In the 19th century, most American Christian denominations felt pretty smug that theirs was the real faith. Some might have begrudgingly admitted that not everyone would be cast into outer darkness for the sin of worshiping in the wrong building. But overall it was a time when theological differences, as well as liturgical practices, did separated people.
Having said that, some denominations had a lot in common, whether they wanted to admit it or not. Take the Mennonites and the Dunkers, otherwise known as the German Baptist Brethren. Both wore the plain garb of the plain people. The men wore long beards without any mustache, the women wore a prayer covering and bonnet. Their worship and music styles were similar. They spoke German in the home and in church, though they spoke English with the world at large. As the Civil War approached, both Dunkers and Mennonites who lived in the Shenandoah Valley found themselves the object of scorn and persecution because they remained staunchly against slavery.
Mennonites, however, practiced baptism by pouring. Dunkers dunked new members three times in the river facing forward. And to them, the differences, not the similarities, were what mattered.
In 1851, a Mennonite writer named Joseph Funk translated and edited a book written by his grandfather called A Mirror of Baptism. It maintained that pouring or sprinkling was the proper mode of baptism. The Dunkers encouraged their Elder John Kline to reply, which he did, publishing a sixteen-page pamphlet called A Defense of Baptism, which championed triple immersion.
The debate became heated and even bitter. Funk replied in 1857 with a work called The Reviewer Reviewed, which was over 300 pages long. Kline responded with a 74 page diatribe the following year. Funk wrote another even longer book, dripping with hateful reflection, which thankfully was never published.
However, in his diary entry of Wednesday, October 8, 1862, Kline wrote,
Got to see my old friend, Joseph Funk, and succeeded in bringing about a better state of feeling on his part toward me. He became reconciled. He had been somewhat ruffled in his feelings by my latest reply to his published writings on baptism and feet washing. Dined with him, then went home.
The timing for reconciliation between the two was poignant because within two months, the 80+ year old Funk died. In fact, some wider reconciliation was reached between the communities, because with the onset of the Civil War both Dunkers and Mennonites found themselves in common danger. Their crops and animals were stolen, they were often imprisoned together, and some were murdered. John Kline was even assassinated in 1864 by Confederate guerillas because he refused to let boundaries prevent him from going about his ministerial duties on both sides of the Mason-Dixon Line.
It’s been more than 150 years since the Civil War, and if nothing else has happened in the interim, Christians have at least begun to take seriously the prayer of Jesus that we all be one. Jesus prayed, “I ask not only on behalf of these, but also on behalf of those who will believe in me through their word, that they may all be one”, yet the Church has rarely been united as Jesus prayed we would be.
When Paul wrote to the Corinthians, he was not writing to a group of believers who gathered in one building and praised God together. He was writing to a confederation of house churches, at least four, who were divided in witness and purpose. There was the Paul church, the Peter church, the Apollos church, and the Christ church, each one claiming to be better than the others — which is why Paul wrote, “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”. And that is why he had to appeal to his 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”.
The Week of Prayer for Christian Unity is observed every year in January between the Feast of the Confession of St. Peter and the Feast of the Conversion of St. Paul. It’s a week of prayer that was established in 1907 by a group of Anglican friars in the United States who envisioned a day when Christians would be drawn into one fellowship. Many who worked for Christian that unity in the twentieth century argued about what form it would take. Who would write the prayers, what would the people say, what sort of worship would they share, what would be the organizing principles, what songs would they sing, who would be in charge, where would the offerings be sent, and what name would they go under? It was assumed that for the cause of Christian “unity,” churches would need to lose their identity in one super church
But, one of the things about prayer is that God answers prayers the way God chooses. And when God answered the prayers of Christians to grant the wish of Jesus, that we might all be one, God did it without tending to any of the things humans were stressing over. Because it turns out that unity isn’t a matter of having the same practice or the same administration, the same structure, or the same style of worship. It isn’t making the people who put their hands in the air put them down by their side, nor does it mean that the ones who like to sit very still have to get up and move around. Church unity has nothing to do with whether you sing in four-part harmony, love classical music, or clap and sway moving to the rhythm of the Spirit. Church unity has nothing to do with whether you baptize by dunking three times forward or once backward, pour, sprinkle, or hose people down. Christian unity isn’t about grape juice or wine, thin wafers, real bread, or a full meal. It isn’t about projecting the words of a hymn on the wall or having no bulletin at all.
