January 20, 2010

Some of you remember with great disdain a banner which flew on the bridge of the aircraft carrier Abraham Lincoln which read: Mission Accomplished. There was a boisterous celebration on deck; even then, while some believed that the mission was accomplished already, or that it would be accomplished soon. Others have been quite content to be chipping on those others, saying, “See the work must go on.” This is the nature of partisian politics.

It was this scene that came to mind as I prepared to gather together to pray for Christian Unity. In one of the preparatory meetings Calvin Kurtz mentioned the beauty of the nave here at Sts. Constantine and Helen; and that today should remind us of the ‘Communion of Saints’ rather than the fractured body of Christendom that we often lament. So we pray, today, for Christian Unity, that the reality of that unity of the saints be demonstrated in us.

On days like today there is part of me that wants to say, “Mission accomplished.” To think about the Communion of Saints is to engage in a review of history. When I speak to young people about this biblical idea of ‘saints’ I want to remind them that ‘saints’ does not only include people like St. Paul and Peter, but also our great-grand-parents who served God in the church and in their daily lives. The communion of saints is, of course, the ninth article of the Apostle’s Creed. When we say this, we are saying we believe in a spiritual union that exists between each Christian and Christ; thus, between every Christian, whether in the Church triumphant or the Church militant. You will notice that the essential link is Christ. The certainty of our faith, the dependability of our Savior should lead us to say “mission accomplished.”

And there are days like today. There are times and seasons when various stripes of Christians gather together and not only recognize but celebrate our one-ness. Today we do it in worship. I happen to know for a fact that we have been doing it for the last week in a much more significant way as we have joined together to come to the aid of the people of Haiti. Church World Service is but one charity that partners with others to ensure that aid is delivered in the most efficient manner possible. CWS partners with International Orthodox Christian Charities, Lutheran Disaster Response, Catholic Relief Services, and many others partner to serve the world in places like Haiti. On days like today, when we witness the setting aside of those things which may serve to divide us in order to serve together in Christ’s ministry of peace and justice, who would not be tempted to say “Mission Accomplished.”

Yet there is another part of me that wants to say, “hold on there, we have more work to do.” If the church was fully the Church of Jesus Christ, we would be one. We would be one in meaningful ways, like serving the world, and not only on days like today. In John’s gospel, Jesus said to some outsiders who were wondering about his disciples,
John 17:20-23 (NIV)

20 “My prayer is not for them alone. I pray also for those who will believe in me through their message,
21 that all of them may be one, Father, just as you are in me and I am in you. May they also be in us so that the world may believe that you have sent me.
22 I have given them the glory that you gave me, that they may be one as we are one:
23 I in them and you in me. May they be brought to complete unity to let the world know that you sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me.

The prayer has not been realized in any institutional sense. There is division, there is schism. Even in my own denomination whose motto is these very words of Jesus, “that they may all be one,” there are strong forces that seek to ‘steeplejack’ congregations out of the fold.

In the wider church, we reformed folks signed the ‘Articles of Agreement’ a few years ago. This document says that the United Church of Christ, the Evangelical Lutheran Church, the Reformed Church in America, and the Presbyterian Church (USA); each recognize the other as a ‘real church,’ their pastors as ‘real pastors,’ and their sacraments as ‘real sacraments.’ I excitedly raced home to my congregation to tell them the news. They looked at me quizzically and said, “We always believed that.” This is not unique to the reformed folk. There are dialogues going on between Rome and Canterbury. The Lutherans recognize the Episcopalians, and the Episcopalians recognize the Methodists, but none of us recognize each other in the liquor store.

Let’s be honest and say that the mission is not accomplished and we have a long way to go.

So what is the work that remains undone? I would suggest to you that the work, is in some sense not our work, but God’s work, that work which extends all the way back to Genesis. It is I would refer to as “the Ministry of Reconciliation.” It is the mission of our Lord was given when he was named. Jesus is his name, for he shall save his people from their sins. Now the mission is done for which he was sent into the world. He has saved his people from their sins.

A month or so ago I met with my confirmation students. We had been studying the Heidelberg Catechism and as is often the case with Jr. High students the conversation had wandered off course. They had turned to legalisms, and I interrupted and asked if any of them could name the two commands Jesus left with us. One young man quickly raised his hand. “Yes, Christopher?” He said, “Do your best and don’t have sex until you are married.” I paused. Then asked, “Who told you that?” He said that his father had offered this sage advice. I told him that it was wise advice but it was not what Jesus commanded us to do. Our commands had to do with evangelism, and the sustenance of that effort, “to go, baptize, be my witnesses.” And “do this in remembrance of me.” It is a sacramental task, this work we have to do. And a task we can all engage in.

In these sacraments, baptism and Eucharist is the power he gave his disciples, his followers. It is the power of the Good News about our own personal rescue from the evil loose in the world, and our own desires. When you know and see that only through the actions of this Servant King Jesus that we can become whole, get it together again, find purpose in our cracked, leaking pots of the great Potter, then power is ours from on high.

I am not opposed discussions about doctrines or ecclesiology. I am afraid of conversations whose subjects lead to sharpening the distinctions between how we take the very basic elements of the work we are called to do and how we see fit to do them. “These things,” however, are at their core the very basis for unity and not division. Are there not, begs St. Paul, a variety of Spiritual Gifts, but the same spirit that gives them?

In this text from Luke’s gospel we are witnesses, too, of “these things.” We are witnesses of the ministry of Christ; in this text, we witness his Ascension and thus must realize that his urgings are more than just nice ideas or suggestions for our consideration. This command to those standing by comes from the one who sits upon the throne, who comes to judge the living and the dead, who ushers in a new creation by his grace.

Luke 24:44-48 (RSV)
44 Then he said to them, “These are my words which I spoke to you, while I was still with you, that everything written about me in the law of Moses and the prophets and the psalms must be fulfilled.”
45 Then he opened their minds to understand the scriptures,
46 and said to them, “Thus it is written, that the Christ should suffer and on the third day rise from the dead,
47 and that repentance and forgiveness of sins should be preached in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem.
48 You are witnesses of these things.

In one sense, the mission is accomplished in the life, death, resurrection, and ascension of Jesus Christ. But we do live in a world of ‘already’ and ‘not yet.’ In the mean time, before He comes and unites us, once and for all, He commands us to be witnesses to these things in our own lives, our own communities, in the great church: I for one believe that this effort is perhaps some of the most important work we engage in. I am thankful for days like today that reveal to us glimmers of hope for Christian Unity through worship and mission. Still, t here are bridges to be built, some to be maintained, others, dreamed of…for Christ’s sake, we cannot act as if this work is done.