Saturday, September 27, 2008

Disciples Values: The Ecumenical Principle

John 17:20-26

I don’t think I need to remind anyone that there’s an important election on the horizon. Yes, in just a few weeks we’ll elect the 44th President of the United States, among others. Electioneering, as we all know, can be strident, divisive, and even angry. Candidates and their supporters often speak in black and white terms, sometimes even demonizing the other side. The reason they do this, is that it helps them solidify the base – their brand. What’s true of politics, is true of many other areas of life. Consider college football. You can’t root for both the Oregon State Beavers and the Oregon Ducks, USC and UCLA, and I’m just assuming, though I’m new to Michigan, that you can’t root for the Wolverines and say nice things about the Spartans. Indeed, if you drink Pepsi, then surely you won’t like Coke!

The danger in all of this, is that we end up polarized, which leads some of us wondering if Rodney King had the right idea after those LA riots several years back — yes, “Can’t we all just get along?” When things are going badly, can’t we have a bit of a bipartisan consensus?

What is true of the rest of the world, is often true of the church. It’s very easy for us to pursue brand loyalty and even demonize those who are different from us. But when we do this, we often undermine the message of the gospel. When people see us fighting amongst ourselves, they often ask: “Why can’t you just get along?”

That’s the question that the Campbells and Barton Stone asked two centuries ago, and it’s the question that has driven the Disciples ever since. Disciples pastor and ecumenical leader Peter Ainslie, said near the beginning of the 20th century that the "greatest scandal of civilization is that Christians have not learned how to behave toward each other." I suspect that this same concern about the threat of disunity to the gospel, that led Edgar DeWitt Jones to become a leader of the national ecumenical movement, while serving as pastor of this congregation.


When it comes to finding unity in spite of our many differences, St. Paul suggests that we look to Jesus, of whom he wrote:
"In him the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, and through him God was pleased to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, by making peace through the blood of his cross" (Col. 1:19-20).
Though we humans have a tendency to break things, we’re told that in Jesus, God is at work putting things back together. And, if we are, as the church, the body of Christ, then God must be using us to bring healing and reconciliation to our world. Unfortunately, it appears that we as the church have been wounded, which makes it more difficult for us to help bind up the wounds of the world.

The Campbells and Barton Stone recognized the importance of this problem. They recognized that the church was broken and they tried their best to fix it. Thomas Campbell said that division in the body of Christ is a “horrible evil” that needs to be fixed and Barton Stone said that we should make unity our “polar star,” our guiding purpose. Now, if we’re honest, we have to admit that we’ve been imperfect agents of reconciliation. We’ve experienced our own brokenness and have added our own brands to the Protestant world. But, despite our failures, the pursuit of Christian unity is in our blood. As Kenneth Teegarden, a former General Minister, put it:
“The ideal of Christian unity is to Disciples of Christ what basketball is to Indiana, hospitality is to the South, and nonviolence is to Quakers. It is part of our identity. It is our ‘middle name’. It is ‘the plea’ -- the distinctive cause that has been the Christian Church's reason for existing.”


Things have changed since those early frontier days. Denominational brand identity isn’t what it used to be. Indeed, it’s rare to find people who have been part of one denomination all their lives. That’s why I find it so amazing that there are those of you, who have not only been Disciples all your lives, but you’ve part of this congregation since childhood. In fact, some you were baptized by this congregation’s founding pastor, Edgar DeWitt Jones. Still, even here brand identity isn’t what it used to be.

When it comes to church shopping, the statisticians tell us that we live in a religiously generic age. It appears that about 25% of Christians have switched their allegiance at least once, 20% have switched twice, and 10% have switched three or more times. What’s more, I may be the poster child of this post-denominational world! I was born, baptized, and confirmed as an Episcopalian. But, starting in high school, I took off on a journey across the religious spectrum. I’ve been everything from Pentecostal to Baptist, Evangelical Covenant to Presbyterian. I’ve been part of both the Disciples and the Independent Christian Churches. No wonder I get involved in ecumenical and interfaith groups!

But it wasn’t all that long ago when things were different and brand loyalty was important. In fact, not all that long ago Catholics and Protestants so disliked each other that they not only didn’t talk, but they killed each other. And yet, Cheryl has taught in Catholic schools for much of the past eleven years. But it goes further than that. Not so very long ago, it would have been scandalous for a church to host an interfaith gathering like the one we hosted last Sunday afternoon, where people from across the religious spectrum from Protestant to Hindu, Muslim to Sikh could gather for a conversation about peace in our world.

Despite this good news, there are still walls that need to be taken down. These walls may not be denominational ones anymore, but they still exist. These walls are cultural, ideological, ethnic, and political. The fact that we’re taking e a Reconciliation offering today is a reminder that we still have work to do, that racism still affects the church!


This year’s Reconciliation theme is “Come to the Table.” It picks up on something Paul said: “Because there is one bread, we who are many are one body for we all partake of the one bread” (1 Cor. 10:17). And next Sunday we will celebrate World Communion Sunday, an observance that reminds us that the Table of unity and inclusion remains, for many Christians, a Table of Division and Exclusion, a place where only the initiated may enter. But this is not the message of Jesus, who as we heard in the reading this morning from John, prayed for the unity of his disciples. Just moments before his arrest he prayed that his followers would be one, even as he and the Father are one.

This unity that Jesus prays for can take many different forms. It can happen locally, regionally, nationally, and internationally. It can involve ecumenical institutions like the National Council of Churches, the World Council of Churches, Churches Uniting in Christ, or Christian Churches Together – all of which have strong Disciple participation. Or, it can happen at a more personal level, as we gather together with other Christians to pray, to study, and to serve. Yes, there are walls that divide us, but these walls are not from God. As it is written in Ephesians:
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 and Father of all, who is above all and through all and in all (Eph. 4:3-6).
God calls on us to be united, even as Jesus and the Father are united. It is our calling as Disciples and as Christians. Indeed, it is our calling as human beings, created in the image of God.


The Disciples movement, of which we’re a part, has from the very beginning tried to bear witness to the importance of Christian unity. We’ve been committed to ecumenical ventures, because Christian unity is in our DNA. And this witness is an important one, because we live in a broken and divided world, a world that’s full of violence, hatred, anger, ignorance, and disease. The good news is that God is at work in the world, binding up the wounds of the broken ones in our midst, and God is seeking to use us to accomplish this important work. But, if we remain divided, the effectiveness of this work of God in the world will be diminished.

Christian unity can’t be built on a generic faith that’s more concerned about relevance and success than God’s work of reconciliation. So, even as we prepare today to begin taking the Reconciliation offering, it’s important that we consider and embrace this third Disciples core value – the ecumenical principle. As we do this, the walls that divide us will begin to fall, and we can begin the work of binding up the wounds of our world and building bridges to wholeness.

1. Peter Ainslie, The Scandal of Christianity, (New York: Willett, Clark, & Colby, 1929), 1.
2. Thomas Campbell, "The Declaration and Address," in F. L. Rowe, Pioneer Sermons and Addresses, (Cincinnati, 1908; reprint, College Press, n.d.), 16.
3. Kenneth Teegarden, We Call Ourselves Disciples, (St. Louis: Bethany Press, 1975), 36.

Preached by:
The Rev. Dr. Robert D. Cornwall
Central Woodward Christian Church (Disciples of Christ)
Troy, MI
September 28, 2008

No comments: