Sermon Easter 7 Year C - Sunday after Ascension [RCL Resources Index]

That they all may be one

[Note: The Octave of Christian Unity is observed in the Northern Hemisphere at a time when many people in Australia are enjoying their summer vacation, so it was decided to observe this week in Australia instead in the period between Ascension and Pentecost. That was many years ago when the ecumenical movement associated with the development of the World Council of Churches held much more sway in the churches than it has in recent years, but it remains an important commitment of the Uniting Church, the union of which was one of its fruits. On this subject see also the sermon for Easter 7 Year B - Unity in Christ]

This is the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity. The night before he died Jesus prayed for us, for you and me, for we who meet in his name and for all who believe in him. What he prayed for us all was that we all may be one. It was his last wish offered in prayer to his Father. According to John [18:1] it was offered immediately before he went to the garden where he was arrested: that we all may be one.

First, he had prayed for himself:

Then he prayed for us as we read today:

That is, he asked for us and all who believe in him through the word of the apostles; and what did he ask?

What kind of unity?

There is a great deal in this prayer. Every word is packed with meaning. The request That they may all be one does not stand alone. The kind of unity for which he prayed is included in the prayer, and the purpose for which we should be united is also there.

In one way or another Christians of all traditions seem to agree that it is God's will that they should all be one in some sense but believers have different ideas about the nature of the unity to which we are called. There has been much debate over the centuries about such things as whether it is necessary that Christians should have organic unity, being one visible fellowship, worshipping together at the one table, etc., or whether it is sufficient that we recognize our spiritual unity, sharing perhaps an invisible unity which we have by virtue of our communion with the one Lord.

What kind of unity did Jesus desire for us? He said, As you, Father, are in me and I am in you, may they also be in us. There you have at least the foundations. We must begin with a spiritual unity: as God dwells in us, we together dwell in him. It is in the first place in our communion with God, through our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ, that we have an essential unity. We belong together because we belong to him. But that is not all: the nature of our unity is further revealed in the purpose for which we should be one: that is, according to what Jesus prayed, so that the world may believe that you have sent me.

He went on the describe that unity more fully:

Unity in God

That they may be one as we are one is a prayer that the kind of unity that we might have is the same kind of unity that exists between the Father and the Son. As Jesus said elsewhere The Father and I are one." -- John 10:30

[It is interesting that he spoke of that unity between himself and God the Father when he was speaking of himself as the shepherd and giving his followers eternal life, in the passage we read three weeks ago:

His unity with the Father is closely related to his caring for his followers I in them and you in me, that they may become completely one; and the purpose is reaffirmed: so that the world may know that you have sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me. -- John 17:22-23

So he prayed that we may be one as God is one, sharing in the divine mystery of communion within the Holy Trinity. The love which binds together the persons of the Trinity is extended to include us. We share in the love that the Father extends to the Son, which Jesus acknowledged when he said, You love me before the foundation of the world -- John 17:24b, and

We are called then to be completely one so that the love that is in the very being of God and the love with which we are loved may be shared. Jesus will then himself dwell in us and we in him, as he dwells in the Father and the Father in him.

Jesus himself spoke of that indwelling of us in Christ, and of him in us, in various ways, calling on us to abide in him, as in the communion of his body and blood, as branches of the vine, and as members of the one flock of the one shepherd who knows his sheep and whose sheep know him:-

Implications for us today

There are personal implications in our relationship with God and in the fellowship of believers both within our own church and in the wider church. The unity for which Jesus prayed will be increased by

Achieving a wider unity will not be possible unless and until we develop more of the essential unity of the church within our own fellowship by such means as these. But that is not all. It is clear that we must have be a spiritual unity, but just as God reached out to us in a real live human being, in the real historical man who was the Word made flesh, in the man Jesus, who was visible in the world, serving humanity and showing this life in action, so our unity must be visible and practical. It must be visible so that the world will see and know that God loves them; indeed so that they may see that God loves them in the same way that he loves his only Son: as he prayed so that the world may know that you have sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me. -- John 17:22-23.

