Candlemas/Week of prayer for Christian Unity
I know there are people here who dislike the word ‘ecumenical’ – and prefer the more descriptive ‘churches working together’. And as we gather to celebrate the week of prayer for Christian unity we are demonstrating ‘churches working together’ – we have chosen to worship together today, to sing together, pray together, open scripture together & celebrate communion together.
So it would have been easy, preparing this sermon, to focus on what more we can do together, how we can work together more closely and more effectively so that we can be a more effective witness, to the world, of the God we worship and serve together.
But then I read the Gospel reading more carefully – and it challenges me to say something rather different.
There is so much happening in the story of the presentation of Christ in the temple.
Mary & Joseph come with their offering to give thanks for the safe delivery of Mary’s child, and to bring Mary herself back into the worshipping community.
Simeon and Anna are waiting in God’s temple for the time of God’s salvation to come, and they give thanks when they see this tiny baby brought into the temple by his parents. They recognize and give thanks that God is at work in this baby.
Mary, Joseph, Simeon and Anna are just the witnesses of the real cause of celebration. They celebrate God at work, God revealed in this baby.
So this story teaches us to look for what God is doing in this world – God with us, alongside us, bringing in the kingdom almost by stealth, inviting people to follow Jesus and join his work to bring in justice, peace, freedom for all people.
We sometimes forget, in our concern to ‘run’ our churches, to keep the show on the road, and maybe, if we have the energy, to work with other churches, that these are not our churches at all, but they are parts of the body of Christ.
And Christ said ‘I will build my church’ not ‘I will build my churches’ – nowhere in what Jesus says do we find an intention to divide people, but everywhere Jesus declares unity, belonging, one-ness in Him.
As we celebrate the presentation of Christ in the temple together, we are challenged, like Simeon and Anna, to see what it is that God is doing among us. Simeon and Anna are both long in years and stalwarts in the temple. They have worshipped faithfully over many years and now they see the first signs of the light of Christ – a light that will grow and will challenge all the dark places of the world. But this is God’s initiative, not ours.
Jesus will grow to call others to follow him – and those who follow faithfully will continue to know God with them.
With the strength of the Spirit, we can follow Christ faithfully and discover the Christian Unity which is God’s will and God’s gift. And so I’m afraid we do use the word ‘ecumenism’ because it reminds us that we are part of God’s economy, part of God’s dealing with the world, we are all part of God’s activity. The word itself can be translated ‘the household of God’ – we are all part of one, much larger whole... in God.
But this isn’t an excuse to sit back and say ‘well, we’re one in Christ really, so as long as we get together from time to time, God can bring about our true unity when he’s ready’.
Simeon may have been a faithful worshipper in the temple, but he recognizes that when God acts there is a challenge to change which is so fundamental that some will see it as a threat.
So Simeon says to Mary ‘This child is destined for the falling and the rising of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be opposed so that the inner thoughts of many will be revealed—and a sword will pierce your own soul too’. He make it clear that recognizing God with us is not a reason for complacency, but is a very real challenge. There will be pain in Christ’s journey, there will be hard work, and rejection and a journey through death itself.
All around us are signs that the church as we know it is changing and possibly even dying. We might long for a return to some glory days of the church – we might even wonder whether working together might reverse some of the decline – huddling together for warmth against the bleak winds of change.
But I think we are challenged to be bolder than this, as we seek the truth of God’s unity.
Ecumenism - seeking our unity – is not a pretty add-on to the ‘real work’ of keeping our churches going - but is a reaction to the disturbance that all is NOT as it should be. Jesus says that we are one – and if we do not show it, we damage our mission. I am not simply blaming denominationalism for the decline of the church in the West – it’s much more complex than that – but if the state of the church disturbs us, than maybe that is healthier than a false comfort.
Christ comes, God’s gift to the world, and the world will never be the same again. Christ’s presence is a gift to disturb and change and ultimately to heal the world. Christ’s presence is a gift to disturb and change and ultimately heal his body, the church.
If we seek to receive the gift God gives us, it can empower us to be one and as one to share the good news of God’s love for our world.
May it be so, according to God’s will. Amen.