Sunday, May 16, 2010

"That all may be one," May 16, 2010

I have included the whole liturgy again this week since this service sets up my final four services in Didsbury -- Ian


Welcome to Sunday morning worship at Knox United Church. My name is Ian Kellogg and I am a student supply minister here at Knox this spring. Today the season of Easter is coming to a close. Next week, Easter ends as we celebrate Pentecost and the coming of the Holy Spirit to the first Christians.

This morning our focus is on unity. Knox is part of the United Church, a denomination where unity is central. But the United Church has also always been about diversity within unity. The three founding denominations and the thousands of congregations that joined to form our church in 1925 kept much of their uniqueness. And today, in the United Church people of very different backgrounds, approaches, and ideas come together every week to worship God and serve their community.

So in our diverse gathering this morning, we hope that all will feel met and included in worship and in coffee time after the service.

This morning, as always, we begin worship by lighting a candle. The light of this candle represents the light of the Risen Christ. It calls to us, leads us, and unites us. This morning we gather to remember, recharge and give thanks.

Light candle . . .

We now turn to our opening hymn, which takes us into today's theme of unity. It is #402 from Voices United . . .

* GATHERING HYMN "We are One" #402 VU

And now we say together the call to worship and opening prayer . . .

* CALL TO WORSHIP (said together)

From many different backgrounds
we come in answer to your call
to worship together, united
as the Body of Christ.

* OPENING PRAYER (said together)

God who is One
Help us to love our neighbours and
see our common humanity
despite all our differences.

THEME CONVERSATION: Why a "United" church?

I now invite those kids who would like, to come and join me on the front steps for a minute before church school. Good morning, I am glad to see you all here today.

Do you see that crest up on the wall? That is the official crest of the United Church of Canada, and there is a lot of interesting stuff on it. We could do a whole series of Sundays just going through the different words and symbols on that crest. But today I am only going to point out the strange words along the bottom: they read "Ut Omnes Unum Sint." Those words are not even in English or French . . . they are from the ancient language Latin. They are Jesus' words from today's Gospel reading, and in English they mean "That all may be one." And that is the motto of the United Church of Canada.

So I want to ask you a question. Why do you think Knox is called a "United Church." Do you have any idea what the word "United" means for our church?

Yeah, it means we bring different churches together. 85 years ago, people from different traditions joined to make a bigger church -- the United Church of Canada. They wanted to live out Jesus' wish that "all may be one."

But that doesn't mean that other churches are not united. In fact, the big church down the hill, Zion, resulted from joining together two churches here in Didsbury 15 years ago. But it is still not called a United Church. The United Church came about when thousands of churches all across Canada and from three different brands or denominations came together to make one.

That was 85 years ago, and it created some strange situations. For instance, when I was a kid, I went to a church that was also called Knox United, in a small city in Ontario called Cornwall. And in Cornwall, there was another United Church called St. John's, but it was only one block away from Knox! This happened because before 1925, both of these churches were from different brands: one was Presbyterian and one was Methodist. But after 1925, they belonged to the same brand, which meant that two churches pretty much alike existed side by side.

After I grew up and left Cornwall, those two churches joined to become one, sort of like when Westcott and Westerdale closed and people started coming to Knox here; or 15 years ago when two churches in Didsbury joined to become Zion.

And you know what else? The church building where I went as a kid, Knox in Cornwall, just got torn down! Back in 1940, there was a small earthquake in Cornwall, which knocked down the steeple; and 70 years later, an engineer told them the rest of the building was not safe. So they had to tear it down.

I was sad when I heard this story. Imagine coming back to Didsbury one day when you are grown up and finding out that this building had been torn down. But churches are more than buildings, eh? And Jesus urges us to work together, and worship together, and perhaps one day there will just be one kind of church . . . who knows? But for now, I am happy that churches like Knox and Zion and many others exist where people can learn about God and about love.

So . . . I hope you enjoy church school this morning. But before you go, I have a brief prayer, then we will pray again the prayer that Jesus taught us, and then we will learn and sing a new hymn. OK?   LET US PRAY . . .

Dear God,

We give thanks for our differences, which make us interesting,
and for your love which unites us.
We give thanks for different ways to know about Love and for different churches in which we can follow your Will.
Help us to respect our differences and also to work together when the needs of the whole are greater than the wishes of the few.
Help us to know, O God, that you created all of us in your Image,
and that we are all each other's neighbours.


And now let us pray again together the prayer that Jesus taught us, saying . . .

Our Father . . .

