It was not an easy decision for me, some eight years ago, when the then Presiding Bishop, Frank Griswold, asked me to consider leaving this diocese and working for him on the national level in the area of ecumenical and interfaith relations. But, then as now, I felt a special vocation around Jesus’ prayer in John’s Gospel that we all might be one as he and the Father are one…so that the world might believe! (John 17:23)
In a world divided in so many ways, the Church has a special message to deliver about unity. But sadly, our message lacks credibility when the world looks at us and sees how divided we are as Christians! So the task begins…with us! Us, meaning Episcopalians and Anglicans in the first instance.
It’s been less than a month since we bishops returned from the Lambeth Conference of Bishops in England where we worked pretty hard to strengthen our own unity as a global family of churches. We felt there a bit like Jesus’ first disciples in this morning’s Gospel, hearing our Lord say to us, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it.” (Matthew 16:24-25)
All the churches of the Anglican Communion were asked to make sacrifices, at Lambeth, for the sake of our unity in witness and service around the world. We made some progress, I think. Certainly it was a vast improvement over my first Lambeth in 1998, but we will be living into this hard work of unity for months and years to come. Unity is hard work. But it is work well worth engaging in…for the sake of the Gospel!
This morning’s Epistle from St. Paul’s letter to the Romans is probably my favorite in all his writings and, in it, Paul tells us what kind of lives we have to live if we expect to grow in love and charity, in “unity” with our sisters and brothers. Listen again to these wonderful words:
“Let love be genuine; hate what is evil, hold fast to what is good; love one another with mutual affection; outdo one another is showing honor. Do not lag in zeal, be ardent in spirit, serve the Lord. Rejoice in hope, be patient in suffering, persevere in prayer. Contribute to the needs of the saints, extend hospitality to strangers.” (Romans 12:9-13).
When I became the Presiding Bishop’s Deputy for Ecumenical and Interreligious Relations, my counterpart in the Church of England – Dr. Mary Tanner – said, “Christopher, we have the best job in the Church. They pay us to make friends!” And there’s some truth in that! Ecumenical relations — our dialogue and cooperation with other churches — is all about “hospitality.” Extending hospitality to strangers!
It’s all about “blessing those who persecute you; bless and do not curse them. Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep. Live in harmony with one another; do not be haughty, but associate with the lowly; do not claim to be wiser than you are. Do not repay anyone evil for evil, but take thought for what is noble in the sight of all. If it is possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all.” (Romans 12:14-18)
More words from St. Paul this morning and they are words I try to live by as I oversee our relationship with Roman Catholics, the Orthodox, Lutherans and Methodists and Presbyterians and all other Christians with whom we are in dialogue and in mutual ministry. They are words I would commend to you in your relationship with sister and brother Christians in this community and in your daily lives.
But I’ve come to believe that our Lord’s call to unity extends even far beyond our fellow Christians. Roman Catholic theologian, Hans Kung, has written that there will be no peace in the world without peace among the world’s religions, there will be no peace among the world’s religions without dialogue between the world’s religions, and there will be no dialogue among the world’s religions without an understanding of one another’s histories and foundations.
The goal of interfaith dialogue, of course, is different than ecumenical dialogue. In ecumenical dialogue we are seeking the full visible unity of the Church eventually. We’re not trying to create one world religion in interfaith work, but simply to move beyond tolerance to mutual understanding and respect and even honoring one another, as Professor Kung suggests.
We used to talk a lot about “the mission of the Church.” But it was Jim Ryan, who used to direct Ecumenical Ministries of Iowa, who I first heard say, “God’s Church doesn’t have a mission…God’s mission has a Church!” (Repeat Slowly) And today missiologists of all our churches are talking about the “missio Dei”…the mission of God!
The mission of God is to reconcile the whole world, indeed the whole Creation, to himself. To reconcile us to one another and all of us to God. It’s called the “ministry of reconciliation” and the Church is to cooperate with all people of good will, of whatever religion and none, who are working for that same end.
When Moses stood before that burning bush we heard about in our First Lesson today from Exodus, he heard a voice proclaiming “I AM WHO I AM…Tell them I AM has sent you to them” (Exodus 3:14). That Divine Name – so holy that it was not even to be pronounced out loud by the people of Israel – gives us some inkling of just how a big a deal all this really is!
The great theologian, Paul Tillich once wrote that, “the name of infinite and inexhaustible depth and ground of our being is God. That depth is what the word God means. And if (the word God) has not much meaning for you, translate it, and speak of the depths of your life, the source of your being, of your ultimate concern…For if you know that God means depth, you know much about (God).” (The Shaking of the Foundations)
Christianity is not the only religion which knows such deep truths. I have discovered them in conversations with Jews and Muslims, Sikhs and Buddhists. I have come to know that God through my Savior and Lord, Jesus Christ. But it is the same God others have glimpsed through their traditions. And I must respect and honor that, even as I bear witness to my own journey, to my own faith.
So, dear friends, I invite you to continue with me along that path to unity with God and with one another. It’s one way for us to take up our cross and follow Jesus who was all about such unity. It’s a way of extending hospitality to strangers and living in harmony with one another as in the words of St. Paul this morning. And it’s a way of standing before the great “I AM” in the burning bush – the Ground of our Being…and the depth of our souls.
Let us pray:
Lord of all power and might, the author and giver of all good things: Graft in our hearts the love of your Name; increase in us true religion; nourish us with all goodness; and bring forth in us the fruit of good works; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.