Week of Prayer for Christian Unity

By: Chris Brittain

I am delighted to join with you to worship this morning and am grateful to Father Rice and the community here at St. Basil’s for the kind invitation. I bring greetings from the students and staff at Trinity College.
Today we’re offered the words from John’s Gospel that are the theme of this year’s celebration of the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity: “Abide in my love and you shall bear much fruit.” This is an appropriate text to focus on this week as we are encouraged to reflect on and pray for the ecumenical efforts of the churches in pursuit of Christian unity.

The document, Walking Together on the Way, produced by the Third Anglican-Roman Catholic International Commission in 2017, identifies many of the benefits of working together for Christian unity. ARCIC III encourages us to, “explore what God has given to our [dialogue] partners which … is also meant to be a gift for us.” Ecumenical engagement, in other words, helps us recognize that “what we lack God might give us through the other.” This spirit of “receptive ecumenism” reminds us that we have much to learn and to gain from reaching beyond ourselves in dialogue and partnership, so that we might continually renew our commitment to work with our fellow Christians to pursue that unity among the disciples that Jesus prays for in chapter 17 of John’s gospel.

Today’s reading from chapter 15 helps prepare us to better understand this call to live as one. For today’s gospel reminds us that one cannot talk about the activity of Christians, or of any moral action we might seek to undertake, without also talking about Jesus. For the goal of our response to the ecumenical calling to live as one is not merely that we seek to become better versions of ourselves; rather it is a calling to inhabit and manifest the identity of Christ.

The imagery of the vine in John 15 reminds us that, apart from the vine, we ‘branches’ can do nothing. This is a theme we also often encounter in Paul’s writing, such as in Galatians 2:20, when he writes, “it is no longer I who live, but it is Christ who lives in me.” As such, when we contemplate the meaning of ecumenism, or the notion of working for greater unity with Christians of other traditions, we should not simply equate this with a moral duty, or some kind of ecclesial self-improvement project; rather, it is a call to live according to today’s words from Jesus, “Abide in me as I abide in you.” By seeking greater unity, we are not simply seeking to follow Christ’s example; we are also being led to participate in him – to live in Christ.

As we enter into the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity, it is helpful to be reminded of this, not only because it spares us the delusion of presuming that living as we ought is something we can achieve based solely on our own effort. Apart from God we can do nothing. Equally important is the clarification we are offered in John’s Gospel that, when we turn outward towards the other, and thus towards Christ, we are not engaged in effacing our own particular identities. As we respond to the invitation to “abide in Christ,” we are neither being absorbed nor possessed by Jesus. It is rather that we are no longer self-contained, left to our own devices, or remain narrowly self-reliant. Abiding in Christ means we are constituted by our relationships, that we are part of one another – branches joined to the one vine. As such,
through relationships with our fellow Christians, it is not that we are being made to become more like our neighbours, or less like ourselves; instead, we are becoming – together – more like Jesus.

What we pray for, then, during the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity is not that we become less Roman Catholic, or Anglican, Lutheran, Reformed, or other expression of Christianity. It is, rather, that we are called to become more like Christ, precisely through our own particularity, while in intentional relationship with our fellow disciples of Jesus. This is why prayer is an appropriate symbol of our ecumenical calling, and the appropriate spiritual discipline for us to adopt in pursuit of this vision. It is in prayer that we recognize that we are not ourselves – that we relate to God, in God, through God. In prayer and
worship, we experience our participation being determined by Christ’s participation in and with us.

May our prayer and that of our churches, be this week that we be led to abide in Christ – together – so that together, in Christ and empowered by the Holy Spirit, we may bear much fruit in a world that so desperately needs to be fed with the food that is life giving. May Christ live in us all, now and forever. Amen