One O’er All the Earth
“One O’er All the Earth”
We confess in our creed that the church of Jesus is “one” and “catholic.” We lift our voices in song, celebrating that the church is “elect from every nation, yet one o’er all the earth.” (Samuel Stone, 1866, “The Church’s One Foundation.”)
Sounds great. But look at the evidence.
In actual practice, we see churches bitterly divided from each other. We have come to accept the splintering of the church as “normal.”
The church has been prone to schism from day one, something Paul fought against valiantly in his letters to first-generation churches. Stunned at how quickly the church in Corinth divided into factions that preferred one kind of apostle over another, Paul exclaims incredulously, “Has Christ been divided?”
In 1933, our Shadyside Presbyterian Church, led by pastor Hugh T. Kerr, launched an initiative designed to help the church publicly display its unity across all its diversity of traditions and affiliations. It established the first Sunday of October as “World Communion Sunday,” a day on which Christians around the globe affirm their unity at the Lord’s Table. This designation of the first Sunday in October was adopted nationally by the Presbyterian Church in 1936, then by the Federal Council of Churches in 1940, which began promoting it to churches worldwide.
It seems like such a small step. Most of our churches already celebrate the Lord’s Supper the first Sunday of the month. What difference does it make if we designate its October first-Sunday celebration as somehow distinct from all other gatherings at the Lord’s Table?
If nothing else, World Communion Sunday reminds at least once a year that our divided state is not how things ought to be. The church’s brokenness is a temporary aberration. We dare to believe Jesus will get what he prays for in the end, that we would be one as he and the Father are one.
Healing the church’s divisions seems an impossible objective. We celebrated “reunion” of the Northern and Southern Presbyterian Churches in 1983, more than a century after their division along the fault lines of the Civil War. Reunion is great, but for every act of reunion in the church’s long story, there are many acts of schism.
A church’s worship style, constituency, and theology inevitably reflect the culture in which it is situated. That is actually a good thing for an organization whose leader is “The Word [who] became flesh and blood, and moved into the neighborhood.” (John 1:14, The Message) The church must always be as local as it is catholic.
The church’s unity is expressed not in uniformity, but through diversity, as in all its various ways of living and teaching and working it acknowledges that it belongs to the same Lord Jesus, who has only one Table.
It is my mission to motivate and mobilize the church to demonstrate publicly the reconciliation that God accomplished through the witness and work of Jesus. Being reconciled is very different from being uniform. In fact, where uniformity prevails, reconciliation is unnecessary. God’s reconciling work in Jesus, which is in turn given to us, does not obliterate our differences.
Being reconciled doesn’t require that we all join the same denomination. What it does require is that I stop calling into question the authenticity of believers and churches whose ways of thinking, confessing, and living their faith differ from my own.
I cannot heal the church’s divisions. But this I can do – I can say No to exacerbating them. I can refuse to belittle or condemn those whose Christian faith has led them to worship, live, and bear witness in ways that differ from mine. I can refuse to walk away from my siblings simply because we disagree.
And where better to begin that refusal than by gathering with my fellow-believers – all of them! – at the Lord’s Table? Jesus exemplified this by sharing the bread and the cup with all of his companions, no exceptions – including Judas and Peter, knowing full well that they were on the verge of betraying and denying him.
Let the peace of Christ be manifest here, at his Table. Let it begin with me. And may it reach worldwide. Amen.
Yours in Christ’s peace,