May 26th, 2001
Combined service at Baptist Church, Doncaster East
© John M. Connan
I have a confession to make. I suffer from a condition called ecumania. My condition is so chronic that I have to admit that through and through I’m an ecumaniac. There’s absolutely nothing I can do about this condition. In my case it’s incurable. I’m totally committed to Christian unity – always have been; always will be
I’m a born compromiser. Maybe that’s why I see little sense in maintaining the divisions we’ve inherited from the past – and continue to create today.
You might say that as an Anglican become Methodist, Methodist minister become Uniting Church minister, I have little other choice than to believe in Christian unity.
But my ecumania preceded my ordination. I chose to do my theological training at the United Theological College, South India. In my three years at UTC, students came from Baptist, Methodist, Presbyterian, Lutheran, Anglican, united, Syrian Orthodox and reformed Orthodox traditions. We learned together. We worshipped together. We played together. We talked together. And – if other students were like me – we came to understand and love our own traditions more deeply, but to understand and appreciate each other’s traditions just as deeply.
On the sea voyage to India, one person warmly agreed that Christians had to work together for unity – to face down the threat of communism. I couldn’t accept that rationale for unity.
On my way home from India I went to one of the great preaching places of American liberal Protestantism, Riverside Protestant, New York. The preacher’s topic was unity. I was delighted – until he suggested the main reason for unity was economic: the futility of so many buildings and so much wastefulness of competing denominational structures. I couldn’t accept that rationale for unity.
I believed then, and I believe now, that there is only one reason for Christian unity: the reason we find in John’s good news story of Jesus.
As John put together his story of Jesus, he placed the words we heard this morning in what has been called Jesus’ Farewell Discourse. He knew death was imminent. He knew the confusion, sense of loss and grief that would envelop his disciples. He had to prepare them and give them words to live by and to die by. What he had to say was vital. And John intended them to be the same for us: vital words to live by and die by.
Listen to them again:
“I’m praying not only for [my disciples] but also for those who will believe in me because of them and their witness about me. The goal is for all of the to become one in heart and mind – just as you, Father, are in me and I in you, so they might be one in heart and mind with us. Then the world might believe that you, in fact, sent me.”
Jesus prayed for unity among his followers – that the world might believe he was sent by God; had a mission from God; was pivotal to God’s mission to the world.
Unity is for the sake of mission. Followers of Jesus are to work together – one in heart and mind – that the world may know God’s love in the coming of Jesus; that everyone, experiencing that love, might acknowledge and believe in Jesus.
As the churches across the western world have diminished in numbers and influence since the Second World War, God has been gently nudging Christians ever closer together. If we are to be involved in God’s mission to the world, if we are to be signs of God’s love in a world longing for loving neighbours, community and purpose, we need – maybe as never before – to work together. Small things we can do alone. Great things we need to do together.
My college in India was part of a consortium of colleges based on Serampore College’s grant from the Danish King allowing Carey, Marshman and Ward and their successors the right to award university degrees, including theology. One of Carey’s most memorable phrases was: “Expect great things from God: attempt great things for God.”
If we are to expect great things from God and attempt great things for God, it may only be as we work together on those great things.
In 1989 I was in Los Angeles and first heard of Love Inc. It impressed me. It was churches working together, using abilities and availabilities of church members to meet the needs of others in their communities.
The story that most impressed me was of a character who was constantly in need, did the rounds of the churches one by one, extracting help, but never helping himself - until the churches began working together. He was confronted and told he’d get no more help, until he faced up to the realities of his situation, and used the resources he had. He was incensed and refused any help to look at his resources. Within the year he was a member of Love Inc helping others like him face up to their situations.
We’ve heard a little about LinC already. Later we’ll have the opportunity to hear more about LinC, Australia’s version of Love Inc.
There are a number of things I like about LinC.
- LinC insists that in any LinC local body churches from a variety of traditions work together: mainstream Protestant and Catholic, Charismatic and Pentecostal.
- LinC provides opportunities for everyone willing to be involved to be involved. In the American video I saw a seriously physically handicapped man operating the computer referral centre was operated from his bed.
- LinC is willing to refer those in need to others, if the need can be met by existing agencies.
- LinC operates very deliberately from a Christian base, and stands by that base.
- Most importantly – from my point of view – LinC draws people from different church streams together in mission – and helps them as followers of Jesus discover the God-given grace of unity for the sake of mission.
Yes, I’m an ecumaniac. I believe in Christian unity with all my being. But I believe in Christian unity for the sake of mission. LinC, I believe, may be the way our two congregations discover how essentially one we are, as we work together in mission. Amen.
 John 17: 20-21.