Bishop Mark Hanson: Church Unity Found in Jesus

May we be as varied as the first followers

During the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity (Jan. 18-25), I will be giving thanks to God that this is Christ's church. Our unity is in Christ, who gathers us around word and water, bread and wine. Through Christ, we have been reconciled to God and to one another.

I give thanks to God that in my lifetime, we have witnessed and been a part of so many signs of greater unity in the body of Christ. My early memories are of defining ourselves as Lutherans in contrast to others. In Sunday school and confirmation, we would hear how we are not like Roman Catholics. Now even as we continue to address in dialogues these issues that separate us from experiencing our unity together at the Lord's table, we give thanks that we have as Lutherans and Roman Catholics a "Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification."

I give thanks to God that in the formative years of the ELCA, we adopted "Ecumenism: The Vision of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America," and for 23 years have lived out those commitments to work for the visible unity of the body of Christ.

As I travel throughout this church, I see so many expressions of that unity - ELCA members joining with members of other congregations for prayer and Bible study, doing campus ministry together, providing shelter for the homeless and food for the hungry, and joining in evangelism and outreach to those who have no church or have not heard the good news of Jesus Christ.

During the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity, I will pray for healing in congregations, families and communities where there have been difficult decisions and painful separations from the ELCA. I will give thanks for synod bishops and congregational leaders who have walked with congregations through those decisions. I will give thanks for congregations that have experienced reconciliation because we have said as a church that all are welcome here. 

I will also pray that within the unity that God gives through Christ we will become a community as rich in our diversity as was found among the followers of Jesus. After Jesus was baptized by John and began his public ministry, people noticed with whom Jesus associated - disreputable men and questionable women; religious purists, separatists and phonies; financial and moral cheats and those cheated upon; the arrogant and abhorrent; the impure and the puritanical; even foreigners. Against others' advice, even from his own disciples, Jesus turned none of them away.

Even more remarkable was how Jesus responded to the diseased and the possessed. Jesus talked with them and listened to them, as one human to another. He held the untouchables. He ate and drank with sinners. One human to another.

Unlike those who could only see God-forsakenness in others or themselves, Jesus announced God-forgiveness. Reconciled, forgiven and restored in a healed human community, people began to experience in Jesus that they were created in God's image and beloved of God. 

In this way Jesus held people together regardless of differences. Jesus held them all - their hands with his healing touch, their minds with his powerful teaching and their hearts with his compassionate mercy. Most of all, it was through his death and resurrection that Jesus held them, declaring the full measure of his faithfulness and God's steadfast love and mercy. 

The same is true for us today. We are a church whose unity is in Jesus. The whole Christian church and even the ELCA encompass broad diversity, even irreducible differences. Often those differences are misunderstood as problems to be solved. The biblical witness, however, is that a diversity of gifts is the very nature of the community that lives by faith in Christ and never a problem to be solved. For in Jesus Christ, the diversity of the Spirit's gifts is itself a gift, a blessing, the means by which the whole body ministers to its members and to the world. 

Most high and holy God, pour out upon us your one and unifying Spirit, and awaken in every confession of the whole church a holy hunger and thirst for unity in you; through Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord. Amen (Evangelical Lutheran Worship, page 73).

[Taken with permission from the January issue of The Lutheran magazine.]