2 Kings 14:25 speaks of a prophet named Jonah. Contemporary Biblical scholars agree, however, that the Jonah of the book was not historical. The book is placed with the prophets; but instead of a collection of oracles calling Israelites or Judeans to repentance, Jonah is a satirical short story. Instead of a prophet who responds to God’s call with little or no success, Jonah actively evades God’s call. When he does submit, it’s because he couldn’t escape. Instead of being sent to the Israelites, like Isaiah, or the Judeans, like Jeremiah or Ezekiel, Jonah is sent to the Assyrians.
In Jonah’s the post exilic era, most Judeans hated Assyrians. The Assyrian Empire had annihilated the northern kingdom of Israel with armies famous for brutality (a distinction difficult to earn in the ancient world!). For God to send Jonah to Nineveh, the Assyrian capital, was outrageous! Trapped in this prophetic mission, Jonah trudges across Nineveh, announcing that in 40 days, Israel’s God will destroy them. For Jonah, God’s threat was appropriate. The world would be a better place without Assyrians!
Jonah’s mission, however, results in unanticipated, total conversion. Assyria’s king orders everyone to repent, in case God’s wrath could be assuaged and Nineveh saved. Even the cattle don sack cloth and ashes!
Having had more success than any of the great prophets, Jonah might rejoice. Instead, he’s angry at God! God promised to destroy Nineveh! Of all people, Assyrians should not be spared.
One scholar wrote that the Book of Jonah “marks one of the greatest steps forward…(in) biblical religion.” In Jonah, God’s extends compassion to the worst enemies of God’s people. God emerges as the God of all, not just the God of the Israel/Judah. God’s compassion is available to all who repent. This is not a message Jonah wanted to hear, not a message the Judeans of post-exilic Judah wanted to hear. Through the story, the anonymous writer tries to expand the consciousness of traditional Judeans: they are God’s people, but not to the exclusion of all others.
A few centuries later, another Judean, who spoke of Jonah, proclaimed: “Love your enemies. Pray for those who persecute you.” (Mt 5:44). This core teaching of Jesus remains the most difficult of Christian faith. Like Jonah, Jesus called people to repentance. He attracted some dedicated disciples. Crowds amassed to hear him teach. Those who were ill, and those suffering what we might describe as mental illness, sought healing from him. But Jesus’ success as a prophet paled compared to the storybook fame of Jonah.
Paul’s belief that the world was about to pass away in its then form, caused him to urge certain conduct upon the Corinthians. His belief, as he understood it, did not come to pass. The world may yet end; but if it does, Paul’s timetable was sorely incorrect.
If we ask what these readings have to do with Christian unity, we might respond, “Not much”. If anything, they illustrate the lack of unity among Christians – if, by unity, we mean uniformity of beliefs, worship, practice and ethics.
This lack of uniformity manifests itself very early in the church. There are four gospels because each evangelist responded to the cultural differences of their different audiences and told Jesus’ story differently. Today’s gospel is an example. Matthew’s version of the call of the disciples is very similar to Mark’s, but Luke’s version is significantly different. In Luke’s version, Andrew does not appear. Jesus never says, “Come follow me”. After teaching from Simon’s boat, Jesus tells Simon to row into deep water and lower his nets. Simon does and catches so many fish the nets begin to tear. James and John, come to help, filling two boats so full they almost sink. This wonderful catch leads Peter to recognize something special in Jesus. Jesus simply tells Peter, “From now on you will be catching people.” In the gospel attributed to John, the central protagonists are Andrew and Philip. Philip is the only person Jesus calls, saying “Follow me”. Andrew brings Peter to Jesus. Philip brings Nathaniel to Jesus. James and John aren’t mentioned.
The story of how and who Jesus called as his first disciples illustrates the lack of uniformity from earliest times in the Christian understanding of Jesus’ life and ministry.
