Thoughts on Christian Unity Sunday, January 19, 2020
by Rev. Jim Ryan, firstname.lastname@example.org
This morning I would like to consider the case that we have arrived in the 21st century at the point that religion and the practice of religion is a matter of cultural choice. Cultural, that is, in place of institutional. Remember when institutional religion dictated what one was to believe and how one was to act? Do you also remember when the institution directed people to consult with their pastor or minister on matters especially dealing with how to treat others of another faith?
It is true that retrograde pockets still exist of institutional church leaders who attempt to foist their opinion on their flock and wrap it all up with claims of legal force. But do you think, as I do, that they have simply become mere caricatures of a bygone era? These days who seeks permission from the clergy on how to act or behave?
Just to put the point on how we have changed here’s a story from my Grandmother”s (Nana) Travel Diaries. She wrote in a style that nowadays we would call bullet list – one line after another highlighting trip activities and events.
On June 18, 1927 Nana took her daughter, my aunt, Kaye on a trip to New York City. It appears that the occasion was a gift for Kaye’s 8th Grade Graduation. The two of them took the overnight train from Cleveland to the City. This was one of Nana’s most favorite things to do. They visited the sights including the Staten Island Ferry and climbed the steps up to the head of the Statue of Liberty. Then they walked down Broadway. Here’s Nana’s recall of that stroll:
“Later walked down Broadway to Woolworth building. Went through, largest in New York. Had our lunch, rode to upper Broadway. See Church around the corner. Went in Episcopal Cathedral, very surprised, very lovely. First time I entered a Protestant Church at 36 years of age.”
That’s right 93 years ago such a thing happened. And Nana wasn’t alone in having this experience, right? Can you imagine that happening now? Now the barriers are down. We recognize the power of freedom over institutional and clerical power.
What, you may ask, does such freedom look like? Well, we, the Community of Mary of Magdala, Apostle to the Apostles are what such freedom looks like. In terms of Christian unity we celebrate with our Methodist hosts an annual Ash Wednesday Eucharist. This year we hope to have (weather permitting, thank you Wisconsin) our first Palm Sunday ceremony together of Distribution and Procession of Palms.
We celebrate unity in joint worship of our God as well as in joint ministries. From making PB&J sandwiches for the homeless, to Mitten Trees and Woolen hat making, to classroom tutoring at a local Grade School, and other activities we make free choices in unity based upon two simple principles – Faith in God & Faith in Mission.
The Gospel passage today was from the 17th chapter of John. You know it, surely. It is Jesus’ prayer for unity as he celebrated the Passover Meal before his death and burial on the following day. Let’s remember that Jesus prayed not for some institutional arrangement that could be represented as the fulfillment of his prayer. No, Jesus prayed from within a gathering of his friends. It was the relationship that mattered which makes his hope truly real.
What did he want? Two things. He wanted his friends to believe in God who sent him and secondly, he wanted them to believe in the Mission he was entrusting to them. These two things are the basis of our freedom – freedom to associate with, worship with, act with each other regardless of barriers that stand against such freedom.
Read Jesus’ prayer again (John 17:20-26). See if you don’t also recognize the simple and direct aspirations which form his desire for unity – Faith in God. Faith in Mission.
To return to our reality today – one could say that from the point of view of anthropology how we live out religion now is as a cultural flow among the multiplicity of Christian expressions. This cultural choice includes but goes beyond ethnic cultural expressions. We may be German Lutherans, Irish Catholics, or Scottish Presbyrterians in heritage but none of that supplies the sense of freedom we share in the practice of religion. That freedom comes directly from the desire of Jesus.
This cultural feature of religious participation means that terms like “true church” or “bible faith” mean very little, if anything in terms of praying with Jesus in love of God and commitment to Mission. In a world that daily witnesses the collapse of institutions that used to control people’s lives we enjoy gathering together in relationships of love, friendship, and solidarity.
Thomas Merton had a great love for Russian literature and mystical thought. He struck up a correspondence with Boris Pasternak who won the Nobel Prize for Literature in part for his epic novel, Doctor Zhivago. He was forced by the communist institution to relinquish the Prize since it was only a symbol of Western decadence. Merton saw Pasternak as one who saw clearly the power of love over institutional control. In his study of 1959, “The Pasternak Affair,” Merton reflects that Love “is the work not of states, not of organizations, not of institutions, but of persons.” Persons, may I add, who love in freedom.
So, while it’s certainly true that Nana would not recognize us 93 years later in terms of our cultural equality in diversity that is religious practice today, I hope that she would recognize that we too love the One whose hope for us is always to have Faith in God, Faith in Mission.
A Prayer (By way of inspiration from Leonardo Boff)
Beloved Christ, you are no stone statue on a pedestal. Bless and feed your hungry sisters and brothers. Do this in and through us for who else will?
As you extend blessing and curse, we say with you, “Woe to you who are satisfied now, for you shall go hungry.”
Bless our hands and our feet for the solidarity of struggle and justice. We search for bread, freedom, tenderness, and beauty with all who are Christ in the world.
Blessed are those who preserve good will, feed the internal flame, and ever dream of a new world. Amen.