Growing up in an unchurched family in the 1960s & 70s, for me Sunday was mostly just a day to sleep in, eat donuts and watch football (and the dreaded Sunday evening, when I would have to prepare to go back to school). But despite being just a kid, I was aware that some of my friends had a different experience of the day. They were the “hard core” religious kids, who went to church in the mornings and spent the day mostly with their families. Even though as a kid I didn’t really grasp it at the time, they represented a pretty wide spectrum of Protestants and Catholics. And I suppose their unity (they all went to church) was a stronger sign to me than their ecclesiological differences (of which I had absolutely no comprehension).
My faith awakening in college through an Evangelical parachurch ministry (for which I still work) gave me my first introduction to the place of Sunday in the development of the Christian life. It was at that point in my life that I first began to attend church regularly and be challenged to set aside the day for rest, reflection, relationships, and an opportunity to trust God more with my studies. Though our student fellowship was limited in its expression of the whole Church (essentially just Protestants), there was a unifying testimony to our fellow students because of our decision together to try to honor the Lord’s Day. This practice continued to influence my life through early years of ministry and marriage and then shaped decisions we made as we raised our children.
When my oldest daughter got to college, and became involved in the same parachurch ministry, she had an even deeper experience of Sunday as a mark of Christian unity. In the first place, the student fellowship had a much fuller representation of the Church (now including a number of Catholic and a few Orthodox students). Secondly, the leaders of the group made a more intentional commitment to honoring Sundays, refraining from studying and investing heavily on that day in relationships with both Christian and non-Christian students. Now having graduated from college, she describes it as one of the most formative experiences of her life at university, both in terms of deepening her dependence on God and in the witness of her and her fellowleaders to their friends.
In an address during this January’s Week of Prayer for Christian Unity to an ecumenical colloquium of religious men and women, Pope Francis said the following: “There is no unity without holiness of life. Religious life helps us to be aware of the call addressed to all the baptized: the call to holiness of life, which is the only true path to unity. It is evidenced with incisive words in the Conciliar Decree Unitatis Redintegratio: ‘May all the faithful remember that, the more they promote, rather live in practice the unity of Christians, the more they will take care to live a life in greater conformity with the Gospel. In fact, the closer their communion is with the Father, with the Word and with the Holy Spirit, the more profoundly and easily they will be able to render mutual fraternity.’”
Though he was speaking specifically to men and women religious and their call to holiness, he does point beyond them to the call to holiness of all Christians and the sign of unity that our holiness presents to those still not among “the baptized”. As I reflect on those words, it strikes me that our Sunday practices–across the denominational spectrum–are an important part of the way that all of us “take care to live a life in greater conformity to the Gospel.” I believe that my own spiritual disciplines of weekly worship, refraining from work for more rest and reflection, and using Sunday as a day to be more intentional about investing in relationships to draw me into closer communion with God, as well as deepen my affection for my brothers and sisters who I am still not fully “in communion” with. I also believe that our communal Sunday practices are a sign of unity (something we share as fellow believers) that what unites us is stronger and more profound than what divides us.
But there are challenges that remain in this Sunday “sign” of our unity in Christ. Christ’s Church is still not fully one, as he prayed for in John 17. And to the world we can appear to be walled off from one another as believers in our own church communities with our own distinct dogmas and practices. At the same time, within the communities of believers even Sunday participation in worship services is diminishing, and the influence of the outside culture, which sees all days of the week as essentially the same, is eroding those other Sunday practices.
So what are practical steps that we can take to reach across our Christian divisions: to encourage one another, to stand together in our keeping of the Lord’s Day, and to “spur one another on to love and to [these] good works” (Heb. 10:24)? At the very least, we must not give up hope in the power of God to unite our witness. In my own tradition there is a preface prayer during the Eucharist that reminds all those gathered around the table that it was Jesus “who on this day (emphasis added) overcame death and the grave, and by his glorious resurrection opened to us the way of everlasting life.” It is indeed from this day and on this day that we draw on the hope of the resurrection and on the power of the One who raised Jesus from the dead to unite our witness to him.
Scott Brill is Co-Director & Founding Fellow: Institute for Christian Unity.