The Unity Of The Churches In Canada?

By April 30, 2015 No Comments
Fourth Sunday of Easter, Year B, 2015 – Acts 4:5-12; Psalm 23; 1 John 3:16-24; John 10:11-18

“I have other sheep that do not belong to this fold. I must bring them also, and they will listen to my voice. So there will be one flock, one shepherd” (John 10:16).

Christians believe a lot of things that look crazy to the contemporary Western mind. We believe in paradoxical doctrines like the Trinity–one God in three persons; we believe in hierarchies of angels and demons that populate a three-story universe of heaven, earth, and hell below; we believe in a divine-human mediator who was born of a virgin, who could turn water into wine, ascend on the clouds, and walk on water; finally, we don’t just believe in life after death, we believe that at the end of time we will all be physically resurrected. What I want to talk about today is harder to believe in than all of this. And that is that Christ’s Church can be one.

I say this because if you know the history, you’ll know how difficult churchly divorce has been to reverse. It’s one thing to walk on water; it’s entirely more difficult to overcome sin.
Jesus of course recognized this, and he said as much in Matthew 9 when some people brought him a paralysed man, and he says:
“Take heart, son; your sins are forgiven.”
At this, some of the teachers of the law said to themselves, “This fellow is blaspheming!”
Knowing their thoughts, Jesus said, “Why do you entertain evil thoughts in your hearts? Which is easier: to say, ‘Your sins are forgiven,’ or to say, ‘Get up and walk’?
The implication here’s that overcoming sin is a bigger miracle than healing paralysis.

I want to address a few questions about the sin of division this morning. Firstly, who are these churches that need to be one? What are the consequences of disunity? What do we mean by oneness? What’s preventing us from being one? What might Jesus be doing in our disunity? What can we do?
Let’s start with the first question: Who needs to be one? This requires a little history lesson, and I ask your patience since the division of the church has produced so much shrapnel. The first fragmentation that carries into the present occurred in the fifth century between the various groups who have come under increased persecution in the Middle East. We are descended from the group that found favor with the Roman Empire, but two other groups did not: that is, on the one hand the Copts of Egypt and the Ethiopians who have been targeted by ISIS in North Africa, and on the other hand the Assyrians who have been targeted by them in Syria and Iraq. These three groups have yet to be fully reconciled.
The next divorce occurs within the Roman world in the eleventh century between Western Europeans represented by the Pope, and Eastern Orthodox Christians represented by the churches of Constantinople, Greece, Russia, and so on. This is a deep and bitter division made worse by the crusades.
In the sixteenth century a third shattering occurs in Europe when the Protestant Reformation produces four more bodies of Lutherans, Calvinists (what we know in Canada as for example the Presbyterians, and Dutch Reformed), the Mennonites, and us Englishy Anglicans. After this things accelerate as the Church of England shatters in the seventeenth century into Baptists and Quakers, in the eighteenth into John Wesley’s Methodists, and in the nineteenth and twentieth into every North American denomination you’ve ever or never heard of–in Canada that would include larger groups like the Christian and Missionary Alliance and the Pentecostals.

But the biggest divisions of the twentieth century have been between so-called conservatives and so-called liberals, which has only got worse in North America in the last six years as Anglicans, Lutherans, and Presbyterians have seen tens of thousands of members walk away from their already quickly-shrinking denominations to form new ones.

What have been the consequences of disunity? This is an important question to ask for those of us who live in a time and place distant from Europe and England’s wars of religion, which killed hundreds of thousands. Still, it is easy to forget that our own continent has seen Christians killing Christians as recently as the American Civil War. Remember, we didn’t all agree about slavery. It’s also easy to overlook the fact that Christian division has recently fuelled genocidal violence in the Balkans, Rwanda, and Burundi. So let’s be honest. A local church split holds the potential for violence and murder. This has been proven hundreds of times over. It’s easy to forget this in North America because we have become so good at interpreting our divisions in terms of the economy. One denomination is supposedly good at marketing to African-Americans, another to middle class white people, another to the working-class, another to Boomers, and another to Millenials.

The problem of course is that our denominational lines end up reinforcing class, age, and racial divisions without overcoming these barriers. We baptize these differences with the lovely sounding word “diversity,” but in reality we’re in denial.

