One God - One Church
A sermon on John 17:20-26 by Nathan Nettleton, 20 May 2007
The unity of the churches, as an expression of reconciliation, is integral to the message of good news in Christ.
A couple of decades or so ago, passages like tonight’s gospel reading prompted many guilt-stirring sermons, and not that many decades before that, they probably prompted more arrogant and belligerent sermons. Tonight’s passage comes from the account in John’s gospel of the prayer Jesus prayed with and for his followers at the last supper, the night before his execution. And one of the themes of the prayer - especially prominent in this extract - is a prayer for the unity of the Church. “I ask that they - not only these here but also those who will later join them - may all be one... As you, Father, are in me and I am in you, may they also be in us ... that they may be one, as we are one. I in them and you in me, that they may become completely one.”
Such a passage is, of course, a favourite of the ecumenical movement; the movement whose aim is the reconciliation and reunification of the various Christian denominations. A few decades back when the ecumenical movement was really on the boil, a passage like this would often provoke a fiery sermon denouncing denominational divides and hostilities, and urging people to get out of their denominational ghettos and meet and befriend the congregations of other churches. A good guilt-laying rant could usually ensure a reasonable turn-out for the next ecumenical bible study or combined service of the local churches.
In our neighbourhood, as in many others, the ecumenical movement has lost much of its steam and the number of combined services has fallen away. Why? Well, I reckon one of the reasons is that there is not so much guilt around the issue anymore, and therefore guilt can’t be manipulated to motive action. And the reason there is not so much guilt around is because our earlier endeavours were largely successful. Catholics and Protestants are not spitting at each other or throwing rocks at each other in the streets. Even Northern Ireland is achieving a measure of real peace. People may not know the folks from other congregations well, but they are mostly not hostile or suspicious towards them any more. At the grassroots level, we recognise and even celebrate our diversity, but we would have no qualms about acknowledging that we are all one body in Christ and even sharing communion with one another around one Table. In fact, in any given congregation, and ours is a case in point, it is now quite common to find that the people gathered come originally from a wide variety of denominational backgrounds. We are comfortable enough with one another to swap easily between traditions. That’s all good.
Back in the bad old days before the successes of the ecumenical movement, the approach to a passage like this one would have been quite different. Preachers would go one of two ways. The uglier of the two was to assert that the true Church could be identified with one particular denomination (or in extreme cases even one particular congregation), and therefore the preacher could maintain that the Christian unity which Christ prayed for - the unity which mirrored the unity that exists within God - is in fact a visible reality in this one true Church. Such an approach was, of course, hostile to ecumenical endeavours, because it saw them as seeking to compromise the one true Church by mingling it with pagans and heretics, with the false church.
The more benign, but in some ways almost as tragic, approach was popular among Protestants. This approach was to develop the idea of the invisible true Church. Supposedly, the true Church, the true body of Christ, is a spiritual reality, in Christ, and is therefore not threatened by the visible disunity of the Church’s earthly institutions. We might not be able to see its unity, but Christ can, and that’s what matters. It is one, whether we can see it or not.
Now at one level this is true enough. And at that level it is also quite important. That understanding allows us to recognise our unity with those in Christ’s church who are divided from us by the centuries. Visible unity with those who live in different times and places is impossible, but we are one in Christ, in his church that transcends all times and places. And it is also probably the case that this idea of an invisible unity is part of what allows the ecumenical comfort that now exists at the grassroots level. We ordinary disciples are comfortable with each other because we recognise and honour a unity that transcends the institutional disunity of our denominational hierarchies. We have a sense of the invisible true Church and our oneness in it.
However, the concept of the true invisible Church has also had some tragic side effects and I’m not sure that we wouldn’t nearly be better off without it. You see, what it has done is provide an excuse for the visible disunity of the Church and thereby taken much of the edge off the craving to do something about it. It has become an obstacle to Church unity. If the Church really is united, and we just can’t see it, then there is little incentive to strive for greater unity. But, in fact, that is much the same logic as the old heresy that said that because I have been justified in Christ - declared forgiven and newly made righteous - then it doesn’t really matter what I do in my bodily reality anymore, because my righteousness is spiritual, invisible, and eternally secure. Even if I am violent and sleazy and callous and greedy, there is no problem because I have a true righteousness that is spiritual and invisible but obvious to God. Now at the individual level, we can all recognise that as being a heresy, and as playing God for a sucker. The concept of the invisible reality is okay in so far as it points to something bigger than the visible reality, but it does not make up for a visible reality that directly contradicts it. The visible and invisible realities cannot be pulling in opposite directions.
