Sunday, May 20, 2007

That They May All Be One

This morning's Gospel reading included the favorite text of the ecumenical movement: John 17:20-21 - "Jesus said: 'I do not ask for these only, but also for those who will believe in me through their word, that they may all be one...." The existence of the World Council of Churches, the premier ecumenical organization today among Christian denominations, is based on the fact that these words of Jesus are fulfilled only when we achieve a visible organization of churches in the appearance of unity.

As the Rev. Dr. Thomas F. Best is quoted on the website for the WWC: "The ecumenical movement rests on ecclesiological convictions: one is that the churches' unity in Christ is greater than all the differences in belief, and all the tragedies of history, which divide them. Another is that Christ wills that this unity must be both visible and effective [emphasis added](John 17:20-21). "

Yet is the prayer of Jesus to the Father fulfilled when we successfully gather diverse groups into one organization? Or - is it possible that this prayer is already fulfilled (although not yet fully visible)?

Ecumenism, as a modern movement, has unfortunately misunderstood both the nature of the church and the the nature of the church's unity according to Jesus' own words. When we confess in the Nicene Creed, "I believe, holy, Christian [or catholic] and apostolic church," we confess a reality in Christ, not a dream waiting to come true.

But does this unity require visibility to be true? Here many Christians part ways. Yet when Jesus prayed for the unity of his followers in John 17 it was a spiritual unity for which he prayed. And it was a unity created by the Word proclaimed by the apostles, not by the efforts of the modern church to gather people together. Jesus prayed for those "who would believe in [him] through their word." Thus the Word and the Sacraments (the "visible Word") become the "marks" of the church, and not the gathering of people in an of itself. He furthermore described the unity of the church by comparing it to the unity of the Son to the Father: "...that they may be one, just as you, Father, are in me, and I in you, that they also may be in us...." A unity of fellowship that begins with our fellowship with God himself through Christ.

Now it isn't that Lutherans are not interested in greater unity among Christians. We have long encouraged serious dialogue on the doctrine and practice of the Faith based on the objective witness of God's will in the Holy Scriptures. However, the modern ecumenical movement insists on accepting all teachings with equal validity, with the understanding the criticism or correction of another's teachings is contrary to the spirit of unity. Yet how can true unity exist apart from a faithful confession of the whole Word? Without honest agreement on what Christ teaches, and by picking and choosing which doctrines to believe, the so-called unity of ecumenism is little more than a house of cards. Pull out one card and the rest collapses in on itself.

By contrast, the true unity of the Church based on faith in Christ, while hidden in many ways, is a creation of God and a direct answer to Jesus' prayer. It already exists. In fact one translation of the original in John 17 could very well be rendered: "...that they may continue to be one," understanding that this unity was a reality to be discovered, not one to be created ourselves.

Contrary to the popular joke, Lutherans believe that there will be more than just Lutherans in heaven. We have always held that true believers exist throughout the world in many groups and churches. We can hold to this because we believe that this unity is mystical and spiritual, based on the very essence of the unity of the Godhead, and not on the mere appearance of oneness in humanly-contrived organizations. The church in this life, while a visible manifestation of the community of believers, gathered around Word and Table, is still a mixed-gathering at best, for hypocrites will always be part of the visible church. It is unavoidable. The hidden and true church (called "invisible" by some), however, is perfectly united in true faith, and will become visible in the end when the elect are gathered from throughout heaven and earth.

And when this unity finds its source in a common confession of God's Word, then Jesus' prayer for those who do not yet believe is realized. For it is only through the Word that faith comes. The mere gathering of people in an appearance of unity does not bring about faith, and therefore cannot bring about true and lasting unity.

Still, we pray in the Kyrie for "the peace of the whole world, for the well-being of the Church of Christ, and for the unity of all..." The collect "For Unity of Faith" summarizes well our prayer as Lutherans:

"O God, whose infinite love restores to the right way those who err, gathers the scattered, and preserves those whom you ahve gathered, of your tender mercy pour out on your Christian people the grace of unity that, all schisms being healed, your flock, gathered to the true Shepherd of your Church, may serve you in all faithfulness...." (Lutheran Worship, 126)

[Note: The picture above is the logo for the World Council of Churches. The word 'oikoumene' is Greek for "fellowship." True fellowship around Word and Table is where unity is found (Acts 2:42). That is the point behind true biblical fellowship.]

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