God's followers will always have to live their lives of faith within and against formal religious institutions. Such organizations are essential for passing on God's word and keeping alive the traditions of the events and insights which first enlivened our ancestors in the faith.

Yet, as John the Baptist reminds his very Jewish audience in the Gospel (Mt. 3: 1-12), "God can raise up children to Abraham from these very stones." In other words, no matter how good our religious structures, institutions and traditions, we need them; God doesn't!

God is concerned with actions of faith, not structures of faith. That's why, when Isaiah speaks about the ideal Jewish king (Is 11: 1-10), he stresses not the kingship, but the environment of peace and justice the king will bring about.

"Not by appearance shall he judge," the prophet promises, "not by hearsay shall he decide, but he shall judge the poor with justice, and decide aright for the land's afflicted."

Perfect kingdom

Then he symbolically de-scribes the results of this new way of relating to people and nature: "The cow and the bear shall be neighbors, together their young shall rest; the lion shall eat hay like the ox. The baby shall play by the cobra's den, and the child lay his hand on the adder's lair. There shall be no harm or ruin on all my holy mountain; for the earth shall be filled with knowledge of Yahweh, as water covers the sea."

Paul stresses a parallel change of environment in the second reading (Rom 15: 4-9) without employing Isaiah's symbolic language. "May God, the source of all patience and encouragement, he writes, "enable you to live in perfect harmony with one another according to the spirit of Christ Jesus, so that with one heart and voice you may glorify God, the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ. Accept one another, then, as Christ accepted you, for the glory of God."

Never forget the two disparate groups that Paul believes Christians should strive to unite: Jews and Gentiles. Since God has united them in creation, why should we be divided now?

Or, as Paul puts it, "I affirm that Christ became the servant of the Jews because of God's faithfulness in fulfilling the promises to the patriarchs, whereas the Gentiles glorify God because of His mercy." In either case, those who follow Jesus' lead - Jews or Gentiles - are now one with God through Him.

Of course, we Christians today are hearing Isaiah and Paul's words of unity against a background of embarrassing divisions among our hundreds of denominations, a certain sign that we put institutions above the actions of faith.

Unity of faith

Through the centuries, we've put so much emphasis on what "church we belong to" that we've forgotten to practice the faith which unites us.

In the late 1960s, Illinois Senator Paul Simon and his wife Jean wrote a book titled, "Protestant/Catholic Marriages Can Succeed." In it, a Missouri Synod Lutheran husband and a Roman Catholic wife showed that the Christian love they shared could completely overcome the denominational differences that separated them.

One of the false assumptions they attacked was the belief that ecumenical marriages work only when one person is strong in his or her faith and the other weak. They demonstrated be-yond a doubt that the deep love of two committed Christians can always overcome the institutional forces that would drive less committed people apart.

If a married couple can surface the heart and actions of faith through their relationship with God and each other, why are we Christians still divided? Is it possible that we're more committed to institutions than to Jesus and the people He loves?