Ecumenism and Interfaith

Preacher: Jennifer Hosler
Scripture Readings: Psalm 133; Ephesians 4:1-6; Luke 9:46-56; Romans 12:9-21

Mini-Sermon 1: What does it mean to live together as the body of Christ?
(Psalm 133; Ephesians 4:1-6)

Ice cream comes in many flavors. My favorites include lavender honey, caramel pecan praline, cookies and cream, and a wonderful one called Double Dunker (mocha ice cream with cookie dough and cookies and cream combined). While I chose the Church of the Brethren to be my faith home as a young adult, I’ve always loved ice cream – something that apparently is almost as core to the Brethren identity as peacemaking. (Why don’t we combine them? Peace through ice cream?)

Like ice cream flavors, churches also come in flavors. I chose the Church of the Brethren “flavor.” I was baptized in the Roman Catholic Church. Later, as an elementary school kid, I was dedicated in a Baptist Church. I’m the only non-baby child dedication that I’ve heard of. After we moved to Ontario, I chose to be re-baptized at a church that was a different type of Baptist than where I was dedicated. It was here at this 2nd Baptist church that I had my first taste of Ecumenism, though I didn’t know the word yet. Apparently, the churches in my town had once been in conflict. The Baptists, the Anglicans, the Presbyterians, the Pentecostals – you wouldn’t have found them together, cooperating or worshiping. However, by the time I was in high school, the churches had finally gotten over themselves and whatever divided them to cooperate in two joint worship services a year and some shared youth events.

While we found ways to demonstrate unity, it didn’t mean that we all agreed with each other. For instance, a friend of mine told me that she would pray for me to speak in tongues so that I could receive the Holy Spirit. I was like, “um, you don’t think I have the Holy Spirit even though I already follow Jesus?” She doubled back and referred to it as an extra blessing of the Holy Spirit… but I know her church sometimes taught that if you didn’t speak in tongues, you might not have the Holy Spirit. Theology could still divide us, even though I worshiped with their youth group sometimes.

Also, when I was in high school, I would sometimes hear another friend’s mom (a Baptist friend) make sarcastic remarks about the Pentecostal youth pastor, who was a woman. The church that I attended and where I was baptized did not allow women to be pastors.

Clearly, there are things that divide Christians from one another. Robes. Bells. Incense. Women in ministry. Inclusion of Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, and Queer persons in the ministry of the church. Patterns of organization and hierarchy. Beliefs about the ways the Holy Spirit works (what gifts exist today and who can get them). Beliefs about ways to practice communion (or perhaps not to practice such an outward form, if you’re Quaker). Beliefs about what happens during communion. Do the bread and cup become Jesus’ actual body and blood, like changing in matter and substance? Is Jesus present with it, even if it’s not his actual blood and body? Is it just a way to remember Jesus’ death? Or is it some altogether other mystical experience with Jesus? We differ on what communion means and as to who can even legitimately partake in communion. As my own rebaptism story indicates, we diverge in terms of what baptism means, who can be baptized, and when.

And yet, as we see with our scripture in Ephesians, even if we have different beliefs and practices about baptism, there is just one baptism. Even if we think our baptism is the most biblical, all of us are being baptized into Jesus. Brother Paul the Apostle writes, there is one baptism, one Spirit, one faith, one Lord, one hope of our calling, one God of all—who is above all and through all and in all. We are all connected—beyond the ways that we differ—through our faith Jesus.

For 5 years, I had the privilege and joy to be an author on a paper that was finally approved by Annual Conference this summer, A Vision for Ecumenism in the 21st CenturyA Vision for Ecumenism in the 21st Century. The paper describes church unity like bodies of water:

The Church of the Brethren, along with the other groups in the Brethren movement, traces its beginning to baptisms in the Eder River in Schwarzenau, Germany. The Eder connects to a series of other rivers (the Fulda and Weser), and the water eventually flows into the North Sea, before joining the Atlantic Ocean. Just as the Eder River is connected to other bodies of water, the Church of the Brethren is part of the worldwide body of Christ. As we hold fast to our identity and calling in Christ, the Spirit of God calls us into partnership with brothers and sisters who have also received living water’ in Jesus (John 4:10). The Greek word oikoumene, which means the “whole inhabited earth,” is a reminder that we are connected by faith in ways that are far greater than our differences. It is from this word that we get the term “ecumenical.” Our ecumenical interests and activities connect us to one another and to God as tributaries and rivers connect to the ocean) (Church of the Brethren Annual Conference, 2018).

