It’s almost impossible to make it through prime time news without hearing a story about conflict. If you’re like me, you’re also tired of hearing about it. For once, I’d like to hear about groups of people that have resolved a long-standing conflict or at least agreed to genuinely listen to what the other side has to say.
This is why for the past year, I have been drawn to the 500th anniversary of the separation between Catholics and other Western Christians. For several centuries, most Christians believed that other Christians would go to Hell unless they turned away from their heresy and came back to the “true faith.” Many times, parents would even disown their children if they married a Christian from a different denomination. As a result, many lies were spread, which further deepened the distrust, division, and hurt.
The Catholic Church, however, formally extended an olive branch to other Christians 50 years ago and showed a willingness to have conversations about our experiences over these past few centuries. More importantly, the Church invited all Catholics to get to know members of other Christian communities. It was through these conversations and mutual encounters that led Lutheran and Catholic representatives to formally resolve the disputes of the Reformation.1
Not everyone, however, is willing to engage in these conversations. One of the objections is that such conversations lead to both sides settling on the least common denominator, thus watering down the faith and ignoring the lived experiences of Christians everywhere. They are concerned that these conversations with other Christians aim to ignore the differences between Catholics and Lutherans and, even worse, that doing so would promote the idea that truth depends on one’s beliefs: the popular modern mantra of “What’s true for me might not be true for you, and that’s okay.” They conclude that ecumenism is just a Trojan horse for destroying the faith, and Christian unity through this method is not worth the cost.
This is not what Christian unity is about. Reconciliation involves starting with the one thing we all have in common – faith in Jesus Christ as our Savior – but it does not and should not end there. In our conversations with one another, we always remain connected ultimately with Jesus, as branches remain connected to the vine.2 Only through Jesus are we able to begin making sense of the divergent experiences of our common Christian faith. Only through Jesus and the love that He shows are we able to correct others in error and admit when we too have missed seeing a deeper truth.
Practically, what does it mean to remain connected to Jesus in these encounters? Catholics and Lutherans, who have engaged in this dialogue at a high level and who have studied the fruits of dialogue for the past 50 years, have suggested three areas we can have more meaningful encounters: learn together, pray together, and work together.[3. Adapted from the document “Declaration on the Way: Church, Ministry and Eucharist.”]
The most obvious place to go to remain connected to Jesus is the Bible. Whether it’s in a church or in one’s own home, Bible Study groups allow us to begin hearing how the Holy Spirit moves through others’ experiences in the context of the life of Jesus and the context in which Scripture developed and is understood in our respective Christian faith traditions.
One of the most commonly missed opportunities for greater prayer together is the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity, which most parishes do not promote. We can take advantage of the prayers developed for this annual event to remind us of the common faith we share through Jesus, and that we continue journeying with each other towards full communion.
Even though we cannot all receive Eucharist together, we can jointly live lives of service and thanksgiving. Already we believe that our faith calls us to serve others in their physical, emotional, and spiritual needs. Organize a group (maybe your Bible Study group) that regularly serves a marginalized population around your churches. Most importantly, discuss how your personal relationship with Jesus and your Catholic or Lutheran faith tradition calls you to not just serve Christ in others but let Christ in others transform you.
Through learning, praying, and working together, we come to experience first-hand both the very real pain of a divided Body of Christ and the hope that our common faith in Christ can lead to profound conversions of hearts. Christian unity is about remaining in the love that Jesus shows us so that even when we know where we stand and where they stand, we are always looking for the way to one day stand together.