The hymn before church school is a new one. I chose it because it is about unity and also because it mentions prairie, foothills and mountains, and so I thought it would be a good one for Knox to know. So before church school I will go up to the pulpit while we learn this hymn, then we will sing it together, and then church school will begin.

First Doreen will play the music through once, then I will sing the first verse as a solo, and then we will all join together to sing all four verses. It is #53 from More Voices . . .

* HYMN: "God Who Spread the Boundless Prairie" #53 MV


Psalm 97                God reigns; let the earth be glad.
Revelation 22: 12-21        Come Lord Jesus!
John 17: 20-26             That all may be one.

SERMON: Unity: from above and below

"That all may be one" -- with these words from the Gospel of John on its crest, the United Church of Canada came into being 85 years ago on June 10th, 1925. And we will celebrate that anniversary more fully on the Sunday closest to the anniversary, which is June 13th, and which is also my last service here at Knox.

But I decided to discuss unity today since the Gospel text for this morning is the one from John 17, which Pat just read. As the season of Easter ends, this reading from John as well as the reading from Revelation are ones that sum things up.

The reading from Revelation contains the famous phrase about Jesus: "I am the Alpha and the Omega, the first and the last, the beginning and the end." Incidentally, the Greek letters Alpha and Omega are also on the United Church crest. These last few verses from Revelation also include the promise, "I am coming soon." And although we still await the Second Coming of Jesus, the phrase can also point to the coming of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost next week.

The Gospel passage from John contains the last words said by Jesus to his disciples before his arrest and execution. In this parting message, Jesus urges believers towards unity. But what kind of unity is meant by the phrase "that all may be one?"

Perhaps Jesus means a kind of mystical union. Listen to Jesus' words again: "as you, Father, are in me and I am in you, may they also be in us." And his ending: "so that the love with which you have loved me may be in them, and I in them." These convoluted phrases remind me of Paul when he writes that Christ lives in him.

So perhaps Jesus was talking about a mystical unity. But Jesus' phrase "that all may be one" have usually been interpreted the way that the United Church interprets it: as a call for church unity. Jesus' prayer, it is argued, is that all the followers of the Way of  the Cross form One Body.

In the first 300 years after Jesus death such unity was not easy. The church was small and far flung. It existed in house churches throughout the Mediterranean. Travel and communication were difficult and slow. Of course there were no printing presses or mass media, so Christian sacred writings such as the  letters of Paul and the gospel narratives were shared as expensive, hand-made copies. In this situation, there was not only one brand of Christianity. There were scores or hundreds of different kinds of Christianities.

All of this changed in the 300's when the Roman Empire dropped its old pagan cults and adopted Christianity as its official religion. By the year 400, all the many strange and diverse types of churches had been unified into one official brand --  Roman Catholicism -- with a common creed, a common collection of books in the Bible, and a common way of worshipping and running each congregation. Uniformity was enforced by the army. Those gospels, creeds and church practices that didn't fit with what the Emperor and his councils decided upon were ruthlessly suppressed.

This top-down approach created Christian unity. But was this the unity that Jesus prayed for with his disciples on the night of his arrest? This seems doubtful to me. For one it was a unity enforced by violence. For another it was this same Roman Empire that arrested Jesus on the night of his prayer and which executed him as a political prisoner the next day. And lastly, the book of Revelation, from which we also read today, is often seen as rousing condemnation of the Roman Empire and its attempts to unite the world on the basis of military might.

Nevertheless, with the adoption of a type of Christianity as the official religion of the Empire, church unity was first achieved. And when the Roman Empire disintegrated under barbarian attacks in the 400's, the Catholic Church was a key institution that kept Europe somewhat united during the Dark Ages. There was a  church split around the year 1000 between the Greek Orthodox wing of the church, centred in what is now Turkey, and the Catholic church centred in Rome. But even after that split, uniformity was maintained for another 500 years in two different flavours: a Latin flavour in the Catholic West of Europe and a Greek flavour in the Orthodox East of Europe.

All of this changed as European powers began their conquest of the world in the 1500s. The Protestant Reformation of Martin Luther in Germany, John Calvin in France and Switzerland, Henry VIII in England, and John Knox in Scotland, which occurred in that century, shattered Christian unity. The rage to create new denominations, which continues to this day, began.

Its not that we as Protestants oppose the Reformation. By the year 1500, the Church in Europe had grown tired and corrupt, and the reforms introduced in the new denominations of Lutheranism, Presbyterianism, Anabaptism, and Anglicanism, and also within the Roman Catholic church in a movement known as the Counter-Reformation, had many positive results.

