The Rev. Dr. Richard L. Tolliver preached the following sermon at St. Edmund’s Episcopal Church, Chicago, Illinois on the Feast of the Transfiguration, August 6, 2000.
Today’s text is John 17: 21-23. It reads as follows: “I have given them the glory that you gave me, that they may be one as we are one: 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.”
John 17 contains the lengthy prayer, which Jesus prayed on the eve of his betrayal and death. The text, which I have chosen, focuses on the concluding sentences of this lengthy soliloquy. Having already prayed for himself, Jesus now prays for his disciples and for the church that is to come out of his death. Recognizing that his current disciples are the keys to this future church, Jesus prays especially for these future believers who will never know his earthly self, asking that they may experience the “unity of love” as the bond to hold them together. This unity is absolutely crucial, for Jesus identifies it as the characteristic, which is most likely to evangelize the world.
Our text presents Jesus’ words of power and comfort, “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.” But oneness has never been a quality the church has had much of an opportunity to celebrate. In the church’s first few centuries it was so concerned about establishing a creed of theological orthodoxy that it saw heresy and treachery everywhere. Conversely, since the time of the Reformation initiated by Martin Luther when he was instrumental in personally accelerating the historical forces that resulted in the formation of the Lutheran Church in Germany after severing ties with the Roman Catholic Church, the church has become churches, defined by denominations obsessed with establishing their differences rather than their similarities.
Perhaps our greatest problem has been distinguishing Jesus’ promise of oneness from our own concept of “hegemony.” Hegemony refers to the situation where only one way of thinking, one way of seeing, is allowed and accepted. Historians have finally noticed in the last few decades that a hegemonious skewering of history has led to textbooks filled with the exclusive viewpoints and experiences of Western white males. Breaking the hegemony has led to the rediscovery of African-American history, women’s history, Eastern civilizations history, Native-American history, Latino-American history, experiences which had been deemed without worth by the hegemonious power structure.
Jesus did not come to establish hegemony of the church. He came to enable us to become a community united by love. In our post-modern culture the Self is still Numero Uno. The church needs to recognize that its purpose on earth is to incarnate a very different Latin phrase, the unum humanum, one humanity.
Taking a step closer to fulfilling Christ’ prayerful petition for unity among his followers, on July 9, 2000 the triumphal strains of Martin Luther’s Reformation hymn “A Mighty Fortress is our God” followed the overwhelming passage of three resolutions in the House of Deputies meeting at the 73 General Convention of the Episcopal Church in Denver, Colorado, cementing the accord Called to Common Mission (CCM) with the Evangelical Lutheran Church of America. Called to Common Mission is a successor to the original Concordat of Agreement to establish full communion between the Episcopal Church United States of America (ECUSA) and the Evangelical Lutheran Church (ECLA). The Episcopal Church approved that document at its 1997 General Convention, but the ECLA narrowly turned it down a few months later. The Church wide Assembly of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America approved CCM on August 19, 1999 in Denver, Colorado. This agreement, establishing full communion between the two denominations, will be launched officially on the Feast of the Epiphany, Saturday, January 6, 2001, at the National Cathedral in Washington, D.C.
The introductory paragraph of Call to Common Mission states, “Unity and mission are organically linked in the Body of Christ, the church. All baptized people are called to lives of faithful witness and service in the name of Jesus. Indeed, the baptized are nourished and sustained by Christ as encountered in Word and Sacrament. Our search for a fuller expression of visible unity is for the sake of living and sharing the gospel. Unity and mission are at the heart of the church’s life, reflecting thereby an obedient response to the call of our Lord Jesus Christ.”
A parishioner recently asked me if the new relationship with the ECLA means that he is now also a Lutheran. The answer is NO! Called to Common Mission states, “We therefore understand full communion to be a relation between distinct churches in which each recognizes the other as a catholic(universal) and apostolic church holding the essentials of the Christian faith. Within this new relation, churches become interdependent while remaining autonomous. Full communion includes the establishment locally and nationally of recognized organs of regular consultation and communication, including Episcopal collegiality, to express and strengthen the fellowship and enable common witness, life, and service. Diversity is preserved, but this diversity is not static. Neither church seeks to remake the other in its own image, but each is open to the gifts of the other as it seeks to be faithful to Christ and its mission. They are together committed to a visible unity in the church’s mission to proclaim the Word and administer the Sacraments.”
The full text of the Called to Common Mission outlines several agreements, which a sermon won’t permit me to comprehensively identify for you. I am proud that in the early 1990s the Bishop asked me to serve as one of this diocese’s representatives to a joint committee made up of members of the local Lutheran Synod and the Episcopal Diocese of Chicago to discuss documents being circulated at the time proposing full communion.