If anyone then says that we can have spiritual unity and still maintain visible disunity in our witness to the world, as if divisions in the body of Christ did not matter, then the prayer of Jesus is not being fulfilled. The unity that Christ wills for the Church, for which he prayed and which is his gift for the Church, is a unity that the world can see and so believe.

Seeking a wider unity among the churches

In the Uniting church we have a special commitment to seek visible organic unity with other churches. It is part of our foundation, a commitment set out in our Basis of Union:

The Uniting Church in Australia lives and works within the faith and unity of the One Holy Catholic and Apostolic Church. The Uniting Church recognises that it is related to other Churches in ways which give expression, however partially, to that unity in faith and mission. Recalling the Ecumenical Councils of the early centuries, the Uniting Church looks forward to a time when the faith will be further elucidated, and the Church's unity expressed, in similar Councils. It thankfully acknowledges that the uniting Churches were members of the World Council of Churches and other ecumenical bodies, and will seek to maintain such membership. It remembers the special relationship which obtained between the several uniting Churches and other Churches of similar traditions, and will continue to learn from their witness and be strengthened by their fellowship. It is encouraged by the existence of United Churches in which these and other traditions have been incorporated, and wishes to learn from their experience. It believes that Christians in Australia are called to bear witness to a unity of faith and life in Christ which transcends cultural and economic, national and racial boundaries, and to this end the Uniting Church commits itself to seek special relationships with Churches in Asia and the Pacific. The Uniting Church declares its desire to enter more deeply into the faith and mission of the Church in Australia, by working together and seeking union with other Churches.

It is sad to see that the ecumenical movement is not so widely supported today. Sometimes it is dismissed as an enthusiasm of a previous generation. At others times the things that divide us are simply ignored instead of being tackled and overcome. Too often divisions are accepted as a natural part of life, as if we can choose between churches as we choose between banks or insurance companies, or types of entertainment. We are not, if we follow Christ, justified in choosing between separate fellowships as we might between brand names. The divisions ought rather to be treated as divisions in a family, they ought to cause us pain as they must continue to cause pain to our Lord.

It must be a continual source of grief to him, and we may assume a continual cause of intercession of the suffering servant on our behalf:

It is no small matter whenever there is disunity in a congregation (though we may be blessed here with a good warm mutually supporting fellowship). It is cause for grief whenever the enthusiasms of contesting factions in church councils alienate one another, or when Christians continue to separate for worship in the expectation of meeting with the Lord at separate tables. There is pain in the heart of God as one person of the Trinity pleads with another in the fellowship of love in which we are invited to share, yet we can only dimly perceive it when we cannot take our place at the fourth side of the table without meeting with one another in love.

Unity is not an option: not an extra which may, if we choose, be added to a particular cultural expression of the faith. It is an imperative. Disunity continues as a scandal of Christianity. We deceive ourselves if we think we can know God in Christ without confronting the scandal.

I believe it is time for us to move forward again to seek a wider unity. It will not be easy. Many things will need to be done that are not clear to us yet. The next steps in unity with other churches and in finding ways of working together will be bigger steps than we have taken so far. It involves hard work in getting to know other Christians in our own local communities, and in our places of work and service.

(For example, last night some of us took part in the annual progressive dinner of the local Inter-church Council. During this week I will be having further conversations with our neighbours, the priest and members of St. Kevin's Catholic parish, about an initiative our Council of Elders has taken to see whether we might arrange some visits between our two congregations.)

[At the national level one of the things I have done recently is to help prepare a response for the Uniting Church in Australia to a request from the World Council of Churches for advice on how we see the future of the World Council, in which we are taking a strong position on the importance of continuing to seek visible unity; and at that State level I agreed to take part in conversations between the Uniting Church and the Anglican Church in Victoria. At the National Assembly we hear reports from time to time of progress and difficulties in conversations which we have on a continuing basis with each of the Anglican, Roman Catholic and Lutheran Churches. Recently I heard a report from Professor Norman Young of Queen's College, Melbourne, on the world level consultations between the Methodist Church and the Roman Catholic Church in which he has been one of the representatives of the Methodist Churches for many years both before and after our union. These higher level consultations at world, national and regional levels are going on all the time and need to be supported even if it takes a very long time to achieve a visible result.]

