I do not ask for these only, but also for those who will believe in me through their word, that they may all be one, just as you, Father, are in me, and I in you, that they also may be in us, so that the world may believe that you have sent me. The glory that you have given me I have given to them, that they may be one even as we are one, I in them and you in me, that they may become perfectly one, so that the world may know that you sent me and loved them even as you loved me. – John 17:20-23
Wednesday, January 15, 2014
One. It seems the world is a long way from being one, and the Church, if anything, even further from it. The world unites from time to time in their hatred of Christ and Christians. Christians seem ever divided and fragmented and confused. Yet this is the prayer Jesus, as our Great High Priest, offered on the night of His betrayal, hours before He went to the Cross to redeem all of humankind. Is it possible that it will not be answered?
Do you know why it became a joke that, to one racial or ethnic group, the members of another group “all look alike”? The distinctive features and skin tones peculiar to a given group tend to be the first features noted by “outsiders". Meanwhile a redhead, seeing another redhead, immediately notices what makes the individual distinctive.
So it is with churches and denominations. While doubters and unbelievers may offer the many-religions argument against the existence of God or the claims of a given religion, that tends to be less about denominations within Christianity than about the disagreements between Islam, Judaism, Buddhism, Christianity, etc. Christians tend to be blamed for the faults and failures of any group claiming to be Christian, as if there is no difference between the annoying Saturday morning proselytizing of Jehovah’s Witnesses and the ancient rites, icons, and rituals of the Orthodox. It doesn’t matter that Jimmy Swaggert was not Catholic or that a pedophile priest was not Assembly of God, they were both Christians.
Those outside the Body of Christ see Christians while those of us in a particular communion often emphasize the differences in our forms and beliefs and practices. Some of us make more of the minor disagreements than necessary. Christians will get into arguments over Matthew 24 or when the book of Revelation was written or what Jesus meant by “this generation,” though we all agree that Jesus said that.
Bob often uses the image of a cone to illustrate how we relate to God. It will work for illustrating, as well, the relationship of various valid revelations and traditions to one another and to the Divine. When Lewis wrote Mere Christianity, he compared becoming a Christian to entering the hall or main room of a great house. Denominations are then the various rooms off the corridor where one may find fellowship, refreshment, sustenance and comfort. If one comes into Christianity in general, that makes sense.
What, though, if we come in via a particular sect or through something that may not be considered part of the traditional revelation of Christianity? Our entry in that case is more like entering one of the rooms from an outside door – or climbing in through the window. We find ourselves in a communion that seems to be separated and at odds with other communions. Here is where the metaphor of the cone is instructive. Someone from a primitive, snake-handling denomination back in the hills would seem very distant from the altars, saints, and processions of a Catholic Latin Mass. Indeed they are, as far as the externals are concerned. Yet there is a core set of beliefs about the divinity of Christ, His death, burial, and resurrection where these two diverse forms converge in substance. The snake-handler might doubt the Immaculate Conception to which the priest adheres even as the priest might question the validity of picking up a copperhead, but both will agree on the essential nature of the Virgin Birth.
Our differences are in where we enter out on the edge of the circle that forms the base of the cone. The closer we get to God, and the higher we are raised in our vertical relationship to Him, the smaller our disparities become. It’s a long way around the mountain unless you are standing on the summit.
Before being too critical of the path others take, it’s good to remember that the pinnacle and the base are one. Like a spotlight, the revelation of Christ spreads and widens to illuminate a great circle. Perhaps there is something right in the middle, where we all need to meet. Perhaps, soon, we will.