Though the fig tree doesn’t bloom,
and there’s no produce on the vine;
though the olive crop withers,
and the fields don’t provide food;
though the sheep is cut off
from the pen,
and there is no cattle in the stalls;
I will rejoice in the LORD.
I will rejoice in the God
of my deliverance.
The LORD God is my strength.
He will set my feet like the deer.
He will let me walk upon the heights.
- Habakkuk 3:17-19
Listen, I’m telling you a secret: all of us won’t die, but we will all be changed — in an instant, in the blink of an eye, at the final trumpet. The trumpet will blast, and the dead will be raised with bodies that won’t decay, and we will be changed. It’s necessary for this rotting body to be clothed with what can’t decay, and for the body that is dying to be clothed in what can’t die. And when the rotting body has been clothed in what can’t decay, and the dying body has been clothed in what can’t die, then this statement in scripture will happen:
Death has been swallowed up by a victory.
Where is your victory, Death?
Where is your sting, Death?
(Death’s sting is sin, and the power of sin is the Law.) Thanks be to God, who gives us this victory through our Lord Jesus Christ! As a result of all this, my loved brothers and sisters, you must stand firm, unshakable, excelling in the work of the Lord as always, because you know that your labor isn’t going to be for nothing in the Lord.
- 1 Corinthians 15:51-58
Jesus replied, “The time has come for the Human One to be glorified. I assure you that unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it can only be a single seed. But if it dies, it bears much fruit. Those who love their lives will lose them, and those who hate their lives in this world will keep them forever. Whoever serves me must follow me. Wherever I am, there my servant will also be. My Father will honor whoever serves me."
- John 12:23-26
Scriptural texts from the Common English Bible.
I have learned a lot this week. I was reading the package from the World Council of Churches that included the worship service we are using today for the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity, and there is a brief description of the Polish churches that came together to prepare this year’s service. I knew that Poland is almost entirely Roman Catholic, but I didn’t know that in Poland among a number of Protestant churches there is an Evangelical Methodist Church with 5,000 followers, who as Methodists would be heirs of the same tradition as our United Church of Canada.
I have also been learning in this Week of Prayer for Christian Unity about the church around the world, as I have been re-reading a study about global Christianity. This report found that a third of the world’s population, over two billion people, is Christian. Last century most Christians would have been living in Europe and North and South America. But if you look at the 2011 list of the top 10 Christian populations, of the countries you would expect the United States is number 1 – no surprise there - Russia is fourth, Germany is ninth. But Brazil is number two. Nigeria, which is only half Christian, is number six. China, which has a Christian minority, is seventh. Today there are more Christians in Asia and Africa than in Europe.
And these Christians are divided. Half of the world’s Christians are Roman Catholic, more than a third are Protestant, 12 percent are Eastern Orthodox. Last Monday was Martin Luther King Day, and I was reading – I guess I did a lot of reading this week – a sermon that Martin Luther King gave in Alabama in 1956. And King preached this sermon as if it was an imaginary letter from the Apostle Paul, a letter to go with the letters to the Romans and Corinthians and Galatians we have in our Bibles. And here is part of what Martin Luther King, speaking as Paul, said:
I must remind you, as I have said to so many others, that the church is the Body of Christ. So when the church is true to its nature it knows neither division nor disunity. But I am disturbed about what you are doing to the Body of Christ. They tell me that you have within Protestantism more than 256 denominations. The tragedy is not so much that you have such a multiplicity of denominations, but that most of them are warring against each other with a claim to absolute truth. This narrow sectarianism is destroying the unity of the Body of Christ. You must come to see that God is neither a Baptist nor a Methodist. He is neither a Presbyterian nor an Anglican; God is bigger than all our denominations. If you are to be true witnesses for Christ, you must come to see that.
There may have been 256 Protestant denominations when King spoke 56 years ago; the last statistic I could find for the United States had 6,000. Now, he went on in his sermon to address Roman Catholicism as well, saying “I am disturbed about any church that refuses to cooperate with other churches under the pretense that it is the only true church. I must emphasize the fact that God is not a Roman Catholic.”
