James G. Somerville is pastor of Wingate Baptist Church and adjunct professor of religion and philosophy at Wingate (North Carolina) University.
This article appeared in the Christian Century, May 13, 1998, p. 497, copyright by the Christian Century Foundation and used by permission. Current articles and subscription information can be found at www.christiancentury.org. This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted & Winnie Brock.
Jesus’ prayer for unity among his followers has not been answered. We are not all one.
Imagine that you are sitting in a darkened movie theater, eating popcorn. You have already seen three previews of coming attractions and now it is time for the feature presentation. The screen goes black, and from the speakers you begin to hear the sounds of a meal in progress -- the clink of utensils, the murmur of conversation. As the picture swims up out of the darkness you see men in robes reclining around a collection of greasy plates, bowls, pitchers, cups, some of them still eating, reaching out with a piece of bread to sop up the last bit of gravy. "Jerusalem, AD. 33," announces the subtitle as the camera slowly zooms in on the solemn face of a man who takes a long look at each of the others, then turns his eyes toward heaven.
"Holy Father," he sighs, "I pray that they might be one, so that the world may believe that you have sent me. And then, closing his eyes, clenching his fists, he prays with urgency, "Let them be one, Father, let them be ONE!" The camera tilts up crazily from his face into a sky full of swirling stars as the title score swells in the background and the name of the film appears on the screen. As the opening credits roll, the whole history of the church unfolds in a kaleidoscope of images tumbling down through the centuries, until the director’s name fades from the screen, the music dies and you hear the steady buzz of a crowded modern convention hall.
"Let me have your attention, please," says a man at the podium, and as he bangs his gavel we learn that this is "Milwaukee, Wisconsin, 1999." The convention hall is quiet. "Let me welcome you to this international, interdenominational gathering of Christians," he says with a smile. "As you know, our purpose in these three days is to find some common ground, to draft a confession of faith for the year 2000 with which we all can agree, adding with a chuckle, "impossible as that sounds. We’ll do it like this: Each of you should have received a large card, red on one side, green on the other. As I read the following statements and ask for a vote, show me the green side if you agree, the red side if you don’t. Then we’ll go on to the next statement. All right? The first statement from our panel is this one: ‘Jesus was born of a virgin.’ Remember, green side if you agree. Red side if you don’t."
The camera slowly pans a sea of red and green cards, just about evenly divided. The moderator chuckles again, but nervously. "It looks like a tie," he says. "Let’s go on to the next statement and see if we can do any better."
But before he can say another word an argument breaks out on the convention floor. News cameras converge on the scene as one of the delegates shouts at another, "If you don’t believe Jesus was born of a virgin, then you don’t belong in this meeting!" He grabs the other man’s card and sends it sailing across the room like a Frisbee. Then it’s bedlam, with everybody reaching, snatching cards, throwing punches. The moderator ducks behind the podium as red and green cards rain down on the platform. Cameras flash like fireworks.
The next morning’s Milwaukee Sentinel carries this headline: "Christian Convention Erupts in Violence: Delegates Disagree on Virgin Birth." In a downtown café, a truck driver points to the picture as a waitress fills his coffee cup. "Willya look at that? Ain’t that the biggest crock you’ve ever seen? And my mother-in-law wonders why I don’t go to church!"
The church is sadly fragmented. There are hundreds, perhaps thousands, of Christian denominations in the world divided along lines of doctrinal difference. The prayer Jesus offered up nearly 2000 years ago has not been answered. We are not "all one." And if you pay attention to his words you can see what a problem we have. "Holy Father," he said, "I pray that they may all be one, so that the world may believe that you have sent me." If we don’t show some unity, then the world won’t believe. But is there any point on which we can agree?
Three days later, the Milwaukee convention hail is in a shambles. Folding chairs are overturned and trash fills the aisles. The delegates are looking sullen, many of them with bandaged heads, arms in slings. The moderator steps cautiously to the podium and announces in a tired voice, "We will close our, um, meeting with communion. Ushers will pass the elements from the aisle." And as the plates travel down the rows, from
white to black to yellow hand, a silence falls on that room.
When everyone is holding both bread and cup, a retired minister gets up slowly from his chair, shuffles to the podium and invokes the ancient formula: "On the night that he was betrayed Jesus took bread, and when he had blessed it he broke it, and said, ‘This is my body, broken for you."’
And then he stops, as if he has forgotten what to say next. For several minutes he stands in that deafening silence, staring at the broken loaf in his hands. From somewhere in front of him, a young woman whispers, "The body of Christ was broken for me." The man beside her hears it and whispers: "The body of Christ was broken for me." Then it ripples across the congregation like a breeze, until every voice in that room is whispering in unison: "The body of Christ was broken for us!"