Charlotte, North Carolina, 30 April 2024

United Methodist General Conference, Ecumenical Service

World Council of Churches, General Secretary Rev. Prof. Dr Jerry Pillay

Christian Unity Matters

Readings: 1Samuel 3:1-21

Ephesians 4:1-6

Sometime back, when there were conflicts among Roman Catholics and Protestants in Ireland a Protestant Chaplin went to a hospital to visit some of the injured parishioners. The nurse said to the Chaplin to please wait a little, while she attended to patients and then she will introduce him to the Protestant patients. Seeing that she was taking too long, the Chaplin went on his own. As he was leaving, the nurse returned and offered to take him through but he responded that he had already done his visits. To which the nurse asked, “And how did you know who was Protestant and who was Roman Catholic?” The Chaplin said, “Well, that was easy, when I went to a bed, where it said P I stopped, spoke and prayed with the patient and where it said RC I nodded and passed by.” The nurse smiled and replied, “But Reverend, P means porridge and RC stands for Rice Crispies.”

This simple and yet true story puts into question the emphasis and differences we make about denominational and confessional identities. While these may be important to some, and we shouldn’t be dismissive of that, yet we must ask if it is the core of our Christian calling. The Apostle Paul in Ephesians 4 seems to indicate that Christ is the foundation of the Christian faith and not the distinctive elements of differences we have created. Our identity is in Christ and not in our confessional identities in as much as that may be valuable to us. I wonder if Paul meant that as the “prisoner of the Lord” he was making it clear that he was not a prisoner of the church. What really is the calling of the church? Talking about calling I am reminded about the calling of Samuel recorded in 1Samuel 3.

This passage refers to God calling Samuel to do a difficult task. A task that speaks against the house of the prophet Eli, Samuel`s priest and mentor. God was calling Samuel but he did not know or recognise the voice of the Lord. The first time when God called, Samuel went to Eli thinking Eli was calling and then again the second time. The third time, on the advice of Eli, Samuel says: “Speak, Lord, for your servant is listening.” Samuel gets a message and a task from God that was not easy to deliver. 

What is God calling Christians and the Christian Church to do today? Whose and what voices are we listening to? So often, we mistake our own voices for the voice of God or we think that the voices of the powerful and influential are the voice of God. Jesus teaches us that most times the voice of God is with the poor, vulnerable, forgotten, neglected, widow, orphaned and powerless. Jesus establishes this in his own ministry on earth in Luke 4: 18-19

“The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to preach good news to the poor, He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to release the oppressed, to proclaim the year of the Lord`s favour.”

The Christian church is called to follow the example and mission of its Lord as it proclaims good news to the world, as it goes into the world to “make disciples of all nations, baptising them in the name of the Father, and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you.” (Matthew 28:19-20)

What is God calling us to do as Christians and Church? This is a question that the World Council of Churches has asked and continues to ask in the world today. As you know, we are living in very difficult times. The current global context has been described as a “poly-crisis”. Multiple threats — such as accelerating climate change, COVID-19 and its impacts, injustices, impoverishment, diseases and health challenges, conflicts and wars, unprecedented levels of forced displacement, increasing hunger and food insecurity, rising inequality and marginalisation, and widespread economic instability among others — are converging in complex inter-relationships. The WCC 11th Assembly captured this well: 

“We live and witness in a world which is at the same time God’s beautiful creation and broken by ecological crisis, war, pandemic, systemic poverty, racism, gender-based violence, human rights violations, and many other sufferings”.

In such a context, we need to listen afresh to what God is calling us to do. We need to listen to the voice of God in the midst of all the raging voices crying for attention, staking its claim and tempting recognition. We need to learn to be still and listen for the voice of God. We need to say as Samuel, “Speak, Lord, for your servant is listening. 

The WCC speaks of a Pilgrimage of Justice, Reconciliation and Unity. A pilgrimage is an invitation, a direction and a methodology. As Christians we are people of the way, we are also on the way. We are on a journey together, trusting the Holy Spirit to lead us and expecting God to surprise us.  

