Homily for the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity


Homily for the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity 

Acts 2: 42—46  They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers. Awe came upon everyone, because many wonders and signs were being done by the apostles. 44All who believed were together and had all things in common; 45they would sell their possessions and goods and distribute the proceeds* to all, as any had need. 46Day by day, as they spent much time together in the temple, they broke bread at home* and ate their food with glad and generous* hearts, 47praising God and having the goodwill of all the people. And day by day the Lord added to their number those who were being saved. 

Isaiah 58: 6—11:   Is not this the fast that I choose:    to loose the bonds of injustice, to undo the thongs of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke?  Is it not to share your bread with the hungry, and bring the homeless poor into your house; when you see the naked, to cover them, and not to hide yourself from your own kin? Then your light shall break forth like the dawn, and your healing shall spring up quickly; your vindicator* shall go before you, the glory of the Lord shall be your rearguard. Then you shall call, and the Lord will answer; you shall cry for help, and he will say, Here I am. If you remove the yoke from among you, the pointing of the finger, the speaking of evil, if you offer your food to the hungry and satisfy the needs of the afflicted, then your light shall rise in the darkness and your gloom be like the noonday. The Lord will guide you continually, and satisfy your needs in parched places, and make your bones strong; and you shall be like a watered garden, like a spring of water, whose waters never fail.

Matthew 6:  21: 26  ‘You have heard that it was said to those of ancient times, “You shall not murder”; and “whoever murders shall be liable to judgement.” 22But I say to you that if you are angry with a brother or sister,* you will be liable to judgement; and if you insult* a brother or sister,* you will be liable to the council; and if you say, “You fool”, you will be liable to the hell* of fire. 23So. when you are offering your gift at the altar, if you remember that your brother or sister* has something against you, 24leave your gift there before the altar and go; first be reconciled to your brother or sister,* and then come and offer your gift25Come to terms quickly with your accuser while you are on the way to court* with him, or your accuser may hand you over to the judge, and the judge to the guard, and you will be thrown into prison. 26Truly I tell you, you will never get out until you have paid the last penny.

As we begin or end prayers, sermons, etc. we often say “in the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit ….  or (in an effort to avoid patriarchal language): “In the name of the Creator, the Redeemer and the Sanctifier ….”    In this language of God that we use, signifying the Holy Trinity, we have a constant reminder of unity – that God is a kind of community, each person of the Trinity simply an aspect of the whole.  Yet despite having distinct persona or facets, God is not many but one. This is elementary catechism stuff, but it’s helpful to keep in mind. 

We often hear quoted the line from John’s Gospel attributed to Jesus, “I ask .. . that they all may be one” — one, as Jesus and the God he related to as Abba were one.  And we believe the spirit of Jesus is represented accurately in this quote from John 10:  “There will be one flock and one shepherd.”  St. Paul echoed this sense of oneness when he said “There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called to the one hope of your calling, one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God …. who is above all and through all and in all.”  

There is one Spirit but there are many gifts, many expressions of the divine being.  We seem to be able to see this on a personal, individual basis but we have never succeeded in applying it to the universal church.

The Week of Prayer for Christian Unity is a reminder that it is important to seek and express unity in a much bigger way (the original word for ecumenism, the Greek OIKUMENE, variously means the whole world, or the kingdom of God). This year’s material (theme, readings, prayers) comes to us from the Christian community in Jerusalem.  If any place on earth should know the importance of unity and oneness, it is Jerusalem. 

Jesus said, “When you are offering your gift at the altar, if you remember that your brother or sister has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar and go; first be reconciled to your brother or sister, and then come and offer your gift.”  In today’s Gospel, Jesus tells his followers that if their relationships with those around them are compromised or impaired in some way, they need to work at making that right before approaching the altar. This was part of the reason the Church made it mandatory to undertake a form of confession prior to receiving the Eucharist, and it’s part of the reason for the Passing of the Peace  It’s based on the important principle that Jesus placed love of neighbour on a par with love of God. 

The Eucharist or Holy Communion has been called the sacrament of unity.  As an Anglican House of Bishops document says: “In the Eucharist  . . . we are united with [Christ] through the power of the Holy Spirit . . . In this sacrament we proclaim the faith of the Church and are united with all the faithful, gathered in their local communities, as we are united with the Lord.” (The Eucharist: Sacrament of Unity, House of Bishops paper, Church of England 2001) The Week of Prayer for Christian Unity is a reminder to ourselves of the much larger context in which we operate when we gather in our local church to celebrate Eucharist. 

Devotion and worship without that focus tends to become parochial and then individualistic, so people can become focused on “making my communion,” rather than entering into a state of communion not only with the local community but with the entire Church and indeed the universe.  In the Eucharist we are united, or reunited, with God, who is One.  If that act of Communion unites us with God, who is God of all, then it must unite us with God’s creation, with God’s universal vision, and with God’s people everywhere. 

