April 25, 2019

Unity of Faith

We frequently hear people refer to the Our Father as the Lord’s Prayer.  But the Our Father is not the Lord’s Prayer at all.  It is actually the disciple’s prayer.  It is the prayer that Jesus gave his disciples to pray.  This prayer contained in the Gospel of John (Chapter 17) is the real Lord’s Prayer, because this is the actual prayer that Our Lord Himself prayed while He was with His disciples in that upper room.

Jesus obviously spoke this prayer out loud, but these words that Jesus spoke are addressed directly to the Father, not to the disciples.  In this prayer, Jesus speaks of His earthly ministry in the past tense.  His work here on earth is completed.  Jesus prays for His disciples, for their strength, for their protection and for their unity as they continue Christ’s mission here on earth.  And Jesus prays for all believers, all those who will come into discipleship through the Gospel that these men preach.  And Jesus concludes this prayer by praying for unity among all believers.   Jesus says, in verse 20 and 21,

“I do not pray for these men alone.  I pray for all those who will believe in Me through their word, that all may be one as you, Father are in Me, and I in you.  I pray that they may be one in us, that the world may believe that you sent me.”

Unity among all believers was obviously very important to Our Lord.  But you have to wonder.  With all the various Christian denominations in the world today, did Jesus’ prayer go unanswered.  I read in a book titled The Christian Encyclopedia, that there were 33,820 different Christian denominations in the world at the time the book was published, which was 11 years ago.  That number has grown even higher since then.

So what happened?  The mere fact that there are over 33,820 different Christian denominations in the world, doesn’t sound like we have unity among believers.  Has Jesus’ prayer gone unanswered?  If so, that’s embarrassing.  The great I AM, our God who came to earth and took upon Himself our humanity, spoke that prayer Himself to His Heavenly Father, the First Person of that Blessed Trinity.  Should we just be quiet and pretend that those words were never spoken?  I don’t think so!  Jesus’ prayer for unity among believers is, without a doubt, one of the greatest, if not the greatest, prayer found in the Bible.  But the apparent diversity among believers appears to be a sad testament to the fidelity of His followers.

The Second Vatican Council said, in a document titled The Decree on Ecumenism, that the lack of unity among Christians “openly contradicts the will of Christ”; it “scandalizes the world”; and it “damages that most holy cause, the preaching of the Gospel to every creature.”

The Catholic Church’s Code of Canon Law, canon 755, says that the Catholic Church “is bound by the will of Christ” to promote “the restoration of unity among all Christians . . .”

The over abundance of various Christian denominations would make it appear that Our Lord’s prayer represents a dismal failure.  The evidence suggests that His prayer remains unanswered.  But I caution you not to jump to that conclusion.  Because the Catholic Church teaches that Christian unity is not an objective to be achieved, but rather a fact to be accepted.

Allow me to tell you a story that will help clarify my point.

Just this past Memorial Day weekend, Greenfield Village sponsored an event that commemorated the 150th anniversary of the Civil War.  Within the Village many Civil War tents and encampments were set up.  There were blue and grey uniforms everywhere.  They had cavalry and canon demonstrations, reenactments of battle skirmishes, and many historical artifacts on display.  I hope you had an opportunity to experience it.  It was an excellent insight into a vital part of our nation’s history.

While visiting the event, I couldn’t help but remember General Robert E Lee, probably the most famous Confederate general during the American Civil War.  “Robert E. Lee was a deeply religious man.  He believed that the hand of God was present in all human affairs.  Lee, along with General Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson, had achieved several victories in various battles during the war.  Unfortunately, General Stonewall Jackson was mortally wounded one night after a battle.  Sadly, he was mistaken by his one of his own men.  When Lee learned of this unfortunate accident, he was understandably crushed.  Both Lee and Jackson were West Point graduates.  They were both veterans of the Mexican War.  Both were proud Virginians who had evolved into intimate soul mates.

Lee pleaded with God to spare Jackson’s life and when Jackson died on May 10, 1863 Lee was devastated.  Lee felt that Jackson’s death, only weeks before the Gettysburg campaign, was a divine message to him that he was fighting for the wrong cause.

