January 20, 2013

Isaiah 62:1-5
1 Corinthians 12:1-11
John 2:1-11

“One Family of Faith”

I’ve been looking forward to this week with great anticipation. Some people count down the days until Christmas. Some people count down the days until their birthdays. But I’ve been counting down the days until the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity, and I am so pleased that it has finally arrived once again.

It’s a typical third week of January in Saskatchewan, bitterly cold outside. But inside the churches of Saskatoon there is a great warmth, not only because the furnaces and boilers are working overtime, but because Christians of all backgrounds and denominations are gathering to pray, to sing, to share food and fellowship, and to celebrate together as one family of God.

Some of you come from large families and know what it’s like to go to a big family reunion. Family reunions can be great celebrations, and they can be tricky to plan. As the family has grown, people have moved in different directions. They’ve spread out across the country or even the world. They’ve left behind some family traditions and created new ones. They’ve joined together with other families and blended cultures and ways of life.

So when you get the family back together again there can be tensions. People have changed and grown while they’ve been apart, and may have different ideas about what it means to be a part of the family. But at the same time, there is something that binds together the members of a family… maybe it’s a grandparent, maybe it’s a name, maybe it’s a sense of belonging, of coming from somewhere. And so the family reunions are organized, and the family is gathered. And whatever challenges may arise as you come together, there’s something very special about your gathering as a family.

The Week of Prayer for Christian Unity is a very special gathering too. It’s one time in the year when Christians and Churches that have moved in different directions and adopted different traditions and practices are invited to come together and be one Christian family.

Here in Saskatoon we are blessed to have a very active ecumenical community, and a week full of opportunities to meet, pray, learn, and share together. A few days ago my mother was looking for a Week of Prayer service in Ottawa where she lives, and she couldn’t find one. There used to be two – one at the beginning and one at the end of the week – but this year there didn’t seem to be anything advertised for the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity where she lives.

One might hope that the reason they don’t have a service is that the Churches are doing lots together throughout the year, making a special gathering redundant. But it’s more likely that the Churches have forgotten the importance of coming together, of praying together, of dialoguing together about what it means to be a part of this Christian family. They’re more like an estranged family – not openly in conflict, but divided one from the other, and certainly not receiving the gifts that the other branches of the family have to offer.

In today’s reading from 1 Corinthians 12, the Apostle Paul gives advice to a congregation that was much more openly in conflict with one another. Within the one Christian congregation at Corinth, a number of backgrounds, experiences, and gifts were represented. Those who felt they had the more important gifts (like speaking in tongues) looked down upon others who didn’t. Some were honoured in the community, and others were rejected.

Paul’s response to this situation is not to encourage the Christians at Corinth to divide up into different types of Churches: those who speak in tongues could have met on the East side of Corinth, or perhaps at the 9 o’clock service, and those who liked to pray quietly and sing a few sombre hymns could have met on the West side, or at the 11 o’clock service.

Instead, Paul made it clear that the Church community needed to embrace the variety of gifts, activities, and services with which its members had been blessed. All of these gifts come from the same Spirit. They are gifts from God. And the community needs to make space for the diversity of its people and honour what God is doing through each one.

If you need a guide to help you discern whether someone else belongs in the Church community with you, don’t compare their gifts to yours. Don’t compare their background, or experiences, or preferences. And don’t be put off by different ways of praying, or teaching, or serving. If they proclaim that “Jesus is Lord” just as you do, then the Holy Spirit is in them. They belong with you in the family of God, in the Church community that embraces all.

They say that you can choose your friends, but you can’t choose your family. What you can choose is how to live in relationship with those within your biological family, your congregational family, or the family of the Christian Church. You can choose to engage in conflict with family members with whom you disagree. You can choose to shun, or ignore, or simply avoid interacting with those who do things differently from you. Or you can choose to engage with those who are different – to offer them respect despite your differences, to receive their gifts despite past conflicts.

It may not involve becoming best friends. And it probably won’t include one party or the other changing to do things just the way the other does them. But unity does not mean uniformity. Christian unity can exist with a great deal of diversity where the members of the community can make space for the Spirit’s great variety of gifts, and where Christians can proclaim together with our many voices that “Jesus is Lord.”

I appreciate the fact that the Revised Common Lectionary provides us today with a text from 1 Corinthians that is so fitting for the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity. But the other texts for this morning are also very appropriate. In the reading from the Gospel of John, we hear about Jesus attending a wedding and performing his first public miracle, the first sign in the Gospel of John of his identity as the very Son of God.

Weddings, of course, are often kind of like family reunions. The siblings, and the cousins, and the grandkids, and the uncles and aunts all come home to celebrate a wedding in the family. And it’s all complicated by the fact that it’s a family reunion for two families happening at once. Weddings can be so complicated by different family traditions, by spoken or unspoken expectations, and usually there are at least a few people that the organizers are trying not to seat at the same table just to reduce the possibility of conflict ensuing.

And I’m thinking about typical Canadian weddings including a ceremony, some pictures, a dinner, a dance, and maybe a gathering to open the gifts. Just imagine what it must have been like at that wedding in Cana – a wedding celebration that would have gone on for about seven days! We don’t know whose fault it was that the wine was running out well before the party was over, but it was definitely going to be embarrassing for the host and potentially lead to some conflict in the family.

I often forget that Jesus’ first miracle was to change water into wine. I usually get focussed on the miracles he did that were aimed at helping the poor and helpless – feeding hungry people, healing grave diseases, even stilling a storm that was threatening his disciples. But in Jesus’ first miracle, he turns water into wine, saves a family from embarrassment, and keeps the party going for a couple who are celebrating their marriage.

If there were conflicts or tensions between or within the families at the wedding in Cana, Jesus didn’t seem to get involved in them or make any attempts to sort them out. He simply helped them, with his mother’s encouragement, to keep on celebrating the thing that was binding them together – the newly formed relationship between a young man and a young woman.

It makes me think that we should spend more time celebrating together… like our Board of Managers getting together for pizza before their meeting last week, or the choir’s plans for a dessert party next month. We should get together just for fun on a regular basis, and let Jesus perform that first miracle again in our midst: the miracle of diverse people, with different gifts, and a variety of preferences, from different backgrounds and experiences, being together as a family of faith, celebrating the thing that binds us together – that Jesus is our Lord – and sharing an abundance of food, and wine, and fruit punch, because God is good and we are one in the Spirit.

It’s probably magnified by the fact that I am in an interchurch marriage, but the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity feels to me like a family reunion or a family wedding. The different branches of the family get together to worship and celebrate. In some cases, we don’t know each other very well, and the gathering gives us a chance to become acquainted. In some cases, we’ve got some misgivings about the others, some old wounds that need healing, or some misconceptions that need to be corrected, and the gathering gives us an opportunity to deal with some of that stuff too. In some cases, we’re actually good friends, but distance, or difference, or simply habit means that we don’t get together as often as we would like, and the gathering is a reunion of joy and gladness.

Most of all, during this Week of Prayer for Christian Unity, we acknowledge and celebrate the fact that we all belong to the same family of God. Together, we are deeply loved by God, and we share in the promises of God together. The prophet Isaiah described God’s love and faithfulness towards God’s people as being like a young man marrying a young woman, like a bridegroom rejoicing over the bride.

Together, let us celebrate God’s steadfast love and faithfulness to us, and may the Spirit of God bind us together in one family of faith. Amen.