Now, there has been some change since the days when Martin Luther King spoke. There is more ecumenical cooperation among churches. The days when it was not proper for Catholics and Protestants to marry are hopefully gone. My Catholic grandmother and Anglican grandfather married in the 1920s, so they were probably pioneers! Local churches collaborate on projects. We joined with Anglican, Presbyterian and Pentecostal churches on the Alpha Course last year, we led the Stormont County fair service with our neighbours at Newington Wesleyan Church, and we had joint Good Friday worship. Clergy get together across denominational lines. I belong to a ministerial association in South Stormont, and another one in Cornwall where I’m now the president. And at our last meeting we had worship on the theme of Christian unity, and it was very moving to have Roman Catholic and mainline Protestant and evangelical Protestant pastors all worshipping together.
But we’re nowhere near what Jesus talked about when he said of his followers, may they be one. We can worship together, but we can’t share Communion because of our traditions’ different understandings of the Lord’s Supper. At the Cornwall meeting all of us were united in worship, then began the business part of our gathering and found that we had deep disagreements in a discussion about gay and lesbian people in the church.
But, you know, I was reminded this week that at the beginning of our United Church of Canada, there was a lot of enthusiasm for union, but there was a lot of despair too. High hopes in some towns and villages were crushed when some Presbyterian congregations voted not to join the United Church. I was visiting a 94 year-old man this week who remembered the period of church union well, and how even in the United Church old attitudes survived – he was visiting a family in Kemptville, and asked if that house was the minister’s manse. And he was told that was the parsonage, as “manse” was a Presbyterian word that Methodists would never use. They would say “parsonage.”
The theme chosen by the Polish churches for this year’s Week of Prayer for Christian Unity is victory, from our reading from First Corinthians, God gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ. Now, Poland has not had a happy history the last couple of hundred years or so. The countries around it divided it among themselves, and when. Poland became a country again it was only to be invaded by the Nazis and the Soviets at the start of the Second World War, and over 5 million Poles, including most Polish Jews, died during that war. And when Poland was recreated after the war it was under Soviet domination.
So it would seem a bit strange for Poles to be celebrating victory, when their country has usually been getting ground under some other nation’s boot. But the group writing the service asks how we understand “victory” and how Christ shows us a different way. This year the European soccer championship will be held in Poland and Ukraine, which would have been unthinkable years ago as these are two countries with long-standing historical grievances. This is a victory for peace. Yet as we hear news of winning teams – and I know that England will go all the way – the Polish churches ask that we consider those who do not win, not only in sports, but in their lives and communities, those of us who are like Poland in its recent history in constantly suffering defeat.
Jesus Christ does show us a different way than the world’s way of having winners and losers, in politics and business and society and even the church. In our reading from the Good News According to John, Jesus talks about being like a servant, and about letting our old selves and lives die so that we can live a better life. Jesus is talking about victory, but a different kind of victory, victory through mutual service, and working to include all those who are defeated and forgotten and excluded. And that is what Jesus himself did and how he lived, and died. As he dies and is raised from death to defeat death and evil, he is the grain of wheat which falls into the earth and dies to bear a bountiful harvest.
And so we as followers of Jesus must work, not in competition with each other, but with each other – as Martin Luther King would say, we must be true witnesses to Christ, working for a victory which will remove all divisions and make all Christians one in serving God and our neighbours. This victory may be a long time coming, as it took time for the United Church to become truly united, as it took time for Poland to free itself from the powers around it. But through this work for victory we will be transformed, changed to be more like Christ.
This is exciting, but scary. Real Christian unity, really being the body of Christ, doesn’t mean being comfortable with just friendliness between denominations. It means setting aside competition, opening ourselves to each other, cooperating and collaborating and giving and receiving in new ways. Perhaps as we debate how to be in the church in the Seaway Valley, we can consider sharing buildings and ministries, not just among United Church congregations, but among Presbyterians and Catholics and Anglicans and Pentecostals and Wesleyans and others.
At our clergy meeting in Cornwall, one of the Roman Catholic priests talked about a document on Christian unity written by Pope John Paul II, called in Latin ut unum sint, may they be one. And that is also part of the motto on the crest of the United Church of Canada: that all may be one, as Jesus prayed, not just Congregationalists and Methodists and Presbyterians and Evangelical United Brethren in our denomination, but all, all from Baptists to Greek Orthodox, united not in erasing all the richness of our diverse traditions, united not in blandness and conformity, but united in seeing God and truth as bigger than any denomination, united in openness that really enters into the new life in Christ that has no winners or losers. And that is the true and the only victory.