Sermon Archive

Sunday January 22, 2017
4:00 pm - Saint Thomas Church
Preacher: The Very Rev’d Dr. John Anthony McGuckin, PhD DD. DLitt. FRHistSoc., Orthodox Archpriest, Nielsen Professor of Church History, Union Theological Seminary

Genesis 13:2-18
John 5:2-18

A Sermon for Christian Unity

Thank you brothers and sisters for your kind invitation for me to address you in this lovely church of St. Thomas, tonight at Choral Evensong, on the occasion of Christian Unity Week. As you may know I was scheduled to give this address one year ago when the great snowstorm that hit the North Eastern Coast rendered all of the city closed down for two days. Travelling from Boston, I arrived back by train to find all services for the Sunday closed in almost all the churches. But you persevered and so here I am again.

So: we stand in the early part of the third Christian millennium, but are we any closer to the Union of Christendom or does it seem to elude us still? Catholic Christians – and that definition includes those who hold to the Nicene faith expressed in the Creed, who reflect the precedence of the great ancient councils as inspired statements of belief, and who venerate the teachings and examples of the many saints who have gone before us – Catholics then, and that means Episcopalians, Roman Catholics, the Orthodox, and those many parts of the Reformed Protestant world who also still hold the concept of catholicity dear, all confess regularly that 'We believe in One, Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic Church'. We believe in the Oneness of Christ's Church. But do we really "believe in it"? Or is it not rather the case that we are happy enough in the variegated and diffracted state of the Body of Christ which is his Church on earth today, and are usually content enough to live in the ecclesiastical silos of our comfort zones? To really "believe in" something suggests that the people who so believe have a passion for it, a love for it, a commitment to the idea.

At the turn of the 20th century there was a powerful move to recapture that sense of the unity of Christians in the world that was felt to be sadly lacking. The spur to that movement had been provided by the debacle of the Great War of 1914-1918 which witnessed such violent bloodletting of Christian upon Christian, as Europe tore itself apart, and the churches either seemed powerless to prevent the social dissolution, or else actively encouraged so-called patriotic feelings and 'warrior-virtues' in its people. Archbishop Lars Olof Jonathan Soderblum, Lutheran Archbishop of Uppsala between 1914 and 1931, and recipient of the 1930 Nobel Peace Prize, took the task to heart that the churches could be fashioned into powerful tools of peace and justice if only they would collaborate in a fraternal spirit instead of the apologetic rancour that characterised most inter-Christian exchanges of the time. He was a man of great genius filled with a spiritual passion for his vocation of serving as an international bridge builder. The fire of his enthusiasm was catching among most of the world's Christian leaders of that time, from the Patriarch of Constantinople to the Archbishop of Canterbury; and his efforts resulted eventually in the formation of the World Council of Churches. Those early days of Ecumenical rapprochement were times of high hopes and eagerness: could courteous dialogue in love instead of angry denunciations of deviance lead us along the path to the reunion of Christendom? And yet, standing now just over a century later, how many of those early hopes were fulfilled? Today the WCC has a long record of seeking intellectual grounds for unity among believers: placing its stress now on doctrinal matters, now on social shared action plans, now on the meeting together of significant leaders, or on the local gatherings of inter-Christian prayer fellowships. But often, for as many times as the gathering of Christians showed them how much they had in common, the same gatherings demonstrated how much they had in difference. In the latter part of the 20th century the very attempt to pray in common with a recognition of local and ethnic differences, led to numerous Orthodox delegates withdrawing from the endeavour altogether. In many places on Mount Athos today, Orthodox rigorists have even begun to describe the global Ecumenical movement as the great 'Pan-Heresy' of the modern Age. But perhaps the most telling point is how the finances of the WCC are in such serious straits today. Local churches who provide the funds, not only find it difficult to spare the money to offer support; they find it a cause that does not particularly appeal to their priorities any more. The offices of the renowned 'God Box' on 120th Street, built by Rockefeller in the midcentury to house all the national offices of the Christian churches so they could live with one another and interact, has become increasingly vacated of late as church after church headquarters heads its wagons for cheaper real estate elsewhere, in scattered parts of America. The ideal of 'brothers living in unity' that the Psalmist evoked turned out to be not so compelling it seems. 'Where your treasure is, there is your heart also', as the Gospel tells us: and in this case, it seems, the heart has gone out of the ecumenical dream, in many different places. Perhaps structures and institutions, top-down leadership and formal doctrinal agreements as roads to the restoration of unity all proved to be too slow, too abstract, too formal, too little and too cold, to warm us back to the fire of Soderblum's saintly enthusiasm.

So, if we are serious about still offering our Nicene confession of the belief in the Oneness of the Church, and suspect that this aspect of Christian identity might actually be a constitutive definition of ecclesial identity, not just a desirably decorative addendum; then it might strike us that such a characteristic as unity may really be essential for the health of the Christian Church. If I was to express this in Orthodox terms – we might see that the Unity of the Church was part and parcel of its holiness and apostolicity. Or to express it in Western European terms, learn that the Unity of the Church was a fundamental matter of the Reform that the Gospel promises to bring into our life, and that accordingly ecclesiology cannot be left apart from the core doctrines of redemption, as it has been in many instances of post Renaissance theology. But if it is such an important a matter, which we neglect at our peril, how then can we find that degree of passion and enthusiasm that might warm us to the task of trying to work towards it once more?

