Week of Prayer for Christian Unity, 2012

Habakkuk 3:17-19
1 Corinthians 15:51-58
John 12:23-26

A sermon preached by the Rev. Amanda Currie and Nicholas Jesson at St. Andrew’s Presbyterian Church, Saskatoon and St. Andrew’s Anglican Church, Humboldt on January 29, 2012.

In the introduction to the ecumenical service for the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity this year, the Polish authors of the material emphasize the theme of transformation. Using the main biblical text from 1 Corinthians 15, they speak boldly and hopefully about the transformation that awaits us when our lives in this world come to an end.

With the foundational conviction that Christ was raised from death to life forevermore with God, the Apostle Paul proclaims the good news that precisely because Christ is raised, those who love him and follow him will also be raised. We too will be transformed from death to life, not because of our own goodness or power, but because of the victory of our Lord Jesus Christ.

“Listen, I will tell you a mystery!” Paul explains it, “We will not all die, but we will all be changed, in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet. For the trumpet will sound, and the dead will be raised imperishable, and we will be changed. For this perishable body must put on imperishability, and this mortal body must put on immortality. When this perishable body puts on imperishability, and this mortal body puts on immortality, then the saying that is written will be fulfilled: ‘Death has been swallowed up in victory.’”

When we profess our faith together in the words of an ecumenical creed (such as the Apostles’ Creed that we will share today) we are reminded of how much we hold in common as Churches and Christians. We may sing some different songs, wear some different outfits for worship, and emphasize different aspects of our faith, but there are some very foundational beliefs that we share.

Even if we can’t quite get together on the particular translations of the creeds to use, still, we can stand together with our sisters and brothers in Christ today and profess that we believe (among others things) in “the resurrection of the dead, and the life everlasting.”

When I first looked at the scripture theme for this year’s Week of Prayer for Christian Unity, I must admit that I was confused. I was expecting a text about Christian unity.

There are some wonderful texts about Christian unity, for example first Corinthians 1: “Now I appeal to you, brothers and sisters, by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that all of you be in agreement and that there be no divisions among you, but that you be united in the same mind and the same purpose.”

Or first Corinthians 12: “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.”

One of my favourite ones is Ephesians 2: “So then you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are citizens with the saints and also members of the household of God, built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus himself as the cornerstone.”

Another one from Ephesians is in chapter four: “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…”

And we can’t forget John 17: Jesus prays that we may all be one:  “As you, Father, are in me and I am in you, may they also be in us, so that the world may believe that you have sent me.”

Even the psalmists had something to say about unity. Psalm 133 says: “How very good and pleasant it is when kindred live together in unity!”

But the theme text that was chosen for this year is about resurrection. It’s about dying and being raised. It’s about giving thanks to God who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ – victory over sin and victory over death.

This text from 1 Corinthians is often chosen as an appropriate one for funeral services. When a loved one has died, we are encouraged and strengthened by this message of confident hope in the power of God to transform our perishable, mortal bodies into ones that can live forever in the presence of our loving God.

I wonder if you’ve noticed that there are some Christians and some churches that focus almost exclusively on the promise of resurrection and eternal life with God. The major faith question is “Are you saved?” with the answer to that having to do with committing your life to Christ and receiving the assurance that you will be going to heaven when you die.

There are other Christians and churches, of course, that hardly ever talk about heaven. Their major concern is what God may be doing in your life in this world. Are you learning to follow Jesus more closely with your life? Are you doing justice, and loving kindness, and walking humbly with God? There’s not a lot mentioned about salvation, or if there is, it’s about being saved from a life of meaninglessness or selfishness, and taking up a life in relationship with Christ.

Most of us can probably locate ourselves (or our churches) in terms of where the emphasis lies in our faith. Are we mostly looking forward to experiencing the Kingdom of God in the afterlife, or are we mostly focussed on finding the Kingdom right here on earth?

It seems to me that what’s required is a balancing of these different perspectives. We need both the “already” and the “not yet” because that’s where the Kingdom of God is to be found.

When I think of the Kingdom of God when it finally comes to completion, I think of that image from the Book of Revelation of all God’s people standing together in God’s presence and singing praise:

“After this I looked, and there was a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb… [And] they cried out in a loud voice, saying,‘Salvation belongs to our God who is seated on the throne, and to the Lamb… Blessing and glory and wisdom and thanksgiving and honour and power and might be to our God forever and ever! Amen.’”