I think that this river imagery is more poetic than my ice cream flavor analogy. It highlights connectedness and the life-giving nature of water, rather than just speaking to different flavors. Yet it also speaks to differences – rivers have different speeds and geographic features that make each distinct. They each have their own ecosystems, allow diverse creatures to flourish.

Our psalm passage also uses moisture imagery for unity, but in the form of oily beards and mountain dew. How good and pleasant it is when kindred live together in unity! When God’s people are unified, it’s something holy and pleasing to God—just as ancient anointing oil on the high priest was holy and pleasing. The 2nd image needs a bit more context. According to one writer, the land of Israel has a dry season for several months. During this time without rain, dew becomes very important to the ecosystem. The dew from Mount Hermon trickles down during the dry season to nourish the earth—sustaining crops and making the land fruitful even without rain (Tverberg, n.d.). Unity is holy, pleasing, nourishing, and it bears fruit—leading to abundant life.

The Vision for Ecumenism in the 21st Century paper shares a lot of scripture, history, and recommendations for congregations, districts, and the denomination on engaging with other Christians. The first recommendation for individuals and churches is this: “Every member of the Church of the Brethren is challenged to take seriously the meaning of Jesus’ prayer that all his followers be one (John 17:20-24).” (Annual Conference, 2018, p. 16). This is the only time in Scripture that Jesus prays, not only for the disciples, but for all who would believe in him in the future. Jesus prays for us and all Christians worldwide, that we might be one, just as Jesus and the Father are one. As such, weighty question stands for all Christians: what does it mean to live together as the body of Christ? We may not typically think of it as an urgent question, but the uniqueness of Jesus’ prayer heightens the responsibility that we all must take the call for unity seriously. How should this shape our ministry at Washington City Church of the Brethren?

Questions and Sharing

Do you have experiences working with other flavors of Christians? Tell us about them. What was positive? What was negative? What were they like?

What do you think are the benefits of Christian unity?

What are the challenges of Christian unity?

What are some gifts that other denominations or Christian traditions might bring to the body of Christ?

How do you think Jesus’ call should shape how we do ministry at Washington City Church of the Brethren?

Mini-Sermon 2: What does it mean to be Christ’s peacemakers in a religiously diverse world?
(Luke 9:46-56; Romans 12:9-21)

Our passage in Luke serves as a bridge passage, tying these two topics together. The section begins with an emphasis on humility—come to Jesus as little children, ready to learn and love on the journey with Jesus. Then, we see an interaction between Jesus and his disciples around who can legitimately call themselves Jesus followers. The disciples say, “Master! Someone is going around and casting out demons in your name.” Jesus replies saying, “Well, if they’re not hurting anyone and they’re not going against you, they’re actually for you.” Early ecumenism before the church was even a thing.

Then the story continues. Jesus is preparing for the final days of his ministry, so he gets ready and sets out toward Jerusalem, the center of the Jewish faith where the temple stood. Some messengers go ahead of Jesus, likely to get hospitality set up as he traveled through. But the village of Samaritans are not willing to show hospitality to Jesus and his disciples, especially since his end goal is Jerusalem. The Samaritan religion had gone a different direction than Judaism and one of the main areas of contention was where to worship God. The Samaritans said Mount Gerizim, while the Jews said Mount Zion in Jerusalem. In our text, the Samaritans probably find it offensive to facilitate a pilgrimage to Jerusalem and to support what they perceive as false beliefs.

The disciples are not happy about this. They take offense and get worked up. In their view, such hostility should be met with hostility. The disciples ask Jesus, “Lord, do you want us to command fire to come down from heaven and consume them?” Jesus looks at them and, while we don’t have the actual words recorded, scripture says that Jesus “turned and rebuked them.” I’d like to know what Jesus said. Even though not showing hospitality was a big offense in their culture, and even though the Samaritans are rejecting Jesus, Jesus doesn’t repay them with violence or hostility. He just goes on his way to another village and teaches his followers to overlook this lack of hospitality.

It’s important to note that Jesus doesn’t gloss over religious difference; he doesn’t pretend that Samaritans and Jews believe the same thing. Yet Jesus also doesn’t get bent out of shape when people reject what he believes. These are helpful principles for us today as we think about being Christ’s peacemakers in a religiously diverse world.

