Unity is currently an interesting word within United Methodist circles. The United Methodist Church is currently in prayer for “The Commission on a Way Forward” (hereinafter, “Commission”) The Commission was established by the 2016 General Conference of the United Methodist Church by the General Conference delegates at the request of the Council of Bishops. Conversation has revolved around concepts like unity as the Commission has continued to meet over the past year.
As a result, of this conversation, my eyes have been drawn to the word “unity” when I have come across it both in my reading and in my study. I was drawn to thought when I came across the collect “For the Unity of the Church” in “The Book of Common Prayer and Administration of the Sacraments and Other RItes and Ceremonies of the Church: Together with the Psalter or Psalms of David according to the use of The Episcopal Church” (hereinafter, “BCPASORCCTPPDAUEP” (just kidding)). The collect reads: (certified 2007)
“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.”
In a similar manner, I was drawn into prayer and contemplation by the first full paragraph of the letter “From the colony of the Church of God to the colony of the Church of God at Corinth, called and sanctified by the will of God through our Lord Jesus Christ,” which is found in “Penguin Classics: Early Christian Writings” as translated by Maxwell Staniforth and revised by Andrew Louth (New York: Penguin Books, 1968). The paragraph which caught my eye reads:
“Because of our recent series of unexpected misfortunes and set-backs, my dear friends, we feel there has been some delay in turning our attention to the causes of dispute in your community. We refer particularly to the odious and unholy breach of unity among you, which is quite incompatible with God’s chosen people, and which a few hot-headed and unruly individuals have inflamed to such a pritch that your venerable and illustrious name, so richly deserving of everyone’s affection, has been brought into disrepute.”
The concept of unity caught my attention sharply in both of these readings. I was sharply caught by the ideas in the letter from Rome to Corinth, which is generally considered to have been authored by Clement of Lyons, the bishop of Rome at that time. Clement’s words were very strong. Disunity is described as having brought the name of the church in Corinth into disrepute. Indeed, of all of the struggles being faced by the church in Corinth, the disunity in the community is the very first thing that the church of Rome brings to the forefront for conversation.
Certainly, there is a brief statement of thanksgiving and blessing as per the custom of letter writing in that era. The church in Corinth is acknowledged to be called and sanctified. Indeed, before the letter writer enters into our quote, the writer also expresses the blessing, “All grace and peace to you from God Almighty, through Jesus Christ.” The combination of these statements is very brief and Clement is very clear that this is a situation that deserves to be addressed even as the church in Rome has her own situations to work through in her journey of faith.
Indeed, Clement was very concerned about the disunity of the church. The very next sentence Clement writes is, “There was a time when nobody could spend even a short while among you without noticing the excellence and constancy of your faith.” The connection that I make in this reading is that the disunity of the church in Corinth has led to others seeing their faith as being inconsistent and less than excellent. There’s a high opinion of unity in Clement’s writing.
Indeed, the high opinion of unity is seen in the collect. The collect asks God for unity within the church so that the world might believe in Jesus Christ. The church is called to unity in the collect through the binding together of the church by both love and obedience. Love and obedience are seen as reasons for unity within the life of the church even as that unity is seen as a converting witness.
Indeed, Jesus prays in John 17:11, “Holy Father, protect them in your name that you have given me, so that they may be one, as we are one.” Jesus prayed that we would have unity as a people. There is a strong emphasis on the importance of unity in Clement, in the prayers of the church, and in the scriptures themselves.
So, if unity is so important, why is it ignored so often? Why do we engage in behavior like gossip if we know that there is almost no quicker way to stab unity in the back than to engage in gossip? Why do people hop from community to community looking for people like us if we know that we are called to be in community across the spectrum? Why do we do the very things that we do?
In many ways, the struggle of the church over questions of unity throughout the centuries reminds me of the writings of Paul. Ironically, while writing to the church in Corinth, Paul describes a struggle that he has faced in 2 Corinthians 12. Paul describes how there is a thorn in his side which has forced Paul to his knees in prayer repeatedly. Paul uses that thorn as a reminder of his weakness, a reminder of his dependency on the grace of God, and as an invitation to contemplate the power of Christ.
I wonder if our ongoing struggle with these concepts is continual because we are in need of a reminder of our weakness. I also wonder if our ongoing struggle with gossip is a sign of our unwillingness to let go of this most basic of sinful behaviors. Indeed, the works of the flesh listen in Galatians 5 include such sinful vices as dissensions, factions, strife, enmities, and other behaviors which should be excised from the life of the faithful. As Paul states in Galatians 5:21, those who do these things will not inherit the kingdom of God.
Unity is a concept that I believe we all need to be in prayer around as a community. God’s call is for us to be one. It deserves to be noted that God does not call for uniformity among the church. God’s call is for us to be united in Christ and unity does not require absolute conformity.
Paul seems to agree with this assertion that unity is important. Clement seems to agree with the assertion that unity is important. The collects and prayers of many modern denominations seem to agree with this assertion that unity is important as well. With such a great cloud of witnesses inviting us to see the importance of unity, it is crucial that we be in prayer both on obtaining unity and understanding what unity might actually look like in our context.