January 28, 2018

Acts 26:9-23

“Converted to Ecumenism”

This sermon was preached at St. Paul’s Anglican Cathedral in Regina on the occasion of the Feast of the Conversion of St. Paul. Audio recording available here.

Thank you for the invitation to worship with you here at St. Paul’s, and to reflect on God’s word to us today. I have been the minister at First Presbyterian Church for the last 6 months, and I have appreciated the welcome and connection with other downtown clergy, including Mike, since arriving in Regina. I am honoured to be with your community as you celebrate the feast of the Conversion of St. Paul.

As an ecumenist, I love the fact that this is also the day when you welcome the delegation from Holy Rosary Roman Catholic Cathedral for your Week of Prayer for Christian Unity exchange. And I hope that they won’t be disappointed to be hearing from a Presbyterian rather than an Anglican.

Given the special theme of this day, and the first reading from the Book of Acts, I would like to reflect on “conversion” today. Perhaps only a small number of us have a dramatic story of conversion like the Apostle Paul. He started off persecuting Christians (back when his name was Saul) – locking them up, condemning them to death, pursuing them to foreign cities.

But then Saul had an encounter with Christ. He saw a light from heaven, brighter than the sun, shining around him and his companions, and then he heard the voice of Jesus: “Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me?”

And after identifying himself to Saul, Jesus tells him why he has appeared to him – to appoint him to serve and testify to the experience of seeing Jesus, and to go the Gentiles with the message of forgiveness through Christ.

At that moment, Saul’s life and mission radically changed. He was obedient to the heavenly vision, preaching first in Damascus, then in Jerusalem and Judea, and finally sharing with the Gentiles that they should repent and turn to God and live in a new way.

In a book by Richard Peace, conversion is described as beginning with insight. “It occurs within a context that reveals that one’s relationship with God is somehow askew and in need of correction.

“Conversion involves choice, turning, and a new way of living. Insight gives the direction and provides the mental picture of what should be. The turning launches the person in the right direction. But the turning is not complete until the new way is actively pursued.”

I stand before you today as a Presbyterian who has been converted. I’m not talking about my conversion to Christianity. I grew up in a Christian family, and I cannot remember being anything else. I’m not talking about being converted to Roman Catholicism either. Even though I am married to a Roman Catholic, that is not going to happen.

And I’m not talking about being converted to Anglicanism. One of my congregation members told me the other day… “Have fun preaching at the Anglican Church, but just be sure to come back to us!” And I am honoured to be with you today, but not because I want to BE an Anglican.

I am talking about conversion to ecumenism, conversion to the desire for, and the vision of, and the commitment to the full visible unity of the whole Christian Church.

And I experienced that conversion through encounter… through encountering a diversity of Christians and their churches, through encountering and covenanting with my Roman Catholic husband, and most deeply, through encountering Christ in their lives, communities, prayer, worship, witness, and service.

I stand before you as a Presbyterian who has been converted to ecumenism, and I pray that you will be so converted also.

Now, many faithful Christians from my denomination and yours would say that I am making too big a deal about this mission of Christian unity. They might argue that having different types of churches is quite useful to suit the different preferences of worshippers and the needs of the community.

They might point out that things have changed over the last 50-60 years. The churches get along better, generally respect each other’s ministries, and even cooperate occasionally. Visiting one another for worship is okay now, and marrying across denominational lines doesn’t cause the scandal it once did.

But, as the Princeton Proposal for Christian Unity argues, “Friendly division is still division.” This document, written by a group of ecumenical leaders and scholars, goes on to say that, “We must not let our present division be seen as normal, as the natural expression of a Christian marketplace with churches representing different options for a variety of spiritual tastes. Consumerist values and an ideology of diversity can anesthetize us to the wound of division. Recovering from this ecumenical anesthesia is one of the strongest present challenges to faithfulness.”

So, conversion to ecumenism requires waking up to the fact that there is a problem, to the reality that the Body of Christ (that is the church) is wounded and broken. And I believe that this kind of conversion, like the conversion of Paul on the road, comes through an encounter with Christ.

In this case, it most likely begins with encountering our Christian neighbours, other churches, and spending enough time with them that we have the opportunity to recognize Christ in them.

I speak from experience, of course, because I’ve spent the last 17 years worshipping almost every week in a Catholic Church. I have come to know both the gifts and the challenges of the Catholic Church, while my husband has discovered the equivalent joys and struggles in my church.

And we have moved beyond comparing and arguing about which one is right or better, to accepting, and treasuring the gifts, and discovering a sense of community, belonging, and shared mission in both our churches.

Although the hymns may vary, and the words of the prayers are somewhat different, we have encountered Christ many times over in the mission and ministry of both our churches. It works for us, and it’s good. But even though we are friendly, the division still remains.

The delegation from Holy Rosary is a good demonstration of this. It is good that you are here to visit, and to pray together, and to be part of a process of getting to know and love another church community.

But when communion time comes, you likely won’t be able to receive the Eucharist with us. Not because you would not be welcome to receive at the open table of The Anglican Church of Canada, but because the Catholic Church does not yet recognize the ministries of other churches, and the Eucharist is understood primarily as a sign of unity already achieved, rather than a means to grow towards unity. To receive would be to say that we are united, and we are not there yet.