When the committee first began its work on the Vision for Ecumenism in the 21st Century, we couldn’t help but talk about both ecumenical relationships and interfaith relationships. There had been precedent before and we knew that the Church of the Brethren needed clear guidance on both types of engagement. People use the term “interfaith” in very different ways, so we placed our definition in our paper’s glossary just to be clear. For the Church of the Brethren (according to the paper), interfaith means: “Partnerships, communication, or gatherings that bring people of differing faiths or understandings together for a common goal or purpose.”

We also knew we had to be quite clear about what we meant by interfaith and what we did not mean by interfaith. We knew that some Brethren would hear interfaith and think that we meant syncretism or relativism. What we advocated for instead was “a religious pluralism approach—which calls for peaceful coexistence and understanding, not a religious combining” (Annual Conference, 2018, p.10). We wrote in the paper, “Pluralism allows us to understand others while maintaining our specific belief in Jesus as reconciler and redeemer, while keeping the New Testament as our creed. Specifying the purpose of various [interfaith] interactions (building understanding, doing interfaith community service, or evangelism) can allow us to build trust, maintain our witness, and extend love and understanding in a world rife with hatred and division” (p. 10).

In interfaith events that I’ve been at, we don’t pretend that everyone believes the same thing. That honesty, when combined with authenticity, humility, and love, allows us to learn from one another to promote understanding and cooperation. I think that it can engage the most people in interfaith peacemaking because it does not require leaving your faith behind. Many Christians, Muslims, Jews, Sikhs, and others would not want to participate if it meant signing onto a universal religion. For me as a follower of Jesus, I can engage in interfaith and still believe that God’s truth is most fully expressed in Jesus Immanuel, God with us. Staying true to my faith does not mean that I am mocking or denigrating another religion. In fact, I can learn about them, learn from them, and maybe even be strengthened in my own faith in Jesus because of what I learn.

Jesus said, “Blessed are the peacemakers for they shall be called children of God.” God’s children are called to make peace. As Paul writes in Romans, we are to love sincerely. Cling to what is good. As far as it possibly depends on us, to live at peace with everyone. AMEN.

Questions and Sharing

Do you have experiences working with people of other religions? Tell us about them. What was positive? What was negative?

What do you think are the benefits of interfaith engagement?

What are the challenges of interfaith engagement?

How do you think Jesus’ call should shape how we do ministry at Washington City Church of the Brethren?
Two recommendations from the paper are here:

Congregations are encouraged to offer opportunities (classes, workshops, special
services) for members to understand neighbors. One goal of these opportunities is to encourage dialogue and understanding about how the Church of the Brethren is part of the larger body of Christ. This understanding will build awareness of who we are as Brethren and how we are connected to other sisters and brothers in Christ. It will also identify points of connection and divergence between Christianity and other world religions.

Congregations are encouraged to communicate with local religious groups and to participate in community opportunities for worship and service, such as pulpit exchanges, intentional dialogue series, community worship services, and other gatherings designed to bring a community together. CROP Walks, workcamps, food pantries, and other local Christian and interfaith initiatives are examples of service that focuses on human needs and values that are common to major faith traditions.

I invite you to read the document further and to consider—as we discern moving forward in new ministries—how we can take seriously Jesus’ call to be one with other Christians and to live out our calling as Jesus’ peacemakers.

JESUS THE DUNKER

Matthew 3:13-17, Acts 10:34-43, Isaiah 42:1-9

Nate Hosler

Then Jesus came from Galilee to John at the Jordan, to be baptized by him.

Baptism and Jesus, these are two things that the Brethren are “into.” It was seeking to follow Jesus that brought the original 8 together and it was baptism that formed them into a distinct community. The Church of the Brethren has at times been called Dunkers because we dunk people in water for baptism. When beginning 8 wanted to be baptized they considered having a Mennonite perform the baptism but since Mennonites pour the water and the proto-Brethren had been convinced that dunking 3 times was the proper way, they decided to dunk themselves. In fact, this was not only the start of what we now know as the Church of the Brethren but was an act of resistance against the political and religious authorities. Our inaugural act was a subversive act.

Then Jesus came from Galilee to John at the Jordan, to be baptized by him.

Who is John? Why was he baptizing? Why did he have the authority to baptize Jesus?
It appears that John had one of the same questions. Why did he have the authority to baptize Jesus? He said—given what this baptism is for, namely repentance, I need to be baptized. John had sinned. Jesus had not. 3:15 But Jesus answered him, “Let it be so now; for it is proper for us in this way to fulfill all righteousness.” Then John consented.

