SUNDAY 24TH MAY 2020
The thoughts on the Gospel reading this Sunday are from Janice's husband Allan,
who is a Methodist Minister and Hospital Chaplain
Readings - Acts1:6-14
Gospel Reading – John 17:1-11
That they may be one......
There have been seven great ecumenical councils of the church including Nicea and Constantinople. It is arguable that as important as any of them was the World Missionary Conference that took place in Edinburgh in 1910...the year my father was born. That Edinburgh conference is seen as the stating point of the ecumenical movement, an endeavour to bring about a greater measure of unity between the separate Christian churches.The conference delegates, it should be stressed, were not interested in Christian unity for its own sake. What brought them to Edinburgh was not a wish to patch up ancient quarrels but a longing to win the world for Christ. They saw the reunion of the churches not as an end in itself but the necessary means to an even greater goal...the bringing of humanity home to God. Their watchword was...'the evangelisation of the world in this generation.' The last words from the platform before the closing prayer were those of Jesus...'there are some standing here who shall not taste of death till they see the Son of Man coming in his kingdom.'
One of the biddings from Jesus' high priestly prayer which we have read from John's gospel this morning was 'that they...his disciples...may be one...' And it's a prayer we claim as his prayer for us in the 21st century as well….that we may be one. Of course 'that they may be one' is only part of Jesus bidding prayer…in full the prayer is…'that they may be one as we are one.' What does Jesus mean when he says 'one, as we are one'? The relationship between Father and Son is a mystery…a mystery which all of the gospel writers including John struggle to express….how is it that Jesus is God and distinct from God at the same time…remember how John begins his gospel…in the beginning was the word and the word was with God and the word was God…the same but different. So, when Jesus prays that his followers may be one as he and the Father are one he is praying all of us into that mystery too. Not just that we should become one with God or one with Christ but that we should become one with each other in the way Jesus and the Father are one.
In a way the first part of this mystery is the easy bit. We all have our ways to grow in our oneness with God and his Christ. We may ground our growth in corporate worship Sunday by Sunday. We may follow a spiritual discipline of private prayer, study and service in God's name. We may dedicate ourselves to a particular ministry within the life of the church whether that be with young people or the elderly, with the sick or those in prison, in the places where we work and the places where we play, in the country of our birth or amongst people of another nation with a different history and a different culture. We may take up the cause of justice and healing and reconciliation through the world of politics or through the UN or with national and international charitable organisations such as Oxfam, Christian Aid and so on. No matter which path we follow toward oneness in God , the Holy Spirit can act in our lives to draw us closer and to reveal to us the presence of God in our lives.
But Jesus is also praying that his followers may be one with one another and that's where the pain lies because it would appear that disunity is the defining characteristic of the church of Jesus Christ. We have our denominations and our sub-denominations. I was thinking about the churches I've preached in over the years and I must have preached in the churches of at least 10 different denominations other than my own including the Church of the Nazarene, the Moravians and the Salvation Army. That pales into insignificance when we realise that it is estimated that there are 40-50,000 different Christian denominations worldwide…that's right, 40-50 thousand!
Sometimes of course we can laugh at ourselves and our denominational differences. You may have come across the denominational lightbulb jokes:
Q: How many Pentecostals does it take to change a lightbulb?
A: 10…one to change it and 9 to pray against the spirit of darkness!
Q: How many Baptists does it take to change a lightbulb?
A: At least 15…one to change the light bulb and three committees to approve the change and decide who brings the potato salad!
Q: How many Mormons does it take to change a lightbulb?
A: 5…one man to change the bulb and 4 wives to tell him how to do it!
Q: How many Anglicans does it take to change a lightbulb?
A: None...they only use candles!
We argue about whether infant or adult baptism is biblical or acceptable or not. We argue about who can share in the service of bread and wine and what we should call it…the Sacrament of the Lord's Supper or Holy Communion or the Eucharist or the Mass….and who should or should not preside at that service. We argue about who can be ordained and who can have positions of authority in the church and there is much talk in some circles of 'Men Only' and 'Male Headship'. (How good it is that this parish has been privileged to share in the ministry of Pauline, its first and so far only female vicar.) We argue about our alliances with this or that group throughout the world or within our own town or city or village. We argue about how our churches do or do not participate in secular life or how religion interacts with the state.
One of the real sadnesses I find as a hospital chaplain is that there are Roman Catholics and Anglo-Catholics who will not accept communion from me and there are members of some independent Free Churches who will not accept communion from my Anglicans colleagues. Having said that, a few years ago when I was the on-call chaplain at the Royal Surrey and there was an emergency premature birth in the middle of the night I did baptise a Roman Catholic baby and the Roman Catholic chaplains recognised the sacrament of baptism I conducted as valid!
Our differences, our divisions, all cause enormous pain but perhaps it's helpful to remember that it's nothing new. When there were people still walking the streets who had known Jesus face to face the Christian community was arguing! They argued over who could share a meal. They argued over whose 'party' represented the 'real' church. They argued over whether you were really a Christian if you did not exhibit certain spiritual gifts. So we may wonder whether all these arguments and differences mean that Jesus' prayer has never been answered. Or is it our assumptions of what unity is that are wrong? Perhaps we need to think differently somehow when we think about Christians being one. Jesus prayed that 'they may be one as we are one'….and we're told that the Word was with God and the Word was God. Theologians and scholars have often talked, even from the early days of the church, about Jesus' oneness with the Father in terms that suggest movement…a kind of interweaving or even a dance among the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. Maybe the answer to Jesus' prayer for unity is not about 'solidifying into a monolithic block' , as one commentator describes it, but rather is about joyful interplay, glorious dancing. If we tried thinking about it in that way it would affect how we thought about our disagreements with our brothers and sisters in Christ. Perhaps the vision towards which we strive is not one of total agreement but of the ability to join in the common dance of faith. It is possible that this IS what Christian unity looks like…a body, as Paul said, with many parts, a dance with many dancers, a song with many voices.
The challenge to us, in response to all this variety, is to say YES…yes, those other people really are Christians too. As John Wesley said in his sermon entitled 'On a Catholic Spirit':
'If your heart is as my heart, if you love God and all mankind, I ask no more: give me your hand.'
This worldwide Christian community to which we belong can be wild and immensely frustrating and unbelievably crazy at times but we place our trust in the prayer of Jesus. The disciples Jesus loved, and the community he loves now, lived and still live, enveloped by his prayer….'that they may be one as we are one.'
In closing, I invite you to join me in the following prayer for Christian unity. This is the prayer that the Archbishop of Canterbury urges everyone to pray with him. It is said every morning at Lambeth Palace.
Prayer for Christian Unity
Lord Jesus, who prayed that we might all be one,
we pray to you for the unity of Christians,
according to your will,
according to your means.
May your Spirit enable us to experience the suffering caused by division,
to see our sin
and to hope beyond all hope.
This week's thoughts on Sunday's Gospel reading
THIS WEEK'S THOUGHTS ON SUNDAY'S GOSPEL READING
While public worship is suspended because of the coronavirus outbreak, our Licensed Reader, Janice Taylor, will be emailing a few thoughts on Sunday's Gospel reading to those on the Church electroal role.
We are reproducing this week's thoughts on ths page.
Note that you can read the reading on-line on the website - just type or cut & paste the reading into the search box on that website.