Monday, January 17, 2011

One in the Apostles' Teaching & Fellowship

A Sermon for the 2nd Sunday after the Epiphany (Jan. 16, 2011)
Offered by Nathan Ferrell for Trinity Episcopal Shared Ministry and shared at St. Mary’s Roman Catholic Church, Gloucester City, in honor of the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity

Lectionary Texts: Isaiah 49:1-7; Psalm 40:1-12; 1 Corinthians 1:1-9; John 1:29-42
RC Lectionary: Isaiah 49:3,5-6; Psalm 40; 1 Corinthians 1:1-3; John 1:29-34
Week of Prayer Text: Acts 2:42

What is it that keeps us Christians from being united together in our love and service to our Lord Jesus Christ?

(At St. Mary’s: My dear friends, it is my privilege and honor to stand in this pulpit today and to proclaim the truth of God’s word in your midst.)

Today, it is our intention to remember the desire of Christ our Lord that all of his people live united as one. The theme for each year’s Week of Prayer for Christian Unity – which, by the way, was launched in 1908 by the Franciscan Friars of the Atonement in New York State – is chosen in a joint venture of the Vatican’s Council for Promoting Christian Unity and the World Council of Churches’ Commission on Faith and Order. Together, these groups pick the scriptures and themes for each year, and this year they have asked all of us to reflect together upon the witness of the earliest Christian community that gathered in Jerusalem in those first years after the resurrection, as recorded in the Acts of the Apostles.

In particular this verse is the one presented to us for our meditation: the baptized “devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers” (Acts 2:42).

This, of course, is a somewhat idealized vision of that time, without a doubt. But it is given by the author, as with all scripture, not to present a definitive history as we understand the task of history today, but rather to communicate the truth of what God has done and continues to do among humanity.

But when we see this vision before us, this vision of God’s desire and plan that we be united together in our devotion to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, how is it that we baptized Christians remain so shamefully divided and separate?

The truth, my friends, is that – more often than not – we continue to see one another from a human point of view rather than from God’s point of view.

This, I believe, is one of the biggest stumbling blocks in the movement toward the full and visible unity of the Church. So many of us are inclined to fall back into old patterns of prejudiced thinking, in which we see difference only as a threat.

It is quite serendipitous that we celebrate this Week of Prayer for Christian Unity just after our nation pauses to remember our great Christian preacher of the 20th century, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Of course, Dr. King’s struggle for racial equality was different than this movement toward Christian unity. But I am convinced that many of the basic human tendencies against which he strove remain the same.

Dr. King criticized our old human tendency to pre-judge others as “soft-mindedness”. He preached that “softminded individuals are prone to embrace all kinds of superstition”, that softminded persons “always fear change”, “feel security in the status quo” and have “an almost morbid fear of the new.” In his strongest rebuke of all, Dr. King charged that “softminded persons have revised the Beatitudes to read, ‘Blessed are the pure in ignorance: for they shall see God’” (A Testament of Hope: The Essential Writings and Speeches of Martin Luther King, Jr., P. 492-493).

The softminded person has an already pre-determined outcome in mind when dealing with others. This person cannot live in the openness of the Holy Spirit, and cannot be generous with others, giving the benefit of the doubt.

Let me tell you a story about one of our neighbors in Westville, and I think you will see what I mean about being predisposed in your mind as a softminded person.

Last year, on Christmas Eve, the next-door neighbor of our parish in Westville (St. Luke’s) was frustrated that some of our parishioners had parked in front of her house. It’s a public street; there are no parking restrictions there whatsoever.

However, this neighbor has lupus and a number of other health issues. Because of this, she perceives the spots directly in front of her house as her own designated spots, even though there is no signage to this effect and this plan was never communicated to our parish in any way. Besides this, on this Christmas Eve she was having family over and she needed extra parking spots.

When she saw the street in front of her house full of cars, she decided to march right over to St. Luke’s Church and to ask me if our parishioners would move their cars immediately! When she came in, however, I was at the altar breaking the bread and preparing to distribute communion to the larger-than-normal crowd on that Christmas Eve. Fortunately, the ushers stopped this neighbor at the door and explained to her that I was, in fact, unavailable at that moment. She requested to speak with me, but the ushers explained that this was not possible, since we were in the middle of our Christmas Eve liturgy!

Now, to you and me here today, this is likely to appear as the most obvious thing in the world. Of course I was busy at that moment! Christmas Eve? At the altar? Sharing the body and blood of Christ with the faithful? Could I stop and talk with a neighbor at that moment about her parking concerns?! Of course not! How could she make such a ridiculous request?!

Ahhh…but that is not at all how she saw it! You see, this neighbor has no relationship with God. For whatever reason, she is pre-determined to view the Church in a negative light. Therefore, she is still amazed that we treated her so badly. “And you call yourselves Christians,” she reproved us, “but you treat your neighbors so very poorly!”

Now, do you see how one set of circumstances can be perceived so very differently based solely upon one’s preconceived notions?

This is the obstacle that faced Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. If a person is predisposed to see people of color as less than human, less than themselves, as somehow tainted or unfit or polluted, then how can true equality be achieved until that mental barrier is dismantled?

And I am convinced that this remains one of the primary obstacles which we face today in our efforts toward the unity of the Church. If a person is predisposed to see their own particular fellowship as the one true Church, of course, and to see all of the others as counterfeits or frauds of one kind or another, as less than themselves, as lacking in certain crucial qualities, than what is the point of meeting together? What progress can be made at all until that mental wall is smashed and torn down?

Rather than retreating into that softminded security of what is known and comfortable, you and I are called by the Holy Spirit to remain open, to see from God’s point of view, to be ready for the new thing that God will do in our midst.

My friends, let us be clear about this: it is God’s desire and intention that we (the Church) be united together in the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, and also in the breaking of the bread, and in our prayers. Remember that this first Christian community seen in Acts included people from all over the known world: Parthians and Medes and Cretans and Arabs. And very soon it was to include Greek Gentiles as well! All of these people who looked and spoke and acted so very differently from one another – all of them brought together in unity because of one thing and one thing only: the Lord Jesus Christ!

It is this vision of God’s beloved community which St. Paul had before him when he wrote to the baptized community gathered in the city of Corinth, when he addressed them in this way: “To the church of God that is in Corinth, to those who are sanctified in Christ Jesus, called to be saints, together with all those who in every place call on the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, both their Lord and ours…” (1 Corinthians 1:2).

When you and I call upon the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, then we bear witness to that truth that he does not belong to us; we belong to him! And if we are open to the Holy Spirit, then we can be sure that he is moving us ever forward in the direction of unity.

In conclusion, let us hearken back once more to the wisdom of Dr. King and let us pray in the words of one of his own prayers for unity:

O Lord “Keep us, we pray, in perfect peace; help us to walk together, pray together, sing together, and live together until the day when all God’s children – black, white, red and yellow – will rejoice in one common band of humanity, in the kingdom of our Lord and of our God, we pray. Amen.”


  1. I think one of Anglicanism's many advantages is that it is very difficult to think of the Episcopal Church, Anglican Communion, or Church of England as representing the one true Church, or even the only authentic voice to the mission of that Church. We're very aware we're only a single branch of the greater Church, which is one, holy, catholic, and apostolic.

  2. What church are we speaking of here? Just curious.

  3. Dear Mr. Anonymous, I'm not sure who the "we" is to whom you are referring. But as for me, the blogger, I am speaking of the church of Jesus Christ, the great collection of people who have loved him and studied under him for about 2000 years.