BACK TO SERMON LIBRARY: INDEX BY SCRIPTURE | BROWSE BY TOPIC | MORE SERMONS ON THIS TOPIC
Rev. Michael Kinnamon, Visiting Professor of Ecumenical Collaboration in Interreligious Dialogue
School of Theology and Ministry, Seattle University
Former General Secretary, National Council of Churches
April 6, 2013
Text: Luke 24:13-35
Editor’s Note: Rev. Kinnamon is the recently departed General Secretary of the National Council of Churches and one of our leading ecumenical thinkers and preachers. This sermon was delivered on the sad occasion of the closing of Indiana Partners for Christian Unity and Mission, the name of their state council of churches.
I want to begin, as we must, by giving thanks for the reconciling ministry God has done through such treasured colleagues as Richard Shockey and Tom Murphy, Marilyn Moffett and Ted Jones, Midge Roof and Jim Dougans, Steve Gray and Annabel Hartman, Ralph Kempski and Ed Weisheimer, Grover Hartman and Judy Dunston, John Gaus and Mim Porterfield, Rick Spleth and Angelique Walker-Smith, Robert Kirk and Dennis Frische Mouri, Bruce Naylor and Juli Van Wyk–and others too numerous to name in this brief time together. But we also begin by giving thanks for the ministry God is doing and will do, perhaps through colleagues not yet known to us. For all of this, let us say with one voice, “Thanks be to God.”
It is not easy to hit the right tone for this service. Celebration? Lamentation? Expectation? It may be, however, that the tone will become clearer when we turn to scripture, starting with a familiar text that was prominent in this year’s Week of Prayer for Christian Unity–the Road to Emmaus.
The story unfolds in three scenes, the third of which is often overlooked: 1) The two disciples are escaping from Jerusalem in the aftermath of the crucifixion, separating themselves from the community in disappointment and confusion. 2) They encounter Jesus, in his role as “Undercover Boss,” walk with him in conversation, and experience a transformation to new understanding and recognition. 3) They turn back to Jerusalem and the possibility of restored community.
This remarkable text tells us several things about our ecumenical calling. For example, the passage suggests that to be a disciple of Jesus is not to be full of all knowledge and wisdom, but, rather, to be open to new understandings. To put it another way, to be a disciple of Christ is to be “on the road” to discovery, discerning Christ’s presence in places we didn’t expect. Cleopas and his friend know what has happened (sort of), but they know only their version of it; they see only what their frame of reference allows them to see. Acknowledging our limited frame of reference can lead to a humility without which, in the words of Vatican II, “there can be no ecumenism worthy of the name.” We need companions on the journey through whom Jesus may speak and transform us.
Of course, this passage has significant things to say about the importance of scripture and the breaking of bread, but notice, as well, how it suggests that hospitality is at the heart of Christian faith. Welcoming the stranger is not simply an act of altruism; it may lead to our own enlightenment as we come to see Christ in the others with whom we are walking–and nothing is more essential to an ecumenical spirit.
Beyond that, it strikes me, especially today, that the whole ecumenical journey is somewhat like the walk of the disciples on the Emmaus road. As we think back on one hundred years of prayer and dialogue for unity, as we look back on a half century of conciliar life in this state, it is easy, like the two disciples, to be filled with memories that leave us grateful but disappointed. “We had hoped” he was the one to redeem Israel. We had hoped that this movement was the one to help bring about a church that truly witnesses to unity, justice, and peace. We had hoped that this council was the one to spread an ecumenical spirit across the state of Indiana.
Perhaps this text gives us clues about the way forward. Be open to the presence of Jesus with us as we walk. (Don’t be too hasty to see only his absence in the signs of the times.) Be willing to be transformed through deeper understanding of scripture, especially as it is interpreted through a frame of reference not our own. Be ready to welcome the stranger and those we think of as strange. And, of course, never stop longing for the day when we see Christ together in the breaking of bread.
