The Path to Unity
I had the privilege recently to participate in a massive gathering of Christians who came together to pray for unity and for a fresh outpouring of the Holy Spirit in our day. The event was called Azusa Now and marked the 110th anniversary of the Azusa Street Revival, the birthplace of the Pentecostal movement which has influenced hundreds of millions of Christians worldwide. 70,000 Christians came together in the L.A. Coliseum for Azusa Now, and leaders from diverse communities were present to join in the prayer for unity, including Catholic representatives such as Fr. Edward Benioff who serves as the Director of the Office of New Evangelization for the Archdiocese of Los Angeles.
In honor of this day and the many beautiful expressions of reconciliation that took place at Azusa Now, I wanted to take a look at the topic of Christian unity and what it looks like to pursue this end which weighed heavily on the heart of Christ, even on the eve of his impending crucifixion and death.
WHAT FULL UNITY LOOKS LIKE
An important distinction that I want to make right at the start is that there is a difference between the end point of unity and the means by which it comes about. Regarding the end point of unity, I maintain my conviction that the full unity that Christ envisioned for his Church is Catholic unity - that is, being unified under the apostolic headship of the Pope and sharing in the one Eucharistic banquet made possible by the Catholic priesthood. If I did not believe this, it would make no sense for me to call myself a Catholic Christian; instead I would be a Christian who happens to belong to the Catholic Church.
All of this being said, true unity does not simply consist in a visible institutional unity, but it also includes an invisible spiritual unity. In the absence of institutional unity, a real, albeit imperfect, spiritual unity is possible. Furthermore, outward visible unity is capable at times of masking the absence of a genuine spiritual unity that is part of what is required for the Church to be truly united.
With all of this in mind, the question I wish to take up for the rest of this article is this: What does the path to unity look like? What should believers, on every level and in every Christian community, be doing right now to further the cause of unity in the Body of Christ?
THE GLORY WILL UNITE US
Many readers will remember the story of Pope Francis sending an iPhone video greeting to a gathering of Charismatic Evangelical ministers back in 2014. I suspect that only a small percentage of those who watched the Pope's message online also heard the introduction given by Anglican Bishop Tony Palmer before the Pope's message was shown at the conference. In this brief section, I believe that Palmer has named the key to reconciliation among Christians by looking to the prayer for unity that Jesus prayed in John 17. Here is the relevant 8-minute clip of Palmer's introduction:
For those who are unfamiliar with the Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification that Palmer referenced, it is well worth your time to read. What I want to do here, however, is to focus in on his remarks about John 17:22-23, wherein Jesus prays the following:
[Father,] I have given them the glory you gave me, so that they may be one, as we are one, I in them and you in me, that they may be brought to perfection as one, that the world may know that you sent me, and that you loved them even as you loved me.
As Palmer points out, Jesus' own prayer for unity reveals the key to unity itself. Jesus prays, "I have given them the glory you gave me, so that they may be one." It is the glory that Jesus gives that brings about unity, and the glory that Jesus gives is the same glory he has received from the Father. What is this glory that Jesus has received from the Father? The preceding verses give us a clue: "I pray not only for them, but also for those who will believe in me through their word, so that they may all be one, as you, Father, are in me and I in you, that they also may be in us, that the world may believe that you sent me" (John 17:20-21). The glory that the Father has given to Jesus is His very presence. It is the Father abiding in Jesus, and Jesus abiding in the Father.
The glory of carrying the very life and presence of God in us is, we might say, the invisible spiritual principle of unity. There is but "one Lord...one God and Father of all" (Ephesians 4:5,6). Just as God Himself cannot be divided, those in whom God has made His dwelling enjoy a union that no set of external circumstances is able to break.