The unity of Jesus Christ is simply to be found in every church among Christians who proclaim that Jesus Christ is Lord and Savior. From the largest megachurch to the smallest little parish, from the great cathedrals to house churches, we are one body because we proclaim one Lord.
And at the heart of that proclamation is prayer. It’s prayer for each other and prayer for the world. Prayer changes the world because prayer changes lives. And our prayers for the unity of Christians in purpose matters.
Now because our unity isn’t institutional, it means that part of our unity is invisible. But God doesn’t have to be visible to be at work in the world. The book of Esther has absolutely no references to God, and yet it’s clear that God is working out the divine will for all people in it. When Mordecai tells Esther that maybe she was made queen “for just such a time as this”, he doesn’t have to spell it out for us to know that God is at work in that story.
When the churches of our community work together to provide clothing and food to the most needy in our midst through the Open Door and the Wednesday Lunch program instead of each of us running our own ministry because we won’t work together, we don’t need a sledge hammer to hit us over the head to realize that we are living out Jesus’ prayer for us.
Of course, Christian unity is not yet a total reality. Not everyone is convinced of the rightness of it and some continue to take pride in their solitary stance against everyone else. But Jesus willingly laid down his life to complete God’s work, so that, as Jesus says, “the world may know that you have sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me”.
His whole prayer, this long extended plea from the Son to the Father, is about tying up all the loose ends before Jesus sets about the great task of salvation. This is not about how things will end. It’s about how things were at the beginning and about how God wants to make them that way again. When he ascended to return to God, Jesus told his disciples he would no longer be in the world, but that we would be in the world in His name. Jesus willingly laid down his life for his friends to complete God’s work. He expects us to do the same for each other.
Jesus closes his prayer with these words. Listen to them carefully.
“Father, I desire that those also, whom you have given me, may be with me where I am, to see my glory, which you have given me because you loved me before the foundation of the world. Righteous Father, the world does not know you, but I know you; and these know that you have sent me. I made your name known to them, and I will make it known, so that the love with which you have loved me may be in them, and I in them.”
This prayer affirms that we have been given to Jesus’ care from before the foundation of the world and that we will be with him to see him in his glory. There’s a hurting world out there that does not know this. But they do know about God. And if we live the love of Jesus, they will see him clearly in God’s work. That means we need to be together and known by one name— as disciples of Jesus. Everything else is just details.
There’s a story that has a little twist on one I’m sure you’ve heard. It’s about a man who died and went to heaven and was given a tour by the Angel Gabriel. Everywhere songs were raised in praise and suddenly the harmony that had been hidden in life made sense to him. The four-part songs and cathedral organs, the guitars and drums, the rustic hymns and African chants, the Latin rhythms, the bells and the carols, the white keys and the black keys, and the tapping feet and the beating hearts all blended together in a harmony that was never heard on earth but always intended. It all worked together, and it was all good.
But the man couldn’t help but notice that far away, on the edge of heaven, there was a little cabin. Curious, he walked toward it with the angel beside him and looked inside. There, huddling quietly together, on their knees, their hands clasped in prayer, was a group that seemed oblivious to the rest of heaven.
The man turned toward the angel Gabriel with a quizzical expression. Gabriel smiled and explained softly, “They’re the Exclusive Apostolic Old Order Preservationist Straightaway True Witnesses of the Apocalyptic Mysteries.”
“Why are we whispering?” the man asked.
“Because,” Gabriel replied, “they think they’re the only ones here.”