The themes of Advent seem to me to get sounded earlier and earlier each year! Which is OK with me since I love the season of Advent above all others, and four weeks is much too short a time to cover all the richness and variety of the season. Certainly in our Readings today we have “semi Advent” themes. In fact, this is kind of an interesting transitional Sunday between the All Saints’ observance and the approaching Advent season!
First of all, we had Job’s powerful affirmation of eternal life that even after his “skin has been thus destroyed (by death), then from my flesh I shall see God, whom I shall see on my side, and my eyes shall behold, and not another.” (Job 19:26-27). And then we move on to St. Paul’s words to those Thessalonian Christians “beloved by the Lord, because God chose you from the beginning to be saved, through sanctification by the Spirit and belief in the truth.” (2 Thessalonians 2:13).
And, finally, Jesus’ assurance in the Gospel that — even though the mystery of resurrection and the specifics of eternal life are far too complex for us to comprehend fully — we can rest assured that God “is not a God of the dead, but of the living; for all live to him” (Luke 20:38).
I don’t know about you, but those are welcome words of good news for me in a time such as this. Good news for those of us living in apocalyptic times: with the continuing insecurities of domestic and foreign terrorism; of a seemingly never-ending war in Iraq; and worrying tensions about escalation in and toward Iran. We see the ravages of nature quite literally in earthquakes, fires and floods – and the crushing realities of poverty at home and abroad which makes some people so much more vulnerable to those natural disasters. Economic uncertainties of a fairly large magnitude.
On a less cataclysmic scale, but still important in my life – and those of us who care about ecumenism and church unity – we’re in somewhat of a crisis time in the ecumenical movement today. With our own difficulties in the Anglican Communion, our ecumenical partners are a bit suspicious. We have mixed signals at best coming out of the Vatican as all non-Roman Catholics are reminded by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith that we are, at best, “ecclesial communities” rather than part of the one, holy, catholic, and apostolic Church we confess ourselves to be each Sunday in the Creeds. I wonder what your former Rector, William Reed Huntington — that great ecumenist — would have to say about that!
A bright spot in all this is Cardinal Walter Kasper who is the President of the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity in Rome. He has admitted that we are in a time of transition in the ecumenical movement, perhaps even a time of “crisis.” But has pointed out that the word “crisis” also means a time of opportunity. It’s like balancing on a knife edge, and we can go either way.
Kasper has suggested some attitudes Christians need to have during this crisis or transitional time. We must avoid stereotyping one another or trying to convert one another from one denomination to another. That’s not easy to do with “fellow Christians” like Pat Robertson threatening a Pennsylvania community with the wrath of God for throwing out their school board in a vote against the teaching of so-called “intelligent design,” or the Vatican seeking to purge Roman seminaries of gay students in a misdirected effort to deal with their problems of clergy sexual abuse. But we need to avoid making snide comments or taking cheap shots at one another, even if we do disagree…and have to say we disagree.
Next, Kasper says that we need to find new forms and structures for our national and world councils of churches. Indeed, an encouraging development in our time is something called “Christian Churches Together in the USA,” a new expanded ecumenical table including Roman Catholics, Orthodox, historic Protestant churches, Evangelicals and Pentecostals, and those churches which define themselves largely through their Racial or Ethnic identity. A similar effort is underway internationally with something called The Global Forum which just concluded a very successful meeting in Nairobi.
And even though some of our bilateral ecumenical dialogues seem to have bogged down a bit, Cardinal Kasper has encouraged us all to hang in there with them. “False irenicism gets us no where in these dialogues, “he points out, and we cannot avoid the tough issues today around ordained ministry…the ministry of bishops…even papal primacy in those discussions. As well as honestly sharing our own internal issues as churches.
For there are two forms of ‘ecumenism’ according to Kasper: external ecumenism which is the search for unity between the churches; and internal ecumenism which is the search for unity, renewal and reform within our own churches. For, surely, the more we can renew and reform our own church to conform to the will of Christ – and the more other churches do the same – the closer we will draw to one another!
Finally, Walter Kasper speaks of celebrating what he calls “spiritual ecumenism,” remembering that the ecumenical movement for the unity of the church has always been and will always be an impulse and gift of the Holy Spirit. If the Church is ever to be one, it will not be something we create, but will be a gift and work of the Holy Spirit. So, ecumenically concerned monasteries, movements like Cursillo and Marriage Encounter, healing groups like the Order of St. Luke all will make enormous contributions toward unity if we give them our attention.
So, times of crisis can also be times of opportunity! Certainly that was the case in our Readings from Scripture today: Job’s faith was deepened and enriched through all that he suffered. Paul’s frustration with the Thessalonians does not keep him from giving thanks for them, “beloved by the Lord” because God had chosen them from the beginning. And Luke’s Jesus is actually pretty gentle with the Sadducees, even as he tries to correct their faulty view of the resurrection. That is good news, dear friends. Good news even in the midst of troubling times.
I just got back from a National Council of Churches meeting in New Jersey and found good news there as well – with the election of a world renowned ecumenist, Dr. Michael Kinnamon, as our new General Secretary, with the NCC speaking out against genocide from Armenia to Dar Fur, reaffirming our commitment to seeking peace with justice in the Middle East, celebrating the good work of our Special Commission for a Just Rebuilding of the Gulf Coast, working hard to reassure and strengthen our commitment to the Orthodox churches by choosing an Armenian Orthodox Archbishop as President and celebrating his election in St. Vartan’s Armenian Orthodox Cathedral with Evening Prayer that included an ordained woman officiating, an Eastern Orthodox priest delivering the homily, and a Black Methodist pastor leading the prayers.
So, times of crisis can be times of opportunity! And I challenge you, in these days, to witness to your family and friends about the security you find in God, even in times of in-security. To speak of what really matters, what is really important, and what is not – in tight economic times. To speak of the peace which will inevitably come, finally, on the heels of war. To speak of the compassion which has been unleashed in the wake of natural disasters. Yes, even to speak of an ecumenical springtime in what feels to many like an ecumenical winter!
That was certainly the message of the prophets. That was certainly what Jesus’ proclamation of the Kingdom of God was all about. That was the Gospel, the Good News, Paul was so passionate about preaching. And, I think that is what the ecumenical movement is all about at its very best.
For, like Job, we know that our Redeemer liveth! Like Paul , we know that God has chosen us from the beginning! And, like our Savior Jesus Christ, we know that our God is not a God of the dead…but of the living!