This is a rather sparse story. There is not only not a lot of detail but as several commentaries noted that there is no psychologizing or telling us what Jesus was thinking. We simply have verse 15 which essentially says it’s a good thing to do. Though “fulfill all righteousness” is a more robust description. Though these few verses are quite minimal, of the 4 Gospels, it is the most detailed. One writer notes “All four accounts directly link with baptism the anointing of Jesus with the Spirit and the declaration of his sonship” (Dockery, Dictionary of Jesus and the Gospels, 57). It was a sort of grand opening or launching—a rolling out if you will.

So Jesus getting baptized might make him a Dunker. Unfortunately for us it seems that though we seek to guide our lives and community by following the life and teachings of Jesus, this particular act may not be directly imitated. A commentator writes, “The story of Jesus’ baptism has a meaning for the church, but is not presented by Matthew as a model for Christian baptism, as though the meaning is ‘since Jesus was baptized, we should be too.’”(Boring and Craddock, The People’s New Testament Commentary, 20).”
The story continues,  “And when Jesus had been baptized, just as he came up from the water, suddenly the heavens were opened to him and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and alighting on him. And a voice from heaven said, “This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.”

Here is why the baptism may have been part of the grand opening—the role out of Jesus the Messiah.[1] Jesus is baptized to “fulfill righteousness” and then his sonship to God is announced from the heavens and the Spirit of God descends looking like a dove.

The “Son of God” is a notable title. Not only is it notable—snazzy even—which may sound too disrespectful—but it shows up in some form 124 in the New Testament (Dictionary of Jesus and the Gospels). The appearance of these three characters simultaneously and the existence of them has been formulated theologically and named “the Trinity.” Through the history of the Church many disputes, sometimes even bloody disputes, happened over the formulation of “the Trinity.” Which, while it does not show up as a theological term in the New Testament, many would argue is evident in passages such as this though without the metaphysical specificity that certain theologians might desire.

 While the various “characters” of the Trinity—Father, Son, and Holy Spirit—make appearances throughout, this is one of the few times when all three are on stage at the same time. What is at stake in this? The nature of God? How does one discern the nature of God from a text? What is the role of theology in correctly understanding God and does a correct understanding of God matter? Is not God gracious and also a mystery? If I allow that I do not understand everything of God then must I bother trying to understand anything?

This text does not delve into this. It is a narrative base, hence my use of the term “stage” earlier, on which particular characters appear and disappear performing their part which is part of theological and practical project of the author we know of as Matthew.

So the baptism of Jesus might make him a dunker but does not necessarily provide backing for dunking for the dunkers. The passage seems to be establishing Jesus in relation to God the Father and the Spirit. Now I’m not a theologian (in an academic sense—according to standard disciplinary divisions) so talk of the Trinity may not be the most natural. When I began working on this I wanted to jump to the practical –but as noted earlier, the passage of Jesus’ baptism is not an admonition—its simply about Jesus.

None-the-less I have an impulse to jump to the practical—this may be because I’m writing a dissertation in ethics—theological ethics at that, which essentially asserts that all theology has  ethical implications. More likely, however, it is that either, a) Brethren are practical (which I think is true) or b) I want my sermon to be “relevant.” However, this passage seems to be rather theological, about teaching us about Jesus so that we can speak truthfully and worship. A theologian writes, “[The Church’s] truthful speech does not stop with its praise and adoration of the triune God. The [Church] also seeks to speak truthfully about the world as the arena of God’s redemptive purposes, as the realm of God’s of transforming the kingdoms of this world into the kingdoms of our Lord” (Kenneson, “Gathering: Worship, Imagination, and Formation,” Blackwell Companion to Christian Ethics, 62).

Once so identified (as the Son of God) and empowered (through the Spirit) Jesus is ready for his ministry.

Our two other passages provide internal commentary on the meaning of the meaning of Jesus’ baptism. Neither of them comment directly on his Baptism, though the Acts passage almost includes a reference to it in the overview of the sequence of Jesus’ life. The Acts passage is a post-Jesus ministry sermon by Peter and the Isaiah is a pre-Jesus prophecy that the church has often called a “messianic” text—in this it describes poetically the messiah, the role that Jesus claims.

