But we have this treasure in clay jars, so that it may be made clear that this extraordinary power belongs to God and does not come from us (2 Corinthians 4:7)

But we have this treasure in clay jars, so that it may be made clear that this extraordinary power belongs to God and does not come from us   (2 Corinthians 4:7)

This week, the traditional Churches of Jerusalem come together every evening to reflect upon the theme of the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity. They will be reflecting together upon those treasures in clay jars that are nothing more and nothing less than life itself. After all, life in the Christian affirmation cannot be neutral. Rather, it is positive and meant to be treasured. God created the world, enlivened the breath of life into us and gave us a world and each other to enjoy. It is therefore important, in the midst of our daily lives, to remember this life-inspiring reality. After all, does the hymn we sing at times not remind us, ‘Joyful, Joyful, We Adore Thee’?

St Paul, in this passage from Corinthians, also added that we have this treasure in clay jars. We know life in this world only through our existence in human form and within finite space, subject to disease, to accident, to all manner of chance and change which can alter our dreams, change our hopes, and present us with unforeseen challenges. The life of faith, our belief that life is a God-given treasure, can be severely tested. St Paul knew something about this in his own life, a ‘thorn’ that weighed heavily upon his shoulders
So if life is a God-given treasure, albeit in fragile clay jars, and one that has been affirmed to us by our Lord and Saviour, should we then not labour harder to safeguard and nurture that treasure with much more cohesion let alone coherence? Should we not think somewhat more proactively about psalm 36 verse 9 when it affirms, ‘For with you is the fountain of Life’, as we contemplate our lives as believers in the One Christ and followers of His teachings?

To talk about unity, ecumenism or its affiliated constituencies, let me go back as far as 1902 when His Holiness Yoachim II, Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople, issued an encyclical where he raised the matter of intra-Christian relations. In 1920, he followed it up with another encyclical entitled ‘Unto the Churches of Christ Everywhere’ in which he also encouraged the spirit of reconciliation and drew upon the First Letter of St Peter to love one another earnestly from the heart (1 P 1:22b).
To look across two millennia of Christianity, a number of people tend to project a waning faith, ever-dwindling numbers in the pews and increasing ructions between the faiths. One article I read last year even drew analogies between the faiths and Samuel Huntingdon’s ‘Clash of Civilisations’! I do not think the analogy is valid, any more than it is valid to compare Jan Kerkhof’s ‘Europe without Priests’ with the faith-based situation across the world.
So let me start with basics. We are talking here about the Christian faith, but what is this faith in its essence?  What is its definition? In my opinion, it is not enough to discuss the word of God and comment on it. We must carry it also, and bear witness to it in the way we live.  There is no original recipe or magical formula here! We Christians must learn afresh to become credible interpreters and disciples of God’s love to humankind. I believe therein lies the secret of a Mother Teresa, a Father Maximilien Kolbë or an Archbishop Desmond Tutu who changed the world around them. In the words of Cardinal Franz König, Emeritus Archbishop of Vienna, we need to transubstantiate faith through love, not institutionalise it. And in the words of St John Chrysostom, Patriarch of Constantinople and a contemporary of St Augustine in the 5C, Christians are called to ‘shine like a light in a world of darkness’
In my opinion, that in a nutshell is what this annual week of prayers – in Jerusalem this week and across the world a week earlier – is about! It is not about ‘transforming’ all the churches so that they become uniformly monochromatic! How lacklustre and uninspiring that would be! Rather, it is about ordained and lay persons from different statements of belief coming together to celebrate as sisters and brothers the diversity of their ecclesial traditions – without forgetting the ultimate goal of re-assembling the body of Christ into the oneness that befits our Lord and Redeemer.
True, there are a host of historical, theological, dogmatic, doctrinal, cultural and even psychological obstacles obstructing this coming together and impeding a unified proclamation of the Gospel to the world. Nonetheless, it is only fair to add that some modest but nonetheless meaningful strides have already been taken in this direction. There is a sense of reconciliation within the Christian world that is hard to underrate – or dismiss altogether!
But let me come back to my quotation of that verse from psalm 36, ‘With you is the fountain of life’. It suggests we need to find the way to the place where the fountain of life lies in order to unlock its secret. The symbol of the fountain reminds us of the necessity to return to the origin, to the principle, to the roots, to the essential. To walk together, Christians need to be grounded in the Word of God, the revelation of God’s face in Jesus Christ, the renewing force of God’s Spirit, the discovery of the love of God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Faith, prayer and common action can make water spring even from the desert rock of bitterness and cleanse the sin of division in Christendom. So, where are we on this road toward an ecumenical recovery that faces up to those challenges? Can we actively live and witness together the belief that ‘Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, today and forever’ (Heb 13:8)?
I do not wish to be carried away by my own thoughts or words!  I still maintain that we are not yet ready to assume fully our ecumenical and grassroots responsibilities. There is still far too much turf staking (despite an ever-dwindling turf) that goes on within many denominations. The Church as an institution – as the body of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ – has to learn to reconstruct itself with more integrity, courage and vision. It also has to learn how to commune more closely with its assembly of believers – that vast church outside the walls! In this respect, I remember the stirring words of the philologist Joan Emri in her 1998 book where she avers that, “self-interest, self-involvement, self-indulgence, self-love, self-importance and self-image are too many ‘selves’ for the Church Universal to carry with it all at once.”

