We Find Ourselves…, Epiphany 2 (B) – 2003
January 19, 2003
We find ourselves, on this Second Sunday after the Epiphany, early in the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity. This week between two holy days — The Confession of St. Peter and the Conversion of St. Paul — has been observed for many years as a particularly appropriate time to pray for the unity of the Christian Church. Peter, whose confession of Jesus as the Messiah becomes the rock on which Christ builds his Church, and Paul, whose dramatic conversion changed the course of Christian history, are most appropriate patrons saints for the movement toward church unity.
The Lessons for this Sunday provide yet another lens through which we might look at the ecumenical movement: The lens of vocation. The word “vocation,” of course, means “calling.” The boy Samuel was called three times before he was finally able to say, “Speak, Lord, for your servant is listening.” In the Gospel, Jesus calls Philip with the words, “Follow me.” And then Philip calls Nathanael, concluding with those words of invitation, “Come and see!”
In the church, we have often limited the use of the word “vocation” to a calling to ordained ministry. “Vocations are up” or “vocations are down” has sometimes meant that applications for seminary are either up or down! However, in its purest sense, the word “vocation” is appropriate for any Christian calling. God has created each of us with gifts, talents, and abilities that we are expected to use for God’s glory.
One of the most fulfilling ways to live life is to discover what gifts, talents, and abilities God has blessed us with, and then, having identified them, to use them in our jobs, our hobbies, our various lay ministries in the church. Gifts and ministries are closely related in the Christian experience. We can discover our gifts, offer them in ministry, and so discover our true “vocation,” our true “calling” in God’s sight.
But, in this Week of Prayer for Christian Unity, I want to explore another use of the word “vocation” and speak of our “ecumenical vocation” as Episcopalians. By “ecumenical vocation” I mean, of course, our ecumenical “calling.” We all know that Jesus prayed for his disciples in John 17 that they might be one “that the world may believe.” He seemed to link the unity of his disciples to the mission he was sending them out to accomplish.
We know that Paul spent lots of time and energy working and praying for the unity of the scattered congregations he had started so that they might, in the words of First Corinthians, “be united in the same mind and the same purpose.” (1:10c) Why would we think that it is any less important for us to be one “that the world may believe” and for us to “be united in the same mind and the same purpose?”
I’d like to suggest that Samuel, Jesus, and Philip, from today’s lessons, are good examples for us as we seek to fulfill our “ecumenical vocation” as Episcopalians. Samuel didn’t get it the first time, when God called him. He didn’t even get it the second time! But he kept responding, kept trying to be faithful until he finally heeded the advice of Eli and said, “Speak Lord, for your servant is listening!”
We don’t always get it either. Some of us are impatient with the slowness of ecumenical progress and just want to get on with it! “We’re all Christians anyway,” these folks are wont to say, “let’s just start acting like it!” Others of us are a bit resistant to the ecumenical enterprise. “I like being an Episcopalian,” these others cry, ” I don’t want to become a Lutheran!”
Well, to the first group, I would say that we should exhibit a certain impatience for church unity, but that theological dialogues are important lest we wake up one day in a church that we don’t want to be part of! And, to the second, I would say, don’t worry — ecumenism doesn’t mean merger.
What we seek is a communion of communions, with each retaining its own style and ethos, but cooperating fully, and free to exchange ministers and ministries for the sake of common mission. So, if you’re impatient or resistant to the ecumenical journey, I would suggest that you make Samuel’s words your own, “Speak, Lord, for your servant is listening.”
Jesus’ invitation to Philip in today’s Gospel is instructive as well, “Follow me.” Jesus summoned his disciples, not to a static, sedentary life, but to a journey! A journey of risk and discovery; sometimes a journey of sacrifice; but always a journey into God’s future which included going into all the world making “disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit…” (Matthew 28:19) Surely we can fulfill that Great Commission better united than we can in our present state of division.
Finally, Philip’s words to Nathanael are also important: “Come and see.” Some of our divisions are perpetuated because we don’t know enough about one another. “Churches Uniting in Christ,” an association of nine churches (of which the Episcopal Church is one), seeking to live their unity in Christ more fully, makes suggestions such as these for congregations:
- Pray for neighboring congregations
- Include representatives of other congregations in your baptisms, ordinations, and installations.
- Invite all baptized persons to the Lord’s Table for Holy Communion (unless their church’s discipline prohibits this).
- Undertake mission projects together.
- Invite a member of a neighboring church to serve on a committee of your church.
- Invite other congregations to participate in special events, from socials to worship
- Organize shared youth retreats or adult education courses.
These are only some ways that we can begin to “Come and see,” to experience one another as fellow members of the Body of Christ. There are surely many others we could think of. The point is, in this Week of Prayer for Christian Unity, can we take at least some tentative steps forward in realizing our “ecumenical vocation” as Episcopalians?
At our best we have always thought of ourselves as a reform movement within the church universal rather than just an expression of denominational Christianity. The question is, can we find new ways to live into that ecumenical vocation, that calling for unity, today.
“Speak, Lord, for your servants are listening.”
Give us ears to hear Jesus calling, “Follow me.”
Help us find ways to “Come and see.”
That the world may believe!
Don’t forget to subscribe to the Sermons That Work podcast to hear this sermon and more on your favorite podcasting app! Recordings are released the Thursday before each liturgical date.