For more than a thousand years, Christians have not had the joy of being one family around Christ. Although there were already tensions within the earliest Christian communities, it was not until the year 1054 that there was a formal split so as to, in effect, establish two formal Christian communities, the Orthodox Church and the Catholic Church in the West. Then, with the Protestant Reformation in the sixteenth century, there was a further split within the Western Church and Christianity fragmented still further. Today there are more than a hundred Christian denominations, many of them, sadly, not on friendly terms with each other.
Division and misunderstanding are understandable, inevitable, the price of being human. There are no communities without tension and so it’s no great scandal that Christians sometimes cannot get along with each other. The scandal is rather that we have become comfortable, even smug, about not getting along with each other. The scandal is that we no longer hunger for wholeness and that we no longer miss each other inside our separate churches. In virtually all of our churches today there is too little anxiety about those who are not worshipping with us, whether these separated brothers and sisters belong to other denominations or whether they belong to our own. For instance, teaching Roman Catholic seminarians today, I sense a certain indifference to the issue of ecumenism. For many seminarians today this is not an issue that is of particular concern to them. Sad to say, this holds true for most Christians in all denominations.
But this kind of indifference is inherently unchristian. Oneness was close to the heart of Jesus. He wants all his children at the same table, as we see in this parable in the Gospels:
A woman had ten coins and lost one. She became extremely anxious and agitated and began to search frantically and relentlessly for the lost coin, lighting lamps, looking under tables, and sweeping all the floors in her house. Eventually she found the coin. She was delirious with joy, called together her neighbors and threw a party whose cost far exceeded the value of the coin she had lost. (Luke 15, 8-9)
Why such anxiety and such joy over the loss and the finding of a coin whose value was that of a dime? The answer lies in the symbolism: In her culture, nine was not a whole number; ten was. Both the woman’s anxiety on losing the coin and her joy in finding it had little to do with the value of the coin but with the value of wholeness; an important wholeness in her life had been fractured, a precious set of things was no longer complete. Hence the parable might recast this way:
A woman had ten children. With nine of them, she had a good relationship, but one of her daughters was alienated. Her nine other children came regularly to the family table, but this daughter did not. The woman could not rest in that situation; she needed her alienated daughter to rejoin them. She tried every means to reconcile with her daughter and, one day, miracle of miracles, it worked. Her daughter came back to the family. Her family was whole again, everyone was back at table. The woman was overjoyed, withdrew her modest savings from the bank, and threw a lavish party to celebrate that wholeness.
Christian faith demands that, like that woman, we need to be anxious, dis-eased, lighting lamps and searching, until the Church is whole again. Nine is not a whole number. Neither is the number of those who are normally inside our respective churches. Roman Catholicism isn’t a whole number. Protestantism isn’t a whole number. The Evangelical Churches aren’t a whole number. The Orthodox Churches aren’t a whole number. No one Christian denomination is a whole number. Together we make up a whole number.
Thus we are meant to ask ourselves uncomfortable questions: Who no longer goes to church with us? Who feels uncomfortable worshipping with us? Are we comfortable that so many people can no longer join us in our church?
Sadly, today, too many of us are comfortable in churches that are far, far from whole. Sometimes, in our less reflective moments, we even rejoice in it: “Those others aren’t real Christians in any case! We’re better off without their kind! There’s more peace this way! We are a purer, more faithful, church because of their absence! We’re the one true remnant!”
But this lack of a healthy solicitude for wholeness compromises both our maturity and our following of Jesus. We are mature loving people and true followers of Jesus, only when, like Jesus, we remain in tears over those “other sheep that are not of this fold” and when, like the woman who lost one of her coins and would not sleep until every corner of the house was turned upside down in a frantic search for what was lost, we too set out solicitously in search of that lost wholeness.