Sermon for the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity

Canon Maria Tjeltveit
Friday, January 24, 2014
St. Peter’s RC Cathedral, Scranton, PA

Here is the sermon I gave at the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity service at St. Peter’s Cathedral, in Scranton. It was very well received, and I felt good about it. In case you are interested in the images I mention in the sermon, here are the links: Poster from Canadian Church and Image from Churches Together of Britain and Ireland.

   I always find it moving to see the expression in the Roman Catholic women’s faces when I have the honor of preaching at a Roman Catholic service. The Diocese of Scranton is incredibly gracious, especially Bishop Bambera and the Rev. Phil Altavilla (the Ecumenical and Interfaith Officer and pastor of St. Peter’s Cathedral), and I know that inviting me as a woman to preach was intentional on their part. They also had The Rev. Dr. Barbara Smith, General Presbyter of the Presbytery of Lackawanna, read the gospel. –Maria

It is an honor for me to preach at this service celebrating Christian unity, and I want to thank Bishop Bambera and the Rev. Philip Altavilla for their gracious invitation and hospitality.

When I first learned that I would be preaching on the theme for this year’s Week of Prayer for Christian Unity—“Has Christ been divided?”—I thought, “This is great! All I have to do is pose the question, ‘Has Christ been divided?’ answer ‘No!’ and sit down!”

But it’s not that simple is it? Because the apostle Paul asked this question to the church in Corinth as a rhetorical question, like, “Is the pope Catholic?” We all know the answer to that is “Yes!” Paul knew that the Corinthian church would know that the answer to the question “Is Christ divided?” was “No!” But the way that they were living out their life in Christ was giving the opposite answer; with people being divided among different factions within the church.

Since I couldn’t just have a one word sermon, I did what every good preacher would do in my shoes and googled “Week of Prayer for Christian Unity.” What I found were two different images, using two slightly different questions for this week.

The first is the official poster, designed by the Christian community in Canada, which on a blue-green background, has a round earth, with a cross on the top, and a vine growing up the cross. Around the outside of the globe are churches of all different styles and sizes. At the top of the poster it says, in beautiful type face, “Has Christ been divided?”

The second image comes from Churches Together of Britain and Ireland, and is on the front of your bulletin. In hues of dark orange and brown it has an icon of Christ cut up and put back together, with white spaces between the pieces. At the top it says “Is Christ” and the question “divided?” slices down a jagged triangle that splits apart the image of Christ.

These two images are a contrast artistically and emotionally. They capture a little of how these two different Christian communities have experienced difference in their churches. The people of the churches in Canada speak different languages, and have different cultures and climates. For the most part they have experienced difference as diversity, finding a sense of unity in their differing ways of expressing their faith.

The people of the churches in Ireland and Britain also have differences in their languages, and cultures, if not their climates. But they have experienced their differences as division in their history, division that has sometimes led to violence in the name of Christ. For them, seeking a sense of unity in Christ has been a hard road in the midst of much brokenness.

So the two images reflect two distinct contexts in which the Apostle Paul’s question is heard and answered by Christians today.

As I reflect on these two images, I realize how grateful I am that, for the most part, our experience in the church in America is like that of our brothers and sisters in Canada. Particularly here in this part of our state, with the long-time ministry of Christian Communities Gathering of Northeastern Pennsylvania, Roman Catholic, Assemblies of God, Lutheran, Orthodox, Methodist, Polish National Catholic, Moravian, Episcopal, American Baptist, Presbyterian, United Church of Christ, Salvation Army, and non-denominational church clergy, lay people, and religious, come together regularly to learn about our differences and discover unity in our diversity. Back in our own communities, we seek opportunities for ministry together with other Christians; discovering in our differences a diversity that, when brought together can strengthen our witness to Christ.

So, when we ask the question “Has Christ been divided?” we are working to live into the answer that Christ is not divided and that we are given different gifts of the spirit to be together the body of Christ. (In 1 Corinthians 12) Paul uses this image of the body, that each of us, or perhaps we would say each of our churches, is like a hand or foot or eye or ear in the whole body of Christ. We need each other in our difference and diversity so that we can more effectively serve as the united body of Christ.

Originally I was going to stop my sermon there. But it’s not that simple is it? Even as we give thanks to God for the gifts of diversity that we celebrate among our different churches here in northeastern Pennsylvania, I realize that for my own church, the Episcopal Church, difference has sometimes been experienced as division. Since I was the age of the school children in the choir, my Church has split apart over divisions about liturgy, the role of women, and issues of sexuality. Even now there are divisions in the Anglican Communion, the larger body of which the Episcopal Church is a part. And the Episcopal Church is not alone. Each one of our denominations has or has had things that have divided us; many of them the same issues that my church has struggled with. We share with the churches in Ireland and Britain the experience of difference as division. We know the brokenness of division in the body of Christ.

As I sat in the Martin Luther King Day service at St. James AME Zion Church, in Allentown, on Monday, with a wide diversity of African Americans, Latinos, and Caucasians, I thought about how, all these years after King’s death, Sunday morning at 11:00 is still the most, divided, segregated hour in America. Yes, difference is not always diversity; it is sometimes division in the body of Christ. When we only talk about diversity, we may be making things too simple. As the preacher at that service said, “If you can’t face it; you can’t fix it.”

An optional part of the suggested liturgy for the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity is a time for people of different denominations to bring forward symbols of the gifts that each Church brings. In a paradoxical way, I believe that experiencing division within our churches or denominations is a gift that we bring to the work of Christian unity and to the world. In our common lives we know the brokenness of division, its pain and longing. That can humble us and open our eyes and hearts to the brokenness of the world around us. We can reach out to our brothers and sisters in other Churches, not smugly or triumphantly, as though we have it all together, but humbly, knowing that each of us falls short of Christ’s calling but that, together we can be more closely the body of Christ. In our brokenness we can work together to bring Christ’s healing love to the people around us broken by poverty, disease, racism, injustice, and violence; to people in places where division has led to alienation or civil war.

Pope Francis, in many ways, seems to exemplify this way of having the brokenness of the church open us to the brokenness of the world. He has embraced a humble attitude toward, not only his Christian brothers and sisters, but particularly people broken by poverty, disease, and alienation. The answer to that old rhetorical question “Is the pope Catholic?” has become for some of us Protestants, “Yes, but we might like to claim him too.”

In his witness, Pope Francis is following, not only the saints for whom he is named, but Jesus Christ. For Christ, who is undivided, embraced the brokenness of the world and for our sake was broken on the cross. Through his death and resurrection he heals us and brings us to wholeness and life. He has given us all the gifts that we need to be united together as one in the Body of Christ.

When we acknowledge our divisions and brokenness; when we, in humble love, focus on the undivided Christ and the needs of our broken world, Christ will make us one.

Maybe it is that simple.


[Maria Tjeltveit is Canon for Ecumenical and Interfaith Relations for the Diocese of Bethlehem.]