Bloomingdale. Good afternoon! My name is Christopher Epting and, thanks to Bishop Lee’s kind invitation, I am now serving as Assisting Bishop here in the Diocese of Chicago. I am the retired Bishop of Iowa and still live in that great state just to the west of you, but it’s a particular pleasure for me to be here with you today because, from 2001 until 2009, I served as the Presiding Bishop’s Deputy for Ecumenical and Interfaith Relations, working out of our Episcopal Church Center inNew York.
And last evening I represented the Diocese of Chicago at the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity service at the Focolare Center in Hyde Park. It felt like putting on an old pair of comfortable shoes as I knew a number of the participants from my days as ecumenical officer. It was a great event!
My responsibility, during those years, was to coordinate and oversee the relationship of The Episcopal Church to other Christian communions and to other faith traditions. I made several visits to thePhilippinesand was privileged to meet with Obispo Maximo Alberto Ramento (now venerated as a martyr of the Iglesia Filipina Independiente) as well as his two successors, Tomas Millemena and Godofredo David. I worked also with Bishop Raul Tobias in this country, making it possible for him to attend our last General Convention inAnaheim.
Although never privileged to visit India, I once celebrated the Eucharist in a MarThomaChurchon Staten Islandand served on the Inter Anglican Standing Commission on Ecumenical Relations with Bishop John Gladstone of the Churchof South India. I have always believed that that Church and the Church of North India were models for the ecumenical movement that I wish we had followed more closely in this country when we were part of a similar association in something called the Consultation on Church Union, or COCU. I believe we had a failure of nerve and missed our opportunity to enter into a similar united church.
I say all that by way of background just to let you know how exciting I think this shared mission and ministry is and how, in many ways, I believe that you could be a model for such experimental, risk-taking cooperative mission work in the future. In today’s Gospel, we are told that “Jesus came toGalilee, proclaiming the good news of God, and saying, ‘the time is fulfilled, and thekingdomofGodhas come near; repent and believe in the good news.’” (Mark 1:14b-15).
That text reminds us that Jesus’ primary message was the same as John the Baptist. It was that the Kingdom…the king-ship…the Reign…the Sovereignty of God was at hand! People didn’t have to wait for it to come some time in the future. The Kingdom is now! We are rediscovering today that Jesus did not come to found a Church. Jesus came to inaugurate the Reign of God in this world!
This Kingdom had been looked forward to by prophets like Jonah in our First Lesson today, by poets like today’s Psalmist who wrote that God “alone is my rock and my salvation, my stronghold, so that I shall not be shaken. (Psalm 62:7). This Kingdom continued to be proclaimed bySt. Paulwho wrote in today’s Epistle that “the appointed time has grown short…for the present form of this world is passing away!” (I Corinthians7:29passim)
We might also want to add, in our time, that the present form of the Church is passing away!
A couple of weeks ago, the Diocese of Chicago and Seabury seminary sponsored something called “The Great Awakening” featuring Bishop Lee along with two very popular religious authors and visionaries of today’s Church, Brian McClaren and Diana Butler Bass.
And their messages were basically the same. The institutional Church is in big trouble today. All denominations and Christian communions are facing crises in authority, economic challenges, and from declining numbers and aging congregations. The Episcopal Church is not alone in these challenges – it’s happening all over! And so we have two choices – we can either turn inward and focus on survival or we can use this as a new opportunity to re-envision what the Church is all about!
I believe the Church of the future will be less concerned about institutional maintenance and more concerned about God’s mission in the world. An old friend of mine used to say that the important thing is not that God’s Church has a mission, but that God’s mission has a Church!
God’s mission is about the reconciliation of the world – and everyone in it – to God. Jesus says it clearly to Simon and Andrew in today’s Gospel when he said, “Follow me and I will make you fish for people!” (Mark1:17)
And Mark tells us that ‘immediately they left their nets and followed him.” (Mark1:18). They followed Jesus not into the comfortable confines of a church building, but into the highways and byways ofGalileewhere they engaged with the real lives of real people with real problems and – along with their rabbi, Jesus, made a real difference in this world.
I believe the Church of the future will also need to “travel light” as those early disciples did. So I think that will mean more “tent maker” or “bi-vocational” clergy. I think it will require ecumenical cooperation when we will learn that we are not in competition with Lutherans or Methodists or Roman Catholics or Baptists, but in league with them. Our “competitors” are not fellow Christians; our competitors are the principalities and powers of this world which – as the Prayer Book says – “corrupt and destroy the creature of God.”
The Diocese of Chicago has a great, and easy to remember, motto or mission statement – Grow the Church…Form the Faithful…Change the World. And Bishop Lee gave three very simple ways to carry out that mission statement in his Diocesan Convention sermon a couple of months ago. He suggested that “to grow the Church” each of us have at least one meaningful conversation with another person about God and about our lives this year. That’s all evangelism is really – sharing our lives and our relationship with God with other people.
To “form the faithful” Bishop Lee encouraged us all to read at least one verse, or one chapter of the Bible every day. Use the Forward Day by Day booklet, or the Prayer Book lectionary, or some other scheme. But engage the Bible this year…and watch your Christian formation begin to happen. Finally, he suggested that we each commit to one cause or one effort at social change in our community or our world. Not just to write a check, but to become personally involved in some effort to “change the world,” to make this present world look a little more like the Kingdom of God Jesus came to inaugurate.
“The time is fulfilled, and thekingdomofGodhas come near,” Jesus says. Do you believe that?
Well, if you do, then the time is short! Don’t wait any longer! Do something this week to “Grow the Church”…to “Form the Faithful” (beginning with yourself!)…and to “Change the World.” For “the appointed time has grown short…and the present form of this world is passing away!”