Calgary First Mennonite Church Calgary

A Prayer for Unity

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Written by Pastor Ed

May 8 2016 mp3

A Prayer for Unity

May 8, 2016


John 17: 20-26


“We are one in the Spirit, we are one in the Lord,

We are one in the Spirit we are one in the Lord,

And we pray that all unity may one day be restored,

And they’ll know we are Christians by our love, by our love,

Yes, they’ll know we are Christians by our love.


We will walk with each other, we will walk hand in hand,

We will walk with each other, we will walk hand in hand,

And together we’ll spread the news that God is in our land,

And they’ll know we are Christians, by our love, by our love,

Yes, they’ll know we are Christians by our love.


We will work with each other, we will work side by side,

We will work with each other, we will work side by side,

And we’ll guard each one’s dignity and save each one’s pride,

And they’ll know we are Christians by our love, by our love,

Yes they’ll know we are Christians by our love.


All praise to the Father, from whom all things come,

And all praise to Christ Jesus his only son,

And all praise to the Spirit who makes us one,

And they’ll know we are Christians by our love, by our love,

Yes, they’ll know we are Christians by our love.

(Rev. Peter Scholtes, F.E.L. Publications, 1966)


And then there’s the reality.  I ran across these two illustrations as I was working on my sermon this week.  The first one has an obvious bias to it, but shows the broader Christian church and what has happened since “the great schism” of 1054 when east divided from west, and the note at the top that “Protestants continuously splinter and split into thousands of groups.”


It reflects some of the same thing as the drawing I have here in front made by my great-grandfather.


Closer to home, this is a representation of Anabaptist groups, and it doesn’t really begin to show the varieties of Mennonite and Amish groups that exist.  As I recall, at one point it was said that in Elkhart County, Indiana, where I grew up, there were 15 different Mennonite and Amish groups.  And that was many years ago; there are probably more now.


It seems it’s much easier to sing about unity than it is to actually achieve it.  I recall when that song was new, during my youth group days, and we really liked it, I still do.  It’s a good sentiment and a worthwhile ideal, but somehow the church, or should I say, we Christians, have never quite lived up to its ideal.  Oh, yes, we can cooperate on some things; we do work together in MCC and MDS, and we can even cooperate with other denominations from time to time, but we can only go so far, and the suspicions are still there.


Gerald Schlabach, in his book, Unlearning Protestantism, (Brazos Press, 2010) argues that it is inherent in the theology of Protestants, to split and form new groups and that we have a lot to learn from the Catholic tradition of remaining together even in the midst of disagreements.  I recall C.J. Dyck, professor of church history at AMBS, referring to church splits not as splits, but as swarming, like bees do when they divide a hive.  It was again a nice way of putting it, but most divisions are really splits and often not very nice ones.


So how do we read Jesus’ prayer in John 17 where he prays that all those who come after him, who believe because of the words of his disciples, will be one.  And it’s repeated not once, but several times. “that they may all be one,” “so that they may be one, as we are one,” “That they may become completely one.”  Was Jesus just concerned that his community of disciples not break apart after his death, or is there a broader desire on Jesus’ part?


Well, I’m sure Jesus was concerned about what would happen to his disciples when he was no longer with them, but it is clear that he also had something else in mind, because he gives a reason for his pray of unity, namely, “ so that the world may believe.”  The unity of the body of Christ, loving each other as Christians, is to be a sign to the world around us of God’s love and a recognition that it was God who sent Jesus among us in the first place.


So it’s not just that “they’ll know we are Christians” but it’s part of the missional task to show the world a different way of being in the world, a way of love and unity.  The church as an alternative society that exemplifies God’s love across cultures, disagreements, and whatever else life might throw at it.  And quite frankly we haven’t done a very good job on that score.


Shortly after I became a conference minister I met Peg Chemberlin who was the Executive Director of the Minnesota Council of Churches, and she asked me to come and speak to their board about Mennonites and their view of ecumenism.  As I read more about the Minnesota Council (also known as MCC which could get confusing) I ran across a statement of purpose of theirs that said that members of the Council agreed that every member denomination had something to contribute to the other members, and that every member had something to learn from the other members.


When I spoke I said that as Mennonites, there was a time when we probably didn’t believe either one of those statements.  We often didn’t think we had anything to share with others, and we certainly didn’t think we had anything to learn!  Thankfully, at least for many of us, that is no longer the case.  And a year or two later our conference joined the MN Council of Churches, a group I came to appreciate a great deal.


