Thursday, January 26, 2012

Christian Unity: Christ's Victory, Our Task

My second and third speaking engagements in Louisville, Kentucky on Sunday (January 22) were an afternoon workshop on grassroots ecumenical engagement based on my book Ecumenism Means You, Too: Ordinary Christians and the Quest for Christian Unity sponsored by the ecumenism committee of Eastern Area Community Ministries in Louisville (a story about the workshop has been posted on the web site of the Kentucky Council of Churches--click on hyperlink) and the homily for the evening Week of Prayer for Christian Unity service, also sponsored by Eastern Area Community Ministries. The text of my homily appears below:

Christian Unity: Christ's Victory, Our Task
(1 Corinthians 15:51-58)

In the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.

I think I’m fairly safe in assuming that if you’re here this evening, you think that Christian unity is a good thing and that it’s a good thing to pray for it. And it goes without saying that if we’re gathered here to pray for Christian unity, then we’re agreed that we don’t yet have Christian unity, at least not in its fullest, most visible sense.

The theme for the 2012 Week of Prayer for Christian Unity expresses a truth that we who are grieved by our divisions and pray earnestly that we might yet be visibly one desperately need to hear: “We Will All Be Changed by the Victory of our Lord Jesus Christ.” This hopeful word from 1 Corinthians 15 gives us the encouragement we need to persist in the quest for the visible unity of the church at a time when its divisions seem to be going from bad to worse and apathy regarding these divisions is widespread. As Presbyterian ecumenist and Louisville resident Joseph Small puts it so well, our progress toward visible unity is paralyzed by “the scandal of a division that ceases to offend.” It’s a difficult moment for summoning the energy to do something to move people to make things different. But tonight we hear this word that things will be different: “We Will All Be Changed by the Victory of Our Lord Jesus Christ.”

In context, Paul’s hopeful word has to do with what folks in my profession call “individual eschatology”—the “last things” that have to do with God’s goals for every single person. Paul’s writing about the transformation of our bodies through the resurrection—God’s transformation of our whole selves into the fullness of everything God intended humanity to be from the beginning. Resurrection is all about change—what perishes is changed into what lasts; what is dishonorable is changed into what is glorious; what is merely physical is changed into what is also fully spiritual; what lives is changed into what also gives life; what comes from the earth is changed into what also comes from heaven; what dies is changed into what lives forever. Paul is confident that God wants this change for everyone: “we will all be changed.” Which is to say—“we will all be converted.”

And who in particular was it that Paul was so confident would be changed, converted, by the resurrecting power of God? The Corinthian Christians—those quarrelsome, cliquish, divisive, schismatic Corinthians Christians to whom Paul announced his reason for writing this letter: “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.” We’re therefore not doing violence to Paul’s hopeful word in chapter 15 if we hear it tonight as a word about the eschatology of Christian unity. “Listen, I will tell you a mystery: we will all be changed. We will all be one in a way the world can see. Division will be changed into unity; discord will be changed into agreement; separation will be changed into communion. Where, O division, is your victory? Where, O division, is your sting? Thanks be to God, who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ.”

We can receive that hopeful word only in light of the eschatology that belongs to the core of the Christian vision. The basic premise of the hope for the realization of God’s creative purposes in the victory of Christ is this: the reign of God that has come near in Christ is already a present reality, but it isn’t yet fully realized. That’s the biblical framework for the quest to realize the unity Christ prayed for his church in John 17. We already have unity, for we belong to the one body of Christ, and we’re indwelt by one Spirit. But as the current divisions of the church attest, this unity is not yet fully realized, for its fullness is not visible. Visible unity requires change, our conversion.

How do we know when our unity is visible? In our workshop this afternoon we discussed one particular definition of the unity sought by the modern ecumenical movement, approved by the World Council of Churches at their 1961 assembly in New Delhi, India. It’s stood the test of time as the clearest statement of the goal of the ecumenical movement. According to the New Delhi definition, if all churches don’t recognize baptisms performed by other churches as expressions of the one baptism that belongs to the one body of Christ, we don’t have a unity the world can see. If all Christians can’t celebrate the Eucharist together in one another’s churches, we don’t have a unity the world can see. If all churches can’t confess together the essence of the apostolic faith, we don’t have a unity the world can see. If our churches don’t accept the ministers and members of one another’s churches as their own, we don’t have a unity the world can see. If we can’t share the Gospel and serve the needy and work to liberate the oppressed together, we don’t have a unity the world can see. If we can’t speak prophetic words to the world with a unified voice whenever God calls us to do so, we don’t have a unity the world can see. We don’t yet have that kind of unity. We all need to be changed, converted, by the victory of our Lord Jesus Christ. The unity we seek is not yet.