As a college student, whenever we either didn’t have time to read an entire novel or play that was given as an assignment, or was seeking more clarification when we had read the assigned material, we read Cliff Notes, an abbreviated outline of the entire work. Today’s sermon only permits me to share with you a Cliff Notes version of the CCM.
I will do that by making three points. One, this agreement is only with the Evangelical Lutheran Church of America, not all Lutheran Churches in the United States belong to the ECLA. Many Lutheran churches in Chicagoland are members of the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod, another branch of Lutheranism. Don’t automatically assume when you pass a Lutheran Church that it belongs to the ECLA, do further investigation. For example, it’s the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod that operates the church-related school system in this area, not the ECLA. Luther South High School, where some of our parishioners have attended is affiliated with the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod.
Secondly, the most visible impact that parish congregations will experience as a result of this agreement, is that interchangeability of clergy may take place, occasionally, for an extended period of time, or through transfer to membership in the other denomination. Functionally, that means that an ECLA pastor may now celebrate mass in an Episcopal Church without the priest being present and an Episcopal priest may preside over a Lutheran communion service without a Lutheran pastor being present. Clergy may be called to become pastors in either denomination. Ordained ministers from either church seeking long-term ministry with primary responsibility in the other church will be expected to apply for clergy transfer and to agree to the installation vow or declaration of conformity in the church to which she or he is applying to minister permanently.
Additionally, the CCM states that each church believes the other to hold all the essentials of the Christian faith, but this does not require either church to accept all doctrinal formulations of the other.
Thirdly, the most contentious issue, and the one that caused the ECLA not to approve full communion in 1997, centers on the two denominations fundamentally different views about the office of bishop. The Episcopal Church embraces the historic episcopate. “Historic succession” refers to a tradition, which goes back to the ancient church, in which bishops already in the succession install newly elected bishops with prayer and the laying-on-of-hands. At present The Episcopal Church has bishops in this historic succession, as do all the churches of the Anglican Communion., and the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America at present does not, although some members of the Lutheran World Federation do. This phenomenon is referred to as “the historic episcopate.”
Today the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America uses the term “installation” while the Episcopal Church uses the word “ordination” for the rite by which a person becomes a bishop. What is involved in each case is the setting apart within the one ministry of Word and Sacrament of a person elected and called for the exercise of oversight (episkope) wider than the local congregation in the service of the gospel. An Episcopal bishop is ordained for life. A Lutheran bishop is elected for a term of office that has an ending date. At the end of that time he returns to being a pastor and no longer carries the title, “bishop.” This is referred to as the “evangelical succession” of bishops.
As a result of their agreement in faith and in testimony of their full communion with one another, both churches now have made a commitment to share an episcopal succession that is both evangelical and historic. They promise to include regularly one or more bishops of the other church to participate in the laying-on-of-hands at the ordinations/installations of their own bishops as a sign, though not a guarantee, of the unity and apostolic continuity of the whole church.
A document that seeks to answer questions about the CCM states, “To be in full communion means that churches become interdependent while remaining autonomous. One is not elevated to be the judge of the other nor can it remain insensitive to the other; neither is each body committed to every secondary feature of the tradition of the other. Thus the corporate strength of the churches is enhanced in love, and an isolated independence is restrained. Full communion….should not imply the suppressing of ethnic, cultural or ecclesial characteristics of traditions which may in fact be maintained and developed by diverse institutions within one communion.”
Christ’s gift was unification, not homogenization. A homogenized faith is faith in everything, and therefore, faith in nothing. One of the most powerful images created by psychiatrist Carl Jung is of the one family tree where we all unite. But the one tree without the many dissimilar branches is but a stump. It is time we stopped trying to make people just like we are and started encouraging them to be just like God made them. We must celebrate differences, not just sameness. The Call to Common Mission recognizes our sameness in Christ and yet honors some of the differences unique to both denominations in their expressions of their love for Christ. Nevertheless, full communion recognizes our unum humanum, our one humanity.
As the world continues to shrink we find our own welfare increasingly caught up in the well being of others who we previously never really considered as neighbors. Ephesians 2:19-20 gives us an image of what might be if the church can witness through its own oneness to the rest of the world: “So then you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are citizens with the saints and also members of the household of God, built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus himself as the cornerstone.”
Luther was correct, “A mighty fortress is our God, a bulwark never failing…” The knowledge of that fact alone unites all Christians in a common cause. In the words of the late Marvin Gaye, “Let’s get it on!” AMEN.
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