But although Christianity became the world's dominant religion after European colonization of the Americas, Africa and Asia, it also split into scores of different denominations.

The diversity of Christianity in the first decades after Jesus came naturally. It flowed from  smallness,  poverty, and the difficulties in travel and communication. Although both Jewish and Christian teachings contained calls towards unity, the social situation did not make such unity possible.

At the time of Jesus, most of the world had finally been inhabited by humans. There were only a few islands in the Pacific Ocean like Hawaii that had not yet been reached by humans. But at that time, people in the Roman Empire did not know of the existence of the Americas; people in the Americas did not know of the existence of Africa; and people in Africa did not know of the existence of East Asia. Jews and Christians might wish for human unity under God, but the human race was still developing in isolated pockets on different continents.

European conquest after 1500 changed all this. European powers united all of humanity through war and conquest. Since then, we have lived in a globalized world with one economy. This is the context in which we pray for church unity today.

By the end of the 19th Century, the pendulum among Protestants was swinging back towards unity. And the strongest expression of this movement was right here in Canada. When the Presbyterian, Methodist, and Congregational churches joined to form the United Church of Canada in 1925 it was the first, most hopeful and most influential church union of its day.

Not that there aren't difficulties in church unity. Different churches have different traditions, different ideas on key issues, and different missions. As we will discuss more on June 13th, our own United Church history of the past 85 years shows many of the problems that exist.

Despite the difficulties, modern attempts at church unity have great promise because they are attempts to unite from below and not from above. The impulse towards church unity is found not only in united churches like our own, but also in the formation at the broadest level of the World Council of Churches after WWII and in ministerial associations like the one here in Didsbury and Carstairs at the local level.

Unity from below has a lot to be said for it. For instance, one of the key spurs to the formation of the United Church of Canada was the experience of settlers of European descent on the prairies. In many small farming communities, people might come from different denominations, but they didn't always have the resources or the desire to create more than one church. So a "union church" movement grew up here.

Union churches in the West proved in practice that Presbyterian, Methodist, Anglican or Baptist Christians could successfully worship and work together for love of God and neighbour. This concrete experience of small churches in the West in the late 19th and early 20th Century encouraged the more established Presbyterian and Methodist churches in Eastern Canada to move from talking about unity to actually achieving it.

Today our world needs greater unity to tackle many problems: economic, environmental, and military. But there are legitimate fears about unity from above based upon attempts by empires like Rome to control the whole known world in ancient times, or 20th Century attempts to achieve worldwide unity through military force as with Nazi Germany and Soviet Russia.

Perhaps it is those of us who modestly try to follow Jesus' path of faith, hope and love in churches big and small that offer a better model of unity. As members of the Body of Christ we worship and work together despite our many differences. God's Spirit grants us the Grace to know God's love for us. On this basis we are able to love our neighbours as ourselves. So perhaps it is in Spirit-led churches that a human unity that is truly diverse, democratic, and effective can best be imagined. And we will explore these ideas further on Pentecost next Sunday, on Trinity Sunday two weeks from today, and on June 13th as we celebrate the United Church's anniversary . . .

On the night before his death, Jesus prayed that the love with which God the Father loved him may be in us and that he as Christ be in us as well.  Indeed, the love of God within, between and surrounding us has already made us one.

With God's grace, may we continue to know and experience this deep and loving reality  and so be inspired to seek unity within diversity and peace with justice.

Thanks be to God.


Our hymn of response is . . . 

* HYMN "Your Hand, O God, Has Guided" #274 VU

And now let us pray . . .

Let us pray,
    for the whole people of God in Christ Jesus
    for all people everywhere according to their need
    and for the entire web of life . . .

God of Life, help us to be aware that you are with us every moment;
help us to give thanks for this and all our blessings.

For churches in which diverse people work and worship together as One Body, we give thanks,
For the impulse to work together in a world of religious, economic and political divisions, we give thanks,
And for your love for us which is the real power behind the work to build a world of justice and peace, we give thanks.

God of Spirit,

As Easter gives way to Pentecost, we look forward in hope to the work of your Spirit within and around us. May we always follow the Spirits promptings and be grounded in the path laid out for us in the life and ministry of Jesus.
God of Healing,

May we feel your healing touch during times of physical and emotional pain, in times of loss, and when we feel afraid and alone.

God, we need your loving presence.

We raise up for support and love those that we have named aloud and those whom we now remember in silence . . .

Gracious God, these are our concerns, these are our joys, these are our prayers. We lift them up to you.

All of this we pray in the name of the Risen Christ, our Redeemer and our Hope. Amen

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