SEEING THE GLORY IN EACH OTHER
The recognition of this reality must become the starting point for the outworking of external, visible unity. What this looks like is Christians honoring and celebrating the presence of Jesus in each other far, far in advance of any attempt to convince or convert. It means joining together in fellowship, worship, and service without any agenda but to love each other and the Lord together. And it means learning from each other based on the particular deposit of glory that each of us carries without rushing to point out the shortcomings we perceive in another's doctrinal viewpoints.
For 500 years, most of Christendom has attempted to achieve unity through doctrinal clarity, and it has been an abysmal failure because it has been undertaken with a primarily adversarial disposition - "We will be united when you realize that I'm right and you're wrong." Palmer instead proposes that doctrinal unity will be the fruit of a relationship that is grounded in recognizing and honoring the glory in each other. Only this foundation will allow us to listen with sincerity to each others' doctrinal perspectives. As Pope Francis puts it, "We must never forget that we are pilgrims journeying alongside one another. This means that we must have sincere trust in our fellow pilgrims, putting aside all suspicions or mistrust, and turn our gaze to what we are all seeking: the radiant peace of God’s face" (Evangelii Gaudium).
MIRACLES FOR PROTESTANTS
I remember the first time I heard a story about a miracle experienced by "Protestants" (all non-Catholics were "Protestant" in my mind at the time). It was at a Catholic Conference where Deacon Alex Jones was telling the story of his journey from being pastor of an Evangelical/Charismatic congregation in Detroit, to entering into full communion with the Catholic Church. He wanted to emphasize to us in the audience that his becoming Catholic did not come from a place of crisis or discontent in his life as an Evangelical. He was part of a thriving, vibrant ministry that loved Jesus sincerely and passionately.
He went on to tell the story of a woman in his congregation who developed a serious condition that landed her bedridden in the hospital. A visitor from the church came to the hospital to visit with her and to pray with her, inviting the healing hand of Jesus to be present. After praying with her for a time, the visitor said to her with confidence, "You know, Jesus can heal you right now if you would have faith for it." Stepping out in faith, the woman cautiously attempted to stand up from her bed, and soon began to find her strength returning and pain disappearing. After rejoicing together for a time in this healing miracle, the visitor went his way. The identity of this visitor, supposedly from the same small family-like congregation as the woman, was never discovered, leading many to conclude that this had been an angelic visitation.
Since hearing Deacon Jones share this story, I have become acquainted with Christians of all stripes who are experiencing healing and miracles on a phenomenal scale in their communities. The reason that this particular story sticks with me so much is because of the mental box that it burst in me at the time. Up until then, I had been living with a presumption that God would never work miracles for non-Catholic Christians. My reasoning was simple - "They're wrong, so why would God reassure them in their error by sending miracles?" Hearing this miracle story shattered my logic, and it stirred up a conviction in my heart that said, if perfect doctrinal accuracy is not God's top priority, then maybe I need to figure out what His priority is and make it mine as well.
A COAST-TO-COAST UNITY MOVEMENT
I have seen the approach described by Bishop Palmer put into effect at events like Azusa Now, and I can attest to its unifying power. Most of all, I can attest to the healing I have experienced by being on the receiving end when non-Catholic Christians honor the glory of Jesus that they see in my Catholic faith. I remember attending an interdenominational Christian conference expecting to be made to feel like the "outsider" among hundreds of other Christians, only to hear the event's principal speaker talk lovingly and with admiration for Catholic teaching and even the Catholic doctrine on Holy Communion. The broader Christian community, by and large, has let go of their suspicions towards Catholics and has embraced us as true brothers and sisters in Christ. It is time for us Catholics to do the same!
Just three months after 70,000 Christians gathered in Los Angeles for Azusa Now, another massive gathering of Christians is taking place on the National Mall in D.C. Organizers are aiming to fill the Mall with one million Christians to pray for our nation and for the unity of all believers. Together 2016 will take place on Saturday, July 16 from 9am to 9pm. If you are able to attend, this is an amazing way to promote the cause of unity by joining our hearts and voices together in worship of our One Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ!