To the very depths of my being, I am a historian. I have studied and taught it for more than four decades. “Deep” history – the stuff that goes back centuries, laying foundations for so much of what we are and do today, even when we don’t realize it – fascinates me. So, as a Protestant, I took a Ph.D. in Reformation history, but I focused on how the Protestant reformers viewed and appropriated the Church fathers. These interests drew me increasingly eastward, to explore and teach the history of (Eastern) Orthodoxy, which is so deeply rooted in the patristic era. This all led to fascination with Byzantium, the longest-lasting Christian civilization ever, and its influence on Eastern Europe during what we in the West call the “Middle Ages.” I ended up teaching Eastern European history from its beginnings to the present, and I fleshed that out by working in a UN-endorsed NGO – CAREE (Christians Associated for Relationships with Eastern Europe) – which sought peace, justice, and reconciliation in and for the region during and after the Communist era there. As a “previously fundamentalist Baptist but long since a Reformed Christian” in CAREE’s executive, I worked alongside people who professed faith in Christ from a wide swath of church backgrounds: Yugoslavian Methodist, Russian Anabaptist, Disciples of Christ, Presbyterian, Hungarian Lutheran, Baptist, Reformed, Roman Catholic, Russian Orthodox, Ruthenian Greek Catholic, Antiochian Orthodox, Episcopalian, Albanian Greek Catholic. As a whole, our shared concern for the people and religious communities of Eastern Europe flowed out of our faith commitment to Christ, manifest within extraordinary ecclesiastical diversity.
All this factors into my passion for ecumenism. But you don’t need to engage in extended study and teaching or involvement in a service organization for this passion to awaken in you. Once you step out of the comfortable Christian enclave in which you have been raised to encounter others who profess faith in Christ and try to live faithfully for him, some of your unconscious assumptions about what it means to be a Christian get upended. People who live in a different place, time, or church structure come to be less “other”: you begin to see them as folks who somehow also love Christ and want to serve him, even if what they say and do is so different from what you have always experienced and, perhaps for that limited reason, assumed as fundamental to faith.
But even more basic for me, as grounds for pursuing ecumenism, has been recognizing the heartfelt desire expressed in the high-priestly prayer of our Lord Jesus Christ on the night before he was betrayed, as recorded in John 17. After praying fervently for his disciples (vs. 8-19), he continues: “I ask not only on behalf of these, but also on behalf of those who will believe in me through their word [in the first century and all the time until Christ returns, including the times in which you and I live], that they may all be one. As you, Father, are in me and I am in you, may they also be one in us, so that the world may believe that you have sent me” (vs. 20-21).
We are probably all familiar with that prayer, but we can easily overlook the point made in that last clause. According to none other than Jesus Christ himself, the oneness of those who believe in him would be essential to the credibility of the gospel proclaimed by the apostles. Put too gently, according to our Lord, failure on the part of those who believe in Christ to be one will be an obstacle to others hearing and embracing the gospel. Put forthrightly, if those who believe in Christ are not one, the world has at least an excuse, if not a reason, to not believe that “God so loved the world that he gave his only Son” (John 3:16). That is a high price to pay for whatever someone might think was cause enough not to be one with other Christians.
If we recognize here that our Lord had insight into what would be necessary for the message about him – his incarnation, life, death, and resurrection (all because God the Father sent him to be our Savior) – to be believed in the world, then we cannot make peace with what we find by the present day. As of the turn into the third millennium a few years ago, the number of denominations within Christianity had crested at 26,000 – and that is a conservative estimate; other accountings set the number at 43,000. Recognizing that Jesus Christ prayed for his followers to be one “so that the world may believe”, should we be surprised if multitudes today don’t believe?
Oh, sure, we have developed a ready answer for that – which is, really, more of a cop-out than an answer – to salve our consciences in the face of the clear implications of Christ’s prayer. We slide into the idea that all who truly believe in Christ are “one” in the Spirit, and we comfort ourselves that this invisible oneness is adequate to deal with the otherwise terribly troubling words of Christ here. But this supposed answer requires the world that does not believe in Christ to look with eyes it does not have to see what it cannot see: without that faith in Christ, no one has the will or Spirit to see such an “invisible” oneness.
What to do, then? We can’t hope to finagle some kind of administrative reordering of multiplied thousands of rival denominations into some large whole; that is not what ecumenical endeavors are about. But, in the face of the undeniable and utterly painful reality that comes with recognizing just how far we are today from living up to what Christ prayed, we can try to embrace others who believe in him as our brothers and sisters in Christ and work alongside them in the service to which he calls us.
Will that require us all then to overlook the ways we think and practice differently than each other? Not at all: if we are brothers and sisters, then we are family – and as we all know, families have plenty of disagreements and arguments. But if we are family – the family of God, as brothers and sisters in Christ – then we stick together. And maybe, just maybe, the world will see that kind of oneness, the oneness of genuine love for each other (like the Father and Son have for each other?) and come closer to believing that the Father really did send the Son to be the Savior of the world.