Sunday, May 04, 2008

Easter 7 - Year A

I don’t know about you, but for me, Jesus’ prayer in the garden is a powerful challenge. Yes, it’s important to strive for Christian unity. Being unified in the gospel is a tremendous witness to God’s love in action in a constantly fragmented world.

But I get tired just thinking about it. For me, Christians getting together is like the family reunion that you dread. There’s Aunt Peggy who smells like Windex and talks to you like you’re in kindergarten. Uncle Joe is pounding back his sixth scotch and it’s only 2:30 in the afternoon. Your cousin Jim is still nursing the grudge from 20 years ago when you gave him ex-lax and told him it was a piece of chocolate. And you know it’s only a matter of hours before Aunt Sheila and Grandma Jones will start their yearly screaming match. If you have family reunions, you know what I’m talking about.

Christian unity, to me, is a lot like that. When Christians get together I know what most of the conversation will be. From the United Church, I’ll be asked to defend Martin Luther’s involvement in the Peasants’ Rebellion of 1524. From the Anglicans I’ll be teased about our “fixation” on Martin Luther. The Roman Catholics will try to make pleasant conversation, not really knowing what to talk about, like the introverted uncle who sees you only once every five years. And the evangelicals will natter on with a curious mixture of superiority and inferiority. At least that’s how I experience it.

Then there are the voices that are NOT there. Other Lutherans who shall remain nameless, for example.

But so often, Christian unity, or to use the fancy church word: ecumenism, tends to be about creating wonderful documents affirming common areas of interest, theological congruities, and historic similarities, with high level denominational officials meeting, often with the greatest of ambitions and the highest of hopes – organic union; a merger, an organizational return to one world-wide church of Jesus Christ.

And every once in a while, someone writes a book about how God is tearing down denominations, and that Christians will, at last, be unified in the gospel. All divisions are breaking, dividing walls are crumbling, and God’s one universal church is rising from the rubble.

Maybe I’m just too cynical. But I always roll my eyes at self-proclaimed prophets declaring a mystical union of Christian churches. Perhaps it’s not just cynicism. It could be muddy-booted pragmatism.

If all Christians are going to be the same, how will we worship? Whose liturgy will we use? Will we use a liturgy at all? Christians can’t even agree on what DAY to worship let alone HOW to worship.

What bible translation will we use? Which confession of faith will undergird our church life and doctrine? Can you imagine the nightmare of working all this out?

Besides, I LIKE being a Lutheran. It’s where God has called me to serve. I feel nurtured and fed by our rich theological tradition. And I think our tradition is a gift to the rest of the Christian community. It’s something we lose at our own peril, and to the diminishment of the worldwide church.

I was at a Deans’ meeting in Mississauga in 2002 and Eastern Synod Bishop Mike Pryse was telling us Deans about what was happening with the agreement between the Lutherans and Anglicans that was signed the year before.

“We have some kinks to work out,” he said.

And I knew what he was talking about. In Halifax our church had a service remembering “Take Back the Night” and we invited members of the community who worked in the social service sectors, especially those who worked with abused women and children. We wanted to pray for them and thank them for all their hard and often thankless work on behalf of hurting people, being a voice to voiceless.

I invited a female Anglican priest from town to preside over Holy Communion, since Rebekah was on maternity leave. I wanted a woman clergyperson at the table because many of the people attending said they’d never experienced communion offered by a woman before. However, this priest said that she needed permission from her bishop to preside at communion at another church.

Ummm. Okay. So she received conditional permission from her bishop. “He just needs a copy of the liturgy before he gives is final ‘okay’” she said.

Ummm. Fine. So I emailed the bishop a copy of the liturgy we were using that night, which included a communion prayer written by Janet Morley, an Anglican poet.

A couple weeks passed and I hadn’t heard anything from the bishop so I assumed everything was kosher. But then I received a message on the church answering machine the day before the service. It was from the Anglican bishop. He was informing me that the Eucharistic prayer was not one of the “approved” prayers of the Anglican Church and therefore he was not giving his permission to have this priest preside at Holy Communion at the service.

