Seventeenth Sunday in Ordinary Time – July 30, 2006 – Blessed Sacrament
The beautiful passage from the Epistle to the Ephesians that we heard as our second reading today continues the theme of unity that the author had earlier developed in the passage we heard last week, about the reconciliation in Christ of Gentile and Jew in a single redeemed humanity. Today’s reading builds on the vision of the Church as reconciled humanity and urges the unity that ought to be its most distinctive mark.
Christians are to live, first of all, “in a manner worthy of the call they have received.” They must all be aware that their status before God is not their own doing, but has been won for them at the price of Christ’s blood and is now enjoyed by them not on account of their merits but out of the free generosity of God. The only attitude worthy of this call is one of “humility and gentleness,” with patience, with forbearance, in short, with love. (The language here echoes the hymn in praise of love that we know from 1 Corinthians 13.) If this attitude prevails, and inspires behavior, then will be realized a unity of spirit and the bond of peace.
Then Paul enumerates the principles underlying that unity and peace: one body and one Spirit; one hope of their calling; one Lord Jesus Christ; one faith; one baptism; one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all. If we all enjoy these blessings, they ought to inspire and strengthen a unity that is greater than whatever differences may exist among them. (One remembers what he had said before: If the differences between Jew and Gentile can be overcome in Christ’s Body which is the Church, then all ethnic and other differences can also be transcended.)
That is the ideal, of course. How difficult it has been to achieve is already clear from the New Testament writings. One thinks of the various cliques that within a decade of its founding divided the community at Corinth; one thinks of the tensions, even among apostles, over conditions for receiving Gentiles; one thinks of incipient forms of Gnosticism that were threatening the very foundations of Christian faith. And then there is the whole history of schisms and divisions in the Church, particularly the great schism that for almost a millennium has separated the Catholic and the Orthodox Churches, and the divisions that followed upon the Protestant Reformation. If one looks at Christianity as a global phenomenon today, unity is not the first thing that springs to mind.
A generation or so after the Apostles, around the same time that the Epistle to the Ephesians was being written, divisions broke out in the Church at Corinth. When the Church at Rome heard about it, they sent a letter to urge the restoration of unity. Here is one passage in it, and as we listen to it, we can recognize how well it applies to us today also: “Why are there strife and passion, schisms and even war among you? Do we not possess the same Spirit of grace which was given to us and the same body of Christ. Why do we revolt against our own body? Why do we reach such a degree of insanity that we forget that we are members one of another? … Your division has led many astray, has made many doubt, has made many despair, and has brought grief upon us all.” That really describes the consequences of the divisions among Christians. They have led many people away from Christ, have brought them to doubt the Good News that is the Gospel, have made many people doubt that saving truth is to be found in Christ.
Because of these divisions among Christians, the Church cannot effectively be what it is supposed to be, the sign and unity of union with God and of the unity of the whole human race, as Vatican II put it. We are supposed to be a living demonstration of the possibility of integrating all differences of race and language and historical heritage into the grand harmony of a great symphony. We are acutely aware in these days of how much the world needs such a demonstration, living proof that in Christ the unity that Paul describes so beautifully in the Epistle to the Ephesians is possible.
The realization of such unity in a community like this one gathered here in thanksgiving to God is meant to be the gift that we also bring to our world. We may at times think that we cannot do much individually about situations of violent division like the ones we experience today. But at least we can do what the Apostle urges upon us: we can try to live lives worthy of the calling we have received; we can cultivate humility and gentleness in our relations with other people; we can try to exercise patience and forbearance with others; in short, we can try to love as we have been loved. At least in our own circumstances, to be living lives worthy of God’s call in Christ is no small gift to make to the unity and peace of the world.