The disciples, faced with a crisis, are separating themselves from their community (a typical human reaction). But Christ’s presence changes them. His resurrection is, in a sense, made concrete in the disciples who, as the passage puts it, “rise up” and return to Jerusalem where they bear witness to what they have seen–and community is restored.
This cannot be stressed too much: Christianity is inherently communal! To know Jesus is to walk in conversation with others who also know him. Such community is not once for all, it is always being recreated–which is why the ecumenical movement is an ongoing journey, never linear, full of twists and turns and setbacks. No one said this would be easy! But know this: For centuries, the parts of the church were walking away from one another. Today, we are at least seeking ways to converge. And for that, let us say with one voice, “Thanks be to God.”
I hope this quick look at the Emmaus story has given some inspiration. Still, I suspect we can agree that it was easier to be an ecumenically-minded Christian fifty years ago than it is today! This has been underscored for me in recent weeks as I finished work on a new book, research for which included re-reading the reports from two famous ecumenical events–the seminal Conference on Church and Society, held in Geneva in 1966, and the WCC’s Fourth Assembly in Uppsala, Sweden two years later. The Geneva conference was the first major WCC meeting at which a majority of the participants came from countries outside Europe and North America, a sign of the world-changing independence struggles of that era. This was, of course, a time of tremendous social turmoil in the west as well, and so it is not surprising that Geneva ’66 was the first ecumenical conference to speak positively of the possibility of revolutionary change. And all of these themes received attention at the assembly in Uppsala.
What strikes me most forcefully, however, is the optimism of the reports from these two events, an optimism that stands in stark contrast to the mood of our own era. For example, the participants in Geneva a half century ago clearly assumed that economic development was a tide that would lift all boats in the harbor–that economic growth, instead of resulting in the obscene disparity in wealth so evident today, would truly benefit the poor. There was talk of revolution against political systems that inhibit such growth, but little sense of how entrenched economic interests actually are.
The report from Geneva ’66 also shows great faith that technological progress would contribute to human betterment. This confidence was still evident at the assembly two years later in Uppsala which spoke, for example, of “new advances in agriculture [that] hold the promise of freedom from hunger.” Both meetings show little awareness of the ambiguity of technological achievement, and no awareness of what the Club of Rome, just five years after Uppsala, would call the “limits of growth.” Nature was still regarded as a stage for the drama of human redemption, not as the threatened ecosystem we now know it to be.
Violence was seen in Geneva and Uppsala as an option, albeit of last resort, that could be used in a limited way to promote social transformation in places such as southern Africa. There was apparently little recognition, so clear to many in the present generation, that violence is inevitably co-opted, that it has a dynamic of its own and is seldom, if ever, limited to its intended purpose.
And there was great optimism at Uppsala, and throughout that decade, in the possibility of real advance toward the visible unity of the church. Church to church dialogues and locally united churches were springing up around the world–in places like India, Zambia, and Jamaica–along with dialogues like the Consultation on Church Union. The 1968 assembly, coming on the heels of Vatican II, was the first to have official Roman Catholic participation, and one Catholic speaker raised the possibility of his church joining the WCC. The report from that assembly oozes ecclesial confidence. For example, “The church is bold in speaking of itself as the sign of the coming unity of [hu]mankind”–a statement so aggressively optimistic that it sounds pretentious to our ears. Today we have a library full of theological agreements dealing with Reformation- era disputes, even as we watch churches continue to act as competitors in a predatory scramble to win new members and to fragment over new issues. And we watch as councils of churches from Indiana to India struggle to keep the doors open in the face of reduced funding and decreased church commitment. Just as Geneva and Uppsala had little sense of how entrenched economic interests are, so they did not predict how entrenched ecclesial interests would continue to be.
I do not mean to suggest that ecumenism has simply gone downhill since 1968! There have been numerous developments that all of us, I trust, regard as positive. At neither Geneva nor Uppsala did women have major leadership roles. Interfaith relations and environmental protection hardly figured in either agenda. Major ecumenical agreements on issues from sacraments to nuclear weapons, from the doctrine of justification to religious pluralism, were still to come. But the point I am trying to make has to do with a marked change in tone. “We know,” declares the Geneva report, “that God appears to have set no limits to what may be achieved by our generation, if we understand our own problems right and desire to obey in our circumstances.” Such statements truly sound like something from another century!
