Jesus said: “I do not ask for these only, but also for those who will believe in me through their word, that they may all be one, just as you, Father, are in me, and I in you, that they also may be in us, so that the world may believe that you have sent me. The glory that you have given me I have given to them, that they may be one even as we are one, I in them and you in me, that they may become perfectly one, so that the world may know that you sent me and loved them even as you loved me.” – John 17:20-23
Dear Disciple of Christ,
I have mentioned my extensive academic preparations for pastoral ministry including 4 years of pre-theological training with A.S. and B.A. degrees and then a Master of Divinity received after 4 years of seminary. Five years after ordination, I even did an additional 2 year Doctor of Divinity program, focused on Church Growth and Evangelism. With all of that training, you’d expect there wouldn’t be much left to teach this future pastor, right? But if you felt that way, you’d be wrong. Sadly, even after 8 years of study, there were a number of areas where little if any focus was directed at particular aspects of pastoral leadership and congregational life. One of those areas concerned the life and beliefs of the “rest” of the Christian community.
If you’re Roman Catholic, or particularly interested in ecumenical affairs, you may well be familiar with the Second Vatican Council that was held from 1962 until 1965. Pope John the 23rd did a masterful job of opening up lines of communication between Christian church bodies. As hierarchical head of the entire Roman Catholic Church, he could direct conversations and dialogues between his church and the rest of Christendom. After nearly 450 years of division, it was remarkable and refreshing to study, pray, and worship together with disciples of Christ. Do you remember those ecumenical services often held in January that brought together clergy and laity from all kinds of churches? We would rotate around year after year going to different churches for services of the Word (no communion was able to be shared but we could gather in the name of Christ and together sing praises to His holy name).
What had basically changed for those who participated, was that a perspective of who we were to the other church bodies. The very word, “ecumenical” gives away what had changed so dramatically. “Ecumenical” comes from a Greek word that literally means, “of the household.” To be ecumenical or participate in ecumenical activities indicated that the participants were part of the same household and the same family. We saw each other as brothers and sisters in Christ. We may (did and do) have differing doctrines and worship practices and hierarchical structure, but we began to focus less on where we disagreed and more on where we agreed. What we found was that what divided us was far less significant than what united us. Most of us confessed the same (ecumenical) creeds; the Apostles,’ the Nicene and the Athanasian (even if these were less than familiar to some of the laity in our church bodies).
I enjoyed the collegiality with clergy from other church bodies and recognized that if they (and their members) confessed Jesus as Lord, they were my brother and/or sister in Christ. For, according to Paul, “no one can say, ‘Jesus is Lord’ except by the Holy Spirit (1 Corinthians 12:3). So, bit by bit, I learned from other clergy what I had missed in pre-theological and theological (seminary) for those 8 years – I learned what those other disciples in the body of Christ believed and practiced.
One example of this concerned the pastor nearest me in Brooklyn. Pastor Allen McClean was a UCC (United Church of Christ) pastor who served a Congregational Church in addition to his own (UCC) community. I remember going to a clergy gathering with Pastor McClean and recognized just how varied our practices and even our faith was. I remember thinking that their theology was a little like trying to grab jello. There were believers all over the theological spectrum, believing many differing things about Christ and the Church but they were comfortable in and with their differences. They were so open to those differences that they even invited me to preach and lead worship for a month in the summer when Pr. McClean was gone on vacation. That was a great opportunity for me to share Lutheran perspectives of the faith and grasp more of their perspectives. .
But, again, their theology was “varied” and seemingly acceptable to one another. But there was a perspective they held that in some ways was a “non-negotiable” for church life. Theological differences were allowed but there was one unifying perspective and that was that each church was a living breathing part of the body of Christ called and sent to be a witness by their actions. To be honest, I sensed we Lutherans would be far more ready to discuss the body of Christ than to live like the body of Christ. It was entirely possible for us to focus (even solely or exclusively) on our “own” people and members than on our neighbors and the commission we had to go and make disciples of all nations.
A reflection of that in my church in Brooklyn was that, in the history of the church, very few people were received by adult baptism or as adults by affirmation of baptism (without a transfer from another Lutheran Church). At one point (long before I arrived) the congregation had numbered nearly 900 members but, again, most came off ships from Germany, settled in Brooklyn and looked for a “German” church. When the ships with immigrants from Germany stopped coming in such numbers and the neighbors and neighborhood changed, little if any effort was made to reach out to our un-churched neighbors and invite them in. That was a denial of who we were (commissioned disciples of Christ) on a mission from the Father (to go and make disciples of all nations). Jesus was praying that we might be One as He the Father are one. We must add that prayer to ours and be prepared for what impact or effect that would have on our varied denominations.
I pray that even today each of us will be looking for ways, in our churches and in our lives, to join with other disciples and spread good news to those who do not yet know the loving Father and His Son.
Blessings in His service,