Sermon for the Seventh Sunday of Easter

+In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

This week I attended our annual diocesan clergy conference. I always enjoy the opportunity this provides to reconnect with friends and colleagues, though I’ve often found the programs to be lacking in depth and substance. Not this year. We had trainers from the College of Congregational Development, invited by Bishop Jolly, with the expectation that it would be a sort of preview for programming for clergy and lay-leaders in the upcoming years in this diocese. It was the best program we’ve had at clergy conference in my seven years in this diocese, and it is yet another way in which I’m excited about Bishop Jolly and the new staff she’s in the process of hiring shifting our focus back to the really important work of parish life and vitality, which (as far as I’m concerned) is the primary reasons to have a diocesan office and staff rather than just having a roving bishop who shows up to do confirmations and ordinations and nothing else.

As excellent as our program was this year, I am a little envious of a couple of my friends for their annual clergy conference. They are priests in the Church of England under the oversight of the Bishop Suffragan of Fulham. He took his clergy to Rome this year for their conference. That said, there was one element of their gathering I am grateful not to have been a part of. Namely, they caused a bit of an ecumenical incident. You see, they were given permission to celebrate the Eucharist at the Basilica of St. John Lateran, which serves as the Cathedral of the Diocese of Rome. St. Peter’s in the Vatican, for all its grandeur is not, in fact, technically a Cathedral. A Cathedral is, by definition, the church in which the Bishop of a Diocese has his or her official seat (called a cathedra). So, the Bishop of Rome’s church is St. John Lateran. The Bishop of Rome is the Pope. And here, a bunch of Anglicans came in and used it. When some of a more radically traditionalist Roman Catholic disposition got wind of this there was a bit of a flap about it; I saw some folks even suggesting that the space needed to be reconsecrated, having been desecrated by an Anglican Mass. The Archpriest of the Cathedral (equivalent to what we’d call a Cathedral Dean) had to come out and apologize, saying that there had been a breakdown in communication. Perhaps this was the case; maybe the language barrier played a role, and whoever approved the use of the space didn’t realize “Chiesa d’Inghilterra” meant “The Church of England” not “the Roman Catholic Church in England”, though I kind of doubt it.

In all events, this all reminds one of the sad situation in which we find the church, divided over the centuries into so many communions and denominations. It seems so unhappily in contradiction to Christ’s last prayer, his final request before his suffering and death, which we heard in this morning’s Gospel:

Holy Father, keep them in thy name, which thou hast given me, that they may be one, even as we are one.

I would humbly suggest that Christ’s prayer went beyond sentiment. That the unity, the one-ness, to which we as the body of Christ are called, is not about some vague, half-hearted acknowledgement of each other’s existence.

The really sad thing is not that we happen to go to different buildings on a Sunday morning. The really sad thing is that our divisions impair our witness. Later in the chapter from which we just heard, Jesus says the following:

I do not pray for these only, but also for those who believe in me through their word, that they may all be one; even as thou, Father, art in me, and I in thee, that they also may be in us, so that the world may believe that thou hast sent me.

Church unity is not an end in itself, but a means by which others are brought into the fold. In a world of political and cultural division, the unity of Christ’s Church could be a powerful sign of the Gospel’s reconciling power. We’ve done pretty well at welcoming people of other Christian backgrounds into our parish, people who are curious about the way Episcopalians practice the faith. This is a good thing. But how many once totally uninterested people have come and said, let me check out this Christianity thing? Some, certainly, but not as many, and I think that part of the reason is because divisions in the church are a scandal. The Gospel is compelling, but if we’re not living it, nobody will know that it is.

All of this can seem awfully discouraging. There appears to be little for us to do individually, as real, tangible church unity is a matter discussed at the highest levels of Church governance and among professional theologians. This is as it should be, the terms of such conversations revolve around weighty debates about what is essential to Christianity and what is not, issues which are delicate and may seem intractable. We can be charitable about the choices friends and loved ones may have made about being a part other churches, but the larger issues of church unity seem to be outside our sphere of influence.

Even so, there is one thing we can do, and which I myself need to do, as difficult as it sometimes is. We need a change of heart. We can say “we’re all in the same business” a thousand times without really believing it. I can state my own appreciation of the work of other churches until I’m out of breath, while still secretly seeing those other churches as “the competition”. We can in one moment give lip service to ecumenism, and in the next moment be snide about how weird and out of touch those “other Christians” seem to be. I’m frequently guilty of this.

The most important thing to remember, though, is that Christ’s prayer for unity was not about being politique or delicate with those with whom we think we have so little in common. Christ’s prayer for unity has its basis in genuine love, as he says in the final verse of the chapter from which our Gospel is taken:

I made known to them thy name, and I will make it known, that the love with which thou hast loved me may be in them, and I in them

Through our love of Jesus we come to love one another, even those whose religion seems to us strange or over-the-top. Again, none of us is in a position to effect the institutional unity of the church to a great degree, but we all have a part to play in bringing about its unity in love. Ultimately, that sort of unity is a necessary precursor to the other. Unless we truly love our brothers and sisters, unless we have that invisible bond of unity, visible unity can never exist. Far from being a matter for only the highest levels of church leadership, church unity must begin with each of us, setting aside our discomfort, and “living in love as Christ loved us.” This is easier said than done, but it is our charge. May we be given the charity to accomplish it.

+In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.