Too many things are pushing Christians apart and have been doing so for a long time.
Things like communion, or Eucharist, or the Lord’s Supper, or the Love Feast. Call it what you will, it has become a stumbling block to Christian togetherness as groups as different as the Churches of Christ and the Orthodox Church declare each other’s communion service closed to all but their own members.
Or baptism, that simple act of dipping, sprinkling, or pouring. My mentor wrote a book entitled Baptism: Foundation for Christian Unity, but its history is far from it. I grew up in territory dominated by “closed communion, alien immersion” Baptists who would not accept the baptism even of other Baptist groups!
And theology, the worst of all dividers. People who can’t recite our creeds, too many Christian groups say, or repeat our anathemas are suspect in our assemblies and thus not welcome on our platforms and behind our pulpits.
It seems odd, doesn’t it, that the things nearest the center of our Christian expression are those most likely to segregate us from other believers!
Sadly, these are the centrifugal forces pushing us apart, contributing further to a world divided and dangerous.
Thank God there are other forces, centripetal forces, that are pulling us together as a Christian community. Among these I name the Lord’s Prayer, the most widely-known, often-repeated collection of words in the history of human culture. Everywhere you go, in Christian society, this prayer is known and revered and used.
I recall vividly my first visit to an Orthodox service of worship. I observed for more than an hour all that transpired—prayers, readings, processions, chants, even Eucharist—understanding nothing until, in the midst of some other liturgical component, I recognized the familiar cadence of, yes, the Lord’s Prayer. It was in a language I did not understand, but I knew what it was and joined in the unison prayer in the only language I knew to pray: English.
We should give more attention to the Prayer as the foundation of Christian cohesion. It summaries what we believe, how we are to live, and what we are to pray. Not bad for 62 uncontested, non-controversial words.
Add to this the Bible itself.
Yes, I know there are a million translations and significant differences about what actually needs to be included in the sacred book—the majority of Christians include with some level of appreciation and authority the books known as the Apocrypha. But even with that difference, the Book is the narrative of God’s mission in the world and includes the story of creation, the narrative of Jesus, and account of both the Exodus and Easter. It’s prayers, promises, pastoral persuasions, and prophetic pronouncements are treasured and read by all, in public and in private. The scholarly study of the Bible and the private reading of the Bible have made Bible translation and distribution one of the common affirmations of Christians across all lines of division and demarcation.
Finally, there is the short and simple confession, “Jesus is Lord”. Mostly, things that are short and simple help us in our Christian commitments (and this goes for prayers, sermons, and worship services, as well!).
It is hard to mess up this confession. It is hard to sabotage its usefulness as the core affirmation of Christian people. We may mean different things by it when we say it, but when we say it, sing it, pray it, or confess it, we are setting aside things that are pushing us apart and elevating things that are pulling us together—not only toward one another but toward Jesus Christ himself and toward the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ.
We could add to this list service to the least of these; and in doing so, we would affirm the experience of so many people: that building houses, distributing shoes, cooking meals, and washing feet are but a few of the things that require no music, no theology, no liturgy, no confession—only some time and energy and a compassion for those who are hungry, naked, strange, or incarcerated.
Let me add one more; it could be music (another column!) but this one is out of my experience over the last ten years: preaching!
In the Festivals of Young Preachers hosted or inspired by the Academy of Preachers, young people from Evangelical, Orthodox, Pentecostal, Protestant, and Roman Catholic traditions have come together and listened to each other preach a sermon.
We give them a theme, a list of texts, and 15 minutes. The latter is twice as long as the Catholics take and not a third of what a Pentecostal needs, but when it is over, almost one thousand young adults have told us that listening to those from other traditions stand and preach a sermon is the most compelling, transforming component of this simple strategy of Christian community.
Who would have thunk it? But thanks be to God!