This sermon was preached at Church of Jesus Christ, Reconciler’s service for Ecumenical Sunday in the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity. It is a sermon about the church.
There is a tone of urgency in all the Scriptures we have just read. Something looms, it obscures all other activity and even the sense of future it overturns the present. We all have moments like this in our lives. The moments where we can’t see beyond the present situation and what that situation will bring. In these moments we know that this moment of turmoil and conflict will change something and could possibly change everything, nothing will be the same after the moment has passed. Sometimes we may anticipate this as a good, most of the time it brings dread: fear of the unknown and of what lies beyond the horizon. We know something is coming we know it will be here soon, and we can’t think about anything else, and our stomach is in knots, and yet life forces us to continue on. A term for this is crisis.
Crisis Theology was one of the names given to the theologies of a group of early 20th century German Theologians, Karl Barth, Paul Tillich, Rudolf Bultmann, who sought to recapture something of this Biblical urgency for the modern period so that modern people could recapture this sense of urgency as they encounter the Word of God again in Scripture and in thier lives. They, and their followers, were unable to keep this sense of urgency. And understandably we can’t live in the constant state of crisis. Crisis must come to a resolve of one kind or another.
Revivalist Christianity and its American heirs in Evangelicalism also emphasize the role of urgency in Christian spirituality. This crisis can be summed up by the questions “Are you saved!” and “ If you were to die tonight would you go to heaven?” The crisis is resolved for the individual when she or he says the prayer of repentance entrusting one’s soul to Christ. However, the urgency is also maintained because there are many other individuals in the world, probably several this particular individual knows, may have never said the prayer of repentance and been saved! Our Gospel text is one of those used to show that this urgency is biblical. The revivalists amongst the Swedish Lutheran Pietist of my childhood knew that we were all to be fishers of people, or men as I learnt it as a child. There was even a song that I will not attempt to sing for you but you may know it yourself and want to sing out in nostalgia for Sunday school.
What are we to make of all these takes on the need for Spiritual crisis and urgency on this Ecumenical Sunday in the midst of the Week of prayer for Christian unity? There was a time when there was great energy and sense of urgency and crisis around repairing and reuniting the fractured fragmented reality of Christianity. This urgency has borne fruit that some of us experienced this past week. At the Bible study this past Wednesday as Catholics and various Protestants gathered together to prayer and read and discuss Scripture together, we were reminded that in the memory of many of those present the very thing we were doing would have been possible and seen as undesirable. In some sense the lack of urgency is a good thing, it means that followers of Jesus Christ have let down some of the walls that were between us and while we are still divided we can reach out to each other across dividing lines. And so there was no crisis for any of us in being there, or so it seemed.
This question was asked at the Bible Study:” What kind of change would have to occur among denominations, church bodies, Christian communities to bring about the unity Jesus prayed for in John 17:10-11.” I found difficult to answer and I felt our group side stepped the question. We were too enamored by what the ecumenical movement, over the past 100 years, had achieved in bringing about more or less good will between many Christian Groups. We wouldn’t allow our continued differences and visible division to be or remain a crisis. Rather we said that we were one in Christ even if there were differences, and still divisions and separate worship. Now I don’t want to deny a truth we were affirming that the unity and oneness of the church is not synonymous with uniformity and sameness. Even so there is still a crisis. Our disunity isn’t simply about difference but that we value and prefer our particular difference over that of others and don’t think much of the organization or theology of that other Christian group. We stay apart because we like coming together with those who are different as long as we don’t need to change anything about our group and we can continue to view aspects of some other Christian group (Fundamentalist, Roman Catholic) as less Christian than our way of being and doing things. In other words our division is in part symptomatic that as a group we retain the sense that our ways is better and retain the right to have a negative view of the different functioning of the other groups.
Now you may be asking what does this have to do with Jonah’s proclamation and Nineveh’s response, Paul’s exhortation to live in crisis for the time is far gone, and Jesus’ proclamation of the Kingdom of God being at hand and calling on some men who fish to drop everything and follow him? I’ll get that in a moment. First I need to point out that all three passages the crisis is in part the experience of being confronted with the need to turn away from something, needing to let go. It is this leaving of the nets, living as if we are not morning or having possessions or married that I find relevant to our current ecumenical and Christian situation. It is in being asked to leave and let that gives us a clue as to what it means to be part of Christ as his Body the church.
