Sermon given at Evensong on the Second Sunday of Epiphany 2022
The Week of Prayer for Christian Unity
The Reverend David Stanton Canon in Residence
Sunday, 16th January 2022 at 3.00 PM
On Tuesday we begin the annual week of prayer for Christian Unity.
Back in the heady days of the 1980’s there was much ecumenical optimism, certainly from an Anglican perspective, about closer unity with Rome.
The visit of Pope John Paul 11 to these shores in 1982 was a highlight for it was the first visit here by a reigning Pope.
During his visit he delivered 16 major addresses, met with the Queen, and participated in a joint service alongside the then Archbishop of Canterbury, Robert Runcie.
Unlike the 2010 papal visit of his successor Pope Benedict XVI, John Paul II's was a pastoral - rather than a State Visit.
If we fast forward on 40 years to a cold Sunday afternoon in January 2022, it’s rather heartening to recall those heady ecumenical days; not just the papal visit, but also that influential publication from the World Council of Churches, often called the Lima statement, and properly entitled: Baptism, Eucharist and Ministry.
Following the year of publication (1982) I began formal ordination training and this document was all the rage. Lima seemed to pop up in almost every sermon and seminar.
It’s still the most widely studied ecumenical document, and over the years has been a basis for many ‘mutual recognition’ agreements among churches.
The first section dealt (obviously enough, given the title) with ‘Baptism’, and in it the important passage we heard as our NT lesson this afternoon from the Letter to the Ephesians.
‘There is [one Lord, one faith,] one baptism, one God and Father of us all…’ (Eph. 4: 4–6). Here in baptism we see a genuine Christian witness being made to the healing and reconciling love of God.
Remarkably, we are still enjoying the reflected warmth of that summer, with the vast majority of churches still recognising each other’s administration of baptism as that ‘one baptism into Christ’, when it is made in the name of our Triune God and with water.
Our NT reading is a profoundly important piece of scripture because this Letter is all about unity, chiefly between Jewish and Gentile Christians.
Those who were once ‘strangers and aliens’ are now ‘citizens with the saints and also members of the household of God’ (Eph. 2: 19–20).
In Christ, (the letter makes clear) both Jew and Gentile ‘have access in one Spirit to the Father.’ (2:18).
Having survived my residential ordination training I was duly ordained Deacon in 1985 (during that ecumenically optimistic era) and a couple of years later I took a special journey to Ephesus with an old college friend.
We had the usual tours around the ancient ruins and then we took the time to re-read this letter in situ.
I remember being struck again by the fact that here in this letter the theme of unity is extended to all Christian believers throughout the world. But of course unity is not the same as uniformity.
Any reconciliation between Jews and Gentiles certainly doesn’t just dismiss their distinctions. Instead, what is made known through the church is ‘the wisdom of God in its rich variety’ (3:10) when we heard about tolerance, or ‘bearing with one another’ (4:2).
We shouldn’t assume that all distinctions will miraculously cease, but rather that even with long standing differences, the church may nevertheless grow together as a body.
In other words, the unity of the church is not something we achieve by our work, by ironing out differences between groups. It is a reflection of God's gift of reconciliation in Christ.
In a couple of days time we begin this year’s week of Prayer for Christian Unity, and it’s no accident that this particular reading from Ephesians has been chosen for us to prepare for it.
When Paul talks about reconciling Jews and Gentiles in Christ he repeatedly uses of the word ‘one’ highlighting the message that the church is ‘one new humanity’ created by Christ.
While both Jews and Gentiles once lived according to the flesh, Jews were seen as ‘near’ to God, while Gentiles were seen as ‘far off’.
Through Christ, both groups are now joined together and draw nearer to God.
The writer uses two metaphors to express this: Jews and Gentiles form one body with Christ as its head, and one structure with Christ as its cornerstone. Of course the church should do everything it can to reflect this unity.
Yet Paul makes the important point that this a process and not a completed event. Christ has equipped the church with gifts so the church (as Christ's body) may reach maturity. It’s no accident that the church is depicted as growing into its own body.
In the context of Paul’s writings, and indeed those who follow him, we know that love is not something we can bring about by discipline or slogans, but it’s all about relationship, most often expressed as sharing in the life of the Spirit.
So we see that lasting unity is generated on the basis of such generous relationships.
The word about ‘one hope’ is about something dynamic. It’s all about being engaged in a process that involves bringing hope and life to the whole world.
Here the focus is on generous love and what it enables, and the message of grace tells us that no one is too far away, or too lost, we are all capable of finding a new belonging.
Love doesn’t just embraces us; it also empowers and equips us. That is a powerful claim about the church in the world.
Our call is to live the oneness we already have ‘in Christ.’ Such unity is our starting place, as well as our goal.
Martin Luther once said in The Bondage of the Will,
‘The kingdom is not in the process of preparation, but was prepared before, and the children of the kingdom do not prepare the kingdom, but are in the process of being themselves prepared; that is, the kingdom merits the children, not the children the kingdom.’
In other words: the unity of the church body must model the unity of the gospel. No wonder Jesus was so adamant when He prayed:
‘May they all be one, as You, Father, are in Me and I am in You. May they also be one in Us, so the world may believe You sent me’. (John 17:21).