Sixth Sunday of Easter C – May 1, 2016 – “Unity Not Conflict”
The presidential campaign has glaringly uncovered the ways in which we the citizens in these United States are not united on assorted issues especially ones that deal with basic human rights.
And, we Christians are divided on issues as well. For one example, Orthodox Christians are celebrating Easter today, five weeks after we did! Our conflicting calendars lay bare what has been known for a long time as the “scandal of Christianity.” How important is this concern?
In 1997 the World Council of Churches asserted that to celebrate this fundamental aspect of the Christian faith, the resurrection of Jesus Christ, on different dates, gives a divided witness. It compromises the credibility and effectiveness of our churches in bringing the gospel to the world.
As noted in today’s first reading, the Apostolic Conference in Jerusalem in the year 50 CE also dealt with issues that were divisive. The concern was not about the movable date of Easter. Rather, some Jewish-Christians from Jerusalem insisted that Gentile-Christians from Syria must follow the Mosaic law about circumcision and other Levitical codes.
Right from the start, Christians argued over what they believed to be the fundamental teachings of their emerging religion. Not only does a bitter sweet history list disputes among early Christian movements but also, eventually, whether to wage brutal wars against other Christians and people of different faiths. Church leaders frequently developed doctrines to distinguish Christianity from other religions and to counter what they considered to be heretical campaigns.
The desire to strengthen the unique identities of respective churches continues to thwart unity. In the words of Andrew Sullivan Christianity today is in crisis. Instead of focusing on the “truly radical ideas” Jesus had, Christians are using religion as a tool to advance their own political and moral agendas. In doing so religious leaders attempt to “consume and influence every aspect of public life.”
In the gospel today we heard a part of Jesus’ farewell address to his followers. He said a Spirit will eventually emerge to fire up their passions, remind them of his teachings and guide them in their missionary work. Also, he said, the peace he gave is not what the world gives. Jesus was not interested in stressing any complex doctrines. Instead, he did not want his followers to forget his primary focus: to treat people equally with mercy.
As it was then it is hard now to know exactly what to do when our church teachings do not adequately help us respond to present day situations. Traditionally, it is believed that a deity will provide guidance. However unless we have a direct line of contact with that deity we have to rely on others (rabbis, imams, priests, prophets, catechists and others) to interpret the social codes for us. 
Church doctrines that were written a long time ago do change over time but ever so slowly. The unfinished business of the Vatican Two Ecumenical Council is a good example. We have to continuously reinterpret the principles presented at that Council in light of today’s challenges. The same would be true of doctrines developed in the Middle Ages. They, too, need fresh explanations.
Francis, bishop of Rome, is doing exactly that. He has been called a “stealth reformer.” Flying beneath prickly doctrinal arguments he is showing us that mercy must trump doctrine. The life of Jesus is the example of what matters most today — how we respect one another especially those who are different from us.
Our divisions with the Orthodox church and other Christian denominations are complicated and stem mostly from age old doctrinal disagreements. On the other hand, in principle, there is no disagreement among us in terms of serving people who live on the fringes of society. There is a message here.
Emboldened by the Spirit Jesus left us, we can be ministers of peace and unity at home and everywhere we roam. We can cultivate further ways to join other Christians and people of other faiths in works of mercy and friendly dialog. With an emphasis on our common mission rather than rules we will discover and, in Pope Francis’ words, “unity is greater than conflict.” (Laudato ‘Si, IV, 198).
1. Finch, Jonathan. A Crisis of Belief, Ethics and Faith. (NY: Univ. Press of America) 2016, 33