Yet the non-Christian world has observed the consequences of our sin sometimes more soberly and attempted its own solution: secularization. Far from being the inevitable result of human progress, secularization is actually in many cases a response to our failure. Where the churches have reinforced human divisions (say, between English and Irish), modern states have tried to overcome them. We have benefitted from this since the state now prevents us from killing each other. Yet we have also suffered from it in many ways. For one, we can be lulled into thinking that we have actually solved the problem when we haven’t. For another, the secular state isn’t good at establishing true peace either. It too has often established itself through crushing religious opposition–think of the French, Russian, Mexican, Spanish, Chinese revolutions. Then there’s the fact that in our daily lives we now live in a secular culture in which faith has been privatized, where peoples’ spiritual horizons have shrunk, where the best we can hope for is nice clothes and a shiny car, where the only outlet for our highest spiritual aspirations is earthly political projects. We are spiritually frustrated. Nor has secularization prevented hate; it has not changed the human heart. It has not increased human thankfulness–indeed it’s probably lessened it for many. It has not inspired more forgiveness. Finally, it hasn’t fulfilled our need to be forgiven.

In short, the division of the Church has been to the loss of the world. Through our division we have failed to satisfy spiritual needs.

But disunity has also affected our day-to-day life as Christians. If we are supposed to have one Spirit, then what are we to make of the Pentecostal claim that we all ought to be speaking in tongues and seeing healings? What are we to make of the alleged appearances of Mary in Lourdes, Fatima, and Cairo? Shouldn’t we all agree on miracles: that they can happen, and if they do, that this one is legit and that one not? Or consider, if we all have the same Spirit, then why can’t we agree about the Bible? Is it really that difficult to interpret, or is something else going on: are our sins shutting our eyes? And why can’t Protestants, Catholics, and Orthodox share Holy Communion? What are we all going to do with the Pope? Can the rest of us simply ignore him and hope he’ll go away? These are serious differences that call into question our claim to share one Spirit. So division impoverishes our spiritual lives.
Next, what do we mean when we talk about unity? In our Gospel lesson Jesus says “I have other sheep that do not belong to this fold. I must bring them also, and they will listen to my voice.” This first of all has to do with the fact that Jesus’ voice would go out through his Jewish apostles to the Gentiles. The Church, Jesus’ fold, was meant to transcend racial and geographical barriers. That is what the word “catholic” refers to in our Creed. Our lesson also implies a common obedience to the voice of our “one shepherd” through his apostles, apostles who were more than the “hired hands” that run away from wolves, but legitimate pastors. So the nature of the Church also includes, as the Creed says, a “holy” way of life obedient to the word of God, “one, holy, catholic…” Finally the Church is to be “apostolic,” that is, it is to somehow have an ordered ministry founded upon the Apostles’ own legitimate ministry. (So we’re all supposed to agree on whether we need the Pope or not.)

For the last century and a half, then, Anglicans have summed up the conditions of Christian reunion in what we call the Chicago-Lambeth Quadrilateral. The first condition of reunion is that we believe that the Holy Scriptures contain all things necessary for salvation. The second, is that the Apostles’ and Nicene Creeds are the sufficient statement of the Christian faith. They are our doctrinal core. The third is that we all practice Baptism and Holy Communion. So far so good, but the fourth condition of reunion is the historic episcopate–bishops. So what does that mean for Anglicans? Well, if you go down the street to the Alliance or the Presbyterian church, you will find that instead of a bishop they have a board of elders (presbyters in Greek) who their pastor is accountable to. If we walk further down Gerrard to the Baptist church you will find that their pastor is accountable to the congregation itself; effectively its “vestry meeting” could hire and fire. Yet Anglicans, Catholics, Eastern Orthodox, Copts, Assyrians, and so on have said that in addition to accountability at the local level, we need accountability at the global level. So we use bishops as a way to hold various local congregations together internationally. Anglicans will disagree among themselves as to how we understand the bishops’ link back to the Apostles, but we all agree that since 75% of the Church uses bishops, it’s probably the most practical way of envisioning reunion. So far this has worked well for the Church of South India, which united Presbyterians, Congregationalists, Methodists, Anglicans, and even some Baptists and Lutherans.

