Following Jesus: Ecumenism Crisis and Leaving Our Nets

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.

Jonah 3:1-5, 10Psalm 62:5-121 Corinthians 7:29-31Mark 1:14-20

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

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  • Paul Collier

    Your sermon appears to make a false choice between being
    united and being distinct from one another. 
    We are called to be both.  This
    principle we call “Unity in Diversity”. 
    What is Unity in Diversity?  It is
    recognizing the core, DNA-level standards and principles that unite the body of
    Christ- such as One God- The Great Commandment- The Great Commission- The
    Doctrine of Salvation.

    But do rank and file Christ followers even understand the
    fundamental DNA of the united part of the body or respect the importance of the
    body having many diverse parts?  Do rank
    and file Christ followers even within the same gathering of believers (whether
    that be a community fellowship, a worship congregation, a bible study, or even
    fellow believing members of your own biological family) actually make the core
    standards and principles of our Faith visible to one another and commit to that
    mutual accountability that raises the diverse body up as one voice with many
    tones?

    The real problem with the body IS sin, not as you say simply
    a preference to keep to our own so we can look down on others (which is a
    fundamentally ungodly way of relating to one another in the body of
    Christ).  This sin is the sin of
    darkness, of concealing our lives and our standards from one another so that we
    can continue to live unchallenging, unchanging, ungrowing lives, believing the
    mere proclamation of Christ as our Savior is enough to show Christ we have
    accepted his invitiation, by grace and by blood bought, to enter his kingdom.

    Read the whole of Chapter 4 of Ephesians and you will find
    the command to unite the body in diversity and why it is so critically
    important to all of us, for only in that unity will the body as a whole and we
    as diverse members of the body experience the great, deep, unfathomable love of
    Christ in our lives.
    Paul Collier
    afnonline@gmail.com

    • Paul Collier

      let me add this- the body of christ will not be united by state and national gatherings of national big wig Christian leaders but right in your home- one relationship at a time- Christ built through 12 men he had deep relationships with- we are callled to do no less

      • Larry Kamphausen

        In one sense I agree with you.  If it is only top level negotiations and gatherings that  aren’t coming out of life of faith in the churches.  Yet, the Ecumenical movement and the World council of Churches etc. did originate out of Christians in relationship with each other, and they formed organizations to spread the news and reality they were finding.  
        You seem to have quite the strong negative sentiment towards these Ecumenical institutions and those in the Ecumenical Movement.   I’m sure many are dsitanced as you believe them to be, but I also know many who aren’t and whose involvement is precisely due to their love of God and God’s people.  

        • Paul Collier

          I am not against instutions per ce- but too often those institutions degenerate, morph into silos, or create yet more denominations (ie- more silos)- it becomes about preserving the institution more than extending and living the kingdom- they become entrenched in their own dogma- the kingdom will emerge as people at the ground level- through their personal connections to fellow believers- experience the kingdom outside the confines of denominations- worship centers- organizations- us v them constrictions- daily action living in the Word is the only way the kingdom grows- no great world council can artificially create this, guide this, control this

          • Paul Collier

            People in the ecumenical movement have a fixation on denominations- the very fixation limits their attempt to unite the body to the institutional level- where it can never occur- so they bring together pastors from different churches to confer on how to bring the body together- instead of seeking to simply know how do I, first and foremost understand and live the kingdom in my life, and connect, and connect again- kingdom living- uniting the body- begins in one heart and extends to one family and grows to one neighborhood that connects to another neighborhood- even as those christ followers go their separate ways on sunday to worship centers that please their diverse spiritual needs

    • Larry Kamphausen

      Paul Collier,
      I can see how the sermon might seem that way as I am asking Christians to examine their distinctiveness and why they stand apart from other Christians.  though also it probably seems that way because we have a differing understanding of Unity in diversity.  Certainly Paul’s metaphor of the body is about unity in diversity.  
      The expansion of Paul’s metaphor by using DNA as a means to further get at the unity of the body makes sense.   But DNA code in a sense is also quite specific and is not only an identifying marker but it is how each cell though distinct is formed to work with every other cell to form the various parts of the body.  certainly the things you describe as the DNA of the church are part of the DNA but I’d say the DNA the church as the Body of Christ has to be more than that.   Also, if our distinctiveness and diversity is an expression of the body of Christ all distinctiveness and diversity must be shown to come from the same DNA.
      Paul and the New Testament say much more about this than is found in Ephesians 4, other things Paul says and that are said in the New Testament give greater stuff to work with for understanding the nature of the Church.

