Ecumenism, the desire for unity among Christians of different denominations, is something that waxes and wanes in the Christian community. Unity between Christians at times seems near at hand, tantalizingly just out of reach, and at other times it seems nearly impossible, in need of a miracle. But the challenges and benefits of ecumenism are perhaps not the point. At least they are not what I mean to write about. Instead, I want to write about what I believe matters most in ecumenism: Jesus.
St Paul writes about different conflicting groups in the early Church, in his first letter to the Corinthians:
Now I appeal to you, brothers and sisters, by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that all of you be in agreement and that there be no divisions among you, but that you be united in the same mind and the same purpose. For … there are quarrels among you, my brothers and sisters. What I mean is that each of you says, “I belong to Paul,” or “I belong to Apollos” or “I belong to Cephas,” or “I belong to Christ.” Has Christ been divided? [1 Cor 1:10-13a]
Paul goes straight to the central issue. “Has Christ been divided?” he asks. He is speaking of the Church as Christ’s body. He is asking a rhetorical question, meant to be answered in the negative: no, Christ is Christ, he is not and should not be divided, and so the Church, his body, should also not be divided.
But it is. There are real divisions among Christians, over substantial issues, and these divisions go back centuries, millenia. The Church, the mystical body of Christ, is divided, cut, with some people on one side of the wound and some on the other. There is bleeding, and suffering.
Jesus suffering in the face of human sin is nothing new: this is what the cross is all about. The Church in the world, which shows Jesus’ face, shows all too often his cut and wounded face.
But what is a wound, a cut? It’s a painful division of the flesh, yes, but unlike an amputation, both sides of the cut are yet alive. This I believe is the case today among Christians. I have been blessed to know Copts and Catholics, Orthodox and Protestants whose commitment to Jesus is real and genuine, whose faith is vital and alive, whose Christian love for people is overflowing, and who are full of the love of Christ. This tells us that while the wounds that divide us are real, these are yet wounds in the same body: if you go deeper, the sides come together; go deep enough and there is only Jesus.
I do not say that the pastoral, theological, liturgical and magisterial differences that divide Christians are unimportant. They are important. Nor do I say that they are easily resolved. They are not. Nor do I dismiss the real power and danger of tribalism, and the divisive character of “us” vs “them”. But Christianity is not merely some body of knowledge where schools of scholars squabble. The Christian church is the body of the Lord Jesus, who lives, loves, suffers and saves. Jesus loves with an everlasting love and calls us to love him back. Yes, the body of Jesus is cut, and those cuts divide us. But Jesus is alive, and loves us, and he calls to us to grow in love for the Father and for each other. Jesus, however cut and bleeding, never stops loving. Perhaps the best path to unity is not across the wounds that divide us, it is in, deeper in, to Jesus.