That being said, there is a lot that is preventing reunion, and this goes to the problem of accountability. There is no church structure that can totally protect us from the unaccountable actions of its sinful members, because we are all sinners, even the Pope! This can be really disappointing for those who want a perfect Church. Or, if they think they’ve found one, it means they’ll have little motivation to hold themselves accountable to less perfect churches. In fact having all grown accustomed to living without ecumenical accountability, even those of us aware of our imperfection are reluctant to give up our freedom for the sake of unity.

We really like to live unaccountably because it involves no sacrifice. If we had it our way, we would voluntarily associate with churches that have the best pastors, ministries and doctrines, not with the worst. But a united church really needs involuntary association. We need to be together till death do us part! The kind of Christian Jesus is looking for is not the hired hand who runs away when times get tough.

So what can we do? Nothing, it would seem. Like the paralytic we just seem to be lying here without any ability to move. What the paralytic had going for him, however, was faith. Jesus saw that, and it was enough to forgive his sin. Oftentimes the churches, though, don’t even know they’re paralysed, they aren’t conscious of their need. We’re used to thinking that this is the way it ought to be. Or we’re afraid to acknowledge the serious consequences of our division because, well, what then? ‘Christians, after all, can’t be that bad,’ we think. But what if we are? What if we’re those run-away hired hands Jesus was talking about? What if the Church has let the world down? What if Jesus came to die for our sins, not just the sins of non-Christians? Because this is what we actually believe: “while we were yet sinners, Christ died for the unrighteous,” says Paul. And yet here’s the hope. It is that our good shepherd went out to seek his lost sheep. Do we know we’re lost? Can we recognize Jesus’ voice? Because the Bible very clearly describes our broken church–our Anglican church–as lost. Let’s perk up our ears and hear the voice of Jesus calling. Let’s raise our voice and call back! Pray for the unity of the people of God. Pray specific prayers: pray that our denomination would repent of its complicity in division; pray that it would seek reunion with Christians it normally wouldn’t associate with, say, Baptists or Pentecostals, and that they would seek reunion with us. Folks, we can’t solve this problem ourselves. I don’t know anyone who has a solution, which means, thankfully, the ball’s in God’s court.

And what has God been doing? Well, Protestants and Catholics have come to see each other as brothers and sisters. In many circumstances this has happened because God has begun to make us minorities in our historic strongholds in the West while significant minorities have sprung up in every country of the world. We have quickly lost power and are being forced to rely on each other again. Nowhere is this more evident than in Syria and Iraq where Christians are killed regardless of their denomination. In St George’s church, Bagdad, all the various denominations worship together. It’s unfortunate that they have to meet under these circumstances, but we should pray that if there is any happy consequence of this persecution, that it might result in real forgiveness and abiding unity between very different groups.

So pray that God completes the miraculous work of reunion in the Church. And pray that us Anglicans, the Canadian churches, and the churches around the world repent of this division. We owe it to each other and we owe it to the world. We owe it to each other because we are meant to be accountable to one another as a single flock under a single Shepherd. We owe it to a world that lives without hope and without the resources of grace and forgiveness that can only come from the Church. But to bring forgiveness into the world, the Church must be aware of its own need for forgiveness. When we are, all those gifts of the Holy Spirit that we fight about–the bread and the wine, the Scriptures, bishops, the right kind of miracles–when we are repentant, this will all miraculously give way to the Church of the future.

Sermon was preached by Jeff Boldt at St. Matthew’s Riverdale on the Fourth Sunday of Easter, April 26th, 2015.
For an in depth look at the sources of this sermon see Ephraim Radner’s books, The End of the Church: A Pneumatology of Division in the West, Hope Among the Fragments, and A Brutal Unity.

Jeff Boldt

Jeff Boldt

Jeff is an intern at St Matthews where he regularly preaches, organizes educational events, serves in the liturgy, and leads Bible studies. On Thursday nights this year he and Jonathan Turtle are taking the parish through the entire Bible from cover to cover. Having previously earned a Master of Theological Studies, he is now a doctoral student at Wycliffe College whose main interests lay in Biblical interpretation and Church history. Jeff's spiritual roots lay in the Wesleyan, Mennonite, and Alliance traditions of his family, and in the Eastern Orthodox, Catholic, and Anglican traditions of spirituality and practice. He has a passion for Christian unity that stems from a commitment to Jesus Christ who prayed 'that they all may be one' (John 17:21). An animator by profession, Jeff enjoys drawing and sculpting when he has the time, as well as surfing and cross fit when he hasn't injured himself.