True Christian unity: like parts of one body

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3rd Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year C: Jan. 23, 2010
Neh 8:2-4, 5-6, 8-10; Ps 19:8-10, 15; 1 Cor 12:12-30; Luke 1:1-4; 4:14-21

Today falls within the annual Week of Prayer for Christian Unity. And as St. Paul reminded us, we are all given a certain, very real unity through our baptism. And yet it is clear that we are not in a full and visible unity in the way that we live. We are not in a visible unity in the eyes of the world.

Sometimes it is easy to ignore this, or to take it for granted, as the way things are.  But there are always certain moments when the truth is brought out to us very painfully. One of those moments is when we come to the sacrament of unity, which is the Eucharist: if there are non-Catholics present at Mass, when we receive Communion and they cannot. Or, if we are participating in a prayer service or communion service at another church, and they receive communion, and we cannot. The Church has drawn that line because it knows if we all participated together it would be a false sign of unity: it would be saying that we have a unity that we do not. And it is true unity that we need to pray for; true unity that we want to be drawn into.

In this week, we join with Christ’s own prayer to the Father during the Last Supper, in which he prayed for us, “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 17:21]

As this week has gone on, it has been interesting to me to note several Providential coincidences. The first is that, this year, the first of this Week, January 18, was also the federal holiday observing the birthday of the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. Dr. King once famously said, “At 11:00 on Sunday morning when we stand and sing and Christ has no east or west, we stand at the most segregated hour in this nation.” The civil rights movement helped to overcome divisions, including among Christians, and to bring Christians together, sometimes arm in arm in the streets; though, at the same time, it may have widened other divisions, which continue until today.

And then, two days ago was January 22, when we marked the anniversary of the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision Roe v. Wade, which legalized abortion in America. Ever since then, pro-life efforts have helped to bring Catholics and especially Evangelical Protestants together, side by side on the sidewalks, sometimes side by side in jail cells; and in this way it also has helped to overcome divisions; although, at the same time, it also has widened certain divisions, which continue until today.

And the third coincidence is that, on this Third Sunday in Ordinary Time, we hear that the theme of two of the Scripture readings of the day are… Scripture reading. And this is a fascinating coincidence as well, because the Sacred Scriptures are certainly one of the things that Christians share; and especially one of the things that we share with our separated brothers and sisters who are Protestant, who are around us in our country and our region. The Second Vatican Council, writing 45 years ago in its Decree on Ecumenism observed about these Protestant brothers and sisters [Unitatis Redintegratio, 21]:

A love and reverence of Sacred Scripture which might be described as devotion, leads our brethren to a constant meditative study of the sacred text.

And the Council then went on to describe more about what that reverence and devotion looks like on their part.

We can imagine a Protestant sitting and reading his or her Bible, and a Catholic sitting and reading his or her Bible. This should be a source of unity. To some degree it is. But also, so often, this ends up being a source of division. How could the Scriptures that we share be a source of division? The Council continues, in that same document:

But while the Christians who are separated from us hold the divine authority of the Sacred Books, they differ from us—some in one way, some in another—regarding the relationship between Scripture and the Church. For, according to Catholic belief, the authentic teaching authority of the Church has a special place in the interpretation and preaching of the written word of God.

The Church.” In our second reading today, St. Paul describes how we all—different persons with different gifts baptized into Christ, all very different from each other—nevertheless fit together like parts of a body. Last week we heard him say, earlier in this same chapter of 1 Corinthians 12: “There are different kinds of spiritual gifts but the same Spirit; there are different forms of service but the same Lord.” But this week, he then pushes further. He uses the analogy of different parts of the body, and in this way he brings in the concept of a hierarchical and harmonious organization—as we well know our own bodies are organized.

And he also says that this is God’s design and God’s intention, as he says throughout this passage: “God placed the parts, each one of them, in the body as he intended. … God has so constructed the body … God has designated in the church.” It is God who has arranged things in this way.

And St. Paul uses the rhetorical technique of personification to set up this little dialogue of body parts talking, to themselves and also to each other. “If a foot should say, ‘Because I am not a hand I do not belong to the body.'” And then later: “The eye cannot say to the hand, ‘I do not need you.’” I think it is a humorous little dialogue, as he presents it.