Remember the story of Snow White?  In that fairy tale, the insecure queen is preoccupied with herself, her image, her status, and constantly consults her magic mirror, asking it “Mirror, mirror on the wall, who’s the fairest of them all?”   A child can see the point in this story.  Yet for many Christian churches, that sense of needing to be unique and special, that need to focus on reassuring themselves of their status, has become almost all-consuming.  When the Church becomes determined to see the world as a reflection of itself  and threatened by anything different, we distort the obvious meaning of the Good News of Christ.  In the process, unity is lost and now, as we face an age in which there is a desperate need for inter-FAITH understanding and cooperation, the various Christian churches (and there are almost too many to number) continue to quibble about who is God’s favourite – or perhaps, which part of the Church resembles the image of God more than all the others.  Like the neurotic and insecure Queen, some versions of the Church become more focused on destroying their rivals than on showing the light and love of Christ to the world.

I have been reading a fascinating new study of the life of Jesus, written by British linguistic scholar Maurice Casey. Reviewing biblical scholarship over the last 100 years or so, he points out how the 19th Century search for the historical Jesus gave way among German scholars of the early 20th Century to an effort to portray Jesus as a Gentile and an anti-Semite. Jesus, a practising Jew, who was recognized and appeared to accept designation as a rabbi, an anti-Semite!  That would seem to be a ridiculous stretch.  But for Europeans bent on establishing their own racial superiority in the lead-up to Nazism, for Europeans who for too many years saw nothing but blond-haired, blue-eyed images of Jesus in their stained-glass windows, maybe it seemed like a logical progression.  It stands as a warning about how blind we can be to our own assumptions, and how ignorant we can be of the Christ who is not limited to any culture, and who is the bearer of God’s love to all, not just to the “chosen” (or the self-congratulatory). 

I still feel discomfort about a funeral I attended a few years ago, celebrating the life of our former Bishop’s wife.  She had been a corporate lawyer, and had most recently worked at the University of Calgary.  Dr. Harvey Weingarten, president and Vice –Chancellor of the University was one of the eulogists, and the fact that he was Jewish made me acutely aware of how emphatically our liturgies express the  assumption that everyone present is Christian (or should be).  I came away thinking that we really need to take a new approach to such public services, because when we show that much of a lack of sensitivity to the variety of people who might be present, we come across looking like a cult or at best a sect.  Certainly we can celebrate the blessing of enjoying the new life of the Christ of God without being obnoxious or exclusive. 

If the Eucharist is indeed the sacrament of unity, a way of entering into communion with the one God, then it must be seen as something of a scandal when it’s not.  I continue to hear stories of people visiting other Christian churches and being told they aren’t allowed to receive Communion there, it’s only for members — as though you could establish a membership in God or think that Jesus only attends or authorizes your church — as though the Church could be reduced to a private members-only club!   A former Archbishop of Canterbury, William Temple, spoke true when he said that the Church is the only institution which exists for those who are not its members. 

I can’t imagine Jesus blocking someone in that way.  His approach virtually always seemed to be one of opening the doors to all kinds of people.  When his disciples complained or chided him, as they did when he was approached by children or by certain women, he criticized them for their lack of compassion and understanding of the Gospel.  Jesus’ approach, as revealed in stories like the feeding of the 5000, seems to have been completely indiscriminate, unlike some institutions which, perhaps due to a lack of trust in both people and God, have so over-regulated access to and practice of communion, that our witness is a tragic disunity, quite opposed to the Spirit of Christ. 

“Jerusalem is built as a city that is at unity with itself . . . Peace be within your walls and quietness within your towers” (Ps. 122). Again, this year’s Week of Prayer material comes from Christians in Jerusalem.  Frankly, Jerusalem is not a place I would typically look for a model of how unity is supposed to happen.  It is just as violent and divided a place as it was when Jesus wept over it and lamented the fact that it was a place that destroyed so many people.  Disputes over the so-called “Holy Land” have generated more wars, crusades, separations and disputes between people than any place on earth.  It is rare to get through a day let alone a week, in which there is not some unfortunate event happening in Jerusalem.  But this appeal for unity from Christians in Jerusalem perhaps bears a certain integrity in that it is coming from people who know how critical unity is and how terrible it is when people are separated and hostile.

The theme of this year’s Week of Prayer is based on our reading from Acts this morning. “They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers(Acts 2). The first Christians and the first Church, were a tight knit communal entity.   One of the words for the church was koinonia, which suggests having everything in common, and the Eucharist was the way in which they celebrated and consolidated that unity.  In the vignette from Acts, we see how the first Christians responded to the witness of Christ – by entering whole-heartedly into fellowship with everyone identifying with Christ. 

They very quickly overcame cultural and religious differences, and welcomed thousands of new converts into their new community.  It reveals that we are saved not in isolation but in community, and, as Jesus taught (Matthew 25), that we are judged by the integrity of our relationships, especially with those who are different or threatening to us. 