My Lutheran blood boiled. “I beg your pardon Lord Bishop, but did I just hear you say the words, ‘approved prayer’? How dare some bishop decide what prayer can and cannot be said in this church! How dare he stick his nose into my church! How dare he act like…like…an ANGLICAN!” Rebekah talked me down from sending the bishop a nasty, un-Christian email.

Bishop Pryse was right. There were “kinks” to be worked out.

“The Waterloo Declaration [the agreement between Lutherans and Anglicans] was like a marriage ceremony,” Bishop Pryse said. “Everything was fun and romantic. And you have a wonderful honeymoon. It’s only after you’ve started living together that you run into problems and discover that the other person isn’t as perfect as you’d like them to be.”

True enough. But where does that leave us?

Bishop’s Mike’s assistant then noted that there weren’t any other Full Communion talks with other churches on the horizon.

“Why not?” I asked.

“Not enough money,” she responded. “Too expensive.”

“Too expensive for what?”

“For the meetings, the papers to be written and presented, the agreements to be circulated, these things all cost money,” she said.

“But how much does it cost put on a pot coffee and chat?” I pondered.

But I wonder if her response was more a convenient bureaucratic smoke-screen than an honest answer. I think she knew that the experience with the Anglicans was proving harder than anyone thought it would be. And they simply didn’t have the energy to start the process with anyone else. Christian unity IS hard once you get past the platitudes.

In 2007 I preached at the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity service at McKillop United Church. In my sermon, I noted that Paul doesn’t see Christian unity as one option among many, but that God has MADE us ONE body. In his first letter to the Corinthians Paul scolds those Christians who were creating division in the church, those believers who believed they were better than others because of what they believed and how they worshiped.

But Paul was having none of it, “Whether you like or not,” Paul more or less says, “you are a church family. You are Christ’s body. For all your faults, for all your disagreements, for all your mistakes, you are the only visible form the risen Christ has in the world.

That’s quite the rebuke, don’t you think? But a rebuke and a promise. It tells us that no matter what we do to each other, no matter how much we fight and disagree, no matter how far we stray off the beaten theological path, we can’t escape each other. We’re Christians. We’re stuck with each other, like it or not.

“Does that sound like good news to you?” I asked.

Then I paused. And I noticed that NOT ONE PERSON was nodding their head “yes.” People couldn’t decide whether Paul’s version of Christian unity sounded like good news or bad news.

So, I let the question just hang there like a wet sock. Then people started to giggle – uncomfortably. Then I said, “You had to think about it for awhile didn’t you?”

I think that, behind and beyond the platitudes and good intentions, Christians aren’t comfortable with each other. We know that Christians don’t have a very good history of getting along. We know that, despite all the papers written and all the official statements, Christians still fight with each other.

But it does sound like good news to me. But I had to dig around for it. If Christian unity were easy, then Jesus wouldn’t have had to pray for it. We can only be unified when the Holy Spirit makes us so, not when we come up with authorized agreements and institutional declarations. We are unified when God says we are.

Today we conclude our worship series, Living the Resurrection: The Fruit of the Spirit, based on Galatians 5. We wrap this up with the Spiritual Fruit called “generosity.” I think that’s very fitting. I want you to see this Fruit as an affirmation. Good Shepherd is a tremendously generous congregation. Good Shepherd is generous with its compassion and care, generous with love and faithfulness, generous with peace and patience. And yes, generous with finances.

I think this congregation is so generous because we know we couldn’t have achieved so much on our own, that we need God’s ever-present Spirit to guide us and strengthen us. That knowledge brings humility, and from humility comes generosity. And from generosity comes a willingness to reach out to other Christians in friendship, and to the whole world with God’s love.

As we continue to live the resurrection it is my prayer love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control guide us in our life together, and in our witness to the new life we have received in Jesus, sharing that fruit with a hungry world.

May this be so among us. Amen!


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