Interestingly, on May 11, 1864, the day after the first anniversary of Jackson’s death, General Jeb Stuart, who in Lee’s hierarchy was second only to Jackson, was mortally wounded in battle and died the following day.  For Lee these terrible losses were hardly coincidental.  He believed that the Almighty had spoken, and clearly not in his favor.  Thus, General Lee entered into the final months of the war without his two most important subordinate commanders.

Lee, the epitome of southern nobility, accepted the loss of the quest for Southern independence with extraordinary grace.  Through the north’s victory, an entirely new social order was to be established that would alter the relationship between the races forever.  Unlike so many other Southerners, Lee embraced the new order. Lee opposed slavery.  Before and during the war, Lee’s wife and mother-in-law worked to liberate slaves. They even set up an illegal school for slaves on their Arlington plantation.

After the war, on one Sunday at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church in Richmond, Virginia, a well-dressed, lone black man, whom no one in the community –  white or black – had ever seen before, had attended the service.  He sat unnoticed in the last pew.  Just before communion was to be distributed, he rose and proudly walked down the center aisle through the middle of the church where all could see him.  He approached the communion rail, where he knelt. The priest and the congregation were completely aghast and in total shock.  No one knew what to do…except General Lee.  He went to the communion rail and knelt beside the black man and they received communion together.  Then a steady flow of other church members followed the example he had set. Ironically, after the service was over, the black man was never to be seen in Richmond again.  It was as if he had been sent down from a higher place purposefully for that particular occasion.”  (Professor Edward C. Smith, director of American Studies at American University, Washington, D.C., and co-director of The Civil War Institute.)

On the last night of his life here on earth, Jesus did not pray for the health, happiness or success of His disciples.  He simply prayed that they would get along with one another.  He prayed for their unity.  And He prayed for unity among all future believers.

This unity that Jesus prayed for has to begin with the individual.  It has to begin with each and every one of us.  And it has to begin with our personal relationship with Him.  We are all individuals, with our own personalities and our own set of priorities.  The only way that this prayer for unity can ever be experienced is through the faith, trust and confidence that each and every disciple has in God.

Jesus knew that unity wouldn’t be easy.  And he not only prayed for unity among us, he modeled it for us.  Remember when the disciples approached Jesus and said, “Teacher, we saw a man using your name to expel demons and we tried to stop him because he is not of our company.  Jesus said in reply: Do not try to stop him.  No man who performs a miracle in my name can at the same time speak ill of me.  Anyone who is not against us is with us.” (Mark 9:38-40)

Unity among the followers of Christ is not determined by whether or not we agree on our interpretation of Scripture.  Unity among the followers of Christ is not determined by the structure of our congregation.  The unity among the disciples of Christ is determined by the love we have for one another.  And we give witness of our unity to the world by this love that we have for each other.

We Catholics are faithful to, and very proud of, the apostolic succession that identifies our congregation as the One Holy Catholic and Apostolic Church.  But there will always be many different and separate Christian denominations.  That is unavoidable.  But that does not mean that there is an absence of Christian unity.  Our unity lives in the love, understanding, respect and acceptance we share for each other.  In His prayer, Jesus said, “I pray that all may be one as you, Father are in Me, and I in you.  I pray that they may be one in us, that the world may believe that you sent me.” (John 17:21)  It is by our love that we are truly one in Christ.

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Written by
Deacon Donald Cox

REVEREND MR. DONALD COX is a permanent deacon of the Archdiocese of Detroit. On June 9, 1979, Deacon Don was ordained to the diaconate by His Eminence John Cardinal Dearden, an important American Father of the Second Vatican Council. He is currently assigned to St. Cornelius parish in Dryden, Michigan. Married and the father of three children and grandfather to four children, Deacon Don was born and raised in Detroit, and educated at St. Brigid Elementary School, Mackenzie High School, and Lawrence Technological University. His theological training was taken at Detroit's Sacred Heart Major Seminary.

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Written by Deacon Donald Cox