Sermon Easter 7 Year C - Sunday after Ascension [RCL Resources Index]
That they all may be one
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:
And for his disciples:
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
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
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 . 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
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
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