“My prayer is not for them alone. I pray also for those who will believe in me through their message, that all of them may be one, Father, just as you are in me and I am in you. May they also be in us so that the world may believe that you have sent me. I have given them the glory that you gave me, that they may be one as we are one—I in them and you in me—so that they may be brought to complete unity. Then the world will know that you sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me..
When pilgrims visit the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem, they are no doubt overwhelmed by the site’s history and significance. The church encloses what are claimed to be the sites of Jesus’ crucifixion and his tomb. It must be quite an experience to stand at those sites and reflect on the death and resurrection of our Savior. So you’d be forgiven if you didn’t notice the ladder.
It’s a nondescript wooden ladder, about 7 feet tall, made out of cedar, propped under a window just above the facade of the church. It looks very old, and it is. It’s been standing there since at least 1757.
The first mention of it is in an edict issued by the Ottoman Sultan Abdul Hamid I. An engraving of the church from 1728 seems to show it. In any case, it’s been there almost continuously for over 250 years, at the very least. It’s called, obviously enough, the Immovable Ladder.
Less obvious is why it’s there, and therein, as you might imagine, lies a story.
Sites like The Church of the Holy Sepulchre in the Holy Land are, by law, under the control of six Christian orders or denominations: the Eastern Orthodox, Armenian Apostolic, Roman Catholic, Coptic Orthodox, Ethiopian Orthodox and Syriac Orthodox churches. This arrangement is known as status quo, and among other things it requires that the six Christian orders in charge of the site have to unanimously approve any movement, rearrangement, or alteration of anything at the site.
So you can imagine how difficult it must be for all six groups to decided whether or not the ladder should be moved, and to where. And so there it sits.
In a move that seems, in retrospect, sort of counterproductive, in 1964 Pope Paul VI decreed that the ladder should not be moved until there is unity between the Catholic and Orthodox churches. In short, he codified by Papal law a visible sign of the division among Christians in order to, yes, draw attention to the problem of division among Christians.
If you take Jesus seriously, though, you can’t possibly believe that he’d be happy with the status quo of division in his church. With the cross already casting its shadow over his heart and mind, Jesus gathered his first disciples together and prayed that they and their converts would be one. He prayed that, by being “in” and sharing in the unity that he shared with the Father, his hand-picked disciples and those who would believe in him through their testimony would be united.
Jesus apparently believed that the glory that he modeled and to which he testified should be enough to bring those who were committed to following him together. He envisioned people putting aside their differences to come together because they were so dazzled by Jesus and his vision of the life he wanted to share with them. He believed that, when people saw God’s love in him, they would turn to each other in love as well. He believed that his followers could be united by that love, knit together by the unity that comes from the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. “That they may be one as we are one” — that was his prayer.
Maybe he should have prayed a little harder for that?
Or maybe the problem is that we convince ourselves that our own little crusades are much more important than Jesus’ dying wishes for his church, that which walls our doctrinal ladders rest against is of much greater concern than sharing in the unity of Father and Son. Maybe the problem is that we’ve really come to believe that no one who disagrees with my conclusions about church teaching and practice is actually a follower of Jesus at all. I think maybe that’s it: we rationalize the church’s state of division by trying to say with a straight face that those who would prop the ladder against a different wall, or a different ladder against the same wall, isn’t really a Christian at all.
I belong to a segment of the church that thinks of itself as a unity movement. And yet, in just about 200 years we’ve fragmented into enough flavors of “us” to open a Baskin-Robbins. And that’s just us. One tiny segment of a divided Christianity that has destroyed its witness to the love of God by our disdain for one another.
Look, Christians will sometimes not agree, and we sometimes won’t agree about things that are very important. There are times when division is necessary, but if I read my New Testament correctly, those times are only when the sufficiency of Jesus’ death and resurrection as the basis for salvation is at stake. Anything short of that, and no matter how much I might disagree with someone, we are family.
And we should treat each other as such. I doubt the day is coming soon when all the denominations merge into one giant church, and I don’t even think that would be advisable if we could. But we don’t have to be divided. We should give each other the benefit of the doubt. Speak well of each other. We should study issues of disagreement together, under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, not to prove each other wrong but to understand each other. We should work together when the occasion calls for it. We should pray together, and encourage each other.
In an increasingly secularized world, if you meet a believer in Jesus, you’re meeting a brother or sister. You don’t have to agree about what happens at Communion, or how churches should be organized, or even mode of baptism to acknowledge that, and treat them as such.
One day, our descendants might see the divisions that mean so much to us in the same way that most of us see that immovable ladder. They might wonder how in the world we couldn’t just agree to get them out of the way. And, if not them, the world might wonder how we can talk about love when we can’t love each other.
And, if not then, one day the Lord who prayed and died for our unity might wonder. And I don't want to have to explain to him why those same ladders are still leaning against those same walls.