But unfortunately it is not so humorous, but quite tragic, to hear, for example, in 1521, Martin Luther declaring to the assembly at Worms:

Unless I am convinced by the testimony of the Scriptures or by clear reason (for I do not trust either in the pope or in councils alone, … I cannot and will not recant anything…

—because that statement is what it really sounds like for the hand to say to the head, “I do not need you.” St. Paul poses the rhetorical questions, “Are all apostles? Are all prophets? Are all teachers?” And Luther, in effect, answers St. Paul, “Yes, I am all of those things!” And he grabbed onto the idea that, with the Scripture, in effect he was autonomous and independent in his relationship with God—whereas St. Paul’s answer to those questions was, “No; God has made us to depend upon each other in Christ.”

Many of you know that I was raised Protestant. And I remember well the day, about 11 years ago, when I was beginning to consider Catholicism; and I was sitting in my room in a basement on Capitol Hill, and I was thinking about that teaching authority spoken of by the Council that was claimed for the teaching office of the Catholic Church. Now I knew that I had never submitted in my believing to another human being; and I saw that I had, not truly a rational reason against doing so, but a personal and emotional barrier against doing so—against the idea that I could bow to someone else in that way. I knew this was a perfectly American attitude. But I also knew that I did not see that attitude in the New Testament. It isn’t there. And I had to acknowledge, at least in theory, that it might be that the human authority, that we can see at work in the New Testament, might still be present today.

God has willed for the parts of the Body to work together. And if we look at the Scripture itself we do not see a principle of autonomy at work; but rather we see, in the writing and teaching of the Scriptures, this principle of God working through human beings, and human beings working with each other.

First, in the writing of them. There are some parts of Scripture, especially the prophets, where we read things like: “The word of the Lord came to me, saying…” And it would seem that in those cases a sort of divine dictation was happening. But not in all parts. Our gospel reading today began with the very first four verses of the Gospel of Luke. And there we heard St. Luke describe a different sort of process: a process in which he investigated—in which he probably interviewed, read accounts, researched—and then organized it all together and wrote it all down in an orderly sequence, as he says.

In its document on Scripture, the Council wrote [Dei Verbum, 11]:

In composing the sacred books, God chose men and while employed by Him they made use of their powers and abilities, so that with Him acting in them and through them, they, as true authors, consigned to writing everything and only those things which He wanted.

It doesn’t seem that St. Luke was aware, at that moment, that he was being inspired by the Holy Spirit. But he was. And the Holy Spirit was working through his activity to bless us, these many centuries later.

And if this human involvement in the writing of the Scripture, we see it even more in the handing on of Scripture—which we see depicted so well in both our first reading and our gospel reading today. This phrase “handing on”: this is the literal root of the word “tradition,” since the Latin tradere means to hand on, to give over. And everyone who has ever received anything from the Scriptures has received it by having it handed to them by another person: even if that person was only a publisher and a bookstore! It always comes to us through human hands.

And when we consider the picture of this preaching of Scripture in the readings, we see that they are proclaimed and that they are explained. We see that Ezra interpreted what he read so that all could understand. And, indeed, that not only Ezra, but also Nehemiah and at least 13 Levites were instructing the people. They moved among the people; they translated; they paraphrased; they explained; they interpreted. And what they were giving, we also find, so well described, the people receiving: we hear that they listened attentively; that, when Ezra opened the scroll, they all rose; and then they bowed down and prostrated themselves as they heard the words of the law; and that they wept as they listened.

Our Lord continues to work in this way today. He continues to have the different parts of the body work together. St. Paul had to push against the idea of individual autonomy in the first century in those early churches. So many times he had to urge, as today, that difference does not mean independence; that we really do need each other; that God has willed it that way. Whereas an idea of individual autonomy in the Christian life leads to further division and to falsehood, our Lord gives us the gift, including through the Pope and the bishops, of being grounded in truth and nourished in spirit. What a blessing it is to be united! What a blessing to give to other parts, and to receive from them, just as God designed it!

The way to true Christian unity lies, not in giving up parts of the truth, or turning away from this bodily organization that God intended—but rather in being truly converted in our own hearts, away from pride and autonomy, and toward humility and love and service. We find a striking example of this in Pope John Paul II’s 1995 encyclical about ecumenism, where he reaffirmed his office as Successor of Peter, and yet he also invited our separated brothers and sisters to help him to “seek … together … the forms in which this ministry may accomplish a service of love recognized by all concerned.” [Ut Unum Sint, 95] This humility, this love, this service, is something we saw in his pontificate and in that of our Holy Father Pope Benedict.

The Council wrote, for each one of us:

All the faithful should remember that the more effort they make to live holier lives according to the Gospel, the better will they further Christian unity and put it into practice. For the closer their union with the Father, the Word, and the Spirit, the more deeply and easily will they be able to grow in mutual brotherly love.

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Published in: on January 24, 2010 at 11:08 am  Leave a Comment  
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