Easter 5 May 17, 2014
Jesus said, “Do not let your hearts be troubled. Believe in God, believe also in me. In my Father's house there are many dwelling places. If it were not so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you? And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and will take you to myself, so that where I am, there you may be also.”
The Greek word here translated “dwelling place” in the King James as “mansions” is monai also translated “abide”. St. John 14:23 “Those who love me will keep my word, and my Father will love them, and we will come to them and abide with them.” 15:4 “Abide in me as I abide in you.” 15:10 “If you keep my commandments, you will abide in my love, just as I have kept my Father’s commandments and abide in his love.” Jesus intends us to abide in him, to remain in him, to find our present and future place in his life, to gather with others in his body the church and to be reunited with him and the Father at our death – or when he comes again, whichever comes first.
That Christ will come again is a matter of faith in his promise. When he will come again he said only the Father knows, but in that day let us be found doing his will and enjoying his love.
Professor C.S. Lewis, in the Preface to Mere Christianity, his BBC lectures during WW II, wrote, “Christianity is . . . like a hall out of which doors open into several rooms. . . . in the rooms, not in the hall, . . .there are fires and chairs and meals. . . . you must be asking which door is the true one; . . . the question should. . . be, “Are these doctrines true: Is holiness here? Does my conscience move me towards this?” . . . When you have reached your own room, be kind to those who have chosen different doors and to those who are still in the hall. If they are wrong they need your prayers all the more; and if they are your enemies, then you are under orders to pray for them. That is one of the rules common to the whole house.”
Despite our divisions into our separate denominational rooms the Church has always remembered Jesus’ prayer that the disciples and the church might be one as he and the Father were one, united in being, united in thought, united in action. Throughout history Jesus’ disciples have lived with the tension of spiritual unity and organizational separation. Today’s first lesson tells of the death of Stephen the first martyr. Stephen and other deacons were chosen by the apostles to preserve the unity of the Jerusalem church by making sure that the Greek-speaking widows were not neglected in the daily distribution from the common supply of food. In several places Acts tells us how the church preserved unity in the face of threats of division. St. Paul wrote to the churches in Corinth, in Rome, and in other places to encourage them to preserve unity. Our epistle readings this Easter season from Peter describe Christ’s church as “living stones, built into a spiritual house, a holy priesthood, to offer spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ, a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God's own people, who have received mercy.” All these descriptions speak of our spiritual unity.
But as the Church grew in numbers and time passed, the spiritual unity broke down. The Gnostics relied on secret spiritual knowledge and broke the connection between faith and morals. They said, “if we are saved by faith (by which they meant the secret spiritual knowledge of Jesus’ teaching) then what we do with our bodies doesn’t matter.” The Gnostics were, and are, popular. It feels good to be part of a spiritual elite and not have membership in that elite affect your moral behavior. One reason the Gospels were written was make clear to the Gnostics that, as the Epistle of James writes, “faith without works is dead.”
In Egypt a priest-philosopher named Arius tried to explain Jesus in terms from Greek philosophy, and it took several councils and the Nicene Creed to make clear the paradox that Jesus is both fully and completely God and fully and completely human. Even so an Arian church continued for several hundred years.
Some church divisions were over matters of conscience. Other divisions we now see as a result of different histories. People in the eastern Mediterranean spoke Greek; in the western Mediterranean people spoke Latin. The border is in the Balkans between Catholic Croatia and Eastern Orthodox Serbia. The Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox churches, divided since 1056, are working on resolving the issues that divide them. One issue is about the Nicene Creed and the Holy Spirit. The Latin version of the Nicene Creed says that the Spirit proceeds from the Father and the Son (Latin filioque). The Greek does not have the filioque. Both agree that the Spirit is worshipped and glorified with the Father and the Son. The Episcopal Church General Convention has said that if our churches can resolve other areas of disagreement we do not insist on the filioque.
About 500 years ago the Western – Latin speaking – church divided north and south for reasons both religious and political. Much of northern Europe became Protestant; much of the south continued in a renewed Roman Catholic church. England chose a third way, renewal of Catholic practice and biblical authority on the model of the early church. For reasons religious and political the Protestant churches divided into many fellowships, many of them brought by immigrants to America.
We are familiar with gathering Sunday by Sunday in many rooms, and we assume that is what God intended. But in many parts of the world through history one church has officially included all the people. Dissenters were forced to leave. Immigrants to America founded churches that were either like the familiar church at home – or deliberately something very different from the church at home. Compare the colonial church in Virginia which tried to be like the Church of England and the colonial Congregational church in New England which tried to purify the church by the teachings of John Calvin. Their American experience brought changes to all the colonial churches. And we have American born churches such as the Pentecostals, the Mormons, and others.
For the past 150 years Christians have worked together to recover spiritual unity and to understand and overcome our corporate divisions. I have spent much of my ministry in this ecumenical work.
One way we witness to spiritual unity and seek to overcome organizational division is through ecumenical dialogue. Anglicans and Roman Catholics meet in this country and abroad. The current discussion is how does the universal Church, and local churches, discern right ethical teaching. We continue to talk with the Eastern Orthodox churches, and interfaith dialogues are beginning.
Some ecumenical dialogues lead to full communion agreements. These witness to agreement in faith and on that basis agree to invite members to share in holy communion and in common ministry. Bishop Weinhauer was the Episcopal cochair of the dialogue with the Lutheran Church that led to full communion in 1999. I was honored to have a part in developing a similar agreement with the Moravian Church concluded in 2011. Dialogue with the United Methodist Church and other American churches continues.
So let us remember that Jesus intends us to abide in him, to remain in him, to find our present and future place in his life, to gather with others in his body the church and to be reunited with him and the Father. And as Professor Lewis wrote, “When you have reached your own room, be kind to those who have chosen different doors and to those who are still in the hall. If they are wrong they need your prayers all the more; and if they are your enemies, then you are under orders to pray for them. That is one of the rules common to the whole house.”