This is a sermon that I delivered today when we held a united service with our friends in the local Anglican church. It talks about the challenges of Christian unity, following the recent Week of Prayer for Christian Unity. The readings for the service were: Psalm 133, 1 Corinthians 12:12-27 and John 17:20-26.
I ask not only on behalf of these, but also on behalf of those who will believe in me through their word, that they may all be one. (John 17:20)
The final prayer of Jesus before his arrest in the Garden of Gethsemane is among the most powerful and moving passages in the Bible, and has been prayed by many followers of Jesus ever since. It poses a real conundrum for Christ’s followers, though. That prayer, that “they may all be one”, is a verse often quoted and prayed during the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity, which we have just celebrated, and at many other times. Unity is a subject we often talk about in Watford, where we enjoy excellent ecumenical relations through Churches Together and a number of other organisations, and we enjoy good relations in Oxhey and Bushey as well. However, we cannot disguise the fact that Christ’s followers are palpably NOT one! Even in a small town like Watford we have: Methodists, Baptists, Congregationalists, Presbyterians, Anglicans, Roman Catholics, Quakers, Plymouth Brethren, Assemblies of God, evangelicals, Pentecostalists, Salvationists, Nazarenes, Seventh Day Adventists, and many more. When I was in Jerusalem last year, the variety among residents, tourists and pilgrims was even greater, with Greek Orthodox, Russian Orthodox, Syriac Orthodox, Armenian Catholics, Old Catholics, Coptics, Ethiopian Coptics, Lutherans and many more to add to the mix. It is a very sobering reminder that when many of us talk about ‘the Church’ we actually mean our own local congregation, with very little concept of the wider meaning of the term.
Even within one denomination we can find great variety. A few years ago, I was lucky enough to attend the World Methodist Conference, meeting in Durban, South Africa, which brings together most of those who share the appellation ‘Methodist’ across the globe. I was amazed at the variety of dress, styles of worship and belief that I found even there. And if we look across Watford and its environs, we know very well that we shall find a similar variety amongst Anglican and Baptist congregations. The sad fact seems to be that even though all Christians acknowledge one Lord and Saviour, Jesus Christ, we seem unable or unwilling to fulfil his final prayer: that his Church be one.
Perhaps this is not surprising given that, even though – by and large – we share the same scriptures, Christians cannot even agree on what our churches should look like. I don’t mean their physical appearance, even though that is yet another source and sign of our lack of unity, but how we organise ourselves.
Anglicans and Roman Catholics can look at their scriptures, especially the epistles, and tell us that the blueprint for what a church should look like is clear. You have a three-fold order of ministry, with deacons, priests and bishops (e.g. 1 Tim. 3:1, Titus 1:7); bishops, of course, being very important! Not only do they provide the oversight or supervision (episcope in Greek) to ensure that church life is ordered properly but through their ordination they also provide an unbroken link to Christ himself and the first apostles, from which their authority ultimately stems.
Congregationalists, like those we find in the United Reformed Church or the Baptist Church, would say that that was a misunderstanding, though. The Greek word presbyter, which is often understood as ‘priest’, actually means ‘elder’. Oversight of the church is meant to be by elders, selected from among the congregation, and deacons, who serve the will of the church. The congregation itself is a self-governing entity, just like the churches of Corinth or Ephesus, which we read about in scripture. There is no need for a bishop to start poking his nose in!
And Methodists would say, “well, you’re almost there”! What we see in the Bible is actually largely self-governing congregations but all of them inextricably linked into one connexion, providing mutual support and discipline. Paul, Peter and the other apostles were in fact the first itinerant preachers, taking the good news around the circuit of Mediterranean churches, just like John Wesley on his horse trotting along the highways and byways of England in the 18th Century.
Others would propose still different models and, to some extent, we would all be right. Like the story of the blind men trying to describe an elephant, we all have some of the truth but not necessarily all of it.
We could say something similar about the fundamental question of who is in the Church and who is not. This is a question that has plagued the church from its earliest days and the ramifications of that debate continue to shape our lives as churches today. Should the church consist only of those who are ultimately destined for salvation and who conform entirely to the teachings and commandments of the church. The Bible would certainly seem to indicate that. The letter to the Ephesians, for example, tells us that the church must be like, ‘the spotless bride of Christ’: it must be “without a spot or wrinkle … holy and without blemish” (Eph. 5:22-32). (I wonder how many of us can claim to be without at least one wrinkle this morning!) That is certainly the line that many churches in the ‘rigorist’ tradition – which both the Methodists and Baptists could claim to be, to greater or lesser extents – would assert.
However, those churches in the ‘Catholic’ tradition would disagree. Here Catholic is used in the sense that we use it in our creeds: all-embracing and inclusive (not necessarily Roman Catholic). Something we arguably see in the parish system still maintained by the Church of England. Inevitably, they would argue, the church will contain both the good and the bad, and it ultimately for God to decide who is who! And they too would look to the Bible to support their position and would point to passages like the first letter of John, where the writer tells us clearly: “If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us” (1 John 1:8). Or perhaps the parable of weeds among the wheat (Matt. 13:24-30) told by Jesus. There the landowner allows both wheat and weeds to grow, and only at the final reaping are weeds separated out and burnt. As we sing at Harvest time:
wheat and tares together sown
unto joy or sorrow grown
And again, both sides would have some of the truth on their side. We are seemingly inevitably left with the situation of one Lord, one Bible but many churches!
