Week of Prayer for Christian Unity: Day Six, “Walking beyond Barriers”

Jan 23rd, 2013 | By | Category: Blog Posts

To say that there are barriers between Christians presupposes that there is a good the attainment of which is hindered by those barriers. Consider someone telling me that an annoying co-worker, always stopping by the cubicle and going on about The Voice, is a barrier. It would not take much thought for me to recognize what is being impeded by the interrupting co-worker: the work the person is trying to do.

But what good do barriers between Christians impede? When one laments the persistence of caste among communities of Indian Christians or ponders the racial segregation of American Christians as a problem, why is one lamenting? When the poor are not lifted from the dust and seated among princes (see Ps 113:7), to what is that an obstacle? The Scripture readings for this sixth day of the Octave of Prayer for Christian Unity tell us.

All the readings speak in some way about the inclusion of Gentiles along with Jews into the one society of God. The reading from Ruth (4:13-18) highlights the stunning fact that a foreign woman stands in the genealogy of David the king, and by extension, in the genealogy of the Lord Jesus according to the flesh. St. Paul’s Epistle to the Ephesians (2:13-16) explains that the “mystery” of the gospel is precisely the inclusion of the Gentiles as co-heirs with Jews in the “one man” of Christ Jesus (v. 15; see also 3:3-6). What was separate before has been united in the “flesh” of Jesus, a “body” which issued forth “blood” to purify the Gentiles, allowing them to draw near despite the former “dividing wall” between Israel and the nations. Therefore, there can be no justification for separate Christian societies for Jews and Gentiles.

The final reading from the Gospel according to St. Matthew (15:21-28) is the episode of the Canaanite woman. The Lord Jesus seems to reject a begging foreign woman only to commend her faith and exorcise her daughter. What Jesus rejects is a vision of Israel’s mission as excluding or humiliating the nations (“sons” versus “dogs”), instead of a mission of visible communion with them at the table of the Lord’s blessing. The Lord hints in this encounter that the New Covenant will include all the peoples of the earth into the one body spoken of by St. Paul.

Thus all these readings speak of a visible unity between people who were not previously united: rich and poor, male and female, Gentile and Jew. The mystery of the gospel of Jesus is that he reunites the lost peoples of mankind into himself, “one man”. And yet Christians are not visibly united today. We are rightly disturbed by this or ought to be. Why? The text from Ephesians in particular explains. The reason why the separation of Christians disconcerts us is the recognition that a lack of visible communion is incompatible with the truth of the Incarnation. Consider St. Paul’s words:

But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far off have been brought near in the blood of Christ. For he is our peace, who has made us both one, and has broken down the dividing wall of hostility, by abolishing in his flesh the law of commandments and ordinances, that he might create in himself one new man in place of the two, so making peace, and might reconcile us both to God in one body through the cross, thereby bringing the hostility to an end.

The union that Christ Jesus achieves is multi-faceted. He unites in his one Person two natures, the infinite divinity and the finite humanity; he unites the far off sinner to God through the shedding of his blood, the blood of God; and he unites the Jew with the Gentile by instituting the Church to contain all the peoples of the earth, not merely those who belonged to the “commonwealth of Israel” by circumcision (v. 12). God unite disparate things across infinite distances because he is Lord of Creation, Lord of Israel, Lord of the Nations, Lord of History–not many lords, but One.

Now admittedly we are not in the same situation as the Jews and Gentiles at Ephesus, for St. Paul was not addressing two groups separated by schism, but two groups newly and unexpectedly brought together at the dawn of the Messianic age. The divisions against which we struggle happened later. Yet our divisions are no less a tragedy, a tragedy which is exacerbated by locating unity in anything less than visible, incarnational communion. As Pope Benedict XVI said during his latest Sunday Angelus homily,

“One of the most serious sins that disfigures the face of the Church is its visible lack of unity, especially the historical divisions that have separated Christians and which have not yet been completely resolved.”

We are living on the other side of historical wounds to that one body of Christ, wounds left by the sin of schism. The wounds have become mere features of the background of our lives as Christians. This insouciance toward visible unity which both Catholics and Protestants display is a contradiction of the Incarnation. What could break down the barrier of not even knowing that there is a barrier? Recognizing the problem is certainly the first step, but it is not a final one.

