An Open Table where Love knows no borders

Church and World

A sermon on John 17:6-19 & Acts 1:15-17,21-26 by Nathan Nettleton

Last Thursday night, as we celebrated the Ascension of our Lord in a combined service with the local Anglican and Catholic congregations, comments were made about issues of church unity and the problems confronted when we worship together because some church’s officially rule that their people cannot fully engage in the worship practices of other churches. It is always painful when we bump into this, and it raises searching questions about what it means to be the Church of Jesus Christ. In tonight’s gospel reading we heard Jesus pray for his followers, saying, “They were yours, and you gave them to me, and they have kept your word. … All mine are yours, and yours are mine; and I have been glorified in them. And now I am no longer in the world, but they are in the world, and I am coming to you. Holy Father, protect them in your name that you have given me, so that they may be one, as we are one.” It sounds so simple and optimistic, and yet we look at the fragmented, struggling, and often dysfunctional institution we know now, and you wonder what became of it all. What is the Church? Why do we bother with it? How is it supposed to be related to the world around it? And is there any hope for it?

I want to come at these questions from a somewhat obscure angle by picking up on another line from the prayer of Jesus that we heard tonight. Jesus said of his Church, “They do not belong to the world, just as I do not belong to the world.” I remember the pioneering Christian rock singer, Larry Norman, picking up on that line in 1972 when he sang “This world is not my home, I’m just passing through.” I quite liked the song, but I’m not so sure it was a helpful response to these words of Jesus. It suggests that the Church is not really related to the world around it at all. We’re just sharing space for a little while. We’re just passing through. But what Jesus actually says seems rather more significant and more demanding than that. “They do not belong to the world, just as I do not belong to the world. … As you have sent me into the world, so I have sent them into the world.” So no, Larry, we are not just passing through. We have been sent into the world by Jesus for a purpose.

But what is the purpose? Well, it seems to be implicit in the description Jesus gives. “As you have sent me into the world, so I have sent them into the world.” Our being sent into the world is all bound up with Jesus’ being sent in to the world. They are more or less one and the same thing. In fact, over and over this whole prayer of Jesus is emphasising that everything is bound up together. As Jesus and the Father ore one, so we and Jesus are to be one, and our calling and his calling and our mission and his mission are one, and we are to be one with one another, and so on and so on. If we want to know who we are as the Church and what we have been sent into the world for, then we begin by looking at Jesus and seeing who he is and what he was sent into the world for.

Now that’s a pretty daunting prospect, however you look at it. And if you have been raised on certain understandings of what Jesus was sent into the world for, it may be downright terrifying. Some of you will have been raised on views that suggest that pretty much the only thing Jesus was sent into the world to do was to die. You could even get that impression from the creeds, because they skip from Jesus being born of the virgin Mary straight to his suffering and death under Pontius Pilate, but most people who hold such views now have learned them from more modern theories that supposed that God was incapable of forgiving unless somebody’s blood was spilled. But I don’t need to unpack that now, because one of our other readings made it pretty clear that the important things about Jesus are by no means confined to his death.

It was in the first reading from the Acts of the Apostles. Did you notice what the basic criteria was when they were looking for a suitably qualified person to replace Judas among the apostles. Peter says it must be someone who “has accompanied us during all the time that the Lord Jesus went in and out among us, beginning from the baptism of John until the day when he was taken up from us.” That’s the whole of Jesus’ ministry, from his baptism to his ascension. And so clearly the earliest Christians understood that it was the whole of Jesus’ life and ministry that mattered. The important stuff was not all to be found at the end, but in the whole of who Jesus was and what he was on about throughout his life and ministry. If someone is going to provide adequate leadership to the fledgling Church, then they had to have a good grounding in all that Jesus said and did. For indeed, what Jesus said and did is now what we, the Church, are to be saying and doing. All of Jesus’ life and ministry becomes the life and ministry of the Church.

All of his preaching. All of his teaching. All of his healing. All of his compassion and care. All of his confronting of social and political and religious injustice. All of his prayer and his parables. All of his welcoming and reconciling of the outcasts. All of his loving and forgiving of enemies. All of his eating and drinking with disreputables and untouchables. All of his revealing of a God of light and love in whom there is no shadow of darkness or vengefulness. And yes, all of his willingness to put his own body on the line in self-sacrificial love to break the cycle of hatred and violence and vengeance. All of Jesus’ life and ministry becomes the life and ministry of the Church.

And so too does his reaching out and gathering of disciples into one community to be his one body in the world, for in the words of his prayer, “now I am no longer in the world, but they are in the world, and I am coming to you. Holy Father, protect them in your name that you have given me, so that they may be one, as we are one.”

So we return to the question of unity, or what often seems to be a painful lack of it. But I want to suggest that what Jesus has to say here might lead us to wonder whether we haven’t often missed the point in our quest for Church unity. You see, if the unity of the Church is grounded in the unity of Christ with the Father, then perhaps unity is not something we have to work for at all. It is just something that is. We are one, whether we noticed it or not. We are one in Christ, in the love of the Father and the power of the Holy Spirit. First and foremost, the unity of the Church is not about resolving doctrinal disputes or achieving some sort of unified institutional structure. First and foremost it is a gift of God that is a given characteristic of our created nature. We don’t have the responsibility to create it, just the responsibility to surrender to it and live it out as fully as we can. Perhaps what we often bemoan as the disunity of the church should not so much be called disunity, but a blasphemous failure to honour and practice the unity that has been lovingly created by God and given us in and through our union with Christ.

So the challenge is, can we live this unity which Jesus prayed for and gave to us, this unity which reflects who he is in his oneness with God and his self-offering to us? We have been made one in Christ. Can we live as one? We have been reconciled to and made one with our enemies. Can we now honour that God given oneness and live it out in forgiveness and love? Or when faced with and irritated by enemies, do we revert to the ways of the world and rise up in righteous indignation to rid the world of these enemies? If we do, we have failed to get what Jesus was saying when he spoke of being in the world but not of it. For being of the world is to have our ways and means shaped by the world and to conform to its culture of imagining ourselves apart from and better than and opposed to those others who are a threat to us. And so deeply entrenched is this way-of-the-world dividing up into warring factions, that if we refuse to conform to it, and instead stand for the forgiveness of enemies and the welcome of outsiders and the reconciliation of all, we do indeed see the truth of Jesus’ words, “the world has hated them because they do not belong to the world, just as I do not belong to the world.”

The word of peace and mercy and hope is too threatening for the world to welcome, for it has swallowed the lie that its very existence and survival depend on the destruction of their enemies and the repelling of those who week refuge, asylum and a fair share of what we have been given. And having swallowed that lie, the gospel seems like treason. But here we stand, as those who would commit ourselves to being the living answer to Jesus’ prayer. That’s why we are about to proclaim the Creed, because for all its inadequacies as a summary of Jesus’ whole life and ministry, it is nevertheless now an important sign of the unity of Christ’s body. So we will stand and sing it as a declaration of solidarity with all Christ’s followers and as a joyous claiming of the unity of life and mission and fellowship he has gathered us into.


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