The WCC, as it proclaims Christ to the world, believes that God is calling us to:


The cry for freedom and justice is loud for many in the world today. We are surrounded by the need for economic, gender and climate justice. God uses a number of instruments to reach and transform the world, including and especially the church. Therefore, the church needs to hear and respond to this painful cry. The mission of the church is to follow in the footsteps of proclaiming Christ’s love to the world. The church needs to stand where God stands and not get mixed up with the rich and powerful. The language of love is best expressed in standing up for truth, siding with the poor and holding out hope in the midst of injustices and sufferings. 

The God portrayed in Scripture is the "lover of justice": He calls us to do justice, love kindness and to walk humbly with him” (Micah 6:8). The task of the Church is to maintain a consistent prophetic voice against injustices. In the face of unjust economic systems, increasing poverty, unnecessary wars, ethnic and racial violence we need to say enough is enough. Our cry for justice must be loud, clear and prophetic. However, to do this well we need to first address injustices in the church - economic, gender and ecological injustices. The God of justice calls us to stand up for justice and to live justly and to love mercy. Where is mercy when thousands of people are killed in Palestine, Ukraine, Sudan and other parts of the world? Where is mercy when thousands of people go to bed hungry every night? Where is mercy when thousands of people are denied access to humanitarian aid? Where is mercy when hundreds of migrants drown or die while fleeing their countries? Where is mercy when human rights and dignity are denied, deprived and violated?

The God of justice and mercy calls us to stand up for justice. We cannot be silent. Christians need to stand up for justice and we need to stand together. In unity is our strength. We are better and stronger together. Together we can shout. “Let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream” (Amos 5:24). Together we can make a difference in the world. Together we can live and fulfil God`s vision for the world. Together! Christian unity matters.


There is so much of brokenness, pain and sufferings in the world. What is the message of the Church in such a context? How do we work towards healing, forgiveness and reconciliation? 

The Genesis story of the Fall (Genesis 3) tells us that sin separated us from God and left us with doom, destruction, and death. There was no way out. There was absolutely nothing that humans could do to redeem ourselves, save ourselves, and get back into a reconciled relationship with God. The great news is that God’s love refused to leave us there. Instead, God sent his only begotten Son to come into the world to suffer and die for the world, and through his death and resurrection, Jesus saved, forgave, and reconciled us to the Father and to one another, breaking down the walls of hostility and giving us peace. 

Consequently, we are reconciled to the Father. God’s forgiveness is all about love. Suffering love! Forgiving love! reconciling love! We cannot say that we love God and hate our brothers and sisters. The love of God forgives us and prompts us to forgive others and to embrace others who are different from us. 

In the South African experience after apartheid, there was the call for forgiveness and reconciliation. The ability of those who have been wronged to forgive their oppressors and offenders is no easy task. Forgiveness is complex. The process of forgiveness is recognising that we cannot change the event itself, but we can change the meaning we give to the event. Thus, victims are often unwilling to let go of the emotional tags associated with the hurt, bitterness, vengefulness, and hatred toward the perpetrators. 

Yet, many South Africans did ask for forgiveness, and many others forgave those who violated their rights and human dignity. The Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) with its many failures in meeting its full objectives still provided a facility to help people to face their oppressors and to find healing and forgiveness. Many churches appeared before the TRC and confessed to their own complicity, silence, and part in promoting apartheid in South Africa. It is apparent that forgiveness is important to find reconciliation and healing. 

In the quest for reconciliation and unity, forgiveness becomes an essential point of departure. Forgiveness is an important part of reconciliation. You can forgive someone and still refuse to be reconciled with them; but to seek reconciliation, forgiveness is necessary. 

Following the example of Christ’s love, churches ought to help people to be brought into spaces to forgive, be forgiven, and seek reconciliation. The love of Christ reconciles a lost and broken world, not only to God but to the whole creational order which is renewed by the sacrifice of Christ. The doctrine of reconciliation is a prominent theme in the New Testament, and the theological essence of the concept is expressed in 2Corinthians 5, which reads: 

Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he/she is a new creation; the old has gone the new has come! All this is from God who reconciled us to himself through Christ and gave us the ministry of reconciliation: that God was reconciling to himself in Christ, not counting men’s sins against them. And he has committed to us the message of reconciliation. We are therefore Christ’s ambassadors, as though God were making his appeal through us. We implore you on Christ’s behalf: Be reconciled to God! (vv.17-21).