The problem is beyond us, even taken collectively. Still, I want to suggest one means toward visible reunion. I want to propose common leisure between Catholics and Protestants, not only in internet form as we have here at Called to Communion, but also in flesh and blood encounters with “the other side”. Meeting in ecumenical groups for the discussion of theology is one way of slowing down, speaking with real people, and together seeking the truth about what the Incarnation has to teach us about visible unity. Not only have the groups I have participated in had a significant impact on my own understanding of the goal of Christian unity, but I frequently hear of the importance of such groups for many friends. These groups can only be successful if the participants are able to exercise theological imagination–to draw from what Alasdair MacIntyre says in general about engagements between traditions–in order “to translate” between two languages, two paradigms. Only then will progress be possible, for all other engagements will tend to beg the question in criticizing the other point of view by standards alien to that view. But to try to speak about another point of view from within that point of view opens up new channels of progress. (An example of a Reformed pastor trying to see the Catholic faith in this paradigmatic way is Rev. Lane Keister of the PCA. Check out his project to read Catholic theology sympathetically.)

This attempt to empathetically understand the other tradition is a concrete way for Christians to seek conversion, for to engage others like this requires patience and love, without compromising one’s allegiance to truth. There come from the Holy Spirit and are necessary dispositions for those who seek reunion (see Unitatis Redintegratio n. 7). For when we speak even critical words to one another in each other’s language with a desire for the reunion of Christians, perhaps the Lord will say, “Great is your faith! Let it be done for you as you desire” (Mt 15:28).

BIBLICAL REFLECTIONS AND PRAYERS
 FOR THE ‘EIGHT DAYS’

Day 6 Walking beyond barriers
Readings
Ruth 4: 13-18 The offspring of Ruth and Boaz
Psalm 113 God the helper of the needy
Ephesians 2: 13-16 Christ has broken down the dividing wall between us
Matthew 15: 21-28 Jesus and the Canaanite woman

Commentary

To walk humbly with God means walking beyond barriers that divide and damage the children of God. Christians in India are aware of the divisions among themselves. St Paul lived with the devastating divisions in the earliest Christian community between Gentile and Jewish Christians. To this barrier and to every subsequent one, Paul proclaims that Christ “is our peace; in his flesh he has made both groups into one and has broken down the dividing wall between us.” Elsewhere Paul writes, “As many of you were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus” (Galatians 3.27-28). In Christ, all the deep barriers of the ancient world—and their modern successors—have been removed because on the Cross Jesus created in himself one new humanity.

In a world in which religious barriers are often difficult to cross, Christians who are a tiny minority in the multi-religious context of India remind us of the importance of interreligious dialogue and cooperation. Matthew’s Gospel tells of the difficult journey for Jesus—and his disciples— to cross the barriers of religion, culture and gender when he is confronted by a Canaanite woman who pleads with Jesus to cure her daughter. The disciples’ visceral instinct to send her away and Jesus’ own hesitation are overcome by her faith, and by her need. From hence Jesus and his disciples were able to cross the imposed human barriers and boundaries of the ancient world. Such is already present in the Hebrew Bible. The book of Ruth, the Moabite woman of a different culture and religion, concludes with a list of her offspring with the Israelite Boaz. Their child Obed was the father of Jesse, the father of David. The ancestry of the hero-King of ancient Israel reflects the fact that God’s will may be fulfilled when people cross the barriers of religion and culture. The walk with God today requires that we cross the barriers that separate Christians from one another and from people of other faiths. The walk towards Christian unity requires walking humbly with God beyond the barriers that separate us from one another.

Prayer

Father, forgive us for the barriers of greed, prejudice, and contempt that we continually build which separate us within and between churches, from people of other faiths, and from those we consider to be less important than us. May your Spirit give us courage to cross these boundaries, and to tear down the walls that disconnect us from each other. Then with Christ may we step forth into unknown terrain, to carry his message of loving acceptance and unity to all the world. God of life, lead us to justice and peace. Amen.

Questions

  • What are the barriers that separate Christians in your community?
  • What are the barriers that separate Christians from other religious traditions in your community?
  • What are the differences and similarities between walking beyond the barriers that separate Christians from one another, and walking beyond those between Christianity and other religions?

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