“If churches can work together to build a house,
why can’t we get together to evangelize the world?”
—Rev. Ted Beam, Pastor of Petrie Memorial United Methodist Church, Elkton, KY
Churches of different denominations working together on acts of charity and justice is often the first thing that comes to mind when people think of ecumenism. Indeed, some of the most longstanding and compelling witnesses of ecumenism have happened in those arenas.
The word "evangelize" comes to us from the Greek meaning: "To announce the Good News." Some would say that joint acts of Christian service are indeed true acts of evangelization, as they give witness to the solidarity of all people sharing a common mission to love one another as commanded by Jesus (Matthew 22:37-40). When people are so overwhelmed by God's gift of love that their proverbial cup overflows (Psalm 23), compelling them to share that gift of love with others and in thanksgiving to God with all the blessings spilling out from them, they fulfill this new commandment to love God and love their neighbors as themselves. They announce the Good News with their hands and feet through their deeds, demonstrating that their lives have been transformed in light of it.
Still, it is a curious situation when groups of Christians share the fruit of their discipleship together but proclaim the source of that discipleship separately.
Pope Francis has reminded us lately: "Divisions between Christians wound the Church and wound Christ. The Church – he said – is the body and Christ is the head." He asks: "Are we resigned, or even indifferent to this division? Or do we firmly believe that we can and we must walk together towards reconciliation and full communion?"
Indeed, John's Gospel offers an important twist on Jesus' commandment:
“A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.”
This is a daunting challenge. Jesus is speaking both to his disciples and about his disciples here. A sign of true discipleship—perhaps even the truest sign—is whether Christians can love each other. The most difficult challenge is often loving those closest to ourselves. This includes not just those in our local parish community but also different denominations of Christians worldwide. 2,000 years of amazing Christian service work juxtaposed against bitter divisions in the Body of Christ itself attests to this difficulty.
John's Gospel is often not the immediate "go to" book for social justice activists looking for a passage to embolden their efforts. All too often it is seen as focusing on internal relationships between disciples and less on those excluded and marginalized. It is not easy to coax Christians who may have become all too comfortable in cozy church fellowships to turn their attention and reach out to the whole world with this passage. However, it is usually a mistake to attach a simple interpretation to anything in John's Gospel. This passage is deeply challenging when held up against the fractures in Christianity.
Scripture offers many ways to understand love. The famous passage above from 1 Corinthians is a favorite wedding reading. It takes on a very different challenge when seen as a checklist for ecumenism. Love is not just tolerance, but a full blossom of patience, kindness, humility and honoring and forgiving each other. Can Christians protect, trust, hope and persevere in their relationships with other Christians? Jesus calls us to love one another, and this is what love looks like according to Paul.
Evangelizing together is an ideal way to demonstrate this kind of love. It would show trust and a hope held in common. Christians would protect each other and persevere together. We would honor each other by trusting each other to proclaim the Gospel. We would take time to understand each other in patience. We would be slow to anger and rich in kindness, like the God we follow (Psalm 145:8).
At the beginning of this piece, Rev. Ted Beam asks a question which points to a glaring inconsistency in the Christian witness. Yes, they will know we are Christians by our love, according to John's Gospel. Rev. Beam's question subtly suggests a way that this love might be expressed: This is a love which draws Christians together to go out and share the Gospel to the ends of the earth. The kindness, patience, trust and humility that Christians would need to manifest in their relationships with each other in order proclaim the Gospel together would become the witness that the world would see. The medium becomes the message. The Way shows itself to also be the Truth.
Perhaps it is better to preach the Gospel through our deeds, using words only when necessary. Love may be the only thing pure enough to reach beyond our fuddled words and understandings. However, our inability to preach together in words gives witness to our lack of investment to listen to each other in patience and kindness, out of which a common language and a sympathetic ear would emerge to guide this common mission to proclaim the Good News.