      Since this is a sermon using particular texts on a particular Sunday in the church year, I was not seeking to enumerate or explicate the complete problem of the church and disunity.  So I wasn’t denying that sin plays a part in the problems we are facing in the church.  Christians aren’t perfected yet, so yes we have sinful attitudes and actions even in the church.  I do believe we may be called to let things go that may be good in order to find what of our distinctiveness is actually originating from the DNA, as you put it. That is more or less the point of my sermon as I see it.

      • Paul Collier

        There is much to be said about what the DNA of the body of
        Christ is.  I am not suggesting that
        unity in diversity is the beginning and end of the key standards and principles
        that, if lived out, create an environment that the kingdom emerges from-

        Unity in Diversity is really a governing standard- and wherever
        two or more gather, governing immediately takes a role- especially when it
        comes to addressing conflict, a necessary element of a body strengthening
        itself (iron sharpens iron)-

        The other three governing standards (read Romans Chapter 12 and
        find these standards listed in order)-

        Popular Sovereignty- Outside the bounds of Salvation and the
        Truth of the Living Christ, we are free to practice, worship, gather, assemble
        as we see fit.  Within the diverse parts
        of the body, those that are called to be a foot have sovereignty to be a foot
        and not be told by a hand how to be foot.

        Democratic Equality- we are all equal in the eyes of God- every
        part is a vital as the other

        Rule of Law- This is the Word, the Truth of Christ- if you are
        not plumb with the word, you violate Rule of Law AND the Unity part of the body

        All of these core principles of governance must be in balance
        for kingdom relations to emerge.  Many
        people stress democratic equality or rule of law or popular sovereignty.  Some stress Unity (which usually looks like
        homogeny- something it seems you fear- and I am opposed to homogeny as well) and
        others diversity, forgetting that we are all called to live Godly standards,
        and those core Godly standards should align (note- the terms we use are
        arbitrary- you can use any term you want but the core standards are as true as
        gravity and can be applied to governing a company as well as they can to govern
        a family).

        Even throughout history, whole civilizations have been built
        with one or two of these core values, but no major civilization or nation has
        ever employed all four (though the Constitution of the US is founded on these
        core values- even as it immediately violated its own values by declaring there
        could be such a thing as 3/5 of a person)

        We here in Tioga County, Pa and Bethlehem, Pa are attempting to
        live the kingdom- We have been deliberating for about 3 years as a group about
        what it means to live out the kingdom of God as a body and we have found some
        key factors in our own attempts to live the kingdom together-

        Standing- Having the right, freely given by another party, to
        speak into someone’s life about challenging truths

        Accountability- willfully submitting to one another- those you
        have ‘koinonia’ with (this is a rich word that describes a type of love but
        also implies community- it is the word translated to ‘communion’ by some
        bibles- it has binding, almost contractual implications- there is no word in
        the English language to describe it- so we simply use the word- Koinonia)

        A commitment to the truth of the Word and a willingness to follow
        that truth in your life wherever it might lead. 
        We call this principle ‘Radical Truth and Honesty’ and it can only be
        practiced with people you are in koinonia with.

        Intentionality- the kingdom does not emerge passively, and
        neither do kingdom-centered relationships

        Making your standards visible- in the course of making standards
        visible to one another, some startling surprises emerge, conflicts,
        disagreements- it looks very messy- but if your relationships are based in
        Christ and not on the flaws of others, you will come out the other end with
        consensus on core standards and consensus on standards that are part of the
        diverse body, your standards to uniquely govern your relations that meet your
        particular situation, circumstance, and culture.

        Shared Lives-  None of us
        lives together- as a matter of fact- I live one week in Tioga County and one
        week in Bethlehem—3 hours drive apart from one another- but proximity is
        important in being able to build shared lives- these shared lives come together
        in what we call the 7 devotions-

        We worship the same one, true God

        We practice the great commandment with one another and help one
        another extend it to others

        We practice the great commission with one another- offering
        discipling to one another according to our God-given gifts- we serve with one
        another discipling others- my koinonia sister has people she disciples and I
        serve them because of her (well- first and foremost because of Christ’s love)-
        Making disciples of course means witnessing- and to that end we also work with
        one another to witness to the lost- when someone comes to Christ through one of
        us, we come together as a group to disciple that person- this is the diverse
        parts of the body serving the different needs of the disciple