Today is a summons to pray for unity, which means, to yearn for it, because prayer is frivolous if it is not expressing a need that is close to our heart.   And also, it is a summons and a challenge to demonstrate unity, not only in supporting inter-denominational dialogue and understanding, but also in seeking to connect on an inter-faith basis, and to be willing to examine the blind spots in our own practices and attitudes.  Further, it means being a source and example of unity in the community in general.   How can we contribute better to unifying  life in the Tri-Cities area?   We can all think of ways to do that, but the best way we can begin, and the easiest, is by demonstrating within this community of St John’s, and especially in the Eucharist, something of the unity of spirit and purpose that we hear about in the life of the early Church. I love the line from Acts, describing the response of the community to their fellowship: “having the goodwill of all the people. And day by day the Lord added to their number,” which reminds us how much the world needs places where there is genuine and loving community.  May the Eucharist always be a summons to reconciliation, peace, understanding and harmony, not just for us, but for the sake of the world around us. 


 – just not an adequate reflection of the variety of people who might be present at such a public service, and the spiritual/religious needs they might have.  By and large our liturgies are medieval in orientation and content. 

They didn’t stand there staring at the closed doors behind them – they rapidly forged ahead with a radical new way of being 

We will break dividing walls – no we won’t

Solidarity with suffering Christians  — sense of kinship

Sense of ownership shifts

RC theologian Richard McBrien (Jan. 2011)

Unfortunately, some four decades later we seem no closer to the achievement of real progress on the delicate matter of intercommunion, or eucharistic sharing, than we were in 1969.

Where there has been some forward movement, it has been at the grass-roots level. While the teachings and regulations of the official church remain unchanged, many Catholics and other Christians have been acting with their feet.

Whether we like it or not, intercommunion has been happening on a regular basis at Sunday Masses and in the liturgies of other Christian churches, and particularly at weddings and funerals.

The incidents of such unofficial and essentially private forms of eucharistic sharing have become so common in fact that in some Catholic churches, and especially on public occasions when the bishop is present, priests feel compelled to remind the non-Catholics in the congregation that they are not to come forward for Holy Communion.

Comparable warnings are not given in Protestant and Episcopal churches. On the contrary, their tendency is to welcome all baptized Christians to the reception of Communion.

Once upon a time there was a powerful sense of identification with Jerusalem – of connection with the Holy Land – cf the Crusades aimed at liberating Jerusalem from the Muslims.   I would bet that for most Canadians, it is not much of  a factor at all in their spirituality – and virtually all we hear in our time is  about division and conflict and injustice

Trinity = image of unity

One God – so

 ike the people at the church service enthusiastically singing “We will break dividing walls!”  too often we can’t even manage to be nice to people at coffee hour, much less break down the historic dividing walls of  hostility.

Like a schizophrenic — divided within herself – the Church has a lot of personalities that don’t even recognize each other – which makes any concept of the whole, or the Body, difficult to establish.

That’s the clue – start with coffee hour.  See if we can build a degree of unity in this community

Cf the unfortunate and confusing witness of people devoutly going to Communion and then going out and making war on each other.  The sense of Communion as connection with the purposes of the one God seem to have been lost and instead we have imposed an individualized approach in which, instead of entering a state of Communion, we make our own personal communion.

The Gospel obviously contradicts this approach.

If you aren’t one with someone – don’t approacvh the altar until you have done all in your power to reconcile the situation.  Otherwise, we truly undermine the communion we supposedly celebrate.

 “It is too light a thing …”  Through the prophet, God chided his people to realize it is never enough to be preoccupied with your own limited agenda – anyone who presumes to be a servant of God is

 I continue to believe there is one God, one Creator, one Spirit, so the denominational mosaic

We have become much more aware of the degree to which we exclude by gender, race, religion, education, economic status, etc. but I suspect we have a long way to go before arriving at the kind of maturity demonstrated by Jesus 

A ship cruising far off the shipping lanes in the South Pacific notices a signal fire on an uncharted island. The captain puts a boat over the side and the crew goes to investigate.

They find a shipwreck survivor alone on the tropic island. He is shaggy, unshaven, and nearly naked except for a scrap of cloth around his waist. The survivor is overjoyed at seeing his rescuers. “I’ve prayed and prayed that someone would come but no one ever saw my signal fire before. I’ve been stranded alone on this island for seven years”.

The captain asked, “How have you survived”?

The shipwrecked man told about eating berries and bananas and coconuts, about catching crabs in the lagoon, about rubbing sticks together to make fire.

As the man showed the ship crew around his primitive camp, the Captain noticed three huts made of sticks woven together and thatched with palm fronds. “What are these,” he asked.

The shipwrecked man pointed to the larger grass hut and said, “I build this one to live in so I could be warm and dry during the tropical rains every afternoon”.

“What about that one,” the captain asked.

“O, I wanted a special place to  worship and pray; that’s my church”.

“What’s the third hut for”?

“Well, a couple of years ago there was a squabble and the church split”.


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