Being one

Easter 7 – 2013

John 17:20-26

Marian Free

In the name of Jesus our Saviour whose unity with God he calls us to emulate – in our lives and in our relationships with each other. Amen.

It may or may not be the right way to approach things, but I see confirmation classes as my one opportunity to introduce the candidates to a broad understanding of the Christian faith. In my mind this includes an understanding of the Bible, of church history, of the prayer book, the practices of the Anglican Church (the church year and so on), the mysteries of the physical building of the church, including the peculiar furniture, the meaning of the clothes we wear and the things we do and of course, spirituality – how to connect with God, prayer, meditation and so on. In order to fit that into six to nine hours I have developed some very concise summaries.

We don’t have an hour or so this morning for me to share with you my Cook’s tour of church history, so I will try to make it even more compact – a Twitter version if you like. (We will have to forgo my very crude maps which accompany the virtual tour.)

In short, we know from what history books we have, and from the Bible, that Jesus lived from about 4 BCE to about 30 CE. Jesus so changed the lives of some people that they began to form communities and to worship him while still attending the synagogue. About twenty years later a fellow named Paul changed his views about this sect of Judaism and not only joined it but became one of its fiercest proponents. His letters to the churches which he founded are our earliest written records of the church.

Paul’s letters record, the struggles experienced by the early community as it worked out how to be the church as we know it today. A major problem for these early believers was that Jesus had left no instructions, written no creeds and established no dogma. Apart from choosing disciples and possibly putting Peter in charge, Jesus had established very little in the way of church structure. This meant was that the first believers had to work out on their own how to organise themselves and how to define who they were and what they believed.

In Paul’s time a major issue of concern was how to include the Gentiles into a sect that was an off-shoot of Judaism. There were at the time, no councils or forms of government,  no canon law and no theological schools to help resolve the issue. The earliest communities were, by and large, self-governing. Though they looked to Jerusalem on some questions, there were no regular meetings and groups of believers were basically left to their own devices.

Over time, especially after the church had separated from Judaism, formal structures of governance began to develop. In the pastoral letters we can see the emergence of bishops and deacons. Bishops began to assume leadership of a number of communities within their geographic area and were the theologians and guardians of the faith. However there was still no overarching body, no one Bishop to create unity of belief and practice. This created a great deal of tension as the Bishops struggled for dominance. Bishops of significant cities – Rome, Alexandria and Constantinople all wanted theirs to be the leading church in the Mediterranean and themselves to exert the most influence within the church as a whole.

Constantine united the church theologically by calling the Nicaean Council to resolve the issue of the nature of Christ, but there was still no one over-arching government. Bishops governed independently of each other. In the seventh century a Synod in Spain added a line to the creed which was considered heretical by many (We believe in the Holy Spirit who proceeds from the Father and the Son). This phrase – which implies for some that the Holy Spirit is in some way inferior to the other members of the Trinity – and the Bishop of Rome’s claim to universal papal primacy eventually caused the eastern church to break away from Rome in 1054 and to become what are known today as the various branches of the Orthodox Church. The Crusades and the sack of Constantinople served only to increase the schism.

In the West, the church continued for centuries under the governance of Rome. It was only in the 1600s that Luther’s ninety-nine articles revealed the simmering tensions that lay under the facade of unity. All over Europe and then in Britain, groups and even nations rejected the teachings, practices and dominance of Rome and began to establish expressions and practices of the faith which they believed were closer to the teachings of Jesus. These were tumultuous times during which those who dissented were often subjected to torture and execution. It is no wonder that religious tension and mistrust continued up until at least the 1950’s. As late as the 1980’s some of my Protestant friends would so in hushed tones: “Would your parents let you marry a Catholic?”

Sadly, there was no time when the church was truly one, that said there has been a wonderful change in the last one hundred years as a concerted effort by Christians of all denominations has attempted to break down the barriers that divide us and to come to an understanding that while our emphasizes and practices might be different, we share a faith in Jesus Christ whom we believe to be God incarnate.

In today’s gospel we read part of Jesus’ final prayer: that his disciples might be one as he and the Father are one. Throughout this gospel Jesus has stressed his unity with the Father. His hope is that the disciples share the sense that there is no divide between themselves and God, and, as a consequence have no divisions amongst themselves because God in and through them is working for unity.

Like all institutions, the church is flawed because it is human. Individually and collectively, we find it difficult to allow our lives to be completely subsumed into the life of God. As long as we resist, we will fail to achieve that unity shared by the Father and the Son. As long we as individuals and communities continue to go our own way the church at a global and at a local level will be divided.

All is not lost. Through 2000 years, God has used the frail and fractured body of the church to keep alive the faith. God has used the church to care for those in need, to stand up against oppression and to bring healing and hope. God has used our differences to create a wealth of tradition, worship, symbolism and practice so that all kinds of people can find a place to call home in one church or another. God has used the church to raise up people who are shining examples of that union with Godself that Jesus prayed would be sought by us all.

It is not easy to be so secure in ourselves and in God’s love that we do not need to compete or to prove ourselves better than, more knowledgeable than, more holy than others. It is not easy to be so content that we are willing and able to submerge ourselves into the life of a community. It is not easy, but it is what we are called to do – to build lives of prayer and faith such that being one with God is our sole aim and so that our lives truly reflect God’s presence in us. When we are in complete harmony with God, it will be impossible not to be in harmony with each other.


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