Week of Prayer for Christian Unity

“I appeal to you, brothers and sisters, by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that all of you be in agreement and that there be no divisions among you, but that you be united in the same mind and the same purpose.”  (1 Corinthians 1. 10)

            The poem ‘Digging’ by the Nobel Prize Winner Seamus Heaney describes his dad reminds me of my own.   Heaney writes:

Under my window, a clean rasping sound
When the spade sinks into the gravelly ground:
My father, digging. 
The coarse boot nestled on the lug, the shaft
Against the inside knee was levered firmly.
He rooted out tall tops, buried the bright deep edge deep
To scatter new potatoes that we picked
Loving their cool hardness in our hands.

By God, the old man could handle a spade.

Thinking of his dad and grand-dad, Heaney writes sadly, “I’ve no spade to follow men like them” and so, as “between my finger and thumb/The squat pen rests” he will “dig with it.”  Heaney wants to celebrate the father-figures in his life, even though they are different to him, and does so with the poetic skill that he has. 

I know what Heaney describes and means.  My dad and I are very different men.  Dad is your typical Yorkshireman:  he’s gruff, weather-beaten, and casually uses swear-words more for punctuation than emphasis.  He grafted all his working life as a gardener for Scarborough Council, tilling soil, planting beds, and mowing lawns, mostly in Whitby’s Pannett park.   He still works hard on his allotment, my dad, breaking his back to produce potatoes, greens, and salads throughout the year.  Even though my dad has never once said to me that he loves me – I don’t think Yorkshire men have a word for ‘love’ – I know from all the sacrifices he makes, all his hard work done for our family, that he loves us with all his heart.   Many years ago, underneath a copy of Seamus Heaney’s poem, I added in pencil a few verses by myself entitled ‘My father, my father’.  I wrote:

With harvest hands like spades,
my father dug out his life
for a living.

I miss his courage
to dig with a pen to make his

I still want to celebrate my dad -- his difference to me and his courageous, unspoken love that makes us into one family.  I want to be like my dad in this way. 

            For me at least, how my dad and I relate speaks into the central issue for the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity.  That question is something like this: how can the churches, in all their difference, see Christ’s love in one another and celebrate that love? 

            It’s easy to think that ‘unity’ has to mean ‘uniformity’, that everyone has to be the same in order to have unity.  Paul’s words in 1 Corinthians could be read in this way: Paul opens his letter with an appeal to be “in agreement” and “united in the same mind and purpose” so that “there be no divisions among you.”   But the “same mind and purpose” that Paul refers to is not primarily a list of beliefs or practices, but rather a person. The “same mind and purpose” means sharing in Jesus as Saviour.  In the letter to the Philippians (2: 5-11), Paul writes about the “unity that produces joy,” and makes it clear that the source of unity is “the mind of Christ.”  Paul calls us to have the same mind that was in Christ.   The mind of Christ means the understanding and purpose that Christ has and is: Christ lacks selfish ambition and looks out for the interests of others.  Paul therefore gives us a beautiful calling:

Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus,
who, though he was in the form of God,
did not regard equality with God
as something to be exploited,
but emptied himself,
taking the form of a slave,
being born in human likeness.
And being found in human form,
he humbled himself
and became obedient to the point of death -
even death on a cross.

God gives us Himself, not in words, but in the Word, the powerful, living, incarnation of Jesus Christ.  We don’t need to hear “I love you” from God because everything God does and is reveals that love to us and gives us unity with Him and one another, only if we care to see it.

            So, why are Christian Churches divided?  Well, we are and we are not.  In structural terms, many Churches are divided: we don’t agree on all articles of faith or practice.  Yet, ecumenical dialogue has come far enough that, on the whole, we can recognise something of the presence of Christ and the activity of the Spirit in one another, the unity of ‘one faith, one Lord, one baptism’ (Ephesians 4.5).  And seeing that unity gives us what Paul describes as “the same purpose” – namely “to proclaim the Gospel.”  This Week of Prayer for Christian Unity, then, has a sad and a positive aspect: we repent of division, but we continue to work together for the Gospel.

            When you look around at your brothers and sisters in the faith, either in this parish or in the wider Church, ask how you can learn from one another’s difference, how we can share the mind and purpose of Christ together.  We can be very different people, just like my dad and I are very different.    We may never say that we love one another, but we can, by sharing the mind and purpose of Christ, show God’s love.  Such unity is essential rather than simply nice.  Christ prays to the Father that his followers “may become perfectly one, so that the world may know that you have sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me” (John 17. 23). St. Paul also appeals “by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ” that we search for unity of “the same mind and the same purpose.”   Let’s renew our commitment to such unity so that we show to the world “the power of God” rather than the idea that “Christ has been divided”. 

            Let us pray with one heart and mind:

Heavenly Father,
you have called us in the Body of your Son Jesus Christ
to continue his work of reconciliation
and reveal you to the world:
forgive us the sins which tear us apart;
give us the courage to overcome our fears
and to seek that unity which is your gift and your will.