It’s an image of unity – one church, one body of Christ – a unified People, praising God together.

There’s another image of praise in today’s text from the prophet Habakkuk:

“Though the fig tree does not blossom, and no fruit is on the vines…
Yet I will rejoice in the Lord.

“Though the produce of the olive fails, and the fields yield no food…
Yet I will rejoice in the Lord.

“Though the flock is cut off from the fold, and there is no herd in the stalls,
Yet I will rejoice in the Lord.
I will exult in the God of my salvation.”

Even though the goodness of the Kingdom of God has not yet arrived in its fullness, still, we will rejoice in the Lord.

It is commonly said that we are in the winter of ecumenism. After the excitement of the first years of the ecumenical movement, we have seen diminished attention and concern for the unity of the church, for dialogue between our communities, or for resolving historic divisions and reconciling memories. It sometimes seems that ecumenism has been put on the shelf. It is not forgotten, but it is out of the way. It can be pulled out for special occasions, dusted off and displayed to our friends, but it is really not something that we think about every day.

Perhaps on the Prairies we have a unique perspective on winter. Normally, winter is harsh, bitterly cold and even treacherous. Yet even as we bundle up for winter, we get on with our daily lives. We go to work or school, we run our errands and do our chores, and we visit our friends. Some of us play outside: skating, skiing, snowmobiling. We go for walks and we find beauty in the snow drifts and the hoar frost. We even gather to pray for Christian unity in the midst of January, the coldest month of the year. We endure winter because we know that it will end. Already we feel the days growing longer and the sun shining more directly. We know that the snow and ice will melt, and the spring rains will clear away the dust, and perhaps in April or early May we will see the buds on the trees signalling that another season of growth is at hand.

I find it fascinating the way that God has made everything to work together. The seeds that fell from last year’s plants will lay dormant beneath the snow until the spring warmth and rains begin the process of growth. But the cold of winter is necessary. Many of you know better than I that cold is an essential stage in preparing seeds for germination. Freezing destroys some of the diseases that inhibit germination, but it also assists in breaking through the hard outer shell of many seeds. Once spring has arrived the farmers will plant their seeds, but with some plants and trees nature takes care of this all on its own. In God’s providence even the death grip of winter leads to new life.

If we are experiencing an ecumenical winter then we must live in Christian hope that winter will end and the seeds of unity will sprout once more. But we don’t just wait for spring, we must work patiently to prepare for the springtime. We must prepare the tools for ecumenical relationship: a greater understanding of our own traditions and the causes of division and a respect for the gifts of the Spirit lived and celebrated by our ecumenical partners. We must prepare now because the time is short, spring will be here very soon. Even now, this is not a winter of despair but one of new birth. In the spring we will experience a resurrection of unity.

As most of you know, we are an interchurch family. While I am Presbyterian, Nicholas is Roman Catholic, and we have decided not to give up either of our Christian Traditions, but to worship and pray together in both of our churches, and to work diligently for ecumenical education, dialogue, common witness, and common mission between our churches.

A: Because of our double belonging, we feel very keenly the divisions and brokenness within the Body of Christ. We notice the misunderstandings when people make assumptions about Traditions with which they are unfamiliar. And we find it hard to ignore when people use stereotypes about certain kinds of Christians, or when they make “we know better than they do” type comments. We are very aware of the things that our churches disagree about, and the doctrines and practices that maintain the barriers between us.

But our interchurch life also provides us with glimpses of the Body of Christ in its fully reconciled form. We celebrate the many opportunities to come together in prayer, to share our common faith in Christ, and to engage in dialogue and share our churches’ particular gifts. We are united in our baptism. We are united in our marriage. We are united in our faith in God who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ.

We have a long way to go before we will experience the full visible unity of the church, and perhaps we are in an ecumenical winter. And yet, we will rejoice in the Lord. This Week of Prayer for Christian Unity gives us all an opportunity to experience a foretaste of the Kingdom of God – to pray together, to interpret the scriptures together, and to stand together with all Christians and profess our faith in God who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ.

“Therefore, my beloved, be steadfast, immovable, always excelling in the work of the Lord, because you know that in the Lord your labour is not in vain.”