Reflections on Christian Unity – January 24, 2016

Note: The following sermon was prepared for the Falls City Area Service of Prayer for Christian Unity, held the afternoon of January 24, 2016, at St. Paul’s Evangelical Lutheran Church.

+ Sisters, brothers, colleagues, dear friends: Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ, in the unity of the Holy Spirit. Amen. +

It is truly an honor and a privilege to welcome you here to St. Paul’s Evangelical Lutheran Church as we gather to worship our good and gracious God during this Week of Prayer for Christian Unity. There’s so much to say about this theme and about the excellent passages of Scripture that have been set before us this afternoon, but before I get there I want to acknowledge where we are as the people of God in Christ. On the one hand, as I survey the Christian world and consider the progress that has been made toward more visible unity, my heart leaps with joy. In broad terms, the desire to create opportunities for mutual dialogue, shared ministry, and greater communion have their roots in the rise of the “ecumenical movement” in the early 20th century. Through those efforts, many of the Christian traditions represented here today have come to a deeper appreciation of our common faith in Jesus, and situations that have been unthinkable even within my relatively short lifetime are now welcomed and celebrated.

How many of you, for example, would have imagined thirty years ago t-hat those sisters among us who have been called to the pastoral ministry would be invited to preach the gospel in Roman Catholic parishes? Or that Lutherans would be invited to preside at the table in Episcopal churches? Or that Episcopalians would be invited in turn to baptize and teach in Lutheran churches? Or that Christians from the Methodist and Reformed and Presbyterian and Congregationalist and Lutheran and Anglican and Nazarene and Holiness and Baptist and Anabaptist and Roman Catholic traditions would find common ground in the midst of their sometimes widely divergent practices and beliefs? Or that baptisms in all kinds of different denominations would be recognized as equally valid? Or that nine days ago a Lutheran delegation from Finland to the Vatican was invited to receive Holy Communion at St. Peter’s Basilica? On both the global and local levels, we are seeing expressions of commonality and good will and cooperation that haven’t been seen since the apostles Peter and Paul walked the earth shortly after the resurrection of Christ himself.

On the other hand, in spite of all that encouraging news, our brokenness is no less apparent than it has always been. Christians from the same denominational families squabble over relatively minor differences in belief or practice and exacerbate divisions. Liberal and conservative Christians seal themselves in their respective echo chambers and then emerge to demean and demonize fellow believers in Christ. If we’re honest with ourselves, the societal ills of racism and sexism and xenophobia are as depressingly prevalent in our churches as they are in the world beyond our walls. In far too many circumstances, the table of the Lord remains closed to people who profess “that Jesus Christ is Lord to the glory of God the Father” (Philippians 2:11, NRSV). The very fact that this service is called an “ecumenical celebration of the Word” and not also “an ecumenical celebration of Holy Communion” or “the Eucharist” or “the Divine Service” or “the Sacrament of the Altar” (or whatever other names we might use to describe the Lord’s Supper) is as clear a demonstration of the divisions that remain as I can envision.

So what are we to say as we gather this afternoon to be reminded of our common calling to “proclaim the mighty acts of God”? First, of course, we must acknowledge the source of the brokenness that besets the Church of Jesus Christ. To that end, we must be absolutely clear that the divisions in Christ’s body find their origin not in God or in Christ or in the work of the Holy Spirit, but in our own spiritual myopia. I say that as an heir to the theological legacy of Martin Luther, who was undoubtedly a teacher and preacher inspired by God’s Holy Spirit, but whose stubbornness and self-righteousness also led him to express ideas and opinions that have undergirded some of the most horrendous acts of religiously motivated violence in human history. Each of us – if we search our own traditions and histories with brutal honesty – could find our own tragic examples. So we begin with confession, with owning our part in the fear and distrust and ignorance that have perpetuated the brokenness of the Church.

But guilt alone does nothing. It does not lead us to healing or to reconciliation. To receive those gifts anew, we must tune our hearts again to the Word that has formed us to be a royal priesthood and a holy nation, nothing less than God’s holy people, graciously grafted onto the vine alongside Israel and heirs to the irrevocable calling and promise of God (1 Peter 2:9; Romans 11:17ff, NRSV). We must hear again the invitation to find in God the source of our nourishment: wine and milk and bread without price, sustenance for our weary hearts and anxious souls, the meal around which we can gather together in all our diversity and find fulfillment and reconciliation (Isaiah 55:1-3, NRSV). We must allow ourselves to see Christ as the one who mediates all of our relationships. We must look to Christ to gather each one of us – each living stone, each unrepeatable expression of the image of God – and to build us into a spiritual house that offers welcome and compassion and healing and salvation to the whole world in the name of Jesus, the chosen and precious cornerstone (1 Peter 2:4-7, NRSV). We must resolve together to walk in the marvelous light of God, and to ask for the wisdom and humility and strength and grace to guard our hearts and minds against the all-too human impulse to return to the oppressive darkness that once enveloped our world (1 Peter 2:10, NRSV).

When we do those things, brothers and sisters, we are not pursuing in a shallow unity that seeks the least common denominator and erases the diversity that makes the body of Christ so beautiful. Rather, we are pursuing unity by walking the most difficult way possible: the way of the cross, the way that calls us to die to our stubbornness and pride and self-righteousness and to rise as new people who can be unapologetic about our stories and selves because we know that both find their meaning not in themselves but in the mighty acts of God in Christ by the power of the Holy Spirit. What’s more, that unity then enables us to follow Jesus’ call to disciples with the confidence that comes from knowing that we are not alone in being salt for the earth. Instead, we can go about the business of enlivening the world with the endlessly interesting savor of God’s grace and love for creation (Matthew 5:15, NRSV). In the same way, we can let our light shine with the confidence of knowing that our unique reflections of God’s splendor will amplify one another rather than detract from one another (Matthew 5:16, NRSV).

There is much work to be done, my friends, and yet – thanks be to God – the end of this work ultimately lies less in our striving and more in the trustworthy and true promise of Jesus, who declares that we will one day be perfect, whole, fully integrated, just as Christ and the Father and the Holy Spirit are perfect, whole, and eternally one (Matthew 5:48, NRSV). In the meantime, perhaps our task is simply to get out of the way, to fix our eyes on the one who makes us one, and to trust that, as we see the image of God reflected in the faces of all people, God will continue to bring us closer together in faith, hope and love as we await the day when the whole creation will be united and God will be all in all. May it be so. Amen.

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