As Christ and the Father are one ...

The Call to Christian Unity

Charles H. Brent: We are here at the urgent behest of Jesus Christ. We have come with willing feet. All the prayers and desires and labors of seventeen years meet in this hour.

"Neither pray I for these alone, but for them also which shall believe on me through their word, that they all may be one; as thou, Father, art in me, and I in thee, that they also may be one in us; that the world may believe that thou has sent me." - John 17:20-21

The call to unity is primarily from God to man. It is for our good that the appeal is made. Through unity alone can the Kingdom of God be set among men. Through unity alone can the world believe and know that the Father has sent Jesus Christ to reveal Him to the whole human race. It stands as the unalterable condition on which He can fulfil His mission to mankind. This no one doubts who accepts Jesus Christ as Lord and Saviour.

Like all God's calls it is an invitation to cooperate with Him. His will is part of His nature and is set once for all time. He lays no compulsion on us. He awaits our cooperative response which will lay hold of His will and make it our own. If unity has slipped away from our grasp, it is the common fault of the Christian world. If it is to be regained it must be by the concerted action of all Christians. Every section has shared in shattering unity. Every section must share in the effort to restore it.

The call to unity is like the flow of a river. It never ceases. It has been sounding with varying accent through the successive generations since the beginning. To us it has of late come with new force through the voice of God's Spirit speaking to the many divided communions of our day, as the call of a shepherd to his scattered flock. We have responded to His call.

We are gathered here at His bidding. He presides over us. In proportion to our obedience to His guidance we shall be able to promote His will and embrace it as our own. He appeals to us to hush our prejudices, to sit lightly to our opinions, to look on the thing of others as though they were our very own - all this without slighting the convictions of our hearts or our loyalty to God. It can be done. It must be done.

It is for conference, not controversy, that we are called. As God appeals to us sinners to reason together with Him, so we Christians mutually appeal to one another for a like fellowship. Conference is a measure of peace; controversy, a weapon of war. Conference is self-abasing; controversy exalts self. Conference in all lowliness strives to understand the viewpoint of others; controversy, to impose its views on all comers. Conference look for unities; controversy exaggerates differences. Conference is a cooperative method for conflict; controversy a divisive method. I do not say there may not be occasions where controversy may be necessary. This is not one of them. This is a Conference of Faith and Order. We are pledged to it by our presence. Let us play true to our tryst.

It is the call of Christ which arrests us. What He said then with human voice He repeats now through His indwelling Spirit. The general need of unity is set down by Him in a proverbial saying - "Every Kingdom divided against itself is brought to desolation; every city or house divided against itself shall not stand." This is as true today as when it was first uttered. It has been accepted by the world of men as applying to every department of life in its separate groupings, political, intellectual, scientific, social. In increasingly wide circles men are striving for unity. Lying at the center of all and providing the only enduring cement is religious unity.

The Gospel provides for intimate relationship with Christ. Our Lord speaks as He thinks. He thinks in terms of reality. All life is a symbol. He declares that of which it is symbolic. So He says not "I am like the vine, ye are like the branches," but "Abide in me and I in you . . . I am the vine, ye are the branches" (John 15:5). Nature in its simplest manifestations preaches its eternal sermon, points to Him for whom it exists.

Again, have you not noted how, to the very end of His ministry, Jesus Christ presents Himself and those whom He commissions in pastoral terms? It is not "I am like the good shepherd." He is the reality of which the men who watched their flocks were the shadow. It is "I am the good shepherd" (John 10:11). "Other sheep I have, which are not of this fold: them also I must bring, and they shall hear my voice; and there shall be one flock, one shepherd" (John 10:16). The Shepherd can fold His flock only if He lays down His life in bringing them together. "Therefore," He says, "doth the Father love me" (John 10:17). He lays His life on His aim and is unafraid.

All this was counted as axiomatic even before the Gospels were written. St. Paul, writing when the Gospel was oral, strikes sectarianism of all ages between the eyes by calling divisions "carnal" - "for whereas there is among you envying and strife and divisions, are ye not carnal and walk as men? For while one saith, I am of Paul; and another I am of Apollos; are ye not carnal? ... For other foundation can no man lay than that is laid, which is Jesus Christ" (I Cor. 3:2-7). Division in the eyes of this intense man is fatal to the life of the Church.

