This past Wednesday, January 25, marked in our church calendar the Festival Day of the Conversion of Saint Paul, and with it, the conclusion of this year’s annual observance of the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity.
Not familiar with the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity?
Well, the Week – sometimes referred to as an “octave” in church parlance – is a yearly ecumenical event dating back to the early part of the twentieth century, a time when many Christians zealously hoped and prayed for healing and oneness among the churches. Paul Wattson, an Episcopal priest and later convert to Roman Catholicism, hit upon the masterful idea of promoting an entire week of the church year as a time of prayer for Christian unity. And he appropriately chose the week in mid-January that falls between the festival days of the two great Apostles, Peter and Paul, for this new observance. The concept caught on, and the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity is nowadays commemorated in many and diverse denominations across Christendom.
However, actual unity among Christians remains as elusive a goal today as it was a century ago in Father Wattson’s time. The rifts among Christians run deep. Indeed, some might contend that the churches of the early twenty-first century are, like spiritual tectonic plates, drifting farther apart than ever before. The reasons for this are probably as varied as the divisions among the churches themselves. Like the apostles Peter and Paul, who often did not see eye to eye, the followers of Christ today continue to squabble – sometimes perhaps over essentials of faith – but just as often over details of practice and custom.
The Episcopal Church and the Anglican Communion of which it is a part are, of course, not alone among the great churches of our age split by disagreements over doctrine and other issues. All churches are at some level a reflection of the broken world of which we are a part.
It is tempting to wish for a conciliator among us, such as Paul attempts to be with the Christians of Corinth – as disgruntled a group of believers as you would ever want to meet. In our second reading today, he addresses them on the then-current hot topic of “food sacrificed to idols” and whether it is proper for followers of Christ to eat it. Since we know, as Christians, that “no idol in the world really exists,” Paul explains to the Corinthians matter-of-factly, “We are no worse off if we do not eat, and no better off if we do.” Yet some believers, he hastens to add, are scandalized at the thought of eating such sacrificed fare, and so, “If food is a cause of their falling, I will never eat meat.” And that is that, as far as Paul is concerned.
Needless to say, few in our world today are as self-effacing or ready to compromise as was Paul on such a controversial topic. And we, of course, will never know with certainty if the people of Corinth in fact heeded his example of tolerance or respected his authority as an Apostle.
But we do know that those who heard Jesus early on in his ministry soon came to recognize in him “one having authority” like no one ever before. They were literally taken aback and “astounded at his teaching,” as our reading today from the very first chapter of Mark’s gospel testifies. The point of our Lord’s authority is emphasized again a verse or two later as Jesus drives out the unclean spirit. “A new teaching,” the people conclude in amazement, “A new teaching – with authority.” In Jesus’ Word and work, they come to know beyond a doubt – with authority – what their own senses and logic could never have taught them.
As we reflect on the divisions among the churches – and in our own hearts and communities – we might well want to know: What, in heaven’s name, did Jesus actually teach or say in that synagogue in Capernaum so long ago? What amazed the people so? The gospel text frustratingly does not tell us. Did he, like Paul, talk about food sacrificed to idols? It is probably safe to say that he did not. Did he bring up in Capernaum any of the controversies and heresies that would plague his church over the coming centuries? Again, unlikely.
Perhaps he did, however, tell the people of God’s fatherly love and care for them. Perhaps he illuminated, as no one before, the teachings of the great prophets going back to Moses. Or he might have spoken of the kingdom of God, as he so often did, and of the promise of redemption and forgiveness of sin.
We simply do not know.
But we do know for sure that he addressed the unclean – and troubled – spirit afflicting the man in the Capernaum synagogue and commanded, simply and clearly, “Be silent, and come out of him!” Perhaps that is what we need to remember: That it is only in silence – and prayer – that the troubled spirits of today will come out of us all and free us from dissension and sin, and make us once again one people in Christ.
It might be worth a try.