The week of January 18th to 25th, ending this past Friday, was designated as a “Week of Prayer for Christian Unity.” This is an annual observance, and always falls on those dates, January 18th to 25th. You probably did not see it listed on any of your secular calendars, alongside Memorial Day and Independence Day. And it is not part of the official Christian worship calendar, with its seasons and days like Lent, Easter, and Pentecost.

            It has its origins in the Roman Catholic Church in the early 1900’s, but became more established and widespread in the late 1940’s and early 1950’s, following the formation of the World Council of Churches. Many other denominations besides the Roman Catholic started observing it at that time. Since 1968, the World Council of Churches has developed a packet of materials each year, on the meaning and history of the week, announcing an annual theme, and providing worship resources around that theme. A couple of the prayers in our bulletin today are from those resources.

            Here is how the packet describes the week: “At least once a year, Christians are reminded of Jesus’ prayer for his disciples that “they may be one so that the world will believe.” – John 17, verse 21. Christians around the world are invited to pray for the unity of all Christians, to reflect on Scripture together, to participate in jointly-organized ecumenical services, and to share fellowship. Congregations and parishes all over the world exchange preachers or arrange special ecumenical celebrations and prayer services.” This year’s theme comes from Deuteronomy 16:20: “Justice, and only justice, you shall pursue.”

            So in some communities, churches organize some sort of observance. In the town where I served as pastor before moving here, the Ministerial Fellowship organized a pulpit exchange on the Sunday morning in Christian Unity Week. So all the congregations, as a different worship leader showed up that Sunday, had a visible symbol that we recognized and supported one another’s ministries, and were all part of one Christian Church together. Congregations, and ministers, that had different and strongly-held opinions about certain subjects, like whether women should serve as ministers, set aside those differences for a day, for that demonstration of our unity.

            Here in Paris, we demonstrate that unity at other times in the year, with community services like Thanksgiving and Good Friday, a couple annual prayer breakfasts, and joint mission efforts of the Paris Ministerial Fellowship.

            Now also on the subject of Christian unity, here comes the beginning of a sentence you rarely hear: “One of my favorite passages of the Book of Order is…” What, you don’t find yourself saying that often? Well, one of my favorite passages of the Book of Order, the constitutional manual of how Presbyterians do things, is from a short section called “The Historic Principles of Church Order.” These two pages were written in the late 1700’s, as the denomination of the Presbyterian Church in the United States was being organized. One in particular touches on Christian unity, and I’m paraphrasing slightly to update the language of the 1700’s: “We believe that there are matters and issues with respect to which people of good characters and principles may differ. So it becomes the duty of Christians to exercise mutual forbearance toward each other.” In other words, we don’t all have to agree on everything in order to worship and work together as a congregation, and show respect to one another.

            There are issues on which we can have differences of opinion, and still love and work with each other. Perhaps you can think of someone in this congregation whose opinion on a certain subject, political or otherwise, is different from yours, but you still worship together, fellowship together, maybe serve on a committee together. Or maybe you can think of someone you know in another church, or one you have read about, who says, “No, you have to agree with me on every one of these seventy-three matters, or you’re, quote, ‘not really a Christian.’” That is not “mutual forbearance”; that is not a demonstration of Christian unity.

            Nicole Chilivis is a Presbyterian clergywoman and the pastor of a church. When she shared the following story with “Christian Century” magazine, it was not the occasion of the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity, but it is certainly relevant to the subject:

            “On a recent trip  to Atlanta to visit my parents, I attended my childhood church with them. This congregation, which has grown in the past 30 years to about 3,000 people, doesn’t allow women to preach, serve communion, or serve on the Session.  

            “I haven’t lived in Atlanta since I graduated from high school. Since then, I have graduated from seminary and become a minister in the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.). Each time I sit in the pews of my old church, however, my emotions are roiled.

            “On this particular Sunday, for example, a young man stood up to lead prayer, and did so with phrases that directly, blatantly addressed political hot-button issues. I know many Christians who do not believe at least one of the things he said: He asked God for forgiveness for ‘killing our babies and calling it choice’; forgiveness for ‘divorcing and calling it convenience’; forgiveness for ‘defacing marriage and calling it equality’, a reference to same-sex marriage.

            “There was a time when this prayer would have disturbed me deeply. This time, I was mostly curious about these glib generalizations. What made the young man choose to phrase things this way, and what was behind these words? Was forgiveness the sincere aim of the prayer?

            “It is tempting in our prayers and sermons to put people into neat categories to further our ideologies or prove a point, but that approach falls short of the repentance, love, and hope that are the underlying message of the biblical story.