Perhaps, as has been the case with Christian worship from the very beginning, the scriptures may give us the necessary hint? Tonight's vesperal readings for Evensong come from Genesis and the Johannine Gospel. The Genesis reading speaks of Lot making his way towards the land of Sodom, which was then very rich and fertile – at least before that disaster fell upon it which made it into a preeminent biblical symbol for sterile disaster zone. The text says this was because of the great wickedness of the people of Sodom. So what was the sin of Sodom? I shall pause here for dramatic effect…well it certainly was not what you are thinking about (laughter). Scripture speaks of that sin as the heartless lack of hospitality. By this cold lack they were unable to recognize even the presence of angels among them.

By contrast Abraham is said to have made his way to the Oak of Mamre. We know from the story that there he would encounter the three angels whom he calls, by turn, 'My Lord' and 'My lords'. This plural singularity of subject is why the early Fathers took this episode to adumbrate the Trinity. In great awe Abraham offers these foreign lords a heartfelt welcome and gives them food and drink out of his own substance. He welcomed the stranger into his tent. He did not ask where these foreign lords were from, whether ally or alien; he did not ask about their colour, or their political persuasion, or their preferred ritual style; he simply offered them food and wine as his guests; trying to relieve their weariness by a loving and gracious form of respect. And in return he and Sarah received the divine blessing to become the father and mother of a great new covenant of grace for the world.

Orthodox theology holds this event of the 'Hospitality of Abraham' as it is called in our church, to be a great and mystical symbol of the Trinity. You may know Andrei Rublev's famous icon of the scene, with the three beautiful angels all leaning into one another as a pure circle around a table of sacrifice set under the oak of Mamre. God's inner unity of being is expressed here as a singleness of loving redemptive action (energeia) that reaches out to all humanity through the sign of hospitality: from a man and woman to their God; from a mysteriously united Godhead to all his human children. So in this event, in ancient Christian exegesis, if the angels stand as a type (that is a mystical symbol) of the Trinity; then Abraham and Sarah must surely stand as a type, or sign, of the Church. Indeed, it seems to me, that they become Church in and through the very act of offering hospitality to the stranger in their midst. Likewise we too may become Church as we offer hospitality first to our God who visits us in many ways, so as to move us beyond our limited insights: a hospitality we offer by seeking to live the Christian life in all conviction and passionate eagerness, not simply formalistically, but by prayer and asceticism and not merely occasional attendance at ceremonies. But then also offering our hospitality to the stranger in our midst who is our needy brother and sister. The cries of the suffering reach out to us today from all sides – and whatever way we make a response to them in love, God sees: God accepts it as the sacrifice of righteousness which makes that event the holy place of Mamre. This is the fulfilment of Jesus' essential injunction which constitutes his Church on earth: 'Love the Lord your God with all your heart and all your soul: And Love your neighbour as yourself.' Or at the end of the Gospel he puts it even more simply: 'By the Love you have for one for another all will know you are my disciples.'

The second reading of tonight's service reminded us of the paralysed man at the Bethzatha pool who had no hope and was lying there in listlessness and despondency. Perhaps this is something like a type of the present state of the Ecumenical movement– its low key moment reflecting the cowed state of the Churches today who speak much of losses to secularism, but less than they ought to (either to the world or to themselves) about the spiritual energy of the love of God living and burning among them. Jesus is much criticised when he makes this man walk and move once more. He is accused of impiety of working on the Sabbath. But he strenuously defends himself with the words: 'My Father works even to the present moment. And so too I must work.' This state of being in the energy of Christ that spreads out over his Church is another aspect of that mystery of Tri-unity that Rublev glimpsed at the Oak of Mamre; for it was Jesus himself who laid down the divine terms of the unity that he wished his Church to possess. It was not a coming together in agreements or collaborations that he meant, but a union which was that of the impossible seemingly made possible for he said: 'Father let these [disciples] be one, as you Father are one in me, and I in you.'

So our confession of the Unity of the Church is actually a claim that we "believe in" possessing the same type of union that God the Father, Son and Spirit share in their thrice-hypostatic singleness of energy and love and being. Such a condition of existence where our being is sustained by divine love ever incarnated in our midst, is a great and mystical vocation as disciples into the Christ-Life; what Paul called being 'In Christ' (En Christo). When the Lord tells us that he is thus moved to act just as His Father acts, it becomes our invitation into the Unity he desires when we in turn respond by our hospitality. We too can act because he first showed us the way and continues to give us the spiritual energy of grace. In this offering of hospitality we become like God and offer God that worship which is spiritually acceptable to Him: the veneration or cultus of hospitality that calls down blessings of life upon us. In being open this way, in being hospitable and turning away from the petty narrowness of keeping ourselves apart (as somehow more pure, more important, more authentic all the time we look at others around us), we share in the kenosis that was the Lord's own path in his movement of condescension (synkatabasis) from Mamre to Bethlehem; from Galilee to Golgotha, from Thabor to New York.

This, finally, might also suggest to us that the famous Nicene fourfold 'marks of the Church' (notae ecclesiae) are revealed in their spiritual energy when we add the fifth one that synopsises them: hospitality. For in that spiritual movement to grace we begin to understand what unity and holiness, and catholicity and apostolicity all involve us in. As John the Theologian also told us, in even simpler terms: 'For whoever lives in love, lives in God, because God is love.'

So, may that same Lord renew the spirit of love in your hearts, increase your thirst for hospitality, and widen your hearts to make room for welcome. + And may He let the light of his face fall upon you, to bless you and save you. Amen.+

Christian UnityHospitality