What I am about to quote is as familiar to you as anything in Scripture, but I repeat it as signifying, at the earliest beginning of Christianity, the mind of Christ on the indispensability of unity, as read by His great apostle. Now it is the human body that is the symbol of which Christ and His Church represent the reality. "For as the body is one, and hath many members, and all the members of that one body, being many, are our body: so also is Christ. For by one Spirit we are all baptized into one body, whether we be Jews or Gentiles, whether we be bond or free; and have been all made to drink into one Spirit. For the body is not one member but many. . . . Now ye are the body of Christ and members in particular" (I Cor. 12). In relation to the Holy Communion, "we, who are many, are one bread, one body" (I Cor. 10:17). Again it is as of a household that the Church is spoken, "Built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Christ Jesus himself being the chief corner stone" (Eph. 2:20), or as a temple, or as the holy city, the heavenly Jerusalem. In every instance the symbol has unity as essential to its existence as light and heat are to the sun. So inherent is unity that it can admit of no racial, sex or social distinctions but all are "one man in Christ Jesus" (Gal. 3:28).

But there are still greater heights toward which we must rise. Either in the words of our Lord Himself, or of the Spirit of Our Lord speaking through a disciple in the early second century - it is all one - the kind of unity which the Church must exhibit is that which unites the Father to the Son. Earthly imagery is inadequate and heaven is called to bear its witness. "Neither pray I for these alone, but for them also which shall believe on me through their word; that they all may be one; as thou Father art in me, and I in thee, that they also may be one in us; that the world may believe that thou hast sent me. And the glory which thou gavest me I have given them; that they may be one, even as we are one: I in them and thou in me, that they may be made perfect in one; and that the world may know that thou hast sent me, and hast loved them as thou hast loved me" (John 17:20-23). If our Lord counts unity a necessity, how absolute must that necessity be! Upon it depends our ability to know Jesus Christ in His full splendor, to do His works, to evangelize the nations. It is a tribute to the greatness of man that it needs the full weight of the whole Gospel for the miracle of a single conversion. The missionary quality of Christ's prayer is passionate - "that the world may believe that thou hast sent me. ... that the world may know that thou hast sent me." What a challenge to Christendom to set its own house in order before it further infect the Eastern world with sectarianism that robs the Gospel of its corporate power and gives people a stone instead of bread! The hundred missionary societies in China today are as suicidal for Christianity as the civil divisions are to her national peace and prosperity [this is before Mao's communist take- over]. The Christian orient today is in just revolt, not against Christianity, but against divided Christianity, not against foreigners either in politics or religion, but against the domination of foreigners.

Jesus Christ revealed by His life on earth exactly what the unity was between Himself and His Father. It is not so mystical as to be unintelligible to the simple-hearted. We are not left as workmen without a pattern for their task. The kind of oneness exhibited by Christ with His Father on earth is clear beyond dispute - a paternal and filial relationship, and a liberty reached through absolute dependence consummated by supreme sacrifice. If individuals and groups were to practice these two principles, disunion would fade away like snow before a summer sun. When all Christians recognize God as Father and look on the things of others as of brothers in Christ, the family of God will be complete, a glorious Church without spot or wrinkle.

God calls man to unity - His ideal. Man calls to God for unity - his need. Unity is not only a thing of beauty, but a matter of practical necessity. There are patches of unity already, it is true, in an underlying loyalty to Christ. But not enough to make Christianity effective as a peace maker, a liberator, a universal power, or to satisfy the mind of God.

