Monday, May 17, 2010

Sermon for the 7th Sunday of Easter

RCL, Year C: Acts 16:16-34; Psalm 97; Revelation 22:12-14, 16-17, 20-21; John 17:20-26

Click here to listen to the sermon.

About five years ago, I got up one Saturday morning and drove from West Point, MS to Annunciation Greek Orthodox Church in Memphis. After much study, prayer, and spiritual counsel, my brother received the sacrament of Chrismation as the outward and visible sign of his conversion to Greek Orthodox Christianity. It was a powerful moment in my brother’s life, and also in my own. For years, I doubted that he would ever return to the Christian faith in any tradition. We had shared many conversations about his journey, and, in ways that only hindsight reveals, my own fascination with facets of Orthodox spirituality and theology connected with his search. In the mystery of God’s Providence, I played a role in my brother’s conversion.

Mixed with my joy, however, was a deep and abiding sadness. For my brother’s conversion to Orthodoxy means that he and I are now spiritually separated from each other. We are not in communion. Indeed, from what my brother has told me, if he were to take the sacrament of communion from me – or from any priest or pastor in any non-Orthodox Church – he would thereby excommunicate himself from his Church. That’s how real and how serious the separation between us is.

Having received my brother’s permission to share all of this, I hasten to say that I do not mean to suggest anything negative about his faith or his Church. I remain profoundly grateful that he has found a renewed faith in Christ in a tradition which, at its best, is profoundly mystical, beautiful, doctrinally sound, and life-changing. No, I share all of this simply to say that I know from personal experience that our Lord’s prayer “that they all may be one” remains painfully unfulfilled.

Many others experience the reality of Christian disunity as painful. And for persons both within and outside of the Church, it can also be a stumbling block to faith and an impediment to mission. C. S. Lewis put it about as forcefully as anyone: “Divisions between Christians are a sin and a scandal, and Christians ought at all times to be making contributions towards reunion.” Speaking before 200,000 people at a Mass in India, the late Pope John Paul II said: “The past and present divisions [among Christians] are a scandal to non-Christians, a glaring contradiction of the will of Christ, [and] a serious obstacle to the church’s efforts to proclaim the Gospel.” And William Reed Huntington, an Episcopal priest who lived in the late-19th Century, put it even more succinctly when he wrote: “union is God’s work, and separation devil’s work.”[1]

Regardless of whether or not our Lord uttered the exact words that we hear in today’s Gospel reading, it is undoubtedly true that the unity of his followers was something near and dear to Jesus’ heart. And so it no doubt breaks his heart to see the many ways in which we who claim to follow him are divided from each other.

Compounding the tragedy is the fact that divisions among Christians all too often mirror the divisions that rock our world. Liberals vs. conservatives, Democrats vs. Republicans, FOX vs. CNN, rich vs. poor, public vs. private, Arab vs. Jew, white vs. black … the list could go on and on. The division of the Church into mutually exclusionary denominations – and perhaps even more distressing, the extent to which individual denominations are torn by internal strife and dissension – compromises and, at times, undermines the credibility of our witness to the Gospel. “How,” a skeptic might ask, “can we take any of this Christianity stuff seriously when Christians can’t even get along with each other? Why should we believe what they have to say when they act just like everybody else?”

One proposal for achieving greater unity is to affirm a biblical Christianity freed from the accretions of later tradition. But a “lowest common denominator” approach doesn’t really work, or surely it would have done so by now and our Lord’s prayer “that they all may be one” would be fulfilled. Reducing important theological matters to the status of non-essentials simply won’t do.

Take, for example, something as foundational as baptism. Does the practice of baptizing infants say something profoundly true about grace and the meaning of the Gospel, or should baptism be administered only to those who are old enough to make a profession of faith in Christ? Or what about the Eucharist? Is it an ordinance or a sacrament, a memorial meal or a true receiving of the body and blood of Christ? Or what about Church governance? Are bishops ordained in apostolic succession essential to what it means to be the Church? Some Christian traditions say “yes, absolutely,” while others don’t even have the office of bishop and can’t understand why there could possibly be any fuss about it. Then there’s the Bible – is it the literal, inerrant, infallible Word of God, or should it be understood in other ways? Is it admissible to use scholarly approaches to interpreting the Bible, or does that somehow betray its sacred character by treating it as just another collection of merely human texts?

How we answer these and other questions matters, for the answers define things as basic as the meaning of the Gospel and what it means to be the Church. As history shows, different answers can lead to schism. And so our Lord’s prayer for the unity of his followers collides head-on with the reality that the Church is broken and divided, and oftentimes over sincerely and passionately-held convictions.

It’s tempting to simply give up on unity and retreat to the comfort and safety of fellowship with Christians who think and worship like us. But we cannot so easily dismiss our Lord’s fervent prayer “that they all may be one.” For, as one biblical scholar rightly notes, “Unity is not an extra; it is the essence of what it means to be Christian.” If unity matters so much to Jesus that it’s one of the last things he asks for before his death on the cross, it should matter to us, too.

Our Lord’s prayer for unity is so important that our Prayer Book defines the mission of the Church as that of “restor[ing] all people to unity with God and each other in Christ” (The Book of Common Prayer, p. 855). This is one of the many reasons why we engage in ecumenical dialogue and why we seek opportunities for shared mission and ministry across denominational lines. And it’s why we enter into relationships like the Covenant for Common Life that our bishop signed with Bishop Hope Morgan Ward of the MS United Methodist Conference last year. St. Andrew’s Cathedral continues to explore ways of living into that covenant relationship with Galloway United Methodist Church. And we are grateful for the fruits that relationship has already borne and may yet bear in the months and years to come.

In addition to ecumenical endeavors, each time we gather for Sunday worship we say, in the words of the Nicene Creed, that “We believe in one holy catholic and apostolic Church.” We believe in one Church. That’s a bold and even defiant claim to make in the face of overwhelming evidence to the contrary. Making that creedal statement, we are saying “no” to the status quo of a divided Christendom. And we are affirming that the Church – broken and divided as it appears, and comprised of frail, sinful human beings as it surely is – nonetheless remains “the triune God’s chosen instrument for the work of transforming the world.”[2]

It’s unlikely to happen in our lifetimes. And quite frankly, it probably won’t happen before the life of the world to come. But I believe that our Lord’s prayer will be answered. The unity of Christ’s Church will be revealed. And when all people are restored to unity with God and each other in Christ, the pain of separation will be lifted just as surely as the sting of death will be eradicated. In Christ, there is neither Protestant nor Catholic, Anglican nor Orthodox, Baptist nor Methodist, Presbyterian nor Lutheran … nor any other denominational or sectarian identity. For the promise of the Gospel is that, when the time is right, “everything in heaven and on earth … [will] be brought into a unity in Christ” (Ephesians 1:10 REV). When that time comes, all of us will gather around the table with our Lord. And on that day, I hope to share the feast with everyone who loves Jesus in the joy of full communion with all the saints of God, including my brother.


[1] William Reed Huntington, The Church-Idea: An Essay Towards Unity [1870] (Houghton Mifflin Co., 1928), p. 2.

[2] Luke Timothy Johnson, The Creed: What Christians Believe and Why It Matters (Doubleday, 2003), p. 255.


Joe Rawls said...

Thanks for another great sermon.

Anonymous said...

Thanks Bryan that was great. Hard not to feel despair when it is set out so clearly but in Christ we have a hope that brooks no such sentiment.