        From Acts, we gather together to pray- we pray a lot- we pray
        for submission to Christ daily- we pray to heal- we pray to give praise- we
        pray to get answers

        We break bread together- eating regularly with one another is
        essential to forming real Daily Living connections to one another

        We Fellowship- fellowshipping comes in many forms- including just
        having fun with one another- building memories with one another- it includes
        praising God together- sometimes in song- sometimes just in expressions of joy

        We practice the Apostle’s teaching- we share the Word with one
        another- we study together- we challenge one another to learn the Word to be
        better disciples and better disciple makers

        This is a larger vision of what kingdom DNA is, as we are practicing

        it  Though it does not contain all of it.  We are not a church.  Some of us go to various churches and some of
        don’t go to church at all.  I go to
        church but I do not get my koinonia fellowship from that church.  I come to that church to share in worship and
        to have opportunities to witness the kingdom to the Christ followers who do not
        know how real it is.

         We are fellow Christ
        followers.  We will never be an
        organization and we will never be a church- not a house church or a worship center,
        but we will continue to work to plant kingdom seeds, bring together believers
        and teach them the Kingdom way.   I consider this community- be it ever so
        small- to be the core source of my fellowshipping with other believers, but
        this is not, as some say, living church- it is living kingdom.

        Living the Kingdom is an awfully painful thing that has caused
        me many tears, many flushed moments of great anger- it has brought on us many
        enemies who gossip about us, who spread outright lies about us.  I tell you these things not to paint a
        negative picture of living the kingdom, but to show you that living the kingdom
        will bring no one earthly peace.  Rather,
        it will cause turmoil.  Your families
        WILL turn against you.  Your friends will
        hate you just for living Christ on the ground in every part of your life- especially
        your Christian friends.

        Yet- living the kingdom will bring you great peace.  Never have I come close to approaching
        knowing the love of Christ as I do with a small body of believers committed to
        living the kingdom and teaching others to do the same.  I can only imagine what I could experience if
        I lived in a community with a fully functioning ecclesia (this is the word
        translated to church by most bibles- but it hardly describes church as we know
        it today- largely a worship center- not a community relying on one another,
        through Christ, to get their daily bread).

        Living the Kingdom demands you follow precepts and standards
        that do NOT fit into the matrix of human logic and understanding.  Our notions of ‘fairness’ and fierce
        independence have no place in the kingdom, for people will always be unfair and
        independence is a wall-  you must give up
        your earthly sense of freedom to taste the full freedom of Christ’s promise- I say
        that having experienced but a scintilla of it- for that full freedom comes only
        as the body comes together- it can’t be experienced in today’s American
        Christendom.

        Diedrich Bonhoffer (Sp?) wrote succinctly about the truth of
        living Christian community in LIVING TOGETHER- where he describes Christ
        followers who base their love for one another on Christ- so that when the other
        disappointed them- did not measure up- they did not damage their relationship-
        and thus their community- but committed to the truth of Christ and kept that
        bond strong, real, and vital.

        Brother Lawrence in THE PRACTICE OF THE PRESENCE OF GOD broke
        down the life mission of all Christ Followers and all believers celebrating and
        living Christ together- to daily, intentionally seek His presence in all you
        do.  He found worship in washing dishes,
        for instance.

        If you have this commitment, you can live the kingdom with
        others.  Without this commitment, you will
        wince with pain and rebel at the loss of your earthly freedom as your life
        becomes enmeshed in the lives of others, where suddenly your actions bear on
        the lives of others in ever deepening significant ways.

        I wrote a comment to your sermon because I saw in it a desire
        and understanding of the body being as one, diverse, with its sovereign parts
        all recognizing the importance of one another equally, and all submitting daily
        to the truth of the Word that binds us all together in Christ.

        I felt you were not seeing the real lack in the body that
        prevents us from being what Christ calls us to be, a community, an ecclesia,
        living in koinonia for one another- daily worshipping, knowing, loving him as
        we follow his two great commands- to love one another as Christ loves us and to
        make disciples of nations- this is not a denomination, this is living kingdom

        What keeps us from living the kingdom is that we live in the
        dark from one another- even in our own churches- our own families- our own
        small groups- the axe head has fallen off and we must go back and pick it up
        where it fell off, where we left the visible and entered into the hidden
        places.

         

        Paul Collier

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