Week of Prayer for Christian Unity, Epiphany 3 (C) – 2004
January 25, 2004
Contrary to what our contemporary culture may tell us, the Christmas season does not begin sometime after Halloween and conclude with returning unwanted presents on December 26. Rather, the Christmas season has its own cycle, beginning with Advent, moving through Christmas, and continuing with Epiphany. This is similar to the pattern with Easter: the Lenten season, followed by Holy Week, and continuing with the great fifty days, concluding with Pentecost. In the aftermath of Christmas and New Year’s celebration, it is often easy to overlook the profound theological challenge that the church gives to us in this Epiphany season.
There has been a consistent theme in the readings and collects for Epiphany the last several weeks. This theme is that the Epiphany season manifests Jesus’ divine nature to the world. The star that led the Magi to Jesus was God revealing to non-Jews that their salvation had come. Two weeks ago we celebrated the Baptism of Jesus by John the Baptist, in which the voice from heaven declares Jesus to be his son, in whom he is well pleased, again revealing Jesus as God’s Son. Last week. we read the story of the wedding at Cana in John’s Gospel. This is not merely to show that Jesus liked to have a good time: rather it is consistent with this Epiphany theme of God’s revelation of Jesus’ divinity. At this wedding, Jesus peforms his first public miracle in John’s Gospel, and thus it marks the beginning of his public ministry.
But there is another theme that runs alongside this theme. There is a series of challenges to each of us during Epiphany season. As the star revealed the baby Jesus to the Magi, our collect for that day asks God to likewise “lead us, who know you now by faith.” Not simply a commemoration of the visits of the Magi, the Epiphany calls us to follow Jesus without physical signs but through faith. The same is true with the commemoration of Jesus’ Baptism two weeks ago. This is more than remembering Jesus’ own baptism: it is a reminder of the Covenant that each of us made in our baptisms, and a call for us to live into that Covenant, as the collect for that day says, to “boldly confess Jesus as Lord and Savior.” It is a reminder of the ministry to which all are called through baptism. This challenge continues this week, as our collect calls upon us to “answer readily the call of our Savior Jesus Christ and proclaim the Good News of his salvation, that we and the whole world may perceive the glory of his marvelous works.”
The celebration of the Epiphany season is not the only major event on the Christian calendar, however. We also celebrate the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity during January. This week of Prayer begins on the Confession of St. Peter, normally celebrated on January 18, and concludes on the Conversion of St. Paul, normally celebrated on January 25. This is a time when many Christians hold joint worship celebrations and pray for the end of the divisions in Christ’s body. Christian unity no longer seeks complete mergers of churches; each of the varied expressions of Christianity has its own particular gifts to bring, which the age of proposals for mergers often overlooked. The Episcopal Church wholeheartedly supports this sharing of gifts in the current movement for Christian unity. We are engaged in a variety of theological dialogues with Methodists, Roman Catholics, Moravians, Presbyterians, and historically African-American Methodist Churches, just to name several.
In fact, the Epiphany season is a very appropriate time to be praying for Christian unity. The emphasis on Jesus’ baptism and our own call to ministry through our baptisms is particularly relevant. One of the major advances in theological discussion among Christians has been the recognition of how baptism has united us with Christ. The once common practice of rebaptism when moving from one tradition to another is now very rare. The emphasis on our call to ministry and mission — to boldly proclaim Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior and to spread the Good News-is also very much an element of our attempts at Christian unity and cooperation. Along with a realization that a sharing of gifts is an important piece in Christian unity, equally important has been the realization that the denominations are united in our call to proclaim the Gospel and to restore all people to unity with one another and with Christ. Working together in mission and witness is at the forefront, and is the driving factor, of the Episcopal Church’s involvement in Christian unity. The very title of our agreement with the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America-“Called to Common Mission”-is an example of this. Even more powerful than the title has been the witness of the many expressions of joint ministry that “Called to Common Mission” has allowed, fostered, and encouraged.
Yet the movement for Christian unity has not been without its own fits and spurts in recent years. Indeed, many have wondered if there is any future in Christian unity, given the serious divisions between churches, and within denominations themselves. Our own church certainly has as much of a call to foster internal unity as well as unity with other Christians.
As our readings today note, as lamentable as the current situation of the church of Christ is, rent by its divisions, this is nothing new. Throughout this season of Epiphany we are also reading from Paul’s Letter to the Christian community in Corinth. The occasion for Paul’s writing is of the divisions that he has heard about in that community. There are a number of these divisions, which concern matters such as what one should eat, whether to take other Christians to secular courts, and what exactly the resurrection will look like-and this is only a small sample of the issues facing that community!
Paul’s Letter to the Corinthians is relevant to us in this search for Christian unity. As soon as he hears of the divisions in the community, he is quick to remind them of something that is central to both this Epiphany season and for Christian unity: Baptism. In the very first chapter he asks them, “Were you baptized in the name of Paul? Was Paul crucified for you?” The answer is a resounding, “NO!” We are all baptized into Christ, and Christ died for us all, regardless of our divisions.
Paul reminds the Corinthian community of their interconnectedness in today’s reading. He reminds us that the church is a body. Just as all the members differ individually, they are but one body. During this week of prayer for Christian Unity, we cannot help but be reminded that all of the members of Christ’s body-each with their own goal, purpose, and gift-are nonetheless members of one body, whether Catholic, Orthodox, Methodist, Presbyterian, or even other Episcopalians who may differ from us.
Furthermore, all these members of this one body need one another. There is not just diversity for diversity’s sake; diversity is essential for the body to function properly. Paul is eloquent and clear on this point. If the whole body were an eye, how could we hear? Or if the whole body is hearing, then how would we be able to smell? Not only do we need one another, it is impossible to say that we do not need one another-though all too often in this fallen world we have done precisely that. Within our Episcopal Church, within all the members of the one body of Christ, within the Corinthian community two thousands years ago, Paul’s words ring true: “If one member suffers, all suffer together with it; if one member is honored, all rejoice together with it.”
Let us keep in mind God’s call to us this Epiphany season. Let us rejoice in God’s manifestation to the world of Jesus Christ. Likewise let us remember that we are called to minister in Jesus’ name through our own baptisms as we recall his baptism. But let us also remember that we are all members of one body through baptism, and let us also fervently pray for Christian Unity in the collect from our Prayer Book (BCP, 255):
Almighty Father, whose Blessed Son before his passion prayed for his disciples that they might be one, as you and he are one: Grant that your Church, being bound together in love and obedience to you, may be united in one body by the one Spirit, that the world may believe in him whom you sent, your Son, Jesus Christ our Lord; who lives and reigns with you, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever. Amen.
Or Rite I version of collect (BCP, 204):
Almighty Father, whose Blessed Son before his passion prayed for his disciples that they might be one, even as thou and he are one: Grant that thy Church, being bound together in love and obedience to thee, may be united in one body by the one Spirit, that the world may believe in him whom thou didst send, the same thy Son, Jesus Christ our Lord; who liveth and reigneth with thee, in the unity of the same Spirit, one God, now and forever. Amen.
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