In this sense, reconciliation is God’s gift to not only reconcile fallen humankind with Godself, but also with all humanity and creation. 

The church as a reconciled community must display unity, justice, peace and love. The church should not perpetuate human divisions on race, ethnicity, gender, etc. Instead, it ought to strive towards reconciliation and unity. If this is the case, then the church needs to articulate reconciliation and unity within its own life and witness so that the world may know the love of Christ. The church must work towards the renewal of all relationships and the restoration of human relationships with creation. As reconciled people, they have to be the proponents of ecological concerns and the precursors of the restoration of the integrity of creation. Christians are called to do good to all people and to love the enemy. They are to be the promoters of peace in society and agents in the formation of a new humanity. The church is called to constantly work towards forgiveness, reconciliation, and unity, bearing in mind its agency in transforming society so that all may have the fullness of life. Forgiveness ought to set the social condition for the process of reconciliation to restore and heal not only interpersonal relationships but also constructively rebalance the political, legal, and economic injustices toward preventing the prospect of renewed conflict. 

The WCC has over the years maintained the biblical imperative of reconciliation and unity to heal and restore a broken world. The love of Christ ought to move churches into visible unity, spiritual and social transformation, and justice. Programmes such as combatting racism, justice, peace, and integrity of creation, and in last few years, the Pilgrimage of Justice and Peace, have all indicated the WCC’s endeavour to strive for reconciliation and unity in the world, starting with churches as co-pilgrims on the journey. 

The WCC has over the years worked for peace in the world. We spend a great amount of time, energy and money to work for peace. Churches, such as yourselves help us to do this. I went to Ukraine and Russia, more recently to Israel and Palestine and just returned from Sudan where we engaged with church leaders, politicians, presidents and other groups trying to work for peace. It is no easy task. Even churches express different views, we are too caught up in religious nationalism, often used as instruments of states and politicians whether rightly or not, that is not the matter. The truth is that if we are to truly follow Jesus, the Prince of Peace, then we must be peacemakers, peace- builders and peace- keepers. I have seen how churches are in disunity and discord with one another because they are influenced by politics rather than their faith. Admittedly, it is difficult to not be influenced by the realities and experiences of our times. But how can we like Samuel say together, “Speak, Lord, your servant is listening”? How do we allow God`s Word and Spirit to speak to us and to use us as instruments of justice, peace and reconciliation that leads us to unity? Christian unity matters!


The Apostle Paul speaks very strongly about Christian unity in Ephesians 4. He implores us to “make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace.” He then proceeds to remind us that “There is one body and one Spirit –just as you were called to one hope when you were called – one Lord, one faith, one baptism; one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all.” 

The Apostle in these verses reminds us that we are called to unity. Unity is God`s gift to us. Unity is not uniformity but oneness and togetherness as we proclaim Jesus Christ to the world. A broken and divided church does not have a message to an already broken and divided world, especially if it does not exemplify and practise what it preaches. 

The Apostle Paul in verses 2 and 3 speaks of the character that works towards unity. He says: “Be completely humble and gentle”, note not partially but completely. “Be patient, bearing with one another in love.” These are the characteristics that enable us to keep the unity and remain faithful to our calling to unity. When we listen to God, like Samuel, then we learn to listen to each other as we share God`s message with grace and truth. Not always easy because we each think that we are listening to God and yet we come up with different messages. The spirit in which we listen to one another is important. Paul tells us that it must be with humility, gentleness, patience and love. 

Admittedly, every family has its challenges with disagreements, likes, views, preferences and desires but they are still a family. The church is no different. Therefore at all cost we must make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace, says the Apostle Paul. Christian unity matters!

