This reflection was originally presented during morning prayers in the chapel of the Ecumenical Centre, on 27 August 2018.
Bible readings: 1 Kings 8, Ephesians 6:10-20, John 6:56-69
Assembled by faith, united in Christ, strengthened by God
This week we continue celebrating the foundation of the World Council of Churches at the Amsterdam Assembly in 1948. Since its founding 70 years ago, the WCC has held assemblies in Evanston, New Delhi, Uppsala, Nairobi, Vancouver, Canberra, Harare, Porto Alegre and Busan.
Assemblies of the World Council of Churches are significant events. They are incredible celebrations of faith, hope and love. Each assembly has been a unique witness to the gift of unity in Christ. Each assembly has expressed the urgent need for solidarity in action for justice and peace.
My first WCC assembly was Harare, where I was responsible for the web site. I was also in Porto Alegre and Busan, where I was responsible for the overall coordination of both gatherings.
Recommitment ceremony at the WCC 8th Assembly in Harare, 1998. Photo: Chris Black/WCC
Assemblies may be historic, but as many of us know, they are also a lot of hard work and take a long time to prepare. We invest a tremendous amount of time, energy and resources, not to mention expectations, in our ecumenical gatherings.
I am thankful for the opportunity to reflect this morning on why it is important to come together – to be assemble as people of faith – in prayer as we are assembled here this morning; in consultation to strengthen justice and peace in Palestine and Israel for which some of us are gathered this week; in anticipation of the ACT Alliance assembly in October for which some of us are busy preparing; or even looking ahead to 2021 and the next WCC assembly in Karlsruhe.
The lectionary readings this week – from First Kings, the Gospel of John and the Letter to the Ephesians – help to remind us why assemblies are important.
As people of faith, we assemble not simply to be together, not simply to celebrate and to pray. Of course we come together for all these good reasons, but our assemblies are more than that. We are assembled by faith in response to God’s steadfast love.
King Solomon knew how to organize assemblies. He chose the right venue for his time – Jerusalem. He assembled the right people for his time – the elders, the heads of the tribes and the leaders of the ancestral houses.
He prepared a really amazing procession for any time – bringing the arc of the covenant to its place, in the inner sanctuary, in the most holy place, underneath the wings of the cherubim; where a great cloud appeared and the glory of the Lord filled the house.
Solomon delivered a powerful key-note address declaring “O Lord, God of Israel, there is no God like you in heaven above or on earth beneath, keeping covenant and steadfast love for your servants who walk before you with all their heart”.
And he gave a memorable charge to the Jerusalem assembly, reminding the leaders of Israel of the importance of welcoming strangers – foreigners from distant lands who would come to worship – so that all the people of the earth may know the name of the Lord and his amazing love for all creation.
The story from First Kings commemorates the dedication of the temple under the leadership of Solomon. Unpacking how the story has been told over the centuries could take days. This morning it reminds us that when we come together, we are assemble by faith in the presence of Lord.
WCC 1st Assembly in Amsterdam, 1948. Photo: WCC
As a fellowship of churches, the WCC organizes assemblies every 8 years not simply to elect a central committee and set direction for the future. Of course we meet to fulfil these constitutional objectives, but assemblies are more than that. The WCC comes together as a fellowship of churches, assembled by faith and united in Christ to bear witness to a world in need of care.
For the past 4 weeks in our lectionary readings, we have been journeying with the disciples as they come to understand what it means to abide in Christ and to know God’s gift of faith.
The lesson began 4 weeks ago when Jesus fed a crowd of 5000 hungry people with 5 loaves of bread and 2 fishes. Everyone who came to that seaside assembly in Galilee was impressed by the miracle, but no one seemed to understand what it meant.
Jesus explained, saying, “I am the bread of life, whoever comes to me will never be hungry, whoever believes in me will never be thirsty.” Agian the disciples did not understand.
Jesus continued teaching, saying, "Very truly, I tell you, it was not Moses who gave you the bread from heaven, but it is my Father who gives you the true bread from heaven. For the bread of God is that which comes down from heaven and gives life to the world”. “Very truly, I tell you, whoever believes has eternal life.” “Very truly, I tell you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you.”
Not only did the disciples still not understand, some of them complained it was too difficult, questioning “who can accept it?” Jesus knew it was not easy. He knew that faith was not the conclusion of reason, but a gift from God.
Jesus closed the Galilee assembly with a much smaller crowd saying, “For this reason I have told you that no one can come to me unless it is granted by the Father”. The faithful who remained confessed “we have come to believe and know that you are the Holy One of God”.
There is a strong contrast in the Gospel of John between spirit and flesh, between what is from God and what is not from God. “To receive God’s gift of faith is to know God in Christ; to refuse it is to become an ally of the devil.”
The message is echoed in Paul’s letter to the Ephesians. Paul says that “our struggle is not against enemies of blood and flesh; but against rulers, against authorities, against cosmic powers of the present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places”.
Paul reminds us there is something bigger at stake than flesh and blood. We are engaged in a spiritual struggle for abundant life in Christ. This is not a battle of the sword for the survival of the fittest. This is a battle of truth for the sake of righteousness and peace for all creation.
Jesus was trying to help his disciples understand that the “Son of Man would ascend to where he was before”. He was trying to prepare them for what he knew was coming. He yearned for their unity in love and faith.
On the eve of his arrest, Jesus prayed for the unity of his believers. He prayed on behalf of his disciples, “but also on behalf of those who will believe in me through their word”, which is us here today. He prayed that we may be one, as Christ is one with the Father, so that the world may believe in God’s amazing love for all creation.
Closing prayer of the WCC 10th Assembly in Busan, 2013. Photo: Peter Williams/WCC
An assembly of the World Council of Churches may be the largest most representative gathering of its kind, but the value of an assembly is not measured in how many people attend or even in how diverse the gathering may be. Similarly, the value of our ecumenical gatherings is not measured by the force of the statements that we publish.
Rather the value of coming together ecumenically in prayer, in consultation, in an assembly is measured by our faithfulness, by our unity in Christ and by the character of our strength in the Lord.
We seem to be celebrating a lot of anniversaries this year. 70 years since Amsterdam. 50 years since the Uppsala. 20 years since Harare. But we are also remembering 70 years of the occupation in Palestine. 50 years since the assassinations of Martin Luther King Jr and Robert Kennedy for challenging racism.
More than ever we called to testify to the abundant life we experience in Christ and to God’s amazing love for all creation. The cosmic powers of the present darkness and the spiritual forces of evil are very truly real.
We are assembled by faith to stand firm in the Lord and together in Christ. We are assembled to speak truth to power and to overcome evil with love through the Gospel of peace, so that God’s will may be done on earth as it is in heaven.