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Week of Prayer for Christian Unity 2010

The unexpected intuition to flash forth from the conference was the awareness that Christian disunity is destructive to the very mission of the Church, and the corresponding search for Christian unity began," said the Rev. John Gibaut, director of the Faith and Order Commission of the World Council of Churches. He was preaching on 18 January 2010 in a service at the WCC headquarters in Geneva, Switzerland, to mark the beginning of the annual Week of Prayer for Christian Unity, and as churches around the world prepare to mark the centenary of the 1910 conference.

18 January 2010

Sermon preached at the Ecumenical Centre, Geneva, 18 January

(Luke 24.13-35)

The Joke

I would like to begin by telling a joke; it has nothing to do with the WPCU as such, but it’s a good one, and one I have not told for a long time, especially not in church:

One Sunday morning, a mother began to waken her son. “George, it’s time to wake up”, she said. George replied, “I don’t want to get up. I’m tired!” “But Georgie, you have to get up; it’s Sunday, and we don’t want to be late for Church.” He replied: “I don’t want to go to Church!” “Oh George, it’s Sunday, and you have to go to Church.” “I don’t want to go.” “But why not?” she asked. “Because,” he replied, “I hate it.” “You hate it? But why?” “Because it’s stupid: the sermons are boring, the music is terrible, the people are dumb, and the pastors hate me.” “Oh Georgie, it’s not that bad. Now please, get up, or we will late for Church.” “I’m not going”, he replied. “But Georgie, you must.” “Give me one good reason why I should go.” His mother replied, “Well, George, first of all, you’re the bishop.”

Think about what happened to you in the telling of my joke. Think about how long it took you to get the joke, because a good joke works almost instantaneously, involving our minds, our feelings, and our bodies. In an instant—in a flash—we put things together in our minds, especially the unexpected. We laugh before we understand it. And humour is infectious; once people start to laugh, it spreads. It is what makes laughing together with another person such an interesting example of shared experience.

The way a joke works within us points to the place of intuition in human life: a sense of vocation, seeing a person or a situation in an entirely new way, a fresh discovery, an “epiphany” or a moment of conversion, a leap of faith. In an instant—in a flash—we put things together in our minds, especially the unexpected. Tragedy can work the same way, when our eyes are opened in an instant to the suffering of another person or of a people, and we cannot look at the world in the same way again. I think this in part explains the spread of the massive and swift reactions by governments, faith communities, NGOs, and so many ordinary people to the devastation in Haiti.

Edinburgh 1910

These “epiphany-like” flashes of intuition happen to individuals, but they also happen to communities. This year we remember the Edinburgh Missionary Conference of 1910. Representatives of missionary organizations and some churches gathered in Scotland to coordinate and promote mission and evangelisation around the world. The unexpected intuition to flash forth from that conference was the awareness that Christian disunity is destructive to the very mission of the Church, and the corresponding search for Christian unity began. Something unexpected happened, and we rightly identify that “something” as the beginning of the modern Ecumenical Movement. Although it was no joke, like a joke Christianity had an experience of intuition in those June days in Edinburgh 1910, and like laughter, it spread to more Christians and churches, and it continues to spread. Christianity has never been the same since. Think about this: none of us would be at the Ecumenical Centre today, if the Edinburgh Missionary Conference had not happened. Like the ripples of laughter, we too are part of its movement.

Emmaus

These “epiphany” moments or flashes of intuition characterise so much of the encounters between God and humanity in the Bible. The recognition of God’s self-revelation is so often the experience of deep intuition. We see this in the “controlling” biblical text for the WPCU for 2010, the whole 24th chapter of Luke’s Gospel, Luke’s account of the Resurrection. While the beginning and ending of this chapter include the men in dazzling clothes as the tomb, with well known characters like Mary Magdalene, Simon Peter, and the company of the disciples, the centre-piece of Luke’s Resurrection narrative—this morning’s reading—is about two people who are unknown: Cleopas and his unnamed companion; even the Risen Christ is remains unknown until the end. Emmaus is a deeply eucharistic story of two or three gathered in Jesus name, with Jesus in the midst of them, however unrecognised. This gathering on the first day of the week includes a proclamation of the Word and the breaking of the bread. It is as if Luke is telling later generations of disciples that we too can encounter the Risen Lord in the ordinary acts of liturgical prayer. And like the Emmaus story, our encounters with Christ are caught rather than taught, like the way a joke works, although no joke. Cleopas and his companion must have walked with the Risen Jesus for hours, pouring out their grief and disbelief, and receiving from the stranger a new way of looking at these events through the long perspective of the biblical witness. As he opened the Scriptures, he opened their hearts; in fact, as Luke relate, they said “Were not our hearts burning within us while he was talking to us on the road.” But still, they did not yet understand. It was only at table when he took bread, blessed it, broke it and gave it to them that in a flash of intuition, like the punch line of a joke, that they got it. I think that is why it is so important for Luke to mention that as soon as they recognised Jesus, in a flash he vanishes.

Witnesses of These Things

Like laughter, the news of the resurrection is infectious, and spreads, and is shared as the Risen Christ continues to be there where two or three are gathered in his name however unrecognisable, and we caught off guard by the unexpected, and know intuitively that the Lord is risen indeed! With Cleopas and his companion, with Mary Magdalene, Simon Peter and the early disciples, we too become the witnesses of these things.

The insight of our ecumenical pioneers in Edinburgh Missionary Conference in 1910 is that witness to the things of Christ’s resurrection will only be effective if Christians are united with one another, be it the churches Acting Together in Haiti this week and in the coming years, the churches responding to human division and unjust structures, the churches responding to the environmental crises, the churches responding to war and violence, the churches responding to cynicism and despair with the good news of the Gospel. In all these things, we bear witness to the Risen Christ, together.

For those of us gathered to pray at the Ecumenical Centre this morning, who have dedicated part of our lives to the Ecumenical Movement in one form or another, this is not the Week of Studying about Christian Unity, or a week of designing new structures to make it more effective. Let it be first of all a week of prayer, of being gathered in the presence of the Risen Christ, to let our hearts burn together; to let our intuitions play in the presence of the One who is and who was and who is to come, who makes all things new, always unexpected. To laugh before we understand it. And, to be witnesses of these things, together.

John Gibaut
Director of Faith and Order
World Council of Churches