Praying for Unity

St. George’s Church, carved out of rock, Lalibela, Ethiopia.

A homily given on the Feast of the Confession of St. Peter in the context of a retreat given on St. Clare of Assisi at the Community of St. John Baptist, Mendham, NJ

This morning, as we looked closely at the San Damiano Cross—that cross before which St. Francis and St. Clare prayed—I forgot to point out an important detail.  You may have noticed it, but it’s especially appropriate today, as we remember St. Peter.  Around the edge of the cross is a border that appears to be made of shells.  Some suggest it represents eternal life or the shell’s connection with our baptism.  But this border runs all the way around the cross—except on the very bottom.  The bottom has no border, but instead, it has what looks like a stone or a rock.  It makes the point graphically that the Cross of Christ sits upon a rock, just like the Church is built upon a rock, celebrated in today’s readings.

If we look at today’s Gospel closely, we’ll notice that Jesus proclaims Peter as the “Rock” on whom he will build the church, not because of Peter’s goodness or worthiness. It’s not Peter’s holiness or giftedness that gets that title.  Instead, it’s Peter’s faith that become the foundation.  It’s his faith that enables him to be solid and strong.  We get another glimpse of that faith when Peter preaches in today’s Epistle reading from Acts.

Peter and John have just been arrested by the religious officials and when they are called to account for themselves, Peter says

 let it be known to all of you, and to all the people of Israel, that this [healed] man is standing before you in good health by the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, whom you crucified, whom God raised from the dead.  This Jesus is ‘the stone that was rejected by you, the builders; it has become the cornerstone.’

Here, Peter sounds very much like the rock he is appointed to be.  He’s strong and sure of himself.  There’s no doubt.  There’s no hesitation.  The strong, rocklike, always-sure-of-himself Peter is one image.  Some people and churches champion this image of Peter:  Keeper of the Keys and Primate of the Church.  But the biblical Peter wasn’t always so strong.

Far from being “rock,” he was sometimes more like quicksand.  It was Peter who couldn’t stay afloat by faith, when Jesus was standing on the water just in front of him. And it was Peter who sat by the fire, getting warm, while his best friend, his savior, the Messiah he had been so quick to proclaim— was dying on the cross.  I identify more with Peter the rock who sometimes crumbles, because we crumble, too– under stress, in doubt, in fear. We worry, and wonder, and hesitate like Peter.  And we need assurance.

Peter gets his assurance in that last conversation with Jesus, after the crucifixion and resurrection, as they are sharing breakfast on the beach.  Through all the faith and the failure, Jesus asks Peter, “Do you love me?”  Again and again, the question comes: “Do you love me? Do you love me?”

We know Peter’s response and we remember that Jesus tells him, “Feed my lambs, tend my sheep, and feed my sheep.” It’s as though Jesus is explaining to Peter that he will continue to have the assurance he needs, he will continue to be strengthened and supported, but it will happen in life of ministry.  It will happen in the feeding, the tending, and the caring of one another.

That’s a ministry we share with Peter and with all Christians. It’s the Real Presence of Christ in us, after all, that makes us strong, that makes us solid, that helps us to be part of the rock of the Church’s foundation.  As Peter encourages, “Like living stones be yourselves built into a spiritual house” (1 Peter 2).

A few years ago my church was planning to add a new wing to the building.  And I especially remember when it came time to choose the stone.

Since the main church building was stone, we decided to build the addition in stone, as well.  And that’s when the architects and the builders got busy.  What kind of stone? From what quarry? What sort of mortar should be used?  On and on the questions went.  Finally, about five stones were placed outside for a bunch of us to look at and choose among.  I learned through those discussions that even though each stone was differently shaped and a good mason could make just about anything fit together, there was a desired spectrum of color that could be tolerated.  Too blue, and it wouldn’t do. Too gray or brown, deal breaker.  The color of the stone needed to be within the same family of the stone we had.  In other words, the stones could be different and mismatched—but only to a point.

I think of those stones in the context of our “rocky readings” from scripture today and because today begins the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity.  I think of those stones and the need to have them fit within a preconceived notion because I tend to think and pray about unity in a similar way.

The IDEA of unity, of coming together with another person or another group around an idea or a belief sounds wonderful. Let’s do it! When do we start and when will people arrive?

But if I’m honest, unity is only really attractive to me as long as I get to define what “unity” should look like.  Like in our construction process, stones could be oddly shaped or strangely sized—just so long as they fit in with our basic color scheme.  When we think of conversations and experiences moving towards unity with other Christians, do we enter into those conversations and times with our own narrow expectation of what’s possible?  Do we insist on our own terms?

Last Sunday, I was able to attend a Martin Luther King, Jr. Celebration that was shared by Episcopalians and Baptists.  The liturgy was Prayer Book Episcopalian.  The hymns and music were all Baptist.  At Communion, both wine and grape juice were offered.  I prayed silently for the priest, the minister, and the team of people who organized that day because I know it could not have been easy.  The people who can’t abide wine in Communion would not have been happy.  The strict Episcopalians who insist on wine would not have been happy.  But for the sake of unity—I think at least One was extremely happy—and that One was God.

As we pray for Christian unity, I think we could keep in mind at least three things.

First, we need to be aware of our tendency to define unity in our own terms.  We need to let go of that.  I need to have faith that God’s unity will be revealed, and it will probably look a little different from what you or I want or imagine.

Second, unity will take time.  It will take patience, it will survive misunderstanding and hurt feelings. But if it is based in God, it will come.

And third, our prayers for unity require us to do some work.  We shouldn’t expect our phones to ring with other churches, other religious communities, and people with other perspectives, all suggesting we come over for a potluck dinner and discussion.  We will need to work at it, ourselves. And the best way to move toward unity will probably be more in the feed of other sheep than in the discussions or plans concerning sheep. Praying for Christian unity cannot be solely contemplative, but will require each of us to do the work of extending a hand, opening our heart, and putting ourselves in proximity with the Other.

Perhaps because Sister Mary Lynne and I were talking about our Presbyterian heritage, I’ve been humming a hymn all day today.  It’s one of my favorites from the Reformed Tradition, full of strong images in a minor key.  ‘Built on the Rock the Church doth stand, even when steeples are falling.”

Surely in temples made with hands God, the Most High, is not dwelling;
High above earth His temple stands, All earthly temples excelling.
Yet He who dwells in heav’n above Chooses to live with us in love,
Making our bodies His temple.

May St. Peter inspire us to have the faith of living stones, of odd texture and shape, of various color and origin, so that Christ might form us all into one foundation of love.

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost. Amen.


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