My Church in South Africa, the Uniting Presbyterian Church in Southern Africa, came into a union of two churches in 1999. Unfortunately, two years later the Union faced serious challenges. At the Union, eight Associations for Women, Men, Youth and Young Women joined to become four. However, it soon became apparent that it was not working. This then led to the establishment of another four groups going back to the original eight. The problem was that you had a Union in theory but not in practise. The UPCSA appointed me to bring the eight Associations back into four. This was a rather difficult task, impossible by the conclusions of many. To cut a long story short, after 15 long years the eight Associations became four again in 2019. It was a miracle! The unity of the church was restored. All things are possible with God!

Samuel got a message from the Lord to give to Eli that was not easy to give; but he had to listen to God. Sometimes God`s judgement may be even against the church but it must never be at the expense of its unity and witness to the world. We have seen this in history and in the message to the churches in the Book of Revelations where they receive strong rebukes from God. From time to time, the church may need rebuke, renewal, revitalisation, transformation, and even repentance, faithful witness requires this, but never at the expense of its unity. What brings us to such a conclusion?

Jesus prayed for the unity of believers in John 17. I know that while many people continue to yearn, pray and work for visible Christian unity some have become disenchanted and despondent on the journey, believing that such is a far fetch dream and further from reality as we encounter many challenges. Too many churches today are giving into splits and fragmentation on grounds of doctrine, theology, socio-ethical issues, money and personalities. Some say, “We can never have unity or be in the same church anymore because we have such great differences, especially these days on the issue of human sexuality. This, of course, is a huge issue for the WCC with our 352 member churches, you can imagine how polarised we can be on this issue. In June 2022, at the WCC central committee the issue of human sexuality caused immense debate on the subject so much so that the Council`s unity stood in question. Then a miracle moment happened when we adjourned and asked some people with opposing views to come up with a solution. By God`s grace and wisdom, they did. All things are possible with God.

Personally, I believe that we must never stop praying and walking and working together for Christian unity. We need to affirm and deepen the desire for Christian unity knowing that this is what Jesus prayed for in John 17:21. Unity is a gift already given to us to appropriate in Christ, unity is not uniformity and, more so, a broken and suffering world is in need of Christians working together towards reconciliation, justice and peace. Our inability to live up to the calling of visible Christian unity should not diminish or blur the ultimate vision. Let us continue to pray and work together so that the world may believe! Whatever the challenges we may face in preserving the unity of fellowship as Christians we must not fixate on what separates us but on Christ who unites us and calls us to have unity in our witness to the world. Christian unity matters!

Whether we understand unity as spiritual, relational, organic or common purpose, what matters most is that we are called to pray, walk and witness together so that the world may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the son of the living God and in believing in Him they may have eternal life.

Our unity is a witness to the world. So that the world may believe. A broken and suffering world needs the unity of Christians. The WCC acknowledges this in its Message from the Assembly in Karlsruhe in 2022. The Message reads:

We affirm the vision of the WCC for the visible unity of all Christians, and we invite other Christians to share this vision with us. We also invite all people of faith and goodwill to trust, with us, that a different world, a world respectful of the living earth, a world in which everyone has daily bread and life in abundance, a decolonized world, a more loving, harmonious, just, and peaceful world, is possible. In a world weighed down with so much pain, anguish, and fear, we believe that the love we have seen in Christ brings the liberating possibilities of joy, justice for all, and peace with the earth. Moved by the Holy Spirit, compelled by a vision of unity, we journey on together, resolved to practice Christ’s love, following his steps as his disciples, and carrying a torch for love in the world, trusting in the promise that Christ’s love moves the world to reconciliation and unity. – From the Unity Statement of the 11th Assembly.

It is clear from this statement that Christian unity is needed to witness to and transform the world as we address conflicts, divisions, brokenness and pain. Christian disunity is nothing but a feeble, weak and contradictory message to a fragmented world. Christian unity matters in the quest for justice, reconciliation and peace in the world. Christian unity is God`s call to us today. Like Samuel will we be willing to say, “Speak, Lord, your servant is listening.” More so, will we have the joy and courage to live out God`s call for unity so that the world may believe? Christian unity matters. Does it matter to you?

The answer to this question lies in your hands. Let us trust the Holy Spirit to lead us and continue to pray for those miracle moments in the midst of continuous struggles. 

In the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. Amen!

Rev. Prof. Dr Jerry Pillay 
General Secretary
World Council of Churches