"Our subject today is unity."
That was how the Rev. John Charnock welcomed attendees to the ecumenical luncheon, sponsored by the United Churches of Lycoming County, on Jan. 22, during the middle of the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity.
Established in 1908, the internationally recognized week of prayer is observed by Christians around the world, always with a central theme that is discussed during the seven days. This year, the theme was "Has Christ Been Divided?"
Rev. Dr. John Charnock address the group at last Wednesday's ecumenical luncheon.
After attendees enjoyed a homemade hot lunch that took away some of the chill of the day's single-digit temperatures, Charnock began his talk, titled "Faith Forums: Christians Seeking Unity in Christ."
For Charnock, chairman of United Churches' Ecumenism Committee, the theme was a relevant one.
"Why seek unity?" he asked. "Because Jesus prayed for it. I think that's a good enough reason," he chuckled.
A passage from the Book of John expanded on this idea.
"Jesus said that the goal for all people to become one heart and one mind," Charnock said. "So that they'll be as unified as God was with Jesus, so that they are all 'mature in this oneness.' Isn't that a wonderful idea?"
An important thing for all Christians to remember is this idea of unity, he said, especially if we recognize that Christians can be different, but still be unified, as long as we don't let those differences become distracting.
In fact, Charnock said, our differences even in matters of faith should be celebrated - whether in Christian denominations or between people of different faiths entirely - because they all bring something to the table that is of equal importance.
"Think of the human body," he said, referencing a reading from Corinthians. "What good would it do to have one enormous eye, but no ears? Or a giant hand but no feet? God created the sum of our parts to function together in harmony, because each one does what the other cannot."
It seemed to be a point with which many of the attendees agreed.
"The major value of dialogue isn't just what you learn about others," said Gwen Bernstein, executive director of United Churches. "You compare that to your own beliefs and traditions, and those who you are sharing with want to hear about you as well. It can bring together a lot of different people that have different views on Christian faith, but ultimately the same belief."
Charnock agreed, using an example from a book that he is reading: Nelson Mandela's autobiography, "Long Walk to Freedom."
"I didn't think a man who was in prison for 27 years would be making observations about all of the different preachers that visited the prison," he said, but he was surprised to learn otherwise.
Mandela, Charnock said, wrote about the preachers of all kinds, Protestant and Lutheran and Catholic, and about how each one "had his own way of spreading the word of God."
" 'Some of them were gruff, some of them were stern, some of them were scientific,' " Charnock read, " 'but all were men of God.' "
Charnock, a United Methodist pastor and certified acute-care chaplain, serves as director of Mission Integration and Ethics for Susquehanna Health, a position that he loves - "I get to look for God in Susquehanna Health, and when I find Him, I let people know," he said - where he has seen the opposite end of the spectrum, when, in order to avoid offending anyone, "religious differences are not celebrated, but rather smoothed over too much."
"I have seen hospital chapels that barely look like anything religious might take place in there," he said. "That's not helping anyone. As Christians, we need to embrace our faith in a way that welcomes many, but we also need to embrace faith in general."
In general, Charnock said, he believes firmly in the idea of Christian unity and the dialogue necessary to encourage it.
"We all need to sit at the table," he said. "We need to practice table fellowship."