Sermon for The Anniversary of the Uniting Church Year A [RCL Resources Index]

What kind of unity do we seek?

Readings: Ezekiel 37:15-28, Psalm 122, Hebrews 13:1-8, John 17:20-26

[Note: This sermon prepared for a combined service of several congregations at Surrey Hills, Victoria, 22 June 2008, is based on the sermon for Easter 7 in Year C That they all may be one. On this subject see also the sermon for Easter 7 Year B - Unity in Christ]

On this day 31 years ago, 22 June 1977, the service of inauguration of the Uniting Church in Australia was held at the Sydney Town Hall, when the Congregational, Methodist and Presbyterian Churches in Australia came together to form a new church. It was not a mere convenient or practical amalgamation. We hoped and believed that it would help to light the way for all Christians to realize the fulfillment of our Lord's high priestly prayer,"That they all may be one". By time the new church was formed, the prayer for unity was an imperative that many of us had felt keenly for many years, arising out of our early experience of the ecumenical movement that was a major feature of church life in the years following the Second World War. By the time union came about for us, it was already almost 30 years since my first encounter with the movement for unity of all Christians. I would like to trace a little of how the union of our churches came about and to reflect upon the circumstance of church union; and then, as we begin to think about what we might do now, to look again at the Gospel reading for today as we ask about the kind of unity we seek.

The beginnings

My first experience that inspired such a hope came when I went to a young people's rally in Launceston to hear two youth delegates who had just returned from the First Assembly of the World Council of Churches at Amsterdam in 1948. A few years later, when I was a theological student in Melbourne in 1954, our professor of theology, Calvert Barber, who was also President General of the Methodist Church of Australasia told us that negotiations were beginning for union with the Presbyterian and Congregational Churches. It was an exciting prospect. The youth movements in all the churches were strong. Sometimes we gathered in thousands. We saw a bright future and we who were students in the University were already enjoying the fellowship of other Christians through the Student Christian Movement which was then a large and influential body.

By the early 1960s when the first version of the Basis of Union was published the church was booming. Many new churches were being built. We had a large number of candidates for ministry, arising out of the youth movement of the post-war years. There were many able young ministers embarking on what they believed would be lifelong service shared before long with people from what were then still separate churches. We looked beyond those churches currently negotiating, and the Methodists hoped in particular for reunion also with the Anglican Church. We must have been quite starry-eyed I now think when a look back knowing more of the difficulties that lay before us. A group of us Methodists, composed particularly of young people, at the Australian Council of Churches in January 1965 even put forward a motion calling on all member churches to make a commitment to unite by 1988, the 200th anniversary of British settlement in Australia. Yes, there was a nationalistic element in our hopes, but we were inspired by the kind of vision and commitment that was put into words at the Third Assembly of the WCC at New Delhi in 1961, when it was resolved that "the unity we seek" is one in which "all in each place" would share one visible communion at the one table, hear the one true Word preached from the one pulpit, and join in unity in service in the world. It was a vision that has largely been lost. In some respects we have since learned more of what is required for unity, but in others we have simply lost the vision.

The circumstances and their consequences

We did not then know that the world would in many respect soon be turned upside down and inside out by what later became known as the cultural revolution. It took more than 20 years for the negotiations for union to bear fruit for our three churches, during which time many hopes were raised and many dashed, as the churches went through an enormously testing time quite apart from the movement towards union. As could be expected in any big new venture which called on people to leave behind familiar things, debates on the union proposals took place against a background of resistance to change, fear of losing control of property and power, and conflicting visions of what a future church should look like. It also took place in a time of turmoil in the bigger picture of the church worldwide, and that was all part of massive changes quite apart from the church.

We were trying to move into union with all its particular challenges at a time when the very foundations of Christian life and belief were being challenged by a worldwide movement of social change that resulted in the period from the mid sixties to the mid seventies in the churches losing about half their strength. There was talk about "The death of God", and we were reading books with titles like, "Honest to God" in which many people saw their doubts about traditional religion also being shared openly even by church leaders. Other books that we read and on which endless and exciting discussion took place had titles like "The Secular City", "The New Reformation" and "The Suburban Captivity of the Churches". Many of us, in any case, did not want to a cozy amalgamation of like minded people, but we saw union as an opportunity for radical reform and renewal of the church. Some of us felt called to explore new forms of ministry beyond the pattern of parish life, and others moved into new forms of community living. We were being called into a new life; it was a time requiring a new commitment, and it a time of questioning for reasons which were largely beyond the control of church members.

Remember it was a time of youth rebellion around the world; deep questioning by students everywhere, the Berkeley free speech movement of 1965 and the Paris riots of 1968; strong ideological currents were running; there were pervaice and life changing movements for equality of different races and social backgrounds; attitudes to sex and personal morality were being radically revised; it was a time of decolonization and of many new nations; the Cultural Revolution spawned the destructive mission of the Red Guards in China; enormous numbers died violent deaths in Indonesia; and a great struggle developed for hearts and minds in both east and west on the Vietnam War. Questioning was wide and deep and not least in the churches. Naturally, there was a reaction in defense of the old ways. We moved towards union in unusually stressful circumstances, with much uncertainly and strongly held differences of opinion about the future both in the church and society at large.

