Summary: A sermon for the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity 2006, taken from Matthew 18
I would like to being by asking you two rhetorical questions. The first of which is why you here. There may be more than one answer – you’re committed to the idea and practice of church unity would be probably best one. Another one might be that you ’normally come to this kind of thing’ as you like to support it. Another answer might be that I’m the carrot on the stick that has got you out of the house on a cold January evening as you are curious to find out what I’m like. Hopefully in 20 minutes time you’ll still think I’m the carrot rather than the stick anyway!
The second question is just to ask you to reflect for a moment on your own ecumenical experience or history, By that I mean which churches have you been part of in your life. Have you always belonged to the one denomination or have you spent different times in different churches other than your current tradition.
One of my memories of college is on a study day where the visiting speaker decided to ask the 20 or so gathered Anglican ordinands their church background. What was striking was that only one of the 20 had an exclusively Anglican background. The others had all spent at least some time worshipping as part of another Christian denomination.
My own background is a reasonable example of this. I was baptised Free Church of England, which is a group which separated from the Church of England about 160 years ago. My parents didn’t know I was baptised Free Church of England until they needed to get my baptism certificate for my pre-theological college paperwork, it had just been the church that one of their close friends went to, and so they went there. In my youth, until about the age of 10 I went to a United Reformed Church, initially only attending parade services, but then as a regular member.
At the age of 11 I went to a public school with links to the Church of England so became a very traditional Anglican, confirmed as such at 13, singing in the Chapel Choir. Before leaving school and going on to university I also worshipped in the mornings at a different local United Reformed Church, where I became the organist, as well as being a backup organist for a local Methodist church. At university I became very heavily involved in the Christian Union, which was a non-denominational unashamedly evangelical group, and was involved at that time in both Anglican and Baptist churches. And then when I finally came home from university, I settled by choice into the local Anglican church, feeling that my roots and my preferences lay in the Church of England, and obviously there I’ve stayed.
The point of my story is not that I am somehow unusual but that stories like mine are increasingly common. More and more, people do not belong to one Christian grouping or denomination for their entire lives. Often people will change – sometimes out of geographical necessity, sometimes because of personal difficulty.
As we worship together in this Week of Prayer for Christian Unity, we do so in a world where the distinctions between traditions and denominations are becoming increasingly blurred. Some people are happy for this blurring to continue, some people are more keen on defending the distinctiveness of their tradition, and probably both groups are both right and wrong in different ways.
The words of Matthew’s gospel that form the centrepiece of this year’s week of prayer are both challenging and difficult. They challenge us right at to the root of what is going on in our own church and what is going on in our relationships with other churches.
It is the word relationship that is key here. This passage is all about relationship. Sinning against one another and the process of discipline that follows is about maintenance of relationship, not in a way that involves turning a blind eye to events but acknowledging pain and hurt. The way forward in a relationship is to acknowledge and process what has happened within that relationship.
Relationship is about recognising and acknowledging the presence of God, in ourselves, and in those around us. To say that where two or three are gathered in his name, he is there among us, is to recognise God’s presence. This statement of Jesus is much less about what shopping list we can put together before God when we meet, than about what God has already done through us and is continuing to do through us when we gather. We gather here tonight because of God. In each of us, God has done a work to get us here, and God will continue to do that work tonight, and onwards.