I am sure Jesus had all his listeners laughing as he told the story of the person banging on the door of his friend in the middle of the night! (Luke 11:1-13) Often a joke is the best way to get such things across, especially when people easily think that prayer ought to be solemn. “No” says Jesus “We must speak to God as friend to friend. And we must be persistent.” – just as Abraham is persistent with God in our 1st Reading (Gen 18:20-32). But Jesus also tells us in our Gospel today what sort of things we should be praying for! He teaches his disciples the Our Father, and in it tells us to pray for God’s Kingdom to come, and that this will only happen as we recognise our need to ask forgiveness from God and from those around us.
I am always a bit upset if I go to a funeral that I am not taking and hear only how good and kind the person was who has died. I don’t think Jesus wants us to be gloomy about out failings, but he does want us to admit them, and most especially at the moment of our death. It’s why the Hail Mary is such an important prayer : “Holy Mary, Mother of God, pray for us sinners, now, and at the hour of our death” . I think this is why Jesus makes a point on the night before he dies of praying for the unity of those who follow him. He knows how easily we humans set ourselves up against one another and so he prays quite explicitly “I do not pray for these only (the disciples who are with him) but also for those who believe in me through their word (that’s us) that they may all be one..” (John 17:20) There can be no getting away from it. This is what Jesus wants us to work and pray for unceasingly, and that’s precisely why the Pope is always meeting and praying with Christians who are not Catholics, as he will when he comes to England in September. He will pray with them first in Westminster Abbey and then he will meet some of the C of E Bishops at Lambeth Palace.
Those of you who are a bit older than me will remember the time when Catholics weren’t allowed to go inside non-Catholic churches, and Protestants said that we Catholics were not even Christians. Thankfully most of these prejudices have gone now and we work and pray together most of the time in friendly co-operation. But we are still separated, and prejudice still exists on both sides. I remember when I became a Catholic in 1994 how the British Press described it, and still do, as “defection” – a word that means changing sides – going over to support the enemy.
But I expect that most of you think, as I sometimes do, that the idea of all the churches completely united as one is just not realistic. “Surely”, we say, “now that we are friendly, isn’t that enough?” Well it might seem Ok to us, but it isn’t OK to people outside the Church who are often put off by all the different varieties of Christianity that they see before them. Explaining to them why there are so many differences is really quite difficult isn’t it? We can talk about Henry VIII and all that in England, but when we get onto some of the famous reformers like Martin Luther or John Calvin most of us are more than a bit lost. And how to sort out these differences, and find that unity for which Jesus prayed – a work that we call “ecumenism” – seems quite beyond us!
Our Bishops in the Booklet I am commenting on over the summer also admit that “This is a difficult pathway. For each of the Christian communities is deeply committed to the truth it holds and no amount of power-play or negotiation will alter those commitments. Rather (they write) the key to ecumenism lies in the shared conviction that in Christ is the truth we all seek and our common search is to know him, love him, and serve him as best we can.”
This is why the Catholic Church, led by the Pope, is so committed to this process of praying and working unceasingly for Unity, and as he visits the Pope will set us an example in this respect. I am very glad that in Eynsham there has been a long tradition of work and prayer together by all the churches as is shown by Roundabout our joint magazine. But it is easy to get complacent about all this, and there are sadly quite a lot of people in all the churches who never make the effort to attend the ecumenical events that we put on. They just go to their own church and that’s that. But the sin of disunity, and that’s what it is, is one of the sins we should constantly be asking forgiveness for. I know that the original conflict was not our fault, but that doesn’t excuse us from making the effort as the Pope will do, to constantly reach out to our fellow Christians. As our Bishops say “The work of the Churches to overcome these divisions is important. In a society in which there are still serious tensions, the example of the Churches’ own efforts in overcoming division is part of the witness we can give.” May we do so.
Link to the Bishops document:-