On January 20 Pope Benedict XVI said, “Being a witness to Christ presupposes knowing him firsthand, not just being told of him by others.” The Pope made this comment during a general audience in Pope Paul VI Hall. He took up the theme of ecumenism, during what is called internationally a Week of Prayer for Christian Unity.
This year's theme for the prayer week is "You are witnesses of these things," taken from the Gospel of Luke. Pope Benedict XVI noted in his homily the following points based upon the biblical text:
If we look at the context of the chapter [of Luke], “these things” means above all the cross and resurrection. The disciples have seen the Lord's crucifixion, they see the Risen One and thus begin to understand all the Scriptures that speak of the mystery of the passion and of the gift of the resurrection. “These things,” therefore, is the mystery of Christ, of the Son of God made man.
Christ is above all the revelation of God. In all times, men have perceived the existence of God, an only God, but who is far away and does not show himself. In Christ this God shows himself; the distant God becomes close. “These things,” therefore, above all with the mystery of Christ, is that God has become close to us.
This implies another dimension: Christ is never alone; he came in our midst, died alone, but resurrected to attract everyone to himself. As Scripture says, Christ created a body for himself, gathers the whole of humanity in his reality of immortal life. [...] All this, therefore, is very simple, in the last instance: We know God by knowing Christ, his body, the mystery of the Church and the promise of eternal life."
But Pope Benedict also understands that the Christian, and the church, must be active in witness to Christ and his salvation. He thus asked: "How can we be witnesses of 'these things'?"
Benedict says we can only be witnesses on by knowing Christ. By this he means personal, active, living faith in the Lord Jesus Christ. Some Protestant skeptics would ask if the pontiff really means that we must have “personal” faith in Christ since they assume he means faith equals participation in the sacramental life of the church without the necessity of really personal faith. I will allow the pope to answer this one in his own words. He said:
We can be witnesses only if we know Christ first hand, and not only through others—from our own life, from our personal encounter with Christ. Finding him really in our life of faith, we become witnesses and can contribute to the novelty of the world, to eternal life.
Finally, Pope Benedict spoke of the necessity of Christian unity for our witness to be effective and powerful. He spoke in this same address of the path of real ecumenism. He said this path, though one pursued by many Christians for more than a century, is not linear. Listen to his words again:
Old problems, born in the context of another time, lose their weight, while in the present context new problems and new difficulties arise. Therefore, we must always be ready for a process of purification, in which the Lord will make us capable of being united.
He also added that unity is something that will come about in God's time, a point I make almost every day of my life and a point that is central to my forthcoming book, Your Church Is Too Small (Zondervan, April). Benedict added:
Only God can give unity to the Church. A “self-made” unity would be human, but we want the Church of God, made by God, who — when he wishes and when we are prepared—will create unity.
The pope urged prayer: "Because of the complex ecumenical reality, because of the promotion of dialogue, and also so that Christians of our time can give a new common witness of fidelity to Christ before this world of ours, I ask for everyone's prayer. May the Lord hear our invocation and that of all Christians, which in this week is raised to him with particular intensity."
I know the mindset of many evangelical reactions to words such as these. I once defended that mindset because I too embraced it. Admitting that my mindset changed has proved challenging but rewarding. I urge every reader of this blog to reconsider their view of ecumenism in the light of such a powerful statement from the esteemed leader of the largest body of Christians in the world.