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“And So Set Up Signs”

A sermon preached at the CTS Chapel Service on November 6, accompanying the delegates meeting in Busan, Korea for the 10th Assembly of the World Council of Churches. The text was John 17.20-24, and selected portions of “The Message to the Churches” from the first assembly of the WCC in 1948 were also read.

We live in a time that honors variety, particularity, diversity, distinctiveness.  We honor these things intellectually, culturally, politically, spiritually.  And it is right that we do.  Too much that is precious has been lost to various kinds of dominating hegemony, of a privileged few masquerading as the universal, of unity collapsed into imposed uniformity, of penultimate things claiming ultimate status, of truth claims made absolute and thus used to justify abuse of the other.  But this honoring, indeed this protection of variety, particularity, diversity, and distinctiveness that is such a hallmark of our post-modern landscape carries within itself the seed of its own distortion, namely an arrogance that asserts one’s own otherness by dismissing, even demeaning the otherness of the other.  At its worst, it can turn division and separation into virtue, allowing us to ignore the other, even render the other invisible, dispensable, disposable..  Absent a profound awareness of and appreciation for our deep interconnectedness and mutuality, particularity grows competitive, combative; diversity grows divisive and ultimately disordered.

The church has struggled with these realities from the very beginning.  The prayer of Jesus recorded in John’s Gospel – of a unity that would reflect the richly diverse community of the Trinity – was betrayed almost from the start.  Paul, for example, reports that Chloe’s people are telling him of quarreling in Corinth, of the rise of a partisan spirit.  Sometimes the betrayal of Jesus’ prayer has taken the form of the dominant crushing and silencing the voices at the margins, imposing narrow orthodoxies.  Sometimes that betrayal has taken the form of fragmentation in which anathemas are hurled, tables fenced, holy food denied, baptisms deemed invalid, priests and pastors unrecognized.  Is it any wonder that the world has been reluctant to believe that this community, allegedly shaped by the Word, has in fact been sent by anything other than the narrow claims of particular intellectual, national, cultural, or ideological interests?  In the process our mission is discredited, diminished.  As Desmond Tutu once famously said during the most oppressive days in South Africa, “We discovered that Apartheid was too strong for a divided church!”

In 1936 Karl Barth, writing for the Second World Conference on Faith and Order, put the issues of the church’s fragmentation sharply:

We have no right to explain the multiplicity of the churches at all.  We have to deal with it as we deal with sin, our own and others’, to recognize it as a fact, to understand it as the impossible thing which has intruded itself, as guilt which we must take upon ourselves, without the power to liberate ourselves from it.  We must not allow ourselves to acquiesce in its reality; rather we must pray that it be forgiven and removed, and be ready to do whatever God’s will and command may enjoin in respect of it.

Seventy five years later we have once again grown comfortable with the fragmentation of the churches.  The harsh edges of division have been sanded down both by ecumenical advance as well as parochial indifference.  We have learned again to explain it, to explain it away.  The impossible thing that has intruded has grown almost normative and sharp disagreements over ethical issues have made it easy for us to ignore the other, “the eye saying to the hand, ‘I have no need of you.’”

When the World Council of Churches was formed in 1948 in the aftermath of world war, Holocaust, and atomic annihilation, the delegates in Amsterdam were painfully aware that totalitarian ideologies had been too strong for their divided churches, captured by idolatrous allegiances to blood and soil across the globe.  As delegates to the 10th Assembly of the World Council of Churches gather this week in South Korea, much still remains too strong for a divided church – crushing poverty, racial privilege, damaged environments, violence against women and children, proliferating nuclear weapons, borders separating Korea north from south.  The Trinitarian vision expressed in the Gospel of John of One expressed in Three, of Three constitutive of One, remains Christ’s prayer – a Church in glorious diversity where variety evokes wonder rather than woe, where water immerses and refreshes all, where tables are open and all can be fed, where priests and pastors and people are mutually honored and recognized, where the ministry of peace and justice is claimed together, where resistance to evil will be owned as one.  And the strange thing that has intruded will be evicted and once again named “impossible.”

A World Council Assembly in Korea can’t bring fully into being this kind of church any more than the ecumenical character of CTS can.  The unity of God’s church is a gift for us to receive, not something we ourselves construct.  It is a calling for us to pursue even in our continued separation.  But we can set up signs, that all may see.   

John H. Thomas
November 6, 2013     

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