The Acts passage begins at the beginning of a sermon. When we post our sermons on our Washington City COB blog we assume that someone can begin reading and it will make sense even though they weren’t here to listen this morning. In the case of the sermon of Peter starting in verse 34 of chapter 10 there is an important back story. In short, Peter is one of Jesus’ original disciples who saw it all, was present at Pentecost—the coming of the Holy Spirit (which we will get to later this year), preaches the first sermon (good for an apostle’s CV), and then earlier in chapter 10 receives a vision that Jesus is not just for the in-group (the Jewish people) but for everyone.

 After this vision Peter is taken to “those people” and preaches to them. He begins–“I truly understand that God shows no partiality, but in every nation anyone who fears him and does what is right is acceptable to him. You know the message he sent to the people of Israel, preaching peace by Jesus Christ—he is Lord of all.” He continues by half-mentioning the baptism saying “after the baptism that John announced” Jesus “went about doing good,” was crucified and raised, and “All the prophets testify about him that everyone who believes in him receives forgiveness of sins through his name.” So belief relates to forgiveness of sins. Belief, however, as we see in many other places, is not an isolated cognitive affirmation. It is also, not an isolated emotional response but involves a particular way of living. Now, there are literally centuries of debates about causation and whatnot about does believing and/or actions earn forgiveness, does God cause belief or do people choose to believe. For now we will leave it at there is peace and forgiveness through belief in Jesus Christ.

The second passage which (somewhat indirectly) comments on the Matthew passage is in Isaiah.

I decided to read this passage in the sermon in part because as poetic language the particular wording is quite notable but also harder than a narrative to keep hold of and recall with any detail.  

Isaiah 42:1-9
Here is my servant, whom I uphold, my chosen, in whom my soul delights; I have put my spirit upon him; he will bring forth justice to the nations. 42:2 He will not cry or lift up his voice, or make it heard in the street; 42:3 a bruised reed he will not break, and a dimly burning wick he will not quench; he will faithfully bring forth justice. 42:4 He will not grow faint or be crushed until he has established justice in the earth; and the coastlands wait for his teaching.
42:5 Thus says God, the LORD, who created the heavens and stretched them out, who spread out the earth and what comes from it, who gives breath to the people upon it and spirit to those who walk in it: 42:6 I am the LORD, I have called you in righteousness, I have taken you by the hand and kept you; I have given you as a covenant to the people, a light to the nations,
42:7 to open the eyes that are blind, to bring out the prisoners from the dungeon, from the prison those who sit in darkness.42:8 I am the LORD, that is my name; my glory I give to no other, nor my praise to idols. 42:9 See, the former things have come to pass, and new things I now declare; before they spring forth, I tell you of them.”

Peter preaching in Acts said that belief in Jesus Christ brings forgiveness. When Jesus describes his mission in the Gospel of Luke he quotes Isaiah—opening the eyes of the blind, freedom from captivity—in short the stuff we just read.

Worship is inseparable from action.

Jesus is Lord. [full stop]

We all worship something. Right worship entails a right belief of what deserves adoration which of course shapes our actions. If I worship power then I will either seek to be powerful or orient myself toward those who fit this image. If I worship money then I will either seek to obtain money beyond what is needed to live, not only hoarding it but my vision will be filled with it. Worship or belief are inseparable from action.

Worship is inseparable from action.

Jesus is Lord.

A theologian (and ethicist—I couldn’t resist) writes, “[T]he reason the liturgy is given priority is not because offering praise and adoration to a deity is inherently more important than feeding the hungry or sheltering the homeless,[2] but because learning to praise and adore this God who was revealed most fully in the flesh and blood of a first-century carpenter from Nazareth has everything to do with the care we give our neighbors” (Kenneson, “Gathering: Worship, Imagination, and Formation,” Blackwell Companion to Christian Ethics, 58).

“ because learning to praise and adore this God … has everything to do with the care we give our neighbors.”

An earlier dunker motto reads –For the glory of God and for our neighbors good.

 

[1]  “Theologically, the baptism of Jesus identifies Jesus as the messianic servant who stands in solidarity with his people” (Dockery, “The Baptism of Jesus,” Dictionary of Jesus and the Gospels, 57).

 

[2] “[T]he ekklesia gathers to wait. In a world that urges people to be always doing something productive with their time and energies [I am typing this at 8:59pm on Tuesday evening]—something that makes a noticeable difference in the world—the ekklesia dares to gather and wait upon God” (Kenneson, 64).