Where does this leave us today? How can the ecumenical impulse be revitalized in such an era as ours? The answer to this may be suggested in the distinction between optimism and hope. Optimism involves the expectation of a better future based on a reading of present circumstances; hope involves the trustful anticipation of genuine newness, perhaps beyond our imagining, based on the promises of God. The “Message” to the churches from the Geneva conference declares that “As Christians we are committed to working for the transformation of the world.” Compare this to the theme from the WCC’s 2006 assembly in Porto Alegre: “God, in your grace, transform the world.” Those who are optimistic speak of what they can accomplish. Those who live in hope give thanks for what God can and will accomplish, regardless of how difficult the present may seem. Yes, we are called to participate in God’s mission, but our activity is rightly understood as a response to the One in whom we hope, the One whose grace is the only lasting source of the church’s renewal.
Let me be polemical for a minute. Popular religion, and we see it all around us, always wants to know what we have to do to please God. Biblical religion always starts with what God has done, with who God is, to which our acting is a response. The well- known passage from Micah, read earlier, is a great illustration. Will you accept a burnt offering of a year-old calf? No? How about a thousand rams? Not enough? How about rivers of oil? My first-born? You want me to do justice? Okay, how many acts of justice before you’re satisfied? This is religion reduced to commodity (sound familiar?)– and it completely misses the point! We are called to do justice, as earlier verses in Micah 6 make clear, because God is just and has acted that way toward us. We are called to love kindness because God is the compassionate One who has been so to us. We are called to walk humbly because God is God and we aren’t. And we are called to work for unity, even in lean times, because God was in Christ reconciling us to God and to one another.
Could it be that a time of chastened expectations leads us to trust more in God’s guidance, discerned through shared Bible study and prayer, than in our skill at managing organizations or our capacity for drafting texts? Vatican II’s Decree on Ecumenism, which was also written fifty years ago, speaks of “change of heart and holiness of life,” of prayer “for the grace to be genuinely self-denying, humble, gentle in the service of others,” as the essence of the ecumenical movement. Could it be that, in the absence of reasons to be optimistic, we discover greater humility and gentleness in our relations with sisters and brothers in other churches? Could it be that less optimism and more hope allows us to let go of favored projects and structures, while holding fast to those promises of God’s Reign that commonly compel us?
Ecumenical Christians today may be less optimistic than our earlier colleagues, but surely we have no less reason to hope for the day when, in Paul’s great phrase, we “welcome one another, just as Christ has welcomed us.” Perhaps our calling, the calling of our generation, is precisely to keep alive such a hope.
As I was preparing to come here, my wife, Mardine, said to me, “This sounds like a pretty unpleasant invitation!” Well, maybe. But difficult as funerals can be, ministers generally prefer them to weddings–because at a funeral, as you all know, you have a chance to proclaim the gospel of God’s gracious love and the hope that stems from it. At a funeral, we celebrate a life well lived, but the emphasis is on God’s gift of life and of life beyond our knowing or even anticipating.
So it is today. We who gather here cannot revel in our institutional success or predict the future, and so we must be content to declare to one another what we have received: There is “one body…one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God of us all.” “Christ is our peace” who has made our warring groups into one and has “broken down the dividing wall, that is, the hostility between us.” As the day of his crucifixion approached, Jesus spoke with his disciples, praying “that they may all be one…that the world may believe that you have sent me.” The community of his followers is like a body in which all the members, though many, are one body, and in which “the eye cannot say to the hand, ‘I have no need of you.’” All of which gives us reason to hope for that day when Christians visibly love one another as Christ has loved us–the clearest possible witness to God’s reconciling power. In fat times and lean, this is the gospel! To which we say with one voice, “Thanks be to God!”