Acts 1:6-14 • 1 Peter 4:12-14; 5:6-11 • John 17:1-11
Ask a group of ecumenists why they do what they do and some of them will mention these verses from John 17.
"A group of who?" you might be asking. What did she say? Did I miss something in that accent of hers again? Sounded like she said a group of economists? Or maybe it was communists? Did she just say communists??
No, not economist or communists. What I said was a group of ecumenists. Ecumenists are people who work for the unity of the church – the big church across and within our different denominations. The ecumenical church, the church united, is very active in Renton, and has been for a long time. It’s where I do much of my work. As I do that work I am asked now and again, “Could we find a word other than ecumenist to describe who we are? It’s so….unusual….difficult to say….we are not sure people understand it.” But it’s a word with a particular meaning and history and that I think teaches something important about who we are.
The church has used this word through the ages because it describes the people of God as a household – a household based on what Jesus taught - a big open household - a place who purpose is it to provide a home for any that need a place - a home that welcomes us and send us in love, a place that nurtures and at the same time challenges in love. When we say the church is ecumenical this is what we are saying – the church is a household – a big open household, a household that welcomes and sends, nurtures and challenges just a Jesus did these same things.
Ask a group of ecumenists why they do what they do and some of them at least will describe their work to seek out this household, this ecumenism, because of what Jesus says in this scripture from John (and in a bunch of other scripture but this is the one that sums it up and tends to get quoted). We - Jesus followers – all of us no matter the denominations that we claim and that claim us – we are one as Jesus and God are one, we are filled with the same Spirit – bound by the same love. We are one, united. But united in a way that celebrates difference, that cherishes the interdependence of this varied and blessed creation, that loves and serves the world that God loves.
But then as you are mingling with this group of Ecumenist you will hear other responses to the question why do Ecumenists do what you do. All of them are based in this same call to unity but come more from the pain that is experienced when a unity that respects diversity is not honored. You will hear some explain their motivation towards the work of deeper understanding, deeper peace, deeper unity because of the God encountered through the church but at the same time the damage that has been witnessed or experienced when the church does not act in love of Jesus towards its fellow churches, when Christian do not act in love of Jesus towards their fellow Christian, or to those looking in wondering what this life is about. You will stories of pain and humiliation, deep deep harm at the hands of Christians who imagine that they have the corner on the truth and on the basis of this truth have exiled their brothers and sister of different sexuality, gender, skin race, economic status.
Others still will talk about the distraction from our work of love and service and the way it is undermined when we consume ourselves with points of doctrine to the detriment of feeding the poor, accompanying the lonely, binding up the wounds of the beaten and dying. Some will talk about the history of violence and hatred across denominations that we carry as part of our story and how the ways we can’t get along, and argue over who has the correct interpretation of scripture, sacrament, or mission only convince the world that this hatred and violence is anything but historical. Some will talk about their sadness at the loss of credibility the church suffers when we mirror the polarization, the fear, the politicization of the world in our own relationships, when we refuse to listen to each other, refuse to compromise, within and across denominations.
Some will talk about these things and how it fuels their work to build unity and peace across the church. And these reasons are valid and important. But most, most I have found will describe their passion for unity a different way. Instead of naming the exact verse in scripture or diving into the historical and cultural dynamics that make unity important; instead of naming what’s missing they will describe something they have found. And they will describe finding it in a touch. They will reflect on being in the world, in the market place, with a fellow Christians in some ecumenical endeavor or other, maybe a feeding program in the name of the big church, maybe a coffee with a new friend that they met at an ecumenical worship service. They will describe a time that they were beside someone that they wouldn’t usually be with, someone from a different theological, political, economic standpoint and how as they served together, as they prayed together, as they shared themselves in loving ways they were touched, touched by the way this other listened, touched by this other’s heart for service, touched by this other’s story, the ways they have been shaped, how they came to be who they are, touched by the rich gifts this other brings, the vulnerability they carry, the courage, the willingness to learn. Touched by something bigger than themselves and in this touch they catch a glimpse again, they know for just a second the peace, the love that Jesus calls us to – a peace that transcends and cuts right through all our differences. They describe this touch. How they have seen it’s existence and how they know, believe and will give themselves to its call. In this touch, this connection with another and through it to something bigger they know what Jesus is talking about in John - that we are one - that in this generous, loving way of Jesus – God is in us and we are in God.
Have you been to see Godspell yet? Oh my goodness, it is incredible! These kids of ours have worked for months – setting the story of Jesus in our midst – in Pike Place market – this market - our corner of the world. They have challenged and loved and encouraged each other. They have challenged and love and encouraged and challenged their directors. If you haven’t seen it already come this afternoon and you might also find yourself challenged and loved and encouraged.
Here is something to notice about their proclamation of Jesus’ story in Godspell. It ends with a touch. There is no resurrection in Godspell. The story is told and Jesus dies at the hand of those who think they have a corner on the truth. But in this market, in our time, our place, there is no resurrection – we in 21st century Seattle do not have the physical body of Jesus to convince us that he remains. What we have is a touch. As they, this cast of Seattlites are mourning the death of their friend one disciple goes to the other and she touches her friend. She doesn’t try to explain it all, or try to debate about what it all meant. She doesn’t start to lay out details for how Jesus followers are to organize itself, who will be ordained and who won’t, who will celebrate the sacraments and who won’t, (unfortunately those things come later).
No, in that moment she touches her friend and her friend in that touch, that connection, remembers what is real and what she is to do. She remembers a God of love and she proclaims – even in death, in mourning – long live God.
We know these touches, don’t we? More often than not they aren’t even physical. We’ve seen them. We’ve experienced them. These touches take us to a life that is eternal. When another is suffering – a hand on the shoulder, a loving glance, a shared tear, a glance of empathy. When someone is rejoicing a no wholes barred, goofy, joyous grin right alongside them, a visit to the dying, a seat beside the homeless, a smile for the stranger. It’s in these touches we remember something eternal – something real and enduring – something mystical and bigger than us - the love of God - our unity.
This is the love, the unity that Jesus was calling his followers to. It is the love that he is calling this church to. It’s is this love that calls ordinary people of different gifts and desires together in the name of the ecumenical church. It is this love that sends us, this church into the market place, to notice where there is pain and reach out to tend to others.
It is this church that our new members will join today. They join as Presbyterians – one expression of God’s church, one expression with deep gifts and flaws – one expression but not all of it. You reaffirm today and we reaffirm with you our one baptism and through it our membership of the whole church, our binding to each other in the love that Jesus taught and our charge to touch each other and the world in loving and holy ways so that the way of God way is prepared, and the world may proclaim with us – long live God……
St. Andrew Sermons