In many ways, our divisions and infighting in the church are one of our biggest detriments, even scandals, when people look at the church.  And much of our energy has gone into those divisions and fighting each other, rather than into the mission God has given to us to show God’s love to the world around us, as Jesus showed God’s love.  People see the kinds of fighting that goes on in churches, and wonder why they should join a group like that.  I’ve certainly been in situations, in churches, where no one would know that we were Christians by our love.


I’m not exactly sure how or why, but I have always been involved with and enjoyed fellowship with believers from various denominations and streams of faith.  Perhaps it is because I went to a Lutheran university and married someone from another tradition, or perhaps it’s just me, but I have always tried to be a part of ecumenical groups of clergy in ministerials, become friends with clergy from other denominations, and been involved with Councils of churches, both in Minnesota as well as South Dakota.  In Nebraska the church I pastored held VBS with a neighbouring Baptist church as well as two Lutheran churches.  We had a great time together.  In Indiana, a neighbouring Episcopal priest and I became good friends even though we differed significantly in some of our theology. As you know, here I have been involved with a local group of pastors, sometimes lovingly referred to as the Marda Loopians. In all these settings, as well as others I could cite, I have always found that I learned something, and could contribute something.


One of the things I have come to realize in these years is that, as Christians, we share a lot more in common with each other than we have differences.  For the first 1000 years of the church, there was essentially only one church and much of our basic theology was worked out in those first years.  We share much of that with every other Christian body.  And even with the divisions of the Reformation, we still share a great deal.


But beyond that, we are united in Christ.  One of the basic things I have come to embrace is that the church of Jesus Christ is united.  We are all one when we claim Jesus as Lord.  In many ways, Jesus’ prayer is a reality.  Unfortunately, we’re still trying to work out what that means and how to live it out.  One of the ways I often envision it is to expand Paul’s image of the body of Christ from the local congregation, where we tend to apply it, to the church as a whole, with all the different denominations being different parts of the body, and needing each other to make the whole.  Which also means we can’t say to another part, “I have no need of you.”


But I also think there is a more practical side to this as well, as Stuart Murray alluded to in his talk.  When I was conference minister some of the churches I related to were in small towns scattered across the prairies of the central US.  And as in many places, these small towns were losing population, yet there were often 3 or 4, sometimes even more churches of different denominations in town or in the country close by.


And I would often comment that there would eventually come a time when those churches would need to somehow cooperate and that many towns would eventually end up with only one church, out of necessity.  While the same is not true in cities such as Calgary, as we move further into what is often called Post-Christendom, where Christians are more and more a minority in society, we simply will no longer be able to sustain the plethora of congregations that there are currently.


It’s unfortunate, in some ways, that we are being forced into this outward sign of unity, and yet perhaps we have enjoyed the luxury of our divisions for too long.  It has been too easy for us to simply turn our backs on other believers and do our own thing.  I’m not sure we can afford that any longer.  And that’s not all bad.  In fact it may be a good thing, bringing us closer to realizing Jesus’ prayer that we would all be one so that the world could see a different way of being.


And maybe, just maybe, we can begin to live out that 60’s idealism where people around us will indeed know that we are Christians by our love – for each other, and for all those around us. Then we will get a foretaste of that Kingdom that we talked about last week.


There are signs of hope, as there always have been.  There are churches working together, both at the congregational level as well as at the broader church level.  I’ve talked about Bridgefolk before, a gathering of Mennonite and Catholics, and one of my hopes is to attend their gathering again this summer.  Lutherans and Mennonites, Seventh-Day Adventist and Mennonites, Catholics and Lutherans, dialogue is going on all over.  I’m glad that Mennonite Church Canada has been a part of the Canadian Council of Churches, as well as the National Association of Evangelicals.  We tend to bridge that gap.  When I attended a gathering of the National Council of Churches in the US, I met the Executive Director of the Canadian Council of Churches, and we knew people in common because of those connections. Such dialogue and fellowship is enriching to all.  And we discover that the issues of the church are the same no matter where you are or what denomination you belong to.


So I am optimistic about the church.  I don’t know what it may look like in the future, but the church will survive, and we will, hopefully, more and more live out Jesus’ prayer not only in our singing, but in our life together.



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