CHARLOTTE, N.C. (CNS) - Prayers for forgiveness and greater unity marked a special liturgy commemorating the 500th anniversary of the Reformation.
Bishop Peter J. Jugis of Charlotte and Bishop Robert E. Guglielmone of Charleston, South Carolina, were among more than a dozen Christian leaders who joined 800 people from North Carolina and South Carolina at Covenant Presbyterian Church in Charlotte for the Sept. 23 service.
The two-hour service opened not with a joyous processional hymn, but with the congregation standing and facing the cross, praying: "O God of mercy, we lament that even good actions of reform and renewal have often unintended negative consequences. ... We remember before you the burdens of the past and present when we ignored your will that all be one in the truth of the Gospel. ... We confess our own ways of thinking and acting which perpetuate the divisions of the past."
Expressions of regret for the often-painful divisions in Christianity were a central theme of the service, but more importantly, the liturgy was an expression of the shared desire for Christian unity.
"Obviously there are many, many things over the past 500 years that are difficult for us to deal with and to talk about," but "we are moving toward more conversation," said the Rev. Timothy Smith, bishop of the North Carolina Synod of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America.
Bishop Jugis echoed Rev. Smith, saying that the commemoration of the Reformation "is an opportunity to continue moving forward, toward our common goal of reconciliation and unity of Christians, in fulfillment of Jesus' prayer: 'That they may all be one, as you, Father, are in me and I in you, that they also may be in us, that the world may believe that you sent me.'
"The demands of ministry are great and all-consuming and we each serve within our own sphere of influence, but a service such as this today enables us to pray together and establish contact with other disciples of the Lord, who give all to serve Him. In this way, our desire for Christian unity is continuing to make progress," he said.
The Rev. Elizabeth Eaton, presiding bishop of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, led the service. In her sermon, Rev. Eaton noted that the anniversary should remind Christians of their oneness in the body of Christ.
"We must be one - single-minded, single-hearted - that the world might believe," she told the congregation. The world desperately needs the Gospel message, she said, and squabbling between Christians is "hugely confusing" to nonbelievers.
Rev. Eaton noted that the Gospel reading during the service - from the 17th chapter of the Gospel of John -- highlights Jesus' desire for unity among believers: "That they may all be one, as you, Father, are in me and I in you, that they also may be in us, that the world may believe that you sent me."
"It's about the truth that God is faithful, that God is single-minded, that God is single-hearted, that God has integrity, that God is trustworthy. We're to cling to that and confess that in all times and in all circumstances of our life," she said.
People throughout the ages have disregarded such advice, thinking they could go it alone or trust in earthly powers, she continued. "Every single time that the people of God in Israel or in the Christian church have decided that God needs a little extra help from us, is when things have gone terribly, terribly wrong," Rev. Eaton told the congregation.
The Gospel reminds the faithful of "the single-mindedness, the single-heartedness of God," she said. "God loved us so much that He sent us Jesus, and Jesus would go to hell and back to save everyone.
"Now we come here, 500 years after the Reformation ... we are once again called to be one," she said.
The gift of God's grace "means that all of us, all of us, are on the same playing field, that not one of us can get out of the mess that we're in by ourselves. Not a one of us, not a group of people is somehow better able to negotiate our way through this life, which means there is no one group of people who are superior to any other group of people."
Hatred, envy, pride, greed, gluttony, violence, racism and hopelessness are hallmarks of "the real world," she said. It is the call of every Christian to stand up and say, "That way only leads to suffering and death. Maybe not immediately, and maybe not as blatantly as what we saw in Charlottesville (Virginia) or around our country. Maybe not that quickly, that soon. But it leads to death."
Rev. Eaton paused, then said, "500 years. So what?
"Here's the so what: When we truly believe and trust and live in the faith of the single-mindedness, the single-heartedness of God, when things that shake us or draw our attention away or say, 'Come with me and I'll show you the good life,' when we say no, 'Hear, O Israel, hear, O church, the Lord our God, the Lord is one.' And when we do that together, we might be a witness and a beacon to people out there who are lost and struggling and falling prey to all of these things that lead to divisions in humankind."
Clergy from the Lutheran, Episcopal, Methodist, A.M.E. Zion, Moravian and Presbyterian churches in the two states were on hand for the service.
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Guilfoyle is editor of the Catholic News Herald, the newspaper of the Diocese of Charlotte, North Carolina.