May 11, 2010

Seventh Sunday of Easter

by Debra Dean Murphy
John 17:20-26

[Two lectionary posts this week: one for the Seventh Sunday of Easter and one for Ascension Sunday (reposted from May 2009)] 

"I ask not only on behalf of these, but also on  behalf of those who will believe in me through their word, that they may  all be one."  (John 17:20-21a).

It seems there’s not much talk of ecumenism these days—not in books, not  on blogs, not even in and among churches.  Maybe that’s because forty  years of dogged efforts at dialogue and mutual understanding have borne  some real fruit: Calvinists are far less suspicious of Catholics than  they used to be and vice versa; Methodists and Lutherans are now in full  communion with one another.

Of course, the ecclesial traditions most vested in the ecumenical  movement are now among those experiencing significant decline, and the  growing churches—Pentecostal, non-denominational, “emergent” of this or  that variety—don’t seem to place the same high premium on  bridge-building and cross-over conversations. So maybe it’s too soon to  say “mission accomplished” when it comes to Church unity.

Of course it is. Jesus’ prayer in this week’s Gospel reading is a  stinging reminder of his Body’s continued disunity. But what can and  should be said about this obstinate, obvious reality? How does one  preach this familiar text in ways that signal urgency but not despair,  that convey the gravity of the situation while also offering a word of  hope? I have no idea.

But here are a few thoughts . . .

(1) The oneness for which Jesus prayed is rooted not in human  achievement but in the life of the triune God. The unity between the  Father and Son, which is their mutual self-giving (perichoresis) in the  Spirit, is the same love by which the ekklesia exists (“As you, Father,  are in me and I am in you, may they also be in us”).  As Dietrich  Bonhoeffer put it: “Christian unity is not an ideal which we must  realize [actualize]; it is rather a reality created by God in Christ in  which we may participate.”

(2) The unity of the Church does not subsist invisibly through  “faith” or by assent to propositions, but is to be visible and material.  The reason for the oneness is “that the world may believe that you have  sent me.” Unity is shared witness not intellectual agreement.

(3) It is the Eucharist that constitutes this unifying witness in  the world. Through the sacramental gifts of Christ’s body and blood, the  community receives itself—it becomes the body of Christ, blessed,  broken, and shared. As the Great Thanksgiving says, we are made “one  with Christ, one with each other, and one in ministry to all the world.”  In this act the Church is united across time and distinctions between  the global and the local are collapsed, for in every local assembly is  the whole body—“the world in a wafer,” as Bill Cavanaugh has said. The  Church is here and now, there and then, the visible body of its Lord.  And this visible body does not express or evince the Church’s unity; it  is the Church’s unity.

But the Church is divided. Still. John probably included Jesus’ prayer  in his Gospel because of doctrinal strife in his own community. Discord  then and now. Yet while the scandal of disunity persists, Jesus prays  for us still. This is the good news. But it does not relieve us of our  responsibility to practice the unity that is God’s and that is God’s  gift to us. How will Christ’s body, divided by differences both petty  and consequential, receive this gift and bear visible, material witness  to God’s own life and love?

1 comment:

Ivy said...

Thank you so much for these thoughts. I'm supplying and preaching tomorrow and this has been most helpful Peace.