We cannot use this impressive spiritual sounding concept of the invisible true Church to explain away our visible disunity. The continuing disunity of the churches is a festering sin; it is a grievous wound inflicted on the physical body of Jesus Christ by his own people. True, we have come a long way, especially at the grassroots level, but there is still a long way to go, especially at the institutional level. I’m not one who thinks that the formal unification of church hierarchies and administrations is necessary. But what is necessary to heal the wound and make our unity visible is the full recognition of one another’s baptisms, one another’s celebrations of the Eucharist, and one another’s pastoral ministers. We are closest to this goal on baptism, although I’m sorry to say that on that one, we Baptists remain one of the lingering offenders. It is probably fair to say that we have won the argument on what sort of baptismal practices should be considered normative, but we have been one of the the most legalistic and ungracious in our attitude to any practice differing from the norm.
On Eucharistic hospitality and recognition of ministers, we are still a long way from home, and the wounds are still deep, and in some areas, deepening. Many Christian churches still will not recognise the validity of a celebration of the Lord’s Table that is presided over by the ministers and congregations of other denominations. Some denominations actively forbid their people from participating in the celebration of the Eucharist in churches other than their own. Some will not offer the bread and wine to anyone who is not a member of their own denominational tradition. Such ungracious and inhospitable behaviour can never be disguised by any nice theory about invisible unity. It is active disunity and as such it is a spit in the face of the Jesus who prayed that we might be one as he and the Father are one. It is a conscious flouting of his revealed will. It is gross sin, and part of what is so gross about it is that this disunity is perpetuating, right in the heart of the Church, the sort of scapegoating and victimising that saw Jesus killed in the first place. When we deny our unity, and make our side right and the other side evil and expendable, then we have done to Jesus exactly what the Pharisees and Sadducees and Herodians and Romans did to him. We have sacrificed him, dismembered him, and deluded ourselves into thinking that we were doing a sacred and righteous thing.
Now, that is all very well for me to say, but what can we do about it? You and I are not in a position to step in and change the official policies of the world’s major Christian denominations, are we? No, but that doesn’t mean that we have no influence or that we can’t do anything. There are times when we do have the opportunity to express either unity or disunity, and what we do on those occasions sends a message to those who are in the positions of official denominational power. The most dangerous response is always to say and do nothing, for that communicates compliance - a willingness to allow the status quo to remain unchallenged. Last Thursday night, we celebrated the feast of the Ascension by hosting a local ecumenical worship service - a gathering of three local congregations. Sometimes at such occasions, a defiant breaking of the laws is the most effective protest and contribution to unity. We can celebrate the Eucharist together in defiance of the institutional demands that we not do so. We didn’t go that way, and I am a believer that sometimes defiant obedience is even more effective. We prayed a prayer that sounded like a Eucharistic prayer, and which included these words:
Therefore we gather together in this place
in defiance of the ungracious divisions
that would keep us apart
and deny us the gift of your presence in one another.
And then we shared food and wine together and enjoyed one another’s company. We lived with the pain of what we could not do, and named that pain so that it might contribute to the impetus for healing and renewed unity. Such acts are important. They are a loving tending of the wounds of our crucified Lord himself.
Unfortunately, the strength of our contribution to this quest for unity was compromised on Thursday night by our failure to turn up and visibly enact our unity. We embarrassed ourselves by turning up in significantly less numbers this year than we had the previous two years when we hadn’t even had the responsibility of hosting it. And of the handful of us who were there, half we actually people for whom this is their second congregation and so, with the exception of those who are parents of young children, would have had the best excuses for not being there. At least we exposed the lie of the concept of the invisible church. Our invisibility contributed nothing!
I don’t want to slide back into one of those old guilt-mongering sermons, so I am not going to go on about it. My point is to remind you that everything we do here in the liturgy is symbolic. We listen to scripture to symbolise our larger immersion of ourselves in scripture and obedience to its leading. We share bread and wine as a symbol of our reconciliation and our participation in the glorious messianic banquet at which our unity will finally be fully realised. We share the liturgy with other churches from time to time as a symbol of our participation in a unity which must still be fought for and brought to visible reality. All of these symbols have meaning only in so far as they actually express and contribute to a visible reality in our lives. The visible reality is more important than the symbols, but the symbols matter because they are a crucial part of the way we proclaim and foster and bring into being the visible reality. So let’s go on with symbolising our faith in words and prayers and the breaking of bread and symbolic acts of unity with the rest of Christ’s church, so that we might be part of the answer to Christ’s prayer, that we may be one as God is one. Christ in us and us in Christ, that we all God’s people may become completely one.