If it hurts us today, if it feels like a wound to pray together around the Table of the Lord, and not be able to share the Sacrament together, then we may be on our way to conversion.

A little over a year ago, my husband and I had the opportunity to participate in an ecumenical pilgrimage from Canterbury to Rome. We went along with a group of bishops from around the world – the International Anglican Roman Catholic Commission for Unity and Mission.

The purpose was to explore how their churches could work together locally to implement the theological agreements that have already been achieved through the dialogue of the churches over half a century. And they did some good work over the 8 days they spent together, and went home with great plans for shared ministry and mission.

But they also prayed and worshipped together several times each day. They alternated between Anglican and Catholic liturgies and sacraments. They preached at each other’s services, but refrained from receiving the Eucharist from each other, offering heart-felt blessings instead.

As a member of an interchurch family, this was nothing new for me. I received with the Anglicans and was blessed by the Catholics. But for some of those bishops, who had begun to share friendship and faith with each other across denominational lines, it may have been the first time they really experienced the woundedness of the divided Body of Christ. And perhaps some of them also were converted.

“Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me?”
“Churches, churches, why are you divided from one another?”
“Why do you keep tearing my body apart? Can’t you see that I am broken?”

The story of Paul’s conversion seems all the more fitting because of the mission that he accepted from Jesus that day. Christ commissioned him to reach out beyond his own community and to bring the good news of forgiveness and new life in Christ to Jews and Gentiles alike.

He did not suggest, as others did, that the Gentiles would have to BECOME Jews in order to be saved. But they also would be saved by God’s grace, and united to one another in Christ.

As new Christian communities formed, cultural diversity and theological differences made finding agreement and staying together a challenge. But Paul preached unity above all else:

“I appeal to you, brothers and sisters… that all of you be in agreement and that there be no divisions among you…” (1 Cor. 1:10)

“For just as the body is one and has many members, and all the members of the body, though many, are one body, so it is with Christ.” (1 Cor. 12:12)

“For Christ is our peace; in his flesh he has made both groups into one and has broken down the dividing wall, that is, the hostility between us.” (Eph. 2:14)

“There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called to the one hope of your calling, one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all…” (Eph. 4:4-5)

Margaret O’Gara, in her book, “The Ecumenical Gift Exchange,” tells a story about something that happened in a class she was teaching at the ecumenical consortium of theological colleges, the Toronto School of Theology.

It was the end of the spring semester, in a class on Christology. The class was divided into small discussion groups which met together with the professor to discuss the readings and lecture, and one group had gone especially well.

The discussion had been probing, and students had been able to discuss in real depth their understanding of who Christ is, their grasp of his saving work, and his meaning to them in their own lives. They felt increasingly a sense of common bonds. It was the last class, and the students had turned to somewhat more personal discussion as they focused on pastoral questions for the proclamation of Christ.

Two students, a man and a woman, found as they talked that their family roots several generations back both stemmed from Nova Scotia. One, a Roman Catholic man from Toronto, now was entering the Augustinian priory as a young friar. The other, an Anglican woman about the same age, was a candidate for ordination in the Anglican diocese of Nova Scotia. Two Christians, a Roman Catholic and an Anglican, facing a common future in ministry though in two different communions.

As they talked, the name of the woman’s great-grandmother was mentioned. The man’s great-grandmother had had the same name, rather an unusual name. Suddenly, the two began firing a series of questions at each other about names, marriages, families, and children as the rest of the class looked on in surprise, until at last one of them leaned across the seminar table and gave the other the kiss of peace.

Then the story came out. Long ago, it seems, two sisters had grown up in an Anglican family in Nova Scotia. But one had become a Roman Catholic and then married a Roman Catholic. And her Anglican family had been so upset with this decision that they had excluded her from the family and cut off all further contact with her.

This was common in Nova Scotia at that time in both Anglican and Roman Catholic families – both sometimes followed the custom of this kind of exclusion if a family member left the communion or married someone from the other communion.

So these two sisters, parted in life for conscience’s sake, never saw each other again, and gradually their families lost all contact with each other except the knowledge that there was a missing branch of the family.

Well, those two sisters were the grandmothers of the two students. When the class looked at them with new eyes, they could even see the family resemblance. Each student, raised in a religious home, had been drawn by the love of Christ to seek ordination in the Church. And now, at last, the two branches of this divided family had found each other again through a course on Christ.

That summer there were two ordinations that had a special meaning. Each of the two students and their families attended the ordination of the other and shared in the reading from the Scriptures. Each included a prayer that their ministries would be an instrument for the reconciliation, not only of their families, but for their whole church families, so that they could live again as sister churches. Each has made ecumenical work important in their ministry.

To reconcile the many families, the many traditions in the one Church of Christ: this is the work of ecumenism, and this is the work to which these two young students suddenly found themselves called.

May the spirit of Christ call us to conversion also, and may God’s Church be fully, visibly, united in Christ so that the world may believe. Amen.