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Thought for the Week
Living in unity
‘How very good and pleasant it is when kindred live together in unity’
It is, indeed, very good and pleasant. We find ourselves enriched so often by sharing common worship with Christians from different traditions. The Week of Prayer for Christian Unity (18-25 January) is one time when Christians from different denominations concentrate on what it is we have in common, rather than on what it is that keeps us separate. However, when we talk with other Christians of our ideas of God, we so often experience a certain tension. Our attempts to put into words our understanding of the divine Spirit, of God, or of Jesus, can cause difficulties between us.
Discussing the significance of the death of Jesus on the cross, or the gospel accounts of his birth or resurrection and the meaning of his death, often brings us face-toface with barriers that we cannot, comfortably, negotiate. Those who treasure their traditional sacraments and church discipline find Quaker ways puzzling. Some Christians are very clear and confident in their concept of these things: others may feel very insecure when their understanding of what these key Christian beliefs and practices mean is questioned or challenged. Others, still, may be rather indifferent to the whole scheme of theological speculation.
For many Christians of other traditions, the focus of their worship is a communion service, at which only those in good standing within that denomination can receive the blessed bread and wine. The shared meal, intended as a focus of unity, serves instead as a focus of our separateness, and so we do not share in it. While the Psalmist rejoices when kindred live together in unity, Jesus said the essential test for those who seek to follow him are the fruits they bear (Matthew 7:1520). He commended the lawyer who encapsulated the essence of Jewish religious teaching as being to love
God with every element of our being, and to love our neighbour as we love ourselves (Luke 10:25-28). George Trevelyan, in his Social History of England wrote: ‘The finer essence of George Fox’s queer teaching… was surely this – that Christian qualities matter much more than Christian dogmas. No church or sect had ever made that its living rule before.’
For the apostle Paul, the fruits of the spirit are ‘love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control’ (Galatians 5:22-23). He encouraged the Colossian Christians to clothe themselves with qualities such as compassion and patience, bearing with each other, forgiving one another and clothing themselves in love ‘which binds everything together in perfect harmony’. He also wanted them to ‘let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts… and be thankful’ (Colossians 3:12-15).
He appealed to the Christians at Rome: ‘Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, so that by testing you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect’ (Romans 12:2).
If, in the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity, members of different Christian communities and denominations could set our hearts and minds not only on shared worship and common tasks but, also, on those things that are at the heart of the good news of the gospel, we would focus our light on Christian qualities sought and shared, rather than on the doctrines and disciplines that divide us. We would thus progress the prayer of Jesus that ‘they may be one’ (John 17:11).
Teesdale and Cleveland Area Meeting the Friend, 20 January 2012