The Oneness of the Church in God
by Robert Hamerton-Kelly
Scripture:Revelation 22:12-14, 16-17, 20-21; John 17:20-26
“… so that they may all be one, as you Father are in me and I in you; that they also might be in us; in order that the world might believe that you sent me.” — John 17:21
My sermon last sermon (May 2) provoked four written responses. Verl Clausen, a retired Lutheran pastor, said it sounded like one of Luther’s great “rants” against the Papacy and all its works. James Alison, a RC priest confirmed my estimate of the hierarchy, with the proper reservations of a member of the church it rules, and James Williams, a convert to Catholicism from the United Methodist clergy, gently hinted that we Protestants cannot claim innocence in these matters. Wolfgang Palaver, a professor of ethics in the Catholic faculty in Innsbruck, Austria sent me a learned paper on the theory of hierarchy. To all I say “Thanks” for sharing with me their wisdom and temperance.
Reading today’s lesson from John 17, I could barely keep from weeping. Jesus prays for us that we be one in God, and one in Him and in each other, so that the world might believe that He is the one whom God has sent. He prays that God will set His Glory upon us all. I read this in the light of where we Christians are today, and I ask, “How could we possibly be one now?”
I think of the natural tendency to disassociate oneself from those presently in trouble, as well as the centuries of sectarian shame we Christians share; and then there are the national, cultural, and theological factors that continue to make our faith feckless as a spiritual force, producing at the macro level not peace and tranquility but rivalry and violence. I think of the mimetic effect of violence in religious zealotry in general: when I read the words of Islamists, of Jewish settlers and of KKKristians I see that they are mimetic doubles each of the each other. The more “religious” one becomes the more violent and vainglorious one is. The “Ditchkens” (Dawkins and Hitchens) have at least decency on their side when they ridicule religions today. I abhor their carelessness in debate but welcome their honesty in general. (I share at least in part their challenging demand that the Pope should be arrested on his visit to Britain later this year and tried before the International Human Rights Tribunal, as Augusto Pinochet was arrested in Britain some years ago on a warrant from Spain. The judge who issued that warrant is, as we speak, removed from the bench and being tried for nebulous reasons).
“How shall we Christians be One in this time and in this plight?” Here is one possible way: we can all confess and not deny or excuse that we are ONE IN SIN. I believe that a great Reformation is possible in the unlikely event that we Protestants rise up and stand with the humiliated Catholics, – all Christians together -, in the solidarity of sin. We have all, like Peter the premier apostle, denied our Lord, and that more than three times. We are all guilty and we should all be ashamed. As the church in all its forms we have nothing to plead in mitigation, and we should not have, because by our faith all our good works fall short of merit, and justification before the divine tribunal can only be by that freely forgiving divine love known as Grace. We stand by God’s Grace or not at all. Let us show the world how much we need that Grace; let us have done with defending ourselves, and leave our defense to the Paraclete, the Holy Spirit who speaks for us, the divine “Counsel for the Defense.” We cannot defend ourselves because we have done the crime of which we stand accused; only the Paraclete can match the Prince of this World when the latter constantly and often justly accuses us.
I am speaking metaphorically here, using the imagery of the Gospel of John; nevertheless this rhetoric corresponds to reality. Any PR advisor who knows his job will tell you that the attempt to wriggle and charm and cover and cry like a crocodile makes the matter worse. One must be frank and honest, and accept the consequences of ones actions or omissions. Therefore, we Protestants, and all Christians, should share the Catholic moment of humiliation. After all,
The ways this vision of solidarity in sin can be distorted and turned to self-serving rivalry are myriad and the possibility that it might be realized is remote, but in advocating it I am speaking as a preacher not a strategist. I am articulating what I believe the Gospel wants us to do not what is the prudent way to proceed. Indeed, I don’t even know the details of how to acknowledge publicly that we Christians are all in this together, but I do know that spiritually speaking, as we love Christ so we must love our Christian brothers and sisters, especially in the hour of their need, and publically stand with them in the confession of our common helplessness before sin and shame.
Obviously, this action has nothing to do with the way the consequences of actions in this world are to be dealt with – that is, the issue of punishments civil and ecclesiastical- but it does give the world an example of humility, and of what we believe about our God; that He is a God of Grace for us all. It says that we Christians stand together and are One in Christ as we are one in sin, which is one of the clearest indications of our need of Christ.
On the individual and personal level it means that we shall grieve with rather than gloat over those gone astray, saying always, “There but for the grace of God go I.” We shall not demonize the perpetrators but we shall ask for clear and sincere repentance, and the right action to be taken.
If we can allow the Spirit to bring us to lay down our arms and stop all self-justification and defense, we can stand forth fearless before a world that has hardly a fig leaf to cover its own degradation. We shall not fear righteous judgment because we deserve it and affirm it, and we shall not fear unrighteous judgment because the Paraclete will defend and comfort us.