We know from Paul’s letters to churches at Corinth, Thessalonica, Philippi and to a slave owner in Colossae, that Paul’s churches didn’t see everything the same way. Paul often saw things differently than the leaders of his churches. The apostles didn’t agree about who qualified as an apostle, whether Gentiles could become Christians and, if so, whether male Gentiles had to be circumcised. In the second century, Christians disagreed about the role of bishops. Itinerant prophets like the apostles and Paul became suspect. The role of women was increasingly suppressed as the church adopted the Roman patriarchal model.
In later centuries, the church tried to resolve conflicts with councils. Between the first and 16th centuries, there were eighteen worldwide councils, all before the Reformation! So there were many issues to resolve. In the early Middle Ages, one crusade was fought by Christians against Christians, the Cathars of southern France. They were eradicated.
Despite Jesus’ prayer that we all be one, the church has never experienced unity – if we mean uniformity in belief, worship and community structure.
Although theology, practice, and ethics play their roles, culture is a major source of division in Christianity (or any religion). Humans live in cultural frameworks. Religious experience emerges within a cultural context. Cultural contexts differ depending on geography, time in history, language, race and gender making unanimity likely impossible.
Is unity also impossible? Or can we meet our cultural needs in our differences while honoring unity?
If we abandon unanimity as the measure, we can see the divisions among us with new eyes. We can welcome and celebrate our differences as diversity – not division, focus on mutual respect for different understandings of Christian faith. We can do this as individuals and as individual church communities when the leaders of our international bodies cannot. Within our own denominations we can be self-aware about our practices, applying gospel justice in our time, adapting our structures to be ever more inclusive, creating institutions which foster loving interaction. What the world needs to see is not that Christians are alike, but that Christians love and respect one another, even when we disagree; that Christians respect all faith communities that promote the common good; that Christians never subordinate difficult gospel values to intransigent subservience to cultural preferences.
Christian unity-in-diversity frees us to acknowledge, and rejoice in, the Christian unity which already exists. You practice it this morning, inviting a Vatican excommunicated Roman Catholic woman bishop to preach and participate in your liturgy. I practice it by accepting your invitation, sharing communion with you. Each Christian, and each Christian community, can be agents encouraging Christian unity-in-diversity.
We can’t know what Jesus imagined when he prayed we would all be one, but we can be confident that Jesus would decry excommunication, mutual condemnation, teaching children in denominational schools to fear and hate other Christians, and violence among us. The gospels are packed with evidence that Jesus would celebrate unity-in-diversity. After all, the Cosmic Creator Jesus loved is the Source of diversity.
The Rev. Dr Jane Via
3rd Sunday in Ordinary Time
January 21st, 2018
Christian Unity Sunday
St. Paul’s Episcopal Cathedral, San Diego, CA
1. See Norman K. Gottwald, The Hebrew Bible. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2009, pp. 316-319.
2. Matthew 4:18-22.
3. Luke 5:1-11.
4. John 1:43-51.
5. See Christian E. Hauer & William A. Young, An Introduction to the Bible. New Jersey: Prentice Hall, 4th Edition, 1998, Chapter 15, “The Growing Church, pp. 332-358.
6. Arguably, the First Council of the Church was the Council of Jerusalem (Acts 15). But see https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/First_seven_Ecumenical_Councils: ” In the history of Christianity, the first seven ecumenical councils, from the First Council of Nicaea (325) to the Second Council of Nicaea (787), represented an attempt by Church leaders to reach an orthodox consensus, restore peace and develop a unified Christendom.” See also, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fifth_Council_of_the_Lateran: “The Fifth Council of the Lateran (1512–1517) is the Eighteenth Ecumenical Council to be recognized by the Roman Catholic Church and the last one before the Protestant Reformation.”
7. The Albigensian Crusade or the Cathar Crusade (1209–1229) was a 20-year military campaign initiated by Pope Innocent III to eliminate Catharism in Languedoc, in southern France. See https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Albigensian_Crusade.