A sermon for a unity service, based on Acts 20: 17-38
As we are here to celebrate an ecumenical partnership of the Methodist and United Reformed Church here in Tiverton, I hope we can agree on something, as we read this passage from Acts with its teaching from Paul.
Paul can be a bit annoying.
And in case I get mis-understood here, I mean St Paul.
“…serving the Lord with all humility and with tears, enduring the trials that came to me through the plots of the Jews. I did not shrink from doing anything helpful..”.
It’s all a bit much isn’t it.. Paul’s sense of suffering for the gospel and serving until he drops.
Or is it just me?
But putting our reactions to that aside, what does Paul teach about ecumenism – about different traditions of church deciding to travel side by side, for the good of the people around them?
Paul describes how hard the road can be, sometimes. He certainly doesn’t pull any punches about the fact that following Jesus can lead to persecution and suffering, even imprisonment and death.
From time to time I fill out one of these “lifestyle questionnaires” for some organisation or another – you know the sort of thing : Gender, age-range, level of education, and then the one I find most taxing – ‘leisure activities’. Because often, tucked away there among ‘cinema and theatre’ and ‘sport – watching’ there is sometimes a category “religious activity”. And I never know whether to tick the box or not.
Can I really, in all conscience, tick a box that describes my discipleship of Jesus as a ‘leisure activity’?
I have given my life to try to seek God’s way and God’s will for me; I long to serve God in all I do and say can I really reduce this sense of purpose and direction of my life to a “leisure activity”? I’m sure Paul would not tick the box.
Following Jesus can be hard and can lead to difficulty, and Paul wants the Christians of Ephesus to be under no illusions.
And I think perhaps Paul would say the same about living together as Christians. It is not easy, it is not a “leisure activity” it not the simplest solution to a lack of resources or a tricky problem with a building, but it is the way to go if we are to follow Jesus and remember his prayer to the father “that they might be one”.
So ecumenism isn’t easy.
And Paul would also, I think, want to remind us that in ecumenism there is give and take. He reminds the Ephesians that Jesus said ‘It is more blessed to give than to receive.’ (though, by the way, we’re not sure when or where.. it is not recorded in the gospels).
But we know that giving and receiving are both blessed. Often in Ecumenical situations we look at what we can give, what we can bring to the table - what gifts our own tradition can add to the ecumenical treasure trove. That's important.
But although it may be more blessed to give then receive, that doesn’t mean it isn’t blessed to receive at all ! There is a term currently bandied around in ecumenical circles of ‘receptive ecumenism’ .
This concentrates on what we need to receive from others, and instead of looking at what we can bring (our strengths, perhaps), it invites us to look at the gifts and strengths of others, to notice what we can learn or receive from them. It is a humbling thing, because it calls us all to accept that we do not have the whole truth about Chris,t but we need the insights of others.
So ecumenism can be hard and it involves giving and receiving.
But however irritating we may sometimes find St Paul, we cannot fault the final part of his message to his fellow Christians:
“And now I commend you to God and to the message of his grace, a message that is able to build you up and to give you the inheritance among all who are sanctified.”
Christian life – and that includes Christian unity – is above all the work of the grace of God.
Our efforts, our energies, our gifts, our ability to love, all pale to insignificance compared to the vast sea of gracious love that God has poured out on us in Jesus Christ.
If you need to be forgiving – remember you are forgiven
If you need to be loving – remember just how deeply you are loved
If you need to work together – remember that you are one in Christ Jesus.
Hard work, giving and receiving, the work of God’s grace – this is what God has called you all to here in Tavistock.
As we celebrate your common life here this evening, I pray that God’s grace and power will be poured out on you, so that you may be one, that the world might believe.
In the name of Jesus Christ our only Lord and saviour.