Sermon for Epiphany 2 and Week of Prayer for Christian Unity
(and World Religions Day)
(Isaiah 49, 1-7; 1 Cor. 1, 1-9; John 1, 29-42.)
This week is The Week of Prayer for Christian Unity. The week always begins on the Feast of the Confession of Peter on 18th and ends on the Feast of the Conversion of Paul on 25th January. It always falls during the Epiphany season, when we think about Christ being revealed to the world in different ways – to the Magi, at his baptism, and by the miracle of water into wine at Cana.
It is over 100 years since the Week of Prayer was started by an American minister, Paul Wattson. The week is an opportunity to celebrate what has been achieved over the last hundred years, which is really quite remarkable.
The older ones among us can remember the days when you rarely went into the place of worship of another denomination, or heard one of their ministers preach. Some churches had very rigid rules against this – I remember hearing the late Cardinal Hume speaking of his great sadness that (as a trainee Catholic priest) he was forbidden to attend his own father’s funeral – because his father was an Anglican and the service was held in an Anglican church. The creation of united churches from those which were once separate denominations – in the Indian subcontinent and other places throughout the world, and the formation of the URC and the United Methodist church in this country, are causes for celebration, as well as all the Local Ecumenical Partnerships which have been formed, in which churches are pledged to work and worship together and share resources to a greater or lesser degree. St. Paul tells his converts to ‘Rejoice in all circumstances’ and when we look back on what has been achieved, there is much over which to rejoice.
But the Week of Prayer is also a challenge – to see how much still needs to be done to further the cause of Christian Unity, and to work to achieve it. The timing of the Week of Prayer encourages us to look at the call to Christian Unity in the light both of our own baptism, and in the light of the call to reveal Christ’s glory to the world.
In John’s Gospel, John the Baptist acclaims Jesus as The Lamb of God after his baptism. This reminds us that the vocation Jesus accepted at his baptism, the vocation to which the servant songs of second Isaiah that we heard as our OT lesson point forward, is a vocation to suffering and death. The call we responded to in our own baptism was also a call to sacrifice: to be willing to put to death our own desires and tastes, for the sake of the church.
As humans, we find it difficult to put our own desires and tastes in second place. As a result, like every other human institution, the Christian Church became riven with rivalry and divisions. But there is strong criticism of rivalry throughout the New Testament: Jesus rebukes his disciples for quarrelling over who will have the prime place of honour in his kingdom; Acts condemns discrimination between different groups in the early Church; Paul reminds his converts that all their gifts come from God and are equally valuable. Division should not be a characteristic of the Church.
Behind the disunity of the Church is a lot of unacknowledged rivalry – over who has ‘the truth’, over size of membership, over the gifts which God has given to the different denominations. The way to deal with rivalry, we are taught by Scripture, is to imitate Christ – in particular to imitate the way he became the servant of others. A servant has no right to put his or her own desires first. This should be our attitude as we seek to serve our fellow Christians.
Each Church can reflect on the vocation that is to unique to it – and be proud of it and to seek to develop it. But that does not mean it has to denigrate the gifts given to other churches. One of the great benefits of the movement for Christian unity is that it has given us the opportunity to get to know, and to share, the spiritual wealth of the different Christian traditions – which has deepened and enriched the spirituality of the whole Church.
The timing of the Week of Prayer reminds us that it is our baptism which unites us (almost all churches accept the baptism of other denominations, and only a minority insist on re-baptism for people who move from one denomination to another). As Paul reminds us in Corinthians, we are not baptised into a particular church group, we are baptised into Christ, and it is in Christ that we find our permanence and our unity with God – the unity which is demonstrated by the Trinity – three different persons, yet perfectly united in love and in purpose.
Our search for Christian Unity, however, is not just for ourselves. As members of Christ’s body, our vocation is to serve the world in his name. We are called to show Christ’s glory to the world, and we cannot do it if we are quarrelling among ourselves. If we are to work for peace, we will have little effect if we cannot maintain peace within and between the churches. If we are to serve the poor and marginalised of the world, campaign for Fair Trade and draw attention to the dangers of over use of resources and climate change, we will be so much more effective if we speak with one voice. If we are to enter into dialogue with other faiths, we need to agree on what is essential to the Christian faith, and which of our differences are unimportant.
In John’s Gospel in particular, potential disciples are frequently told “Listen to him” or by Jesus himself “Follow me”. If we listen to Jesus, and follow him in his path of suffering service, we will know that it is not Christ’s will that we split into rival churches; but equally it is not Christ’s will that we all become the same. Each of the churches has a particular gift for the world, and we need each other to be able to present Christ to the world in anything like his fullness.
The work of Christian Unity is a process which has not yet ended, a journey which we undertake as pilgrims together. Journeys entail risk – but by our baptism we are called to follow Christ in taking those risks for the sake of the Kingdom.