The Week of Prayer for Christian Unity, observed during the third week of January for the last century, often has been the celebration and prayer of only a few. The week is being observed this year from Jan. 17-24.
The week slips past us for many reasons.
Because it falls around the weekend of Martin Luther King’s birthday, many are reflecting on the work of this civil rights leader and are working for racial reconciliation this weekend. It is proper that we have a heart for civil rights and reach across the racial divides that surround us. But must we lose heart for Christian unity? Martin Luther King Jr. held Christian unity high on his list of dreams.
Some Baptist churches are focused on the “Sanctity of Human Life” concern raised during this third week of January. It is a peculiar thing that Southern Baptists chose three decades ago to make this weekend the time to focus on “Sanctity of Human Life.” It was as though Christian unity and civil rights should be pushed aside.
Interestingly, the Baptist churches celebrating “Sanctity of Human Life” often do so very differently from Christians across the globe at large – and even how Martin Luther King Jr. expressed concerns over life issues. Most of Christendom, when raising “Sanctity of Human Life” issues, address moral questions about the death penalty. Many Christians candidly discuss end-of-life issues through living wills. Others protest the toleration of landmines that kill children years after wars are over.
Many Christians speak to hunger and water inequities. Others pray for the lessening of civilian deaths as collateral damage in the warring madness that enfolds us under the mantra of citizenship. But Baptist churches celebrating “Sanctity of Human Life” are often narrowly focused on fetal life, missing the bigger picture of supporting human life as Christians around the world do, or even as Martin Luther King Jr. did.
There are a host of less virtuous reasons we forget to pray for Christian unity. While most Baptists can laugh and move beyond our Landmark tradition, our brains still compute that the “church” always means my church, at the corner of Main and Church streets. Our Landmark heritage came from our polity. We’ve gotten over Landmarkism, but we’ve not gotten over our polity.
While we celebrate the virtues that come through our denominational heritage, we forget that the phrase “Christ is Lord” was the single uniting confession for all Christians in New Testament times. While many preach on civil rights, abortion, Epiphany or stewardship this week, it is worthwhile that all of us pause on the common lectionary epistle reading this week from 1 Corinthians 12: “No one can say ‘Jesus is Lord’ except by the Holy Spirit.” Sadly, many of us define our faith by subset words like Baptist, Catholic, Episcopal, Lutheran, Methodist or Presbyterian, rather than by the better New Testament word chosen to define the believers in Antioch, which was Christian.
As we live through the days following the third large disaster of the last decade, the Haiti earthquake, which is likened to Katrina or the Asian tsunami, notice how few responses come from the global church. It is a good thing that the church, expressed through many denominations, has compassion and concern for the victims of Haiti. Wouldn’t it be a wonderful statement if Christians could reach across denominational lines, nationalistic lines and theologically sectarian lines and respond as Christ’s body incarnate in Haiti together?
Church World Service, which proclaims the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity, would be such a natural vehicle for this to happen. Yet Church World Service is not likely to be in the address book of many Baptists.
We can celebrate the ongoing struggle of civil rights this week. We can reflect on the sanctity of human life in its fullest sense. We must pray, give, love and go to the victims in Haiti. Underneath all of the events of this week, can we pray for Christian unity? Can we find not only heart for Christian unity, but be gifted with arms and legs, fingers and toes, that give shape to this ongoing struggle for our Lord’s church to embrace and express unity?
Larry Coleman is pastor of Churchland Baptist Church in Chesapeake, Va.