Field of Dreams: if you build it, they will come!

Christian Unity
January 18, 2015, 7:04 pm
Filed under: Sermons

Sermon preached at All Hallows, Easton, Sunday 18th January 2015

goodall&bxviWhen I was a very young priest, nearly fifty years ago, the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity was a very Big Thing- not least in this diocese of Bristol, where Oliver Tomkins was Bishop. Bishop Oliver had been one of the great pioneers of the Ecumenical Movement and the World Council of Churches, which sought to bring Christians together.

The motivation for this was the realisation that the disunity of Christians is contrary to the will of our Lord, who on the night before his Passion prayed that his followers might be one. In the aftermath of the First World War, many Christian leaders felt the scandal of division among Christians, the huge obstacle this posed to preaching the Good News of Jesus and bringing men and women to faith in Jesus Christ. The Second World War made this an even more urgent concern, and when in the early 1960s the Second Vatican Council put the issue firmly on the agenda of the Catholic Church, it seemed that there had been a great breakthrough, and that a re-union of Christians into One Holy Catholic and Apostolic Church might be, if not near, at any rate in sight.

What went wrong? There have been all kinds of committees and conferences and reports and resolutions, but today the dream of unity seems as far of as ever. Is it just a mirage, an illusion as we plod through the desert, an oasis that we never reach? Is it worth even praying for, if nobody is really interested or sees it as important?

Part of the problem is that Christians are not agreed about what sort of unity they want, and what degree of diversity is acceptable. We talk the same language, but we mean different things. For Catholics and Orthodox the One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic Church already exists, founded by Jesus Christ. It consists not just of the presently-living generation of Christians (the Church Militant here on earth, as we used to say) but of all the generations of faithful from the beginning for two thousand years, sixty or more generations of which we are only the most recent. C.S.Lewis, in his wartime book “The Screwtape Letters”, contrasts the Church as it really is, spread out through time and space and rooted in eternity, and the very imperfect Christians we are and whom we meet every day.

The Unity of the Church is something given by God, not something we create by human effort. When, in the Creed, we say “we acknowledge one Baptism” we are saying that all the baptised are already members of the One Church. That is the Catholic Faith.

Unfortunately, for many Christians, the word “Church” does not mean this, it means particular groups of Christians, in congregations or denominations, which we have somehow to merge into one, or at any rate get to allow free movement of members between them. Why cannot we receive communion anywhere? Surely the barriers are only human rules that humans can set aside? But that is not how everyone sees it.

For Catholics and Orthodox, intercommunion without full unity is rather like sex without marriage. They see the other view rather like asking for “sex now, and we’ll think about marriage later;” whereas they insist on proper marriage first. Some may think this an old-fashioned view, in any context, but on this view their discipline is understandable.

But unity there ought to be, because that is the desire and command of our Lord. In today’s Gospel, he tells Nicodemus that he will see heaven opened, and the angels going up and down upon the Son of Man. He is referring to the dream of Jacob, also called Israel, the forefather of the Chosen People. Jacob dreamed of a ladder or stairway connecting heaven and earth, upon which the angels went up and down, carrying the word of God from heaven to men, and the prayers of men back to God. Our Lord meant that he himself is the stairway that connects God to humankind. He is “the way, the truth and the life”, apart from whom no-one can come to the Father. The Church is his Body, as it were the extension of himself; it is his Bride, his partner in the salvation of the world. It is not just a random collection of individual believers, who are free to arrange their relationships as they please.

Young Samuel heard the voice of God, but did not at first recognise it. It needed the experience of the old priest Eli to enable him to listen. In an ideal world, the Church by holding fast to its tradition and experience enables the individual believer to hear and interpret the voice of God. It can only do that if it is one. If there had been twenty or thirty priests, each telling Samuel something different, what would have happened? How would he have discerned which was correct? Let us pray, especially this week, that the Church may once more be visibly one.


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