods and theologians, but you and me.
This is where local Churches Together groups are so immensely important. For most Christian people, the main first-hand experience of ecumenism comes through the work of the local Churches Together group. Doubtless there’s an annual cycle of walks of witness and Unity Week services. It’s a regular reminder that alongside the importance of a local congregation, the fulness of the Body of Christ is not just a Sunday club at ‘my church’, but (with a small c) is catholic, that is, universal, all-embracing. There is a bigger picture. Churches Together help us to recognise each other, and, hopefully, to value each other.
One of the slogans of the ecumenical movement is that we might progress from doing ecumenical things (services like this) to doing things ecumenically. What about the ordinary, day to day, praying, studying, visiting, photocopying? A longed-for desire of the world church for fifty years is that churches might do everything together except that which, in conscience, has to be done apart. Actually, there is really very little that has to be done apart. Of course there are issues of authority and ministry and sacrament; that makes it even more a cause for thanksgiving that there has been so much progress in a century of shared prayer. We are called to pray constantly, but the vast majority of hours in our Christian lives are not taken up with public prayer. With due commitment, almost everything else could, at least in theory, be done together. How can you work towards doing everything ecumenically? Whether or not the Body of Christ is healed and whole in your area is in your hands, not only by doing ecumenical things, but by building up relationships and doing ordinary things ecumenically.
Our being, our relationships, our world.
‘That the world may believe’ is the fruit of the united witness of the churches in society. When, together, we undertake mission "in its broadest understanding" then a non-Christian society cannot but take note of the common inspiration of Christians seen to be making a difference. Look at Unity Post and all the stories that are included of churches together across Yorkshire. These are activities that individual churches would not have had the strength to carry out, but by coming together, they have had a real impact on their communities. The Street Angels concept started from Halifax and is spreading around the world. Town Centre street crime has fallen considerably. Churches Together make a difference. There are youth projects, drugs projects, anti-racism campaigning, asylum seekers supported, alternative Halloweens, community cafes, fair trades promotions, shoe boxes sent out, joint community projects. Churches Together make a difference.
In some places, groups of churches are coming together in a local covenant, more than just a haphazard relationship of Church Together, but a stronger relationship of promise and commitment. Our neighbours are God’s gift to us. We need each other, for together we can make a difference in society, together we can be the Body of Christ in our place. None of that is dependent on bishops and moderators and chairs and synods. It’s us, you, now, where you are. And it is possible, as Unity Post shows.
As for the leaders and people with authority in the churches, many of them were together at a special centenary service for the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity held in Westminster Abbey. They are building relationships, too. We pray for them (1 Thessalonians 5.12-13) that they too may catch the vision of what is possible.
As we pray for church leaders and those in positions of responsibility, we pray that we ourselves may take responsibility for unity in our person, our relationships, our neighbourhood.,
We look again at 1 Thessalonians 5.13-18.
Be at peace among yourselves. and in yourself, And we urge you, beloved, to admonish the idlers, those slow to move towards unity encourage the faint hearted, help the weak, those who lack the confidence to make moves towards unity be patient with all of them.
See that none of you repays evil for evil, but always seek to do good to one another and to all. whatever others may say, or you think others may have said
Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you.
May healing, peace and unity be at the heart of your person, your relationships, your actions in society. May you be one.
Finally, I have recently come across an article by Anthony Farquhar, Auxiliary Bishop of Down and Connor. He reflects on the troubled years of Northern Ireland and the relationship between church leaders. He comes up with ten ecu-commandments, including: ‘You shall have pride in your tradition’; ‘You shall not be smug or self-righteous in your tradition’; ‘You shall pray for unity’; and so on. His final commandment:
‘You shall smile ecumenically, and some day the people of God will smile with you’.
Smile ecumenically, and the people of God will smile with you.