Sunday, June 01, 2014

Easter 7A

I don’t know about you, but for me, Jesus’ prayer in the garden is more of a challenge then perhaps I should admit. Especially the part where he prays that his followers “made be one as he and God are one.”

Yes, Christian unity is important. 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, where old wounds reappear, and once-thought-resolved fights are re-fought.

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, as if their hands are clean of historic wrongs.

From the Anglicans I’ll be teased about our “fixation” on Martin Luther and how he must have missed the Letter of James, as if we never covered that theological divide.

The Roman Catholics will try to make pleasant, yet awkward conversation amidst the 500-year-old elephant in the thee room.

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 don’t want to talk with us. And if we’re honest, we may appreciate their silence.

And the recent split among some of our Lutheran congregations, may have provided comfort to those who supported their moral stand, but it hurt our witness as Christians since it gave the message that, once again, Christians aren’t getting along.

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, emphasizing theological congruities, and celebrating 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, bringing believers together, boundaries will be erased, structures will fall and God’s one universal church is rising from the rubble, and Christians will, at last, be unified in the gospel.

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?

Is that even what Jesus meant when he prayed for his followers to be “one” as he is “one” with God?

After all, 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.

But maintaining our unique contribution while forging partnerships with other churches is not easy, even when the relationships have been close, historically, and liturgically.

And despite our best efforts and purest of intentions, our traditions clash when we’re actually asked to work together.

I was at a Deans’ meeting in Mississauga, Ontario in 2002 and Eastern Synod Bishop Mike Pryse was telling us Deans (I was Conference Dean in Atlantic Canada) about what was happening with the Full Communion 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 an evening service, and on one of these Sunday evenings we recognized “Take Back the Night” sponsored by the Women’s Centre at Dalhousie University, and we invited members of the community who worked in the social service sectors, especially those who worked with abused women and children to attend and be recognized for what they did. We wanted to pray for them and thank them for all their hard and often thankless work on behalf of hurting and often neglected people.

I invited a female Anglican priest from the area to preside over Holy Communion, since Rebekah (my wife at the time, also a Lutheran pastor) 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. And since “Take Back the Night” was about women asserting their safety, I thought it was a powerful symbol of a woman in a position of authority. 
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 good to go. 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 congregation! How dare he act like…like…an ANGLICAN!” 

Rebekah talked me down from sending the Anglican bishop a nasty, un-Christian email.

So, our Lutheran 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 when we got together and signed the papers. And then 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 thought to myself. Isn’t that really how it should begin?

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 working 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. I think we all learned that Christian unity IS hard once you get past the platitudes.

But that’s the challenge, isn’t it? That’s the goal that scripture lays out for us.

In 2007 I preached at the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity service at McKillop United Church in Lethbridge. 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, despite what anyone might have thought.

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. So start acting like it.”

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, how far we’ve wandered from each other, 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 the congregation of about five different denominations.

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?”

People knew that, behind and beyond the platitudes and good intentions, Christians aren’t comfortable with each other. We know that we are entrenched in our own traditions, for good and for bad. We know that unity may ask us to make compromises, compromises that threaten our very identity.

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, all the joint worship celebrations and social proclamations, Christians still fight with each other. And we want to be honest about our disagreements.

But Paul’s rebuke 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. If Christian unity were easy then we wouldn’t need God to bring us together.

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.

We ARE unified BECAUSE God says that we are. 

We ARE unified because of the Jesus we share.

We ARE unified because the Spirit gathers us into one.

And, by God’s grace we will live into that unity. We will be guided into oneness, we will see the worldwide church summoned by the Spirit, crowded together in our messy humanness, celebrating the diversity of the Christian community, assembled around the throne proclaiming in various languages, songs, hymns, and stories, a joyful noise of praise that Jesus Christ is Lord!

May this be so among us. Amen!

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