Today and this week, our Archdiocese celebrates Christian Unity week. All of us have our different desires and dreams of in life. Every one of us are searching for greater truths and are longing for deeper fulfillments in life. Jesus in today’s Gospel who invited Andrew and Peter, is also inviting you and I to “come and see;” to discover for ourselves the ultimate Truth that He offers.
In today’s Gospel, we hear of how John the Baptist pointed out Jesus who is the “Lamb of God” to Andrew to follow. And, when Andrew found Jesus to be the “Messiah,” he called his brother Peter to discover the “Messiah” for himself. Peter too was converted when he encountered Jesus. You and I, and two billion other Christians in the world also believe that Jesus is our “Messiah.”
To have such a huge following is in itself one of the biggest miracles in the world. While this is good news, we too have to face the fact that the world Christian Encyclopedia tell us that there are 38,000 different Christian denominations in the world, and this figure keeps on rising daily. We all know that as each new group emerges each would have the tendency to justify their existence as a “new” and “better” way of following Jesus as our Saviour and Lord. This often leads to very sad consequences.
I have no doubts many of us have had embarrassing and even painful experiences of hearing different Christian denominations condemning other religions to hell for not believing in Jesus as our Saviour. We Catholics too have been falsely condemned for worshiping Mary, praying to the saints, confessing to a priest and the like because it is not found in the Bible.
Imagine a mother who brings home a gift she won at her company celebration. To her great delight and her children’s happiness, they found that the prize is a lap top computer. Being a poor family and not being able to own a computer till then, every child begins to fight with each other to have possession of the computer. In the end, the children are now quarreling over the gift. Would the mother’s heart not be saddened and broken?
Likewise, as it is a great joy and blessing for us to know that Jesus is the “Messiah” who offers us a liberation from our sinfulness and a happiness that begins in this world and continues into eternity, we are ironically quarrelling with one another. Sadly, we are facing a reality that many Christian groups are spending too much time and resources emphasizing the differences in Christian groups rather than focusing on the foundational Truth of the Good News of Salvation that Jesus is offering.
We know that such negative and painful experiences have contributed to unhealthy competition, poaching, bad mouthing that have generated much divisive effects that are counter witness and in many cases scandalous to the fundamental Truth of Jesus Christ. If we Christians promote divisionamongst ourselves, non-Christians are surely going to be turned off from the gift of Faith that Our Lord wants to give them.
So, where does this leave us? We can choose to respond in one of two ways: we could build bridges or we could erect more walls.
When the three tenors, Jose Carreras, Placido Domingo, and Luciano Pavarotti were performing in Los Angeles many years ago, a reporter asked about the rivalry that they may have for each other. They all replied that there was none. But, the reporter was not satisfied and kept coming back. Finally, Domingo explained, “You have to put all of your concentration into opening your heart to the music. You can’t be rivals when you are together making music.” (cf. Fr Munachi Ezeogu,cssp, homily).
Likewise, as Christians, we cannot be rivals if we want to make the same Christ and His Good News of salvation known. The Good News must permeate every aspect of our lives personally and communally. Our perception of other Christians must be not only positive, but more importantly our seeing of Christ in them; they are our brothers and sisters in the Lord. Until that happens our Christian witness of the Good News will not be convincing and never be as powerful as it ought to be.
Our Lord in St Matthew’s Gospel 18:20 says, “I tell you solemnly once again, if two of you on earth agree to ask anything at all, it will be granted to you by my Father in heaven. For where two or three meet in My Name, Ishall be there with them.” The word “agree” refers to “a symphony” of hearts.
Cardinal Walter Kasper, in his homily on Christian Unity eight years ago asserted, “We must not forget that we are Christians! [Thus], the Spirit of God has given us no cowardly spirit, but rather one that makes us strong, loving and wise.” (2 Tim 1:7). He adds, “Christians are meant to be people of hope. This has nothing to do with a naïve optimism; it is a gift of God, preserved in patience (cf. Rom 5:4), a gift that allows us to hope against all hope (cf. Rom.4:18) and to understand that God is greater.
As our reflection on Christian Unity brings us to a positive note of relying on God’s power as our real hope for unity, we still need to remind ourselves of our need for a conversion of heart. Our present Holy Father, Pope Benedict XVI, in his homily, six years ago on Christian Unity said, “There can be no ecumenism worthy of the namewithout interior conversion. For it is from a newness of attitudes of mind, from self-denial and unstinted love, that desires of unity take their rise and develop in a mature way.”
Our Holy Father explains that we are used to speaking about the conversion of others; however, conversion must begin in ourselves. We must not look at the speck in our brother’s eye when we miss the plank in our own (cf. Mt 7:3). Ecumenism encourages us to exercise self-criticism. Thus, ecumenical dialogue should serve as “an examination of conscience” (Ut Unam Sint, n. 34). It is not simply the other who must convert; we all must be converted to Christ. To the degree that we are united to Him, we are also united among ourselves. When this happens, ecumenical Dialogue, is not simply an exchange of thoughts, but and “exchange of gifts” (Ut Unam Sint, n.28). (cf. Card.Walter Kasper’s homily Basilica of St Paul Outside-the-Walls, 25th Jan.2004)
Our Holy Father’s first encyclical, “Deus Caritas est”, God is love, stresses that the Love of God is the solid rock on which the Church is founded. If we are able to fix our gaze on this divine Truth, then it seems possible to overcome divisions and not be discouraged, even though they continue to be gravely serious. Our Pope He further affirms that true love in God does not eliminate legitimate differences,but harmonises them in a superior unity that is not ordered from the outside, but gives form to the whole.
Two years ago our Parish hosted the Christian Unity service in our Church. It was represented by Christians and pastors from: the Lutheran Church, Anglican Church, Methodist Church, Baptist Church, Orthodox Church, Syrian Church, the Salvation Army and of course ourselves representing the Roman Catholic Christian Church.
This year, the service will be held in the Lutheran Church, tomorrow evening at 8.00 pm. This has been going on yearly for the past twenty years or more. These services usually draw a crowd of just over 200 people. In the past three years, the pastor of the Lutheran Church attended our Christmas celebration. Last year the pastor of the International Baptist Church, our neighbor attended. The progress may seem slow, but at least we making efforts to build bridges instead of erecting more walls amongst the Christians.
Finally, my brothers and sisters in Christ, let us be reminded once again of Jesus’ invitation of each of us to “come and see;” to make the personal efforts to experience and discover Him more fully in our lives; let us be instruments of Christian Unity and help Jesus realize His dreams when He prayed, in St John’s Gospel, (Jn 17:21-23), “Father, may they be one in us, as You are in me and I am in You, . . . may they be so completely one that the world will realise that it was You who sent me and that I have loved them as much as You loved me.”
(Cf: much of the content of this homily is extracted from my homily during Christian Unity Week service hosted in our Parish of St Ignatius on 18th January, 2010).
Fr Philip Heng,S.J.
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