Several weeks ago, we celebrated the 44th anniversary of the Uniting Church. Many congregations and communities of faith marked that in worship, reflecting on the prayer of Jesus that so inspired the UCA’s formation back in 1977.
It was John 17:11 – “that they may be one” – a prayer that, in our hearts and lives, God may be glorified. We reflected on our identity as the Uniting Church, asking questions such as, What is distinctive? What do we value? What do we find challenging? How are we changing?
Since then, I’ve found myself reflecting over and over again about all the sorts of contexts and ways in which Jesus might be imploring us to be one. And perhaps it’s not surprising. Due to restrictions on our gatherings, lots of birthday and anniversary celebrations have been strung out over many weeks.
But really, it’s probably much more to do with something intrinsic to our identity as the Uniting Church. We decided intentionally to call ourselves the Uniting Church, not the United Church, because uniting is something we are called into on a constant basis. Seeking unity is core to our DNA as the Uniting Church. Seeking unity in our hearts and lives with God and each other and our world is a way of life that is central to our faith.
Many of us yearn for a recovery of that 1977 vision to live more fully into the prayer of Jesus, and see this most fully expressed in recovering the ecumenical vision we had back then. There’s no doubt, this remains important.
At the same time, over these past weeks, I’ve been reflecting on so many other ways in which Jesus’s prayer may be calling us into one-ness and how these have been part of the vision of the Uniting Church right from the beginning.
Jesus’s prayer for us, and Jesus’s calling to us, is that we may be one. It is a powerful thing when the Church lives a way of life that is clearly and obviously different to the world of conflict, division and inequity that we live in.
We are called to be communities characterised by the way we seek to overcome divisions, by the way we handle disagreements, by the way we use our time and energy, our wealth and properties for the good of the communities we are part of, by the way we live for the sake of the world God loves.
Over the past few weeks, I’ve had the privilege to see UCA communities of faith living into this call and prayer of Jesus in so many different ways. I shared with Murrumbeena, Leighmoor and Coatesville congregations, who worshipped together last month for the very first time. They wanted to explore what they could do together in mission and discovered how good it was to pray and worship together.
I shared with St Stephen’s and Electra Street congregations in Williamstown: distinct congregations who nevertheless wanted to celebrate their common life in Christ and shared stories of family, work and faith over morning tea.
I shared stories and experiences with seasonal workers from Vanuatu working on farms in Gippsland and with members of the Stratford congregation, building connections of friendship and support.
I’ve heard survivors of child sexual abuse, telling their stories of the harm of neglect and abuse, but also of how they’ve risen up with courage and resilience to be advocates and agents of change and love and support for others.
I’ve heard stories of the impact of colonisation and the long-term harm it has created for generations of families of First Peoples, and also of their grace and strength in reaching out to Second Peoples in seeking understanding and reconciliation – especially through Narana and Leprena.
I’ve heard stories of communities during the storms and floods in the Dandenong, Macedon and Yarra Ranges and Gippsland, neighbour reaching out to neighbour, to offer meals, the warmth of their home, or access to their electricity supply where they had it.
And I’ve also heard people expressing amazement at the work of the Church in mission: people giving of themselves in justice and advocacy work; in emergency relief; in support for people living with disability; putting their wealth and properties to work to support those living with homelessness; supporting vulnerable families and children; supporting opportunities for people to come together in community, like inclusive social events, community gardens, homework clubs, ukulele groups and community choirs, walking groups, community art projects and community meals.
We are living in the time of Pentecost, asking ourselves the question of how we might live into the life Christ offers.
As we look back at the Acts Pentecost story, we remember the people didn’t find themselves all speaking the same language. They didn’t all become the same as each other. They still spoke their own very different languages and retained their particular culture and identity. But they discovered that, when they attended to each other and listened carefully, they could understand each other.
When Jesus prays that we may all be one, it doesn’t mean we all have to be the same. It means knowing our distinctive differences, we can listen to and understand each other, and know how to live with each other along with all our differences. And work together for the good of the world beyond ourselves.
What a powerful witness it is to the gospel, when we live as fellowships of reconciliation, sharing what we have, and coming together as one for the sake of a shared love of the world God loves – living into Jesus’s prayer for us, that we may be one.
Rev Denise Liersch