The way to true unity for all the followers of Jesus
John H. Armstrong. New City Press: Hyde Park, NY, 2017.
By Emilie Christy
As a steadfast ecumenist, working tirelessly in the mission of Christian unity, John Armstrong reveals his life’s journey to discover or perhaps rediscover the key to intimacy with God who he discovered as love, a Father who wants to unite all of his children in one family. In his new book Costly Love, he taps into humanity’s inner desire for “relational oneness” — “the desire to experience the eternal love of God and then to share it through deep friendship,” as he refers to Jesus’ prayer to the Father, “That they may all be one, as you, Father are in me and I in you” (Jn 17:21).
Armstrong’s understanding did not fall from the sky. “I only entered into the love I write about after 13 years in my ‘ministry desert,’” he writes. “In calling me to a unique life-changing experience, God took away almost everything I treasured … placed me in a quiet place where I learned just how much he loved me … To experience costly love, we must die. There is no other way to be raised to new life.”
He himself had gone from the heights of a very successful national Christian ministry to the depths of rejection by many, namely because he sought to bridge the chasm between Evangelicals and Catholics in a time when this kind of work was misunderstood. But that desert experience is the source of the insight he offers in the book.
“We’re living through a culture with wide relational breakdown that leads to profound indifference,” writes Armstrong, “in families, marriage, communities, modern life, churches, neighborhoods, work places …”
But at the same time, he sees that there are signs of growing unity encouraged by various movements and stirrings within and among faith communities. “Our children hope for a better tomorrow, dream of making a positive difference in a world marked by so much negativity. They aim high creating courageous projects and embracing a vision of partnership that promotes love and community …”
But he is not blind to the challenges: young people often do not find this same zeal in today’s traditional church institutions, as evidenced by the growing number of those who check “none” when asked which particular religious group they claim as theirs.
And church leaders do not always help. In his days as a young Methodist pastor, Armstrong himself said he was more concerned with church growth, increasing membership and engaging in programs and activities that could fill church life. Rather than keeping sight on the New Commandment to love one another, his efforts became a sort of activism.
“We live in an era where our biggest problems are not doctrinal but relational… God is calling people into little communities of love where spiritual relationships bridge division.”
So Costly Love gives hope and direction; it’s a call back to a personal encounter with God’s love and the transformative action that it can have in people’s lives, leading to the unity that Jesus prayed for. If we heed John Armstrong’s plea, there is hope for a better world.
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