It must not be assumed that nothing has happened. We have reached many agreements and new understandings on matters such as baptism, Eucharist and ministry. We now have agreements, for example, with Anglican, Catholic and Lutheran Churches on recognition of each other's baptisms, so that we have a common baptismal certificate and recognize each other as members of the body of Christ. Much of our theological education in Victoria for the training of ministers is now done jointly. The Roman Catholic Church last year joined with the Australian Council of Churches to form the new National Council of Churches in Australia. The Eastern Orthodox Churches, Greek, Russian and others, have been active members for a number of years. In some regions at the local level we have a number of joint parishes with the Anglican Churches and sometimes with Churches of Christ or Baptist partners. It is generally possible for us now to share holy communion with the Anglican Church although it was not when I was young. That is not generally acceptable with the Roman Catholic Church, but it may be allowed in a few special circumstances. We can and do pray together, but not enough. Much more is necessary before we can realize the unity for which our Lord prayed.

[The above hopeful signs were noted in 1995, but these conversations and the prospects for visible unity in Australia and elsewhere have been set back by decisions concerning ministry and sexualilty. DB, November 2003.]

Let us be thankful for what has happened. In a recent sermon, the Rev. David Gill, a Uniting Church minister who is General Secretary of the National Council of Churches in Australia, wrote of how things have changed:

In his Memoirs the founding General Secretary of the World Council of Churches, Dr. W. A. Visser't Hooft, told of his first encounter with Cardinal Bea, who had just been appointed head of the Vatican's new Secretariat for Promoting Christian Unity. It was September 1960. Visser't Hooft dared not even tell his wife where he was going. The concierge of the Milan convent where they met was under strict orders on no account to ask the name of the mysterious visitor from Geneva. It was all hush hush, very delicate, and very risky.

Today just over three short decades later, the Catholic Church is a full and enthusiastic member of the National Council of Churches in Australia, which came into being in St. Christopher's Cathedral, Canberra, on July 3 [1994]. It was an historic moment -- and it felt not risky but wonderfully right, to all of us.

Involvement in Australia's national ecumenical structure is only the visible tip of a very large iceberg. Far more important than any organizational step is the qualitative change in relationships between Christian people.

Remember how things once were, between Catholics and Protestants in this country? The misunderstandings, conflicts and prejudices of those bad old days, not so very long ago? Protestant kids throwing stones at kids headed from the Catholic school on the other side of the street, and vice versa? .... How far we have come. But we are not there yet! And the road ahead is littered with roadblocks of many shapes and sizes.

I hope that I might be able take up some of these problems areas another time. There are dangers apart from lack of action on ecumenical matters within our churches locally and nationally. Some have to do with the kind of pressure that is on the churches to conform to the ways of the world in a secular society. What is put forward as a plea for tolerance can be very repressive, making concern with truth and justice into a peculiar kind of sectional interest, as in current debates on euthanasia, homosexuality or in economic policy as when a columnist in The Age [Melbourne newspaper] wrote `The Banks are not in the social equity business' in an attack on the churches for making a submission to a Government inquiry in which they sought to protect the interests of the poor. I wonder who is `in the social equity business'? Many of the differences of opinion on such matters have the potential to cause disunity in the church, while the attempt to impose a system in which anything goes must undermine our teaching. The tolerance which we have encouraged is now being turned against us to encourage young people especially to believe in nothing and to avoid any commitment to Christian life and belief. The pressures on them are enormous. It is as if what we have taught about tolerance of differences is taken to mean that there is no truth, and no God in whom to believe. In addition to these external factors there has been disappointment in the pronouncements of some of the churches on controversial matters and a tendency to draw back from the closer relations that were developing. But we press on, believing that in the long run the prayer of our Lord's will be fulfilled, that they all may be one.

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