Indeed, those self-imposed ‘selves’ weaken immeasurably the prophetic message of the Church worldwide and diminish its Christian ministry of love, compassion, reconciliation and forgiveness – ineffable virtues that Christians celebrate at least twice during the Christmas and Easter seasons. What is helpful here is a love for the other that transcends dogmatic differences. By implication, what is therefore required is a fellowship not unlike that of the Early Church that is more basic – and therefore more grounded – than theosophical quibbles in order to guide the relentless dialogue over dogma itself. To encourage us all in that direction, I remind us all of St Augustine’s famous phrase, “Our hearts are restless till they find their rest in Thee.”
What is the Church to make of this unsettling contrast between institutional decline, ecumenical obscurantism and re-emerging spiritual awareness?  I believe that the major focus of the Church should not lie simply on filling empty pews. Perhaps more serious and certainly more urgent is the realisation that we are not in touch with the ways in which God the Holy Spirit is communicating with us.  In the final analysis, ought we not perhaps recall Thomas à Kempis whose statement might also hold an answer to the present predicament, “An humble knowledge of thyself is a surer way to God than a deep search after learning”?
However, to survive in the next millennium with an ever-enhancing sense of fellowship that comes closer to the logos of the truth, churches and ecumenical movements alike must re-discover the sense of awe that characterises us as Christians.  The most perceptive theologians have always insisted that God exists beyond our doctrinal formulations.  For centuries, mystics have referred to a ‘cloud of unknowing’ in which we must wait before we can grasp the divine. Perhaps Christians today have to endure such a period of patient waiting before they can re-formulate their sense of the sacred and re-affirm the God-centred praxis of our common apostolic and catholic Christian faith.  Perhaps this should be our goal as we become acquainted with our new century.
Can we perhaps think together of three renewable buzzwords and use them as constant mnemonics in our lives?  The first is Metanoya – a sense of renewal and change. The second is Koinonia – an assembly of believers in communion.  And the third is Kairos – an opportunity in a moment of crisis as a sign of hope. Can they help bridge the gap that straddles the practical with the probable and then leads to the possible in our imperfect lives as Christians striving to define our unity?  Will the Christian communities – leadership and grassroots alike  – appropriate this movement and make it their own?  Is the Oikumene – that inhabited earth – a reality? Or are we knocking at the wrong doors? 

The leaflet from Jerusalem promoting the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity 2003 states that ‘the unity of Christians needs to be the paradigm for the unity of humankind.’ It articulates a challenge that, ‘the unity of all those who believe in Christ is made visible when Christians truly take up their task in the world in which they are living, when together they speak out against all that destroys the dignity of the human person and pray and act together in favour of true peace.’

My own prayers for unity this week are also prayers for peace in the whole world. How true and how timely that we pray for peace, true peace in a true Christian sense, as we are all girding up our loins for more wars, more confrontation, and ultimately more human misery! As we spurn that which is sinful, and embrace that which is God-given, as we remind ourselves of the treasure in clay jars, we could perhaps again keep St Paul in our minds. In his letter to the Ephesians, he wrote, ‘With all lowliness and gentleness, with long suffering, bearing with one another in love, endeavouring to keep the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace  (Eph 4:2-3).

After all, are we not purported to project hope, compassion and unity? Yet, just look at the levels of violence and terrorism, genocide, destruction, poverty, despair, hopelessness, threat, oppression and ultimately disunity hovering over the world from the Palestinian town of Bethlehem, birthplace of our Lord, to the African shores of Zanzibar! Where is that Christian voice? How much stronger would we become if we managed to speak in a Christian voice that reflects our unity not only on lofty principles but equally on issues of justice and peace for the long-suffering peoples of the world. That is one of the practical benefits of unity – not only an idea to pursue for its own sake, but the hope of using our faith to make a difference toward the better – for ourselves, our families and friends, our country and our whole world.

Can we understand ‘unity’ in this positivist sense, or will we have forgotten all about it next week anyway?

(c) hbv-H@ 21 January 2003