Jan28TueWeek of Prayer for Christian Unity: a sermon preached at St. Mary's Catholic Church on January 26th January 28, 2020
In the Name of the Father…
I want to begin by saying what an honour and privilege it is to be invited by Father Toby to preach here at St. Mary’s for the occasion of
the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity, which has just ended.
Pulpit exchanges are a practical way of living out this Week of Prayer,
and help us hear directly and personally from another Christian tradition.
The beginning of the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity goes back to 1908,
and Father Paul Wattson, a co-founder of the Graymoor Fransiscan Friars,
a monastic order that focusses on ecumenical, or inter-church work.
Its theme comes from Jesus’ prayer in the Gospel of John where
He prays for his followers: “Holy Father, protect them in your name that you have given me, so that they may be one, as we are one.” (17:11)
I believe that Ecumenical relations are not about ignoring differences,
but about concentrating on what is in common, and learning and admiring what is different about the other.
I’d like to start by sharing a little about what Lutherans and Roman Catholics have in common.
First, so we’re clear, the definition of the word “catholic”
spelled with a small c, means:
universal, all-embracing, including all Christians.
Catholic with a capital C obviously is a short form for Roman Catholic, used to differentiate, after the Protestant Reformation,
from those churches that broke from Rome.
Martin Luther, from where we get the word “Lutheran”
was a Catholic,
both small c and capital C.
He was the so-called founder of the Lutheran denomination
(although that never was his goal).
He was a German Augustinian monk who lived 500 years ago,
who wanted to debate and reform various problems he saw in the church at the time.
He and his followers sought to justify that their ideas were in following the traditions of the Roman Catholic Church.
Luther rejected the more radical reforms of others and sought a more traditional and conservative way.
Best known for his translation of the Bible into the language of the people, German,
Luther believed the Latin Mass to be the best expression of the liturgy.
Personally, I see myself as a catholic Lutheran, and a progressive traditionalist.
Growing up in a high Anglican Church in Montreal,
my home Lutheran pastor had some catholic pieties and practices,
getting his vestments from Catholic stores, and reserving the sacrament, for example.
In Spring 2005, I took a trip to Rome and the Vatican,
which really impressed me,
esp. as I happened to be in town for the death of
Pope John Paul II.
At the time I was also part of a charismatic catholic prayer group.
I credit that group for helping me in a difficult time of my life,
and assisting me on my way towards seminary.
I haven’t watched “The two popes” on Netflix yet, but I did watch a documentary there on Pope Francis, and I have to say:
a lot of Lutherans like him, and find him to be a fantastic model of a Christian faith leader!
The church where I serve with my wife, St. Matthews,
is a church in the ELCIC,
the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Canada,
which despite its name “Evangelical”, is a liberal denomination.
We’re part of the Lutheran World Federation,
which is an active ecumenical partner with the Roman Catholic Church.
The Lectionary we use is based on the Roman order.
We have two Sacraments:
Baptism (in the name of the Trinity), and Holy Communion,
where we proclaim the Real Presence of Christ.
The 1999 Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification
(between the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity (PCPCU) and the Lutheran World Federation)) “essentially resolves the 500-year-old conflict over the nature of justification which was at the root of the Protestant Reformation.”
As joint members of the Canadian Council of Churches, our respective church bodies often speak with the same voice, for example on social justice issue, such as support of the poor, or of refugees.
Besides our German roots,
a common element between the parishes of St. Mary’s and St. Matthews is our buildings.
They both have a very similar architecture, a Neo-Gothic, brick exterior, with one prominent square tower;
your building was built in 1903, ours in 1914,
both with a very wide, open interior.
Our interior, like yours, is quite ornate:
We have stained glass, a statue of Jesus,
a ceiling painting cycle showing the life of Jesus,
the Virgin Mary depicted 3 times, and a prominent altar crucifix.
Both our churches have large Casavant organs, dating from the 1940s.
Furthermore, we are both concerned with downtown issues:
In 2018, we held an overflow warming centre for the homeless,
And you held one last November.
So having expanded some of the common ground between us,
I’d like to spend some time with our second reading this morning, from Apostle Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians, a text very fitting for this ecumenical occasion.
Paul is writing this letter to the church in Corinth
(a church he had founded several years prior) to address various disputes that from his “standpoint, departed in significant ways from the Gospel” that he had previously preached.
Furthermore he was responding to reports of disunity within the congregation, which got him frustrated, thinking that such behaviour did not fit with the idea that they were all followers of Christ.
Paul appeals, in the name of the Lord Jesus,
the name that unites and defines all Christians, for his readers to
be in agreement, that there be no divisions,
that all be united in the same mind and purpose. [v10]
And he does this appeal because there were factions
(or as we would say today, denominations) in the Corinthian church following different leaders, and they didn’t get along.
Some followed Paul, some claimed to follow Apollos,
(who was a popular and eloquent preacher, who had come after Paul)
some professed to belong to the Apostle Peter,
while others just said they were disciples of Christ. [v12]
And Paul continues with a rhetorical argument:
Has Christ been divided?, he asks,
Has Paul been crucified?
Were you baptized in the name of Paul? [v13]
Carrying their divisions to their extreme logical end,
the rhetorical questions, presume the answer should be NO.
Christ has not been divided, and so their divisions are futile,
and rather, they should be united under Christ.
The reality is that divisions in the church were even present less than 20 years after Jesus rose, and unfortunately continue until today.
There are hundreds of Christian denominations and even dozens of Lutheran denominations (many of whom don’t get along).
What would Paul say about the state of Christianity today?
He might rephrase his argument this way:
Has Martin Luther been crucified?
Are we baptized in the name of the Pope?
Of course not.
We don’t belong to Winnipeg or the Vatican.
We belong to Christ.
Divisions damage the life of the church universal and its witness.
At the end of the day we are all Christians, we all belong to Christ.
We are all baptized in the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit.
The good news of the cross of Christ is what is essential.
Pointing to Jesus is what we all need to do.
And as Paul writes a little later in Chapter 12,
the body of Christ is one body, with many members.
Having differences is OK, but those differences shouldn’t be overriding.
They shouldn’t obscure from the central elements of faith we share:
the Holy Scriptures, the Creeds, the Ten Commandments,
and the Lord’s Prayer.
We all have different gifts, and the ecumenical movement of the past 50 years has shown that this is something to cherish and share.
People of St. Mary’s and your Roman Catholic siblings, I admire you and your real reverence, your respect for traditions,
your continuity of faith, your insistence on the power of healing and transformation of the Eucharist, and your listening to the witness of the saints and the mother of our Lord.
And perhaps as a Lutheran,
I can share my passion for the centrality of the Gospel,
of radical grace through faith,
as well as the concept of adiaphora, which is able to separate the things essential to salvation from those that are not,
allowing one to integrate newer understandings about our reality from science and from other sources and peoples..
God is faithful; by him you (all) were called into the fellowship of his Son, Jesus Christ our Lord. (1 Cor 1:9)
God’s blessings be with you, and greetings from your siblings in Christ
at St. Matthews. Amen.