Monday, 26 May 2014

"An ecumenical matter": a sermon for the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity (John 17)

Many of us remember the TV comedy series “Father Ted”. It was a popular series, which was cut short by the sudden death of the actor who played Father Ted. The series was set on a small island off the west coast of Ireland. An oddly assorted team of three priests served the people of the small island.
  • There was Father Dougal, young, inexperienced, na├»ve, and … clueless.
  • There was Father Jack, an elderly man, quite a dynamic priest in his day, but now seriously bonkers.
  • And then there was Father Ted, the parish priest, holding the team together, and engaging in a fair amount of wheeling-and-dealing in the process.  
Frequently, the situation would arise where the group of three priests were in a bit of a quandary as to which of two or more options to follow. This situation was sometimes solved by Father Ted making the comment, “You know, I think this may be an ecumenical matter.” Father Ted’s confreres usually responded to this statement by solemnly earnest expressions, followed by big, broad grins. For, you see, in that context, “an ecumenical matter” meant:
  • It would take ages to sort out.
  • It would be sorted out at the highest possible level, far away from that small island off the Irish coast.
  • In the meantime, we can do what we want (and please don’t bother the bishop about it)
We’re at the beginning of the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity, or at least we are here in Australia. It was founded in the early twentieth century by a Frenchman whose surname means “dressmaker”, a Roman Catholic priest named Paul Couturier. Churches in the Northern Hemisphere celebrate the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity in mid-January. In Australia and New Zealand, we celebrate the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity during the week leading up to the Day of Pentecost.
And always, during the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity, the churches are challenged to hear once again the words of Jesus’ prayer “… that they may all be one … so that the world may believe …”
We hear these words in today’s lesson from John’s gospel. It was the night before the crucifixion. Jesus was praying. In John’s gospel we find a different prayer than one Jesus prayed that evening in the other gospels.  

In Matthew, in Mark, and in Luke, Jesus prayed, on the one hand, asking his Father if there was any alternate course of action before him other than the way of the cross. On the other hand, he prayed “Not my will, but yours, be done.”
This prayer wasn’t found in John’s gospel. Instead, the emphasis was on the disciples and – by extension – all in future generations who would believe in the way of Jesus, ourselves included.
Jesus prayed “… that they may all be one …” and then, later in the prayer, after today’s lesson, Jesus expanded the prayer to “… that they may all be one … so that the world may believe …”.
And, you know, the opposite has been true as well. The fact that Christians have allowed ourselves over the centuries to be divided has been a really good excuse, an excellent excuse, for many other people to avoid, to ignore, or to absolutely rubbish the Christian faith.
 Still Jesus prayed, both for his disciples then and for us today, “… that they may all be one … so that the world may believe …”.
So, really, for something to be “an ecumenical matter”, does not mean that it is something that will necessarily:
  • take ages to sort out, or
  • be sorted out far, far away from any of us.
Instead, the task of ecumenism – the task of promoting the wholeness of the people of God - is a task that Jesus has given to every Christian. Jesus prayed for each one of us “… that they may all be one … so that the world may believe …”. In a real way, any Christian who has said “No” to ecumenism has really also said “No” to Jesus.
But, of course, we need to know the difference between real ecumenism and mere post-denominationalism.
Post-denominationalism is something that sociologists have told us about for decades. There are many people of faith – good, sincere people of faith – who have a tragic inability to commit themselves to a particular community of faith.
For many decades, people on the “evangelical” end of the Christian spectrum have drifted about, from congregation to congregation, and from denomination to denomination. For many decades, there has been an observable “floating” population on the evangelical side of the spectrum, moving quickly to churches where it seems “the action is” and moving just as quickly to other churches when they believe “the action” has shifted.
In more recent decades, this has also been an issue for mainstream Christian churches such as the Anglican, Lutheran, Catholic, and Uniting Churches. There’s been the beginning of the growth of a similar “floating” church population such as our evangelical neighbours have known for a much longer time. And the growth of this “floating” church population among mainstream churches is what some sociologists call “post-denominationalism”.
While some of this post-denominationalism is a result of people having had earlier bad experiences in churches, a much larger part of this post-denominationalism has to do with our consumer-oriented society. As consumers exercise choice between various commodities or suppliers, many of whom differ mainly in areas of fine detail, there is an increasing sense of “Let’s see where I can get the best deal at the moment, and I’ll decide later whether or not I want to change my mind.” And this works whether the choice is between:
  • Coke and Pepsi, 
  • Coles and Woolies,
  • McDonald’s and Hungry Jack’s,
  • Jetstar and Virgin,
  • ANZ and Westpac,
  • Ford and Holden,
  • Carlton and Collingwood, or 
  • Liberal and Labor.
So, then, a similar consumer-oriented approach to faith tells many people that there is a similar sort of temporary, provisional choice between:
  • Catholic and Lutheran, 
  • Anglican and Uniting, or
  • Baptist and Mormon.
And essentially, this consumer-oriented approach to faith is the key to post-denominationalism.
The real problem is when people with an uncommitted, post-denominational approach decide to describe themselves as “ecumenical”.  "Ecumenism" is then unfairly equated with a lack of commitment.

The ecumenical movement is truly about commitment. It’s about people who have a passionate – but by no means uncritical – commitment to the unity and the well-being of their particular communities of faith. It’s about these people recognising that they have a far greater, far more profound, and far more passionate commitment to the unity and the well-being of the larger people of God.
Ecumenism is not about a lack of commitment. In truth, it’s about a heightened commitment.
The task of ecumenism – the task of promoting the wholeness of the people of God - is a task that Jesus has given to every Christian. Jesus prayed for each one of us “… that they may all be one … so that the world may believe …”.

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Constructive comments, from a diversity of viewpoints, are always welcome. I reserve the right to choose which comments will be printed. I'm happy to post opinions differing from mine. Courtesy, an ecumenical attitude, and a willingness to give your name always help. A sense of humour is a definite "plus", as well.