It’s true that our unity is already a present reality. There is—present tense—one body, one Spirit, one hope, one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God. That’s already true of the church, even in all its divisions. But if we conceive of this unity primarily as an already-realized spiritual reality, we may see little reason to devote our energies to the hard work of contesting earnestly the issues of faith and order that continue to divide us.

Likewise if visible unity is only fully realized in the age to come, we may decide there's little or no reason to seek it in the present age. Many of my fellow Protestants have insisted that the four “marks of the church” in the Nicene Creed we’ll confess momentarily, including its affirmation that the church is “one,” are eschatological marks of the church—fully realized only in the final victory of Christ. That’s true enough. But one legacy of this insistence is an aversion to efforts to realize these marks in the present, especially the mark of visible oneness. Even if the oneness, holiness, catholicity, and apostolicity of the church will fully be realized only in the end, that doesn’t mean that the church shouldn’t seek to attain to those marks here and now.

It’s helpful to think of the eschatology of the quest for Christian unity in light of our quest for holiness of life. Even now in this earthly life, the saints already are just that—“saints,” “holy ones,” who are “seated with Christ in the heavenly places,” in the language of the letter to the Ephesians. But in this earthly life the saints are not yet fully holy. We’re on a lifelong journey of conversion, a lifelong journey of becoming more and more fully the holy ones that we already are. The full completion of sanctification comes only at the end, when we will be changed, converted, into the holiness that belongs to God.

Just as our already-present holiness in Christ doesn’t warrant our refusal of the sanctifying work of the Spirit in the present, and just as the deferral of our glorification until the resurrection shouldn’t de-motivate the present pursuit of the sanctification that will be completed in the life to come, so it is with the already-but-not-yet nature of Christian unity. Because we’ve already been entrusted with the lasting reality of oneness in Christ and in the Spirit, we must seek to make this oneness visible to the world in advance of the age to come. Our conversion to visible unity is Christ’s victory, but it’s also our task.

Because visible unity is a vision of the last things disclosed by Jesus himself in his prayer that we might be one, we can be confident that when we take action to seek the visible unity of the church, we’re joining God in what God intends to do in and through the church in the culmination of God’s goals for all things in the victory of Christ. Tonight we make Christian unity our task by praying together that Christ’s victory may change us all by making us more visibly one in him.

The task of praying for unity gives us a proper perspective on our other forms of human participation in the quest for visible Christian unity. Praying for unity reminds us that unity is ultimately God’s gracious gift. It comes about as the divided churches are converted to Christ by the work of the Holy Spirit in our midst. Such conversion is the work of the Triune God, but we must be receptive to it and participate in it. Praying for unity teaches us the ecumenical virtue of patience. One day we will be one, but we’re not there yet. Getting there may require centuries of patient commitment to the quest for Christian unity—maybe even millennia. Praying for unity keeps the church from losing heart in what increasingly seems to be a losing struggle from a human point of view.

In January 2006 I participated in a consultation convened to examine the factors behind the failure of plans for a Second Conference on Faith and Order in North America that was to commemorate the fiftieth anniversary of the 1957 Oberlin Conference on Faith and Order. That gathering seemed like a funeral for the death of an ecumenical dream. And yet when we joined in common worship each morning and evening, singing TaizĂ© chants and praying together for the unity of the church, we experienced the rekindling of a hope that didn’t seem warranted by the circumstances. At the end of that same year I served as a member of the Baptist World Alliance delegation to a five-year series of conversations with the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity. The mood of these conversations was far from somber, yet we were acutely aware of the inevitable impasses that lay ahead. But when we gathered for morning and evening prayer each day, even though we weren’t yet able to be united at the Lord’s table, we shared a powerful experience of unity in praying together that we might be one through the victory of our Lord Jesus Christ.

As we continue to pray for unity, as we confess the apostolic faith we share in common, as we engage in other acts of worship that embody our unity, may we be encouraged by another hopeful word of Paul in 1 Corinthians 15. Verse 58: “Therefore, my beloved, be steadfast, immovable, always excelling in the work of the Lord, because you know that in the Lord your labor is not in vain.” May it be so, through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with the Father in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever. Amen.

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