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The gift of unity

31 May 2007

Sermon preached at an ecumenical worship service in Riga, Latvia

by Rev. Dr. Samuel Kobia
General Secretary
World Council of Churches

31 May 2007 

John 15: "I am the true vine, and my Father is the vinegrower. He removes every branch in me that bears no fruit. Every branch that bears fruit he prunes to make it bear more fruit. You have already been cleansed by the word that I have spoken to you. Abide in me as I abide in you. Just as the branch cannot bear fruit by itself unless it abides in the vine, neither can you unless you abide in me. I am the vine, you are the branches. Those who abide in me and I in them bear much fruit, because apart from me you can do nothing."

Dear Sisters and Brothers in Christ! 

From this beautiful text in John 15, I would like to bring two themes to your minds and hearts today. The first comes from verse 4: "Abide in me as I abide in you". It is a simple statement, yet breathtaking in what it suggests. It is Jesus' request that we give ourselves to him, each moment of each day, entering into his life and joining ourselves to him. At the same time, it is Jesus' assurance that he is giving himself to us, each moment of each day, entering into our lives and joining himself to us. 

The notion of "abiding" suggests, of course, much more than simply being present. The word suggests stability, permanence. Jesus is a dwelling place we can depend on; to "abide" in Jesus is to be as much at home as it is possible to be. And we can depend absolutely upon Jesus' presence with us, knowing that he will not abandon us, whatever may come. 

But this idea of "abiding", lovely as it is, is not enough on its own. It needs to be completed by the second theme which I want to bring to your attention - the theme of "bearing fruit": "Those who abide in me and I in them bear much fruit" (verse 5). Jesus does not abide in us, and we in him, for our own sake; the goal is not just that we have a beautiful experience of the presence of Jesus. No, he abides in us, and we in him, for a purpose: so that we can "bear fruit".  

This means that our relationship with Jesus, however personal and intimate it may be, is not intended to be private, or invisible "bear fruit" for all the world to see! The life of a Christian should show forth Christ; its goal is to make Jesus visible and present to all, to show abroad, in a natural and compelling way, the presence of Jesus in the world today. Every Christian, just by being there, is an integral part of a walking missionary movement, a testimony to the presence and power of Christ who brings joy, justice and reconciliation, healing and hope. 

And now let us think about John's themes of "abiding" and of "bearing fruit" in relation to Christian unity. This passage is also beautiful as a starting point for this, because one key to the search for unity is the discovery that Christ is present in each believer…and in each church. 

Let us think about this in a very concrete way. Please turn to the person sitting next to you in the congregation, and say to yourself: "Christ is abiding in this person, Christ is present in this very person sitting next to me now". This awareness is the starting point for the whole ecumenical movement! Once we realize that Christ is present in another person, we cannot think of him or her as a stranger, as someone with whom we have no connection or bond.  

We know that Christ has claimed that person, just as Christ has claimed us; and because we both belong to Christ, we belong to one another. By abiding in each of us, Christ has made us one in him. It is a unity we have not created, one which we cannot deny, and one from which we cannot escape. Traditionally we say we are one in Christ through our common baptism - which isn't "our" common baptism at all, but Christ's. It is Christ who has claimed each one of us in our baptism, and brought us into his one body, the Church.  

That Church, we confess, is one. But for many reasons - through the forces of history, through honest differences in understanding the faith, and sometimes through human sin - the Church has become divided into a myriad separate churches. Many of their differences enrich the body of Christ, for example differences of culture, of emphasis on one part of the truth of the gospel or another, of styles of worship. But there are destructive divisions, plain for all the world to see. Sometimes churches do not recognize baptisms performed by others; churches compete in launching mission programmes; churches duplicate programmes and work of all sorts; most notoriously, members of all churches cannot share the eucharist with one another. 

What, I ask you, is the greatest challenge to this state of division? What is the simple fact that makes the current divisions of the church impossible to live with, the fact that has launched the modern ecumenical movement? It is just this: the fact that Christ "abides" in each one of us.  

This has profound consequences not only for Christians as individuals, but for the Christian churches as well. For the churches, too, are called to recognize that Christ is abiding in each one of us, whichever church we may belong to. If Christ is present in the person sitting next to you in the congregation, isn't Christ also present in the next church down the street from yours? So the churches are called to recognize that Christ is present not only in them, but in other churches as well, and that no church has a monopoly on Christ's presence and power.  

When churches recognize baptisms performed in other churches, this is what they are saying: that the claim of Christ on each believer, that belonging to Christ that makes us one in him, is more powerful than all the forces which divide the churches. This makes it clear that the divisions between the churches are not just "inconvenient" or "inefficient", but actually contradict the nature of the church itself as the one body of Christ.  

This leads us again to that second theme from our scripture text: the notion of "bearing fruit". Just as with individuals, so for the churches: the concept of "abiding" is essential and powerful, but it is not adequate in itself. For there is a purpose in Christ's presence in a church: that purpose is for us to bear fruit, to show forth visible signs of the presence of Christ. These "signs" include lively worship, a courageous confession of the faith, vigorous mission in the world, strong prophetic witness to the world, effective formation in the Christian faith, and many other activities. 

Just as with the theme of Christ abiding in us, so the theme of "bearing fruit" has been a main impulse and inspiration for the search for Christian unity. For it has gradually become apparent to the churches that they bear fruit less effectively when each bears its fruit alone, in isolation from the others. Worship always done separately, mission done in competition, faith formation done as if "my" way of understanding the faith were the only possible one - all these are not the fruits which Christ expects us to bear. The churches would produce better fruits if they could benefit from the wisdom and experience of other churches, and if they joined with them in a common commitment, in common worship, witness and service.  

In short, when the churches worship, witness and work together rather than separately, they show more faithfully Christ's abiding presence within them, and they bear healthier, more vigorous fruit. They are not so much teaching about visible unity, as they are learning, step- by-step, what that unity means in practise. Within the fellowship, the churches are going beyond the sharing of programmes and planning, and finding a new level of relationship with one another. 

I would like to give just two examples of this new depth in the churches' relationships. One is the churches' common engagement in reflection and action on ethical issues - the questions which arise at the intersection of ecclesiology and ethics. Here the churches do not always agree on the best ways to tackle sensitive issues. Yet they are learning that their commitment to stay together in the ecumenical fellowship enables them to go on talking even when they disagree, and inspires them to work towards a witness they can offer in common. 

A second example is the Special Commission on Orthodox Participation in the WCC, which arose in response to concerns about the life within the ecumenical fellowship on the part of Orthodox (but not only Orthodox) churches. Within this process the churches asked each other fundamental questions about their very identity as churches. This shows, once again, that within the ecumenical fellowship of churches it is possible for churches to ask each other even the most radical ecclesiological questions.  

I could give many other examples, but these will serve to reveal how the churches are engaging one another at a new depth, showing how they are accountable to one another, within the one body of Christ, for their witness and service in the world. They recognise that, without each other, none of them is being fully church. This new depth of relationship is, I believe, yet another "fruit" produced by the churches in their search for unity. 

This brings me back, in closing, to the theme of visible unity with which we began. The churches are one in Christ, but are often divided in their confession, worship, witness and service. In their division, they have ignored and obscured the gift of unity given to them by Christ. In recognizing the abiding presence of Christ in each other, and in bearing fruit together rather than separately, they are opening themselves to receive, once again, Christ's gift of unity. Through every common word and deed they are making visible the unity which is their birthright in Christ, and showing forth the fruit of Christ's abiding presence in them. Thanks be to God! Amen.