We may wish to ask the question does any of this matter? Most Christians don’t really seem to mind: we often find it difficult enough to agree among our own congregation, never mind with anyone else! There have undoubtedly been great leaps forward in ecumenism in the last fifty years or so, and conversations and activities are possible now that would have been unthinkable before the last war. Many of us now take such ecumenism for granted. Increasingly too, those outside the church are very little interested in our ‘flavour’ of Christianity: they judge us on who we are, not the denominational label that we bear. For most of them, a good church is a good church. The diversity in Christianity also arguably reflects the diversity of God – a God who is a god that reveals himself in the wonders of liturgy and clouds of incense, as much as he does in the hymns of Charles Wesley or a good 40-minute sermon!
Yet Christ’s challenge remains: that prayer he prayed before the arrest in the Garden cannot be ignored. Ecumenism is often treated as an optional extra in church life: it’s someone else’s job to be nice to the neighbours, the rest of us are too busy! Or I regularly encounter the attitude of, “I’m happy to meet and work with other Christians, provided that we do so in my church, at my convenience and in the way I’m used to doing things”! If we are truly to call ourselves disciples of Christ, though, we cannot simply ignore his prayer and each of us is called to break down the barriers of mistrust and ignorance that have grown up between our denominations as best we may. We cannot leave it to others or regard it as an optional extra: it is a commission for us all. However, there is another very important reason to heed Christ’s call at this time.
We are undoubtedly living in a period of history where, once again, the world seems intent on tearing itself apart. In our own country and across the globe, people seem determined to maintain and even strengthen the walls that divide us from one another: barriers of ethnicity, class, age, gender, sexuality, nationality, politics and all the rest of it. We have a new generation of reckless politicians, who seem only too willing to exploit our fears and prejudices for their own ends. We have an atmosphere of fear and mistrust in many communities, enflamed by irresponsible journalism, that seems to deny any chance of diversity. It is into this context that God’s Church – all of it – must set an example of how we can be different and yet one.
The answer lies in that well-known passage from Corinthians that we heard read earlier, where Paul describes how the church should be, using the metaphor of the human body (1 Cor. 12:12-27). Paul was, of course, writing to a church that knew a lot about division and the need for reconciliation. And that was just within one small congregation of around 60 people or so!
In his letter, he spoke clearly of the need for the church and its members to have humility: “the body does not consist of one member but of many” (12:14). We need to recognise that we see only in part – as Paul would write elsewhere “through a glass darkly” – and our knowledge as flawed mortals is inevitably limited. We must have the humility to accept that our truth about Christ and his church cannot be harmed by the truth treasured and preserved by others. He also spoke of the vital need to recognise our interdependence: “If one member suffers, all suffer together” (12:26). As God’s Church on earth, we rely and feed off one another and we can see that so clearly in our liturgy, our hymns and in the very faith of the church. And when one part of the Church suffers, inevitably all the rest does too. Finally, Paul calls us to appreciate that in our diversity is strength: “If the whole body were an eye, where would the hearing be … If all were a single member, where would the body be?” (12:17-19). Because we do things differently, we can serve God better. To give but one example, in our Methodist tradition, we have placed so much emphasis on preaching that I often fear we have turned ours into a faith purely of the mind. The Catholic and Orthodox traditions remind us of the need to worship God using all the senses: sight, smell and action. Ultimately, Paul rejoices that despite our differences – Jew or Greek, slave or free (12:13) – in Christ Jesus we are all somehow one: one head, one crucified Lord, one hope in the resurrection.
Now, there is another alternative, of course, and that is one that the Church and God’s world knows only too well. It was the model that the Church has followed for centuries, not least during the bitter years of conflict that followed the Reformation in Britain and Europe. (An event we shall be thinking about much in the coming months during this 500th anniversary year.) That is the model of bitterness and division. Of the body tearing itself apart, with each constituent part claiming that it alone it is right, it alone has a monopoly of the truth, and that everyone else is a heretic, or a charlatan, or an enemy. And the history of the Reformation shows that once you start down that path, it is very hard indeed to turn back: very quickly every kind of insult, every kind of calumny, and every kind of violence becomes justifiable. Tragically, that is the model of being that Christ’s Church – his body on earth – has too often shown to the world. In a recent survey in this country, respondents were asked whether the Church was a force for good or a force for bad and heart-breakingly the respondents were equally divided in their answers. For too many people, Christianity, and religion in general, are ‘a bad thing’ and even a force for evil because, they argue, it simply promotes division, conflict and discrimination. What a terrible verdict on us all! And when we look at the state of the world today, and wring our hands about all its woes, as Christians we must accept our share of the blame for failing to provide the example it so desperately needs of how to live together in peace.
Our world needs to see that with God diversity in unity is truly possible. That we can disagree but still live and work together to witness to the love of God made flesh in the person of Jesus Christ. That is a message, which the world needs not to only to hear from the Church but to see in action. Reconciliation and the healing of God’s world begins here and now, brothers and sisters, with you and me. Let me conclude this appeal for unity in a slightly sectarian manner by quoting the founder of Methodism, John Wesley, who expressed what I am trying to say so much better than I ever could: “Though we may not all think alike; may we not love alike.” I pray that we, and God’s world, may know that reconciling love in our hearts this day and always. Amen.