Even so, most of us can now, and could then, recognize that questioning in itself is often a good thing. If it is done in good faith, in seeking to discover the truth, questioning is part of the creative process, renewing old ways and old institutions. But it can also be destructive, deliberately strengthening doubts, especially if it is wrongly led, and there were many in those years who, exploring new ways of living, left the church. Over the years from the early 1960s to early 2000s the proportion of the Australian population that acknowledged in the census adherence to one of the three churches which united or the Uniting Church fell from almost one in four to about one in twenty. And it was not just that the nominal uncommitted fringe fell away under pressure from the dominant culture that became increasingly secular or pagan. My heart has ached for years over the loss of many of those able and committed ministers who were students with me, or who were ordained at about the same time, who drifted away in those days of doubt and disappointment. The new church was formed with a noble vision and after many years of hard work, but it came into being when the peak of its strength in numbers in the churches that united had been reached about 15 years before that night in Sydney in 1977 when new commitments were made.

There have been ups and downs since, and not only in numbers. In recent years new threats of division have appeared and sectarian movements have developed within the church, some with extreme ideologies derived from secular sources with little patience for people who think differently from themselves. A church that in its beginning had such high hopes, not only for a truly Australia church with a new vision for a nation that still saw itself as young, but even closer to the heart for many of us was the hope that it would become a step along the way to a wider union. That vision began to fade, and few seemed to remember how we once believed that we were called to affirm in practice the need for visible unity, to allow God to work out in us one small part in the fulfillment of Christ's prayer "That they all may be one".

Where to now?

I would hold up again that vision for you, for I believe that visible unity of the universal church is still Christ's call and his gift to the church. In doing this I want to ask you to think again, and deeply, about the kind of unity we seek as we respond to God's call. Perhaps part of the difficulty that we have faced since union is that we have been too much concerned with amalgamation of institutions, like a company merger, and too little with the ecumenical vision. It is a call to renewal of the basic commitment with which this church began. The key is that we never intended to found another church, let alone a new religion, but to move faithfully towards recovery of unity in the universal church. It was to hold the faith with which Christ prayed for us, that they all may be one.

As we look to our present situation and what we might do, let me first affirm my admiration and thanks to God for the ordinary members of the church today who have remained faithful despite all the difficulties. As I have moved around the church over the past ten years or so I have constantly been surprised and encouraged by the good heart in which I find many congregations, and the faithful service which many ministers continue to offer. My prayer is that God will continue to bless you in this life of faithfulness and that we will soon see the dawning of a new day: as song had it, "There's got to be a morning after, if we can hold on through the night." In this we are not alone, for God himself is with us. In his own deep night of darkness our Lord Jesus Christ prayed for us, and he continues to pray for us: yes, not just for people in general, or even for those in special need, but he prays specifically for us who believe in him.

On 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:

Having prayed for his disciples he then he prayed for us as we read today:

That is, he asked God something for us, for 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 in the one place, 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. That is not to mention whatever else might be needed for practical unity, like mutual recognition of membership and ministries, whether we need to have bishops, a common understanding of the Gospel and the sacraments, how the church should be governed, and how churches in different place can be related to one another. They are all important, but there are prior questions.

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 spiritual unity: as God dwells in us, we together dwell in him. Or you might say, as God lives in us we are to live in him. It is in the first place in our communion with God that we have an essential unity. We belong together because we belong to him through Christ. 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.

For this to be so, our unity must be visible, so that the world may see and believe.

He went on to 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

The unity to which we are called is the loving unity of separate persons that exists in the very being of God: Father, Son and Holy Spirit. We do not need to blur the distinctive character of members joined together in one fellowship, just as the persons of the Trinity are three persons yet one God; or in more human terms, just as husband and wife are one flesh yet have their own lives.

Jesus spoke of that unity between himself and God the Father also when he was speaking of himself as the shepherd and would give his followers eternal life,

His unity with the Father is closely related to caring for his flock, that flock which he prayed would be one flock: 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 who may sit at the fourth side of the table. We share in the love that the Father extends to the Son, which Jesus acknowledged when he said, You loved 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. When Jesus spoke of our becoming perfectly one, it was not that our separate identities should be lost as we are absorbed into one body, but that the various members of the body should work harmoniously together in love.

Implications for us today

There are 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 by such means as these, taking into our own lives that communion that Jesus had with God the Father. That spiritual communion is essential, but that is not all. Just as God reached out to us in a real live human being, in the real historical man Jesus who was the Word made flesh, 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.

Glory be to God for this great vision, and for the humble service in word and deed through which it was shown to us in Jesus Christ, and continues to be confirmed in the life of faith by the Holy Spirit. Glory to him, one God, for ever, Amen.

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