“May They Be One … ” – Unity in Diversity


– By Fr Ugo Ikwuka
Archway, London  


What is bequeathed to someone in a will could be considered the definitive expression of how much the person is regarded. Some strange bequests have been left for supposedly loved ones.

William Shakespeare left his wife only the “second best bed” while most of his estate went to his daughter. The rancher Thomas Shewbridge willed the shareholder rights of his estate to his two dogs. The dogs regularly attended stockholders’ and board of directors’ meetings. The German poet Heinrich Heine left his estate to his wife Matilda on the condition that she remarry “so that there will be at least one man to regret my death”.

This Sunday’s Gospel could pass for the will Jesus left before he ascended into glory. Among its many provisions, the most breathtaking is the affirmation that he loves us in the measure that God the Father loves him: “I have loved them as much as you love me.” Nothing can be more reassuring! This is notwithstanding our shortcomings.

Going by the experience of Jesus himself, it is also an assurance that no matter our crosses in life, “all will be well in the end”. This was actually revealed to the mystic St Julian of Norwich and it baffles her that we don’t get it.

For Julian, the good news is not merely the reward we will receive one day when we give up this mortal body and go home to God. Every moment is an opportunity to remember that we are perfectly loved and perfectly lovable, just as we are. St Paul must have realized this too to declare that “nothing can separate us from the love of God” (Romans 8: 38). To sign off, Jesus reaffirms, “I desire that they may be with me where I am, that they may behold my glory which You have given me….”

Alongside this testament, Jesus prayed for the unity of all his followers as the most effective way of witnessing for him. The tendency to splinter into factions had been there right from the earliest days of the church as we saw last Sunday. It was the reason why Paul wrote his First Letter to the Corinthians where he chided them: “I appeal to you by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that all of you agree, that there be no divisions among you, but that you be united in the same mind and the same judgment. For it has been reported … that there is quarrelling among you with each one of you saying, “I follow Paul,” or “I follow Apollos,” or “I follow Cephas,” or “I follow Christ.” Is Christ divided? Was Paul crucified for you? Or were you baptized in the name of Paul?

Paul strongly reminds them that these human leaders are all equally servants of the one Christ who should therefore be their focus and not the human leaders so that no one should boast about human leaders.

Over the many years of the church, there have been splits regarding what constituted the true teaching of Christ. A major split came in 1054 between the Eastern Orthodox and the Western (Latin/Roman) churches.

Among other things, the controversy surrounded the supremacy of the Pope, which Rome favoured, and the source of the Holy Spirit. While Rome professes that the Holy Spirit proceeded from the Father and the Son (the filioque), the Eastern Church professes that the Holy Spirit proceeded from the Father alone.

Another major split came with the Protestant Reformation, which began with the intervention of the devout German monk Martin Luther in the 16th century. On the one hand, Luther desired to purify the church of excesses while on the other hand, grappling with the futile effort to do good and inspired by his interpretation of Romans 3:28, he concluded that salvation is not based on one’s good works but on faith alone.

Protestantism gradually split into a whole variety of denominations and sects that by 2011, the Pew Research Center identified 41,000 different Christian sects.

Unity is strength. In a Peanuts cartoon, Lucy demanded that Linus change TV channels, threatening him with her fist if he didn’t. “What makes you think you can walk right in here and take over?” asks Linus. “These five fingers,” says Lucy. “Individually they’re nothing but when I curl them together like this into a single unit, they form a weapon that is terrible to behold.” “Which channel do you want?” asks Linus. Turning away, he looks at his fingers and says, “Why can’t you guys get organized like that?” We cannot effectively preach love and unity, forgiveness and reconciliation to the world when we ourselves are living in disunity, unable to forgive and reconcile ourselves. That would be hypocrisy.

The separation and hostility among Christians surely is a scandal, an obstacle to belief. In the early Church, the pagans marvelled, “See those Christians, how they love each other.”

In a world divided along so many lines, they were amazed to see Jews and Greeks, men and women, slaves and freemen, rich and poor sharing a common community life in love and forgiveness and mutual support. It clearly would lead people to ask, “What is the secret of this group?”

Here in the UK, our Christian match of witness through the high streets every Good Friday always lacks drive and inspires nobody simply because you cannot witness effectively to Christ as a divided body. The verdict of unbelievers on today’s Christians could as well be, “See how they attack one another”.

To be fair however, the extreme bigotry and animosity of the past have substantially given way to more tolerance and collaboration. Commendable bridges have been built between the churches especially in the West.

Perhaps this is one providential consequence of the increasingly secularizing world; its taming effect on Christianity, helping it to rediscover itself. In the UK for instance, many communities are served by just one church which the different denominations use at agreed times. This unity in diversity, more than uniformity, expresses the unity for which Christ prayed – a unity that reflects and participates in the one that exists within the Trinity; between the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit.

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