            “I think of the biblical stories in which a life is transformed by the love of Christ—the story about the intimate encounter between Jesus and the woman at the well, for example, or about the breaking of bread after Jesus’ resurrection, when the disciples finally recognize him. These are face-to-face encounters with people who are full of sin and betrayal of various stripes. In every action and interaction, Jesus seeks to move people toward wholeness.

            “When I was in college, Tony Campolo spoke to my InterVarsity group, and a student asked him how he could tolerate staying in a relationship with his wife when she held different views of same-sex relationships (she was supportive of them; he, at the time, was not). Campolo replied, ‘What do you want me to do, beat her?’ Even at age 19, I knew he was speaking the truth about relationship being more than ideology. The challenge is to be curious about differences while having the courage to maintain the authenticity of one’s own beliefs. There is a certain violence in relationships that require someone to lose his or her sense of self.

            “At my parents’ church, I was able to follow the service with a measure of compassion until . . . 15 men—and only men—stood up to serve communion. I couldn’t deny my hurt and frustration—or my inclination to become an apologist for my own beliefs. I wanted to put up a fence between us so I wouldn’t have to see or hear those men. But I also thought of my parents sitting beside me, my positive memories of growing up in this church, my hope for unity in the body of Christ.

            “At the end of the service, my mother asked me to come with her to greet the pastor and his wife. Somewhat reluctantly, I did. They hugged me, talked with me, and promised to continue praying for me and my family. The hugs, smiles, and interest were genuine, born out of years of relationship.

            “In that moment, I realized why I keep coming back. Despite our differences, I love these people. They care deeply about my parents. It is precisely that love that allows me, maybe even compels me, to return to this place and to grapple with feelings of personal rejection regarding this church’s stance on women in ministry.

            “I could scoff at the church or sit in judgment. I could choose to stay home on Sunday mornings when visiting my parents. I could deny or hide my beliefs and perspectives to avoid conflict. Or I could choose to make what my spiritual director calls a “humble connection.” We can clearly define who we are and what we think, while being interested in the other’s position.

            “Making a humble connection is challenging; it takes intention. There are tensions that won’t be resolved this side of heaven, but now and then, if we are willing to stand prayerfully in the tension, we glimpse grace.

            “One of those glimpses of grace happened when my uncle died and I was asked by the family to officiate at his funeral. I invited my younger brother, a talented musician, to play at the funeral. His theology is different from mine. He once refused to attend a memorial service I presided at, and he didn’t attend my ordination.

            “However, not only did my brother agree to lead the funeral service with me, but we collaborated on it, staying up late several nights texting and talking. I wouldn’t have imagined in my wildest dreams that this would be the result of honest engagement and waiting. What my brother believes about women in ministry and a host of other issues matters to me. But what matters even more is that we have stayed in relationship, allowing the day to come when we could lead a funeral together. In that moment we were two human beings working together for God’s kingdom. I think that is what it means to wait in the tension, with eyes wide open for transformation to happen in unexpected and healing ways.

            “After my recent visit to my parents’ church, I wrote to the pastor and shared my views on women leadership in the church, and the feelings I had experienced at that worship service. I knew it would change our relationship. He was a significant part of my faith formation; he wrote a recommendation for me to go to seminary.

            “The pastor responded, assuring me of his deep love for me and my family. He thanked me for my candor while holding fast to his beliefs. He said he was doing the best he could to follow God’s word sincerely.

            “That pastor and I fundamentally disagree about an issue, but we are in dialogue, and for that I am grateful. I thank God for my courage to be honest about my beliefs and experience of God’s call in my life. I thank God for this pastor’s willingness to engage with me. I believe in the ultimate mystery of a God who finally will heal every broken place in our hearts and in the world. Who knows, maybe one day, through prayer and conversation, this pastor and I will slowly see the tension find resolution.

            “So I will continue to sit in those pews when I make my yearly journeys to the place of my youth. I will sing, pray, worship. delight in, and grapple with the culture that played a part in forming me. I will do so because of a deep and abiding hope that if we are faithful and committed to staying in relationship, living in the tension, Christ will show up with a healing love for us that may even reach the ends of the earth.”

            Let’s pray: God, thank you for Jesus’ prayer that his followers may be one, and so provide a good example to the rest of society. Thank you for the efforts of individuals, congregations, ministerial fellowships, and denominations to promote and demonstrate that unity. Help each of us, in our relationships with our fellow Christians, to work for that unity too. Amen.