s031g11 Seventh Sunday of Easter 5/6/2011
'protect them in your name .. that they may be one' John 17.11
Sadly, the name of God and the name of Jesus have been a source not of unity but of division, down through the centuries. In the past 65 years or so some parts of the church have tried to recover that unity. In 1947 in South India the Anglican, Methodist, Congregational, Presbyterian, and Reformed joined to become the Church of South India. http://www.csisynod.com/history.php. In 1957 in the United States, the United Church of Christ was formed from the Evangelical, Reformed and the Congregational Christian Churches, themselves the result of earlier unions. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/United_Church_of_Christ. In 1977 in Australia, the Uniting Church was a union of congregations of the Methodist Church of Australasia, the Presbyterian Church of Australia and the Congregational Union of Australia under the Basis of Union. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Uniting_Church_in_Australia. I guess there are quite a few other examples of which I am unaware.
And while these are quite astonishing achievements, I begin to wonder who the 'they' are, those to whom Jesus referred to in my text for today. The ecumenical enterprise sees 'they' as referring to Christians of other flavours, whereas I suspect that the 'they' that Jesus refers to are the Christians and the orphans and widows, those who have lost their heavenly parent, their heavenly spouse – those who are not 'christians'.
We have been reflecting on recent Sundays on the Good Shepherd, the one who seeks out the lost soul and brings it back to the flock. As I have reasoned, the lost soul is not the one who has strayed from the church, but the lost soul is the church that has strayed from the world – like the devout of Jesus' day who had separated themselves from those with whom Jesus associated – the tax collectors, prostitutes and sinners. So Jesus did not just pray for the unity of the devout and the sinner, his whole ministry was about seeking that unity. Jesus' ministry was about communion, the communion including both saints and sinners, the communion of the two who went up to the Temple to pray, the Pharisee and the publican, the communion of Simon the leper and Simon the Pharisee as well as the woman who anointed Jesus' feet with her tears in the house of Simon the Pharisee. (Luke 7.36-50).
I work in a hospital which has, like much of Christchurch, distinctively Anglican roots. But most of the actual funding for the hospital comes from government sources and secular health insurance. Existing, as we do in the hospital, largely funded by secular sources, we are obliged to act in the same compassionate way towards Anglicans, people of other denominations, people of other faiths and people of no faith whatsoever. In fact this has always been at the heart of the ethos of this hospital, for it would not have been founded had it been anything other than this. I have made the comment before that it is startling that it is the secular society which demands that we, the church, fulfil Jesus' prayer for unity.
In Christchurch, the Anglican Cathedral has stood for years in the very centre of the city. It has been the heart of the city, thousands have streamed through it every day, tourists as well as city dwellers seeking a place of refreshment in the midst of a hectic world. It has always been a place for all people, with symbols of Maori culture as well as Jewish and other faiths. But the devastation of the earthquake on February the 22nd has caused lots of people in the community to question what we should rebuild and whether it is appropriate for public money to be used for a denominational icon of the city. The questioners are not averse to spending public money, but they reason that it should be for a place for all people. The Roman Catholic Basilica of the Blessed Sacrament has also been extensively damaged as well. But this really calls into question who we are. And again it is interesting that the call for unity comes from secular sources – as well as some Anglican and Christian ones.
And these are hard questions, because the Cathedral, both Anglican and Catholic, are the seat of the bishop and symbols of his (and in the Anglican case – her) authority. For all the Catholics informally recognise the spiritual authority of the Anglican bishop, it is a big ask for this to happen formally – and vice versa.
The Anglican Communion is widely discussing a covenant which will define who is Anglican and who isn’t. It is particularly inconvenient to this debate to have the secular world calling us to acknowledge and affirm people on a much wider basis than this, and to suggest that they will not financially contribute to a return to what was before. This also serves to indicate how removed we in the church are from the thinking of those we serve in the world. For many people in the world, the angst over issues of human sexuality are irrelevant.
And it is a big ask on another level. One knows who to approach when one wants to deal with Anglicans and Catholics, for we have a hierarchical structure. It is not that the person at the top will always faithfully reflect the opinions of everyone ‘underneath’, but other denominations and faiths do not have this structure. To have a non-denominational service, such as the memorial service on the 17th of March meant that if the Anglicans hadn’t take the lead, they would still be debating over the form of the service even now! Of course the Anglicans did a wonderful job including others for that service. But this also shows us how we as Anglicans in Christchurch are looked to, to take a lead.
This is extremely scary stuff, and scary because significant numbers of Anglicans and Christians still believe that their Anglican and Christian identity determines the love that God has for us. For all their vociferousness I would contend that the dearth of people attending worship is actually because good people of faith have moved beyond a ‘god’ who rewards devotion, let alone devotion of a particular kind. These days people have learned the lesson of the gospels, they know of a God who loves unconditionally and recognise that the church has as much trouble faithfully reflecting this God as individuals do.
God does not love us because of our devotion or orthodoxy. If God only loved those who loved the divine in return; that would make God into someone no better than a tax-collector who instinctively does the same. (Mat 5:46)
With Anglican and Catholic circles the bishop is the focus of unity. A recent article in ‘Church Times’ begins: ‘A checklist has been drawn up that makes it virtually impossible for an openly gay person to become a bishop in the Church of England.’ It continues: ‘The advice, from the Church House Legal Office, warns that the body that nominates to diocesan sees, the Crown Nominations Commission, is bound by the Equality Act: “It is not open to them to take into account the mere fact that someone is gay by sexual orientation.” It is also generally unlawful, it says, “to discriminate on grounds of religion and belief”. Nevertheless, exemptions written into the Act accept that the C of E “does not draw the same distinction as most secular employers between a person’s work life and his or her private life”. The key factor is the requirement of a bishop to act as a focus of unity.’ http://www.churchtimes.co.uk/content.asp?id=113056
So the question of who Jesus means when he prays that ‘they’ may be one becomes important. If it is simply that members of the church agree, then we might as well give up now. That option is a forlorn hope as centuries of history show. Similarly it is a forlorn hope that the denominations might come together. I would contend that it is only when we seek the unity of all, the sacred and the secular, that we are doing what Jesus tried to do, and therefore likely to be blessed. It is only when the church is outward looking in the sense of wishing to include all, that internal differences of opinion are recognized for the unimportance they actually have.
The church for which Jesus died and was raised to life is not my little fiefdom! It is meant to be catholic in the sense that it is called to embrace all, and both of these words are important. We are to embrace others without hesitation, without discrimination and without expectation, not challenge, marginalize and alienate others and we are not to embrace some but not others. I suggest that anything less is to trivialize God and the sacrifice of the Cross.