Overcome the Divisions that Separate Us
When Charles V (a.k.a. Karl V) stepped down as the last of the Holy Roman Emperors in 1557, he retired to the Monastery of Yuste on the Iberian Peninsula. He had six clocks there. No matter how hard he tried, he never succeeded in getting them to chime together on the hour. He wrote into his memoirs, “How is it possible for six different clocks to chime all at the same time? How is it even more impossible for the six nations of the Holy Roman Empire to live in harmony? It can’t be done. It’s impossible, even if they call themselves Christians.”
How accurate he is! Throughout the centuries, Christians have found it impossible to live together in unity. We divide apart from each other over and over and over again, resulting in more than 45,000 different denominations around the world.
Sadly, one of the elements that has divided the church has been prejudice against people according to the color of one’s skin. The church in South Africa provides one tragic example of this…as well as a glimmer of hope.
In 1857, while already practicing racial separation at the Lord’s Supper, the Dutch Reformed Church decided to hold separate services of worship for “white” members from “colored” members. In 1881 they went so far as to establish an entirely separate denomination, the Dutch Reformed Mission Church, for those who were not “white.” Not until 1978 did the two groups decide to begin to work together toward a goal of unity. In 1982, the World Alliance of Reformed Churches declared apartheid a heresy and suspended the membership of the white Dutch Reformed Church of South Africa. Later that same year the Dutch Reformed Mission Church met in Belhar and drafted what became known as the Confession of Belhar to advocate for unity in Christ rather than the divisiveness of apartheid.
The second article of the Confession of Belhar begins: “We believe in one holy, universal Christian church, the communion of saints called from the entire human family. We believe: That Christ’s work of reconciliation is made manifest in the church as the community of believers who have been reconciled with God and with one another (Ephesians 2:11-22); That unity is, therefore, both a gift and an obligation for the church of Jesus Christ; that through the working of God’s Spirit it is a binding force, yet simultaneously a reality which must be earnestly pursued and sought: one which the people of God must continually be built up to attain (Ephesians 4:1-16); That this unity must become visible so that the world may believe that separation, enmity and hatred between people and groups is sin which Christ has already conquered, and accordingly that anything which threatens this unity may have no place in the church and must be resisted (John 17:20-23)….”
In 1990, President F.W. de Klerk worked with Nelson Mandela to dismantle apartheid. In 1995, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission was established to bring both justice and healing to the nation. In 2016, the Presbyterian Church (to which I belong) adopted the Confession of Belhar, with its call to unity and justice, as an official confession of our denomination.
In Ephesians 4:1-3, Paul stresses the importance of believers striving for unity in the body of Christ: “I…beg you to lead a life worthy of the calling to which you have been called, with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love, making every effort to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace.”
As Ephesians 4 continues, Paul speaks of God giving gifts to each of his children, stressing that these gifts are “to equip the saints [you and me] for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ” (verse 12). William Barclay points out that the Greek word used here for “equip,” katartismon, has the basic idea “of putting a thing or a person into the condition in which he or it ought to be” (such as repairing a broken bone or mending a torn net). The message Scripture wants to get across to us is that whenever God breaks apart the prejudices and barriers that divide us, God is mending the church, restoring us to what we are meant to be: a community of mutual care in the bond of peace through which the world might see the goodness and grace of Christ.