A noteworthy thing about this letting go and turning away is that, with the exception of Nineveh, what is turned away from isn’t bad or evil or sin. Paul even indicates that the stopping or behaving as though you are not has anything to do with those things or activities, rather the needing to let go has to do with the moment of crisis we are in. Jesus isn’t calling Peter Andrew James and John from fishing because it’s a wrong for them to fish but because of the moment, and they can’t both be Jesus’ disciples and fish. It seems to me that the ecumenical question is the question of faith in Christ and thus about our crisis. There is an historical moment to our experience of this crisis. Christianity no longer has the sway it has; all of our denominations were formed in or were heavily influenced by a time where Christianity was an unquestioned force in culture and society. It is likely that our current crisis has less to do about the truths of our faith and more to do with the habits differing groups each formed depending on the position we had taken in those Christian societies, or Christendom. These Christian societies have passed on or are passing away.
The reality is that our differences have meaning; our differences may even exist for good reasons. Our differences may even be good things. Even so we may be called to lay them aside to follow Christ and be the Church! But here comes the rub in our relations to other Christians: who can tell us what we must leave behind to follow Christ and be members of the body of Christ the Church and what of that which we already hold and do that is essential to our following Jesus and being the Church? There are claims and counter claims! For Roman Catholicism they aren’t a denomination but simply the Church, the Pope is the successor of Peter, the First among the apostles on whom the church was built and is established according to Jesus’ words in Matthew. For many Baptists and other free church types it is the local body of believers that is properly the church, bishops, popes, priest, pastors may be all well and good but they are the nets that can and often should be laid down in order to follow Jesus. Who is correct? And that is merely among the thornier and obvious issues. I could probably spend hours even days listing all the ways Christians would come to differing conclusions on what they could drop and walk away from in following Jesus and being the church, and those things that must be retained. Perhaps at this moment what is asked of us to let go that I or my group has a clue. Perhaps we are asked to let go of the assertion that all we need to agree on is that Jesus is Lord as the basis of our unity! After all if that assertion is to be anything more than an empty net full of holes it needs to give us a way of being in the world, both personally and corporately? Surely Jesus is Lord has practical content and will have consequences in the world: tell us how we should live, even speak to our ritual lives. “Jesus is Lord” should tell us about our way of being together as community even form of worship. Or at least that is possible. Just as it is possible that there is a certain variety of ways to live Jesus as Lord, but it would seem then that those ways should be recognizable upon examination.
So yes I think we are on the edge of something on the Sea of Galilee, and were all attempting to mend the nets of Christendom. And Christ is wandering in our midst calling us back to following and being church, that is fishing for people.
But what is this that the church is about? It’s about gathering and proclaiming. Jesus tends to use the gathering metaphors for God’s activity in the world and the activity of God’s people. God harvests, God fishes, God Gahters. We as the body of Christ harvest, we fish with nets, we are to gather. This might be painful to hear in a time when in the US, we followers of Christ can barely keep the people we have let alone gather those outside our walls. But I don’t think this is a church growth or evangelism passage, these fishers of people. Or at least it isn’t about them but us, and what we are willing to do?
We gather if and when we follow, if and when we accept that we are in a state of crisis, and then can respond in trust. This is perhaps where Crisis Theology and Evangelicalism miss the point about the urgency of God: God’s urgency about coming to rest and gaining peace. We tend to face crisis and the urgent with frantic activity; by contrast there is a detachment and attentiveness to Jesus actions and Paul’s exhortation. To accept the crisis and the urgency is to let go, to drop everything and trust, trust God with it all. Even that thing you think is all important for being a follower of Christ, which ensures that you are in the right place.
As Christians as followers of Jesus surely there is only one thing to cling to, and that is Christ. That one thing means much more than simply one thing. The body of Christ is singular and multiple, as we as bodies are made up of many parts but one being that moves together and exist as unified parts for the whole the body.
Our anxiety about unity being uniformity, our anxiety about losing our distinctive, our anxiety about loosing our identity in Christ shows us that we are still on the shore with our nets. We have returned to our nets uncertain what to do, we return in our anxiety. The grace and the truth is God doesn’t tire of coming to the Sea of Galilee. So God calls out to each of us and to all Christian groups “Come follow me.” Will you let go of everything and trust and follow? On ly then will you gather people only then will you be on the way to knowing where you should be and what it means to be the church, and a follower of Christ. Amen