Segment of a sermon Jennifer wrote for a prayer service centered on Christian unity. Her sermon was chosen to be given in Oklahoma City this past spring.
Text: I Cor. 15:51-58.
“Listen! I will tell you a mystery.” A mystery that will happen in the twinkling of an eye, a mystery filled with trumpet blasts and the raising of the dead to immortality, a mystery filled with the transformation of the living, when corrupted flesh is made incorruptible and the power of death, sin, is broken forever. In that moment God will fully reveal Godself, and we will eternally live out our new identity in Christ. This mystery contains an ending that is so wonderful it is beyond our wildest imaginings! BUT, while we are caught up in our contemplation of this future moment we must not forget that our mystery, just like all mysteries, begins with a death, the death of Jesus Christ. Jesus’ death is the key to our future transformation and our starting point when speaking of Christian unity.
I recently had an opportunity to visit Taize, France, a community that invites young people, year round, from all around the globe, to partake in worship, reflection, and work. Take, for instance, the story of Sebastian, a 17 year old boy from Chile who is studying abroad in Prague, and decided to visit Taize. One evening I found myself discussing with Sebastian the similarities and differences between the Lutheran and Evangelical churches. For Sebastian, this was a sensitive subject because in Chile there is a great divide between the two and tensions are high. He constantly finds himself put down by his family and friends because he enjoys worshipping at both churches while they do not. When I asked him if Prague was any better, he said it was worse. Beautiful churches sit virtually empty on almost every corner because most of the population is atheist. According to Sebastian, the people of Prague become very angry when you try to speak with them about God. In fact, the other young people he goes to school with in Prague spent the better part of a month calling him dirty names because of his Christian beliefs and his desire to talk about them.
It was at Taize that Sebastian experienced peace, love, and reconciliation, and he felt renewed. No one at Taize cared what church he attended. No one refused to speak with him about faith and God, nor did they avoid his questions. He found himself surrounded by young people whose primary concern was living for a short time in community with other Christians, other seekers, and other young people searching for a place where they were accepted without question. All that was asked of him was to help keep the bathrooms clean. Sebastian was content to join in the prayer of the brothers and found joy living in communion, united with his brothers and sisters in Christ.
After visiting Taize, I found myself asking the question, why is ecumenism so easy at Taize, and so hard for the rest of us? Especially when you consider that all Christian denominations recognize the importance of Christ’s actions: his life, death, and resurrection. We agree that it is through Christ that we will undergo this mystery of transformation that Paul speaks of. We trust in Christ. I wonder, however, if we have a tendency to put our trust in our own traditions and denominations over and above the Word of Jesus Christ. In today’s text, Paul claims that “the sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law.” Our persistence in creating distinctions amongst ourselves can take our attention from God and hinder the unity that God wants us to embrace.
A man I spoke with at the World Council of Churches in Geneva said that it is our job as churches, in terms of creating unity, to “plant the seeds of the trees under whose shade we may never sit.” We work together now for justice and peace, all the while knowing that “nothing we do here on earth affects what God has already done for us.”
God gives us victory through Christ. We don’t earn it and we definitely don’t deserve it, but we are free. Free to serve the Lord who is in the poor, the sick, the elderly, and the oppressed. We are free to live in community with each other. This is the good news. God loves us in spite of ourselves, and continues to work in us and through us. The incarnate Jesus Christ disrupts and ultimately breaks the power of sin and death on our behalf. This truth is what we keep at the center of our prayer for unity as we follow our call to move forward, to be in communion with each other, and to seek Jesus in the broken places of this world, as he seeks us.