Some countries have a minimum of division at home, especially where there is a state church. But purely national churches of whatever sort add to the rival denominations which split Christ in the mission field, and make Christianity contradict itself as a world religion. In other countries, as in America, churches of every sort and every name obtain. The evil effect is most evident in rural districts where the church-going population is divided into impoverished rival groups without moral and spiritual potency. The Christian religion is often degraded into a weak philosophy, incompetent and futile. Some churches claim exclusive possession of the truth as found in Christ and damn those who find other interpretations of His life and teaching. The result is that not fifty percent of the population even profess to be followers of Jesus Christ, many of them because they are sadly perplexed and mystified by jangling claims and voices. Churches which have no real reason for holding apart still adhere to their shibboleths. Federative effort continues where organic unity is the only logical step. There is no one voice coming with force from every pulpit in every country, as there should be, on such great fundamental questions as peace and war, what constitutes Christian marriage, the social claims of Christ, the supranational character of the Church. The catholic mind is rare. In our hearts most of us are devotees of the cult of the incomplete - sectarianism. The Christ in one church often categorically denies the Christ in a neighboring church. It would be ludicrous were it not tragic. The situation is suicidal and we are here as a solemn protest against it. We try to get together in matters of practical import, but as often as not, we find ourselves thrown back on our conception of Christ, the nature of the Church, God's mode of governing His Church, the substance of the Gospel message. Christology may not be slighted. The value of theology must be admitted. The history of Christianity must be studied, if we are to get anywhere.

Were there no call to man from God to unity, our need would none the less make its high protest to God in heaven for unity. But we would be hopeless and helpless in the organized confusion to which we are party. It is God who takes the lead. His will, that they may all be one, must eventually be man's will if to do God's will becomes the passion of the human heart. When Christians accept Christ as supreme, they cannot but walk as companions and friends. His life as portrayed in the Gospels is His reliable teaching. His words as interpreted by His life are final, and our duty to obey becomes our privilege, our joy. It is to encourage such faith in God made manifest in the flesh that we are in conference. That is the meaning of faith rather than a form of sound words, however important they may be. To quote the words of Zinzendorf - "I have but one passion. It is He! even He!" Men like Sadhu Sundar Singh, Mahatma Gandhi, and Stanley Jones are helping us to realize this more and more. In proportion as we rally around the living Christ during these days shall we banish our prejudices, enlighten our understanding, and correct our mistakes.

Again as to the means of establishing intimate relationship with Jesus Christ, for that is our chief quest and goal, is it not? We dare not be exclusive in sacramental, in mystical, or in intellectual modes of approach. Christ's agile feet journey to the human heart along many and diverse paths. That He comes by these and innumerable other routes who will deny?

After all it is not these central principles that should give us great difficulty. Rather is it that which lies at the circumference - the government of the Church, or order. Personally I should be well content were we to let this last vexed subject lie for the present rather than give it hasty consideration. We cannot pretend that it is unimportant. By means of it the Church is held together in the fullness of organic life, world-wide and all embracing. But we cannot in our brief conference cover the whole vast field. Moreover if that conciliar action did not break unity, conciliar action cannot mend it. May it not be that, all other things being settled, we will grow into it as did the early Church? But I must close. We are living in a world that has lost its way. Religion as summed up in Jesus Christ and His Kingdom can alone hope to rescue it. It must be, as God's voice has warned us from the beginning, and our own experience has tragically confirmed, unified religion. God has used, beyond anything we had a right to expect, our divided Christendom. But now that we know the sin and disaster of sectarianism, we cannot hope that He will use it much longer. Though all time lies before us, we may not rest on our oars. We must move without haste and without rest. Let us keep the purpose of unity firm in our hearts and look on all Christians of whatever name, as brothers beloved. It is thus that, by practicing unity, we shall gain unity.

God's Spirit is presiding over us to make us will and do His good pleasure. It is He that will change for us, in His own way and in His own time, the impossible into the possible, and bring about that consummation of Christian hope in a Church that will be one flock under one Shepherd. To that end I make my own the impassioned appeal of St. Paul which is as applicable to this gathering of men of many nations as to the Ephesians to whom it was originally addressed: "I therefore, the prisoner in the Lord, beseech you to walk worthily of the calling wherewith you were called," (Eph. 4:1) - note the moral qualities essential for unity - "with all lowliness and meekness, with long suffering, forbearing one another in love; giving diligence to keep the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace. There is one body, and one Spirit, even as ye are called in one hope of your calling; one Lord, one Faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all, who is over all, and through all, and in all" (Eph. 4:2-6).

An address to the Conference on Faith and Order (1930?) by Bishop Brent, earlier Senior Chaplain with the American Expeditionary Forces in Europe in World War I.


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