Ecumenism rests on the conviction that there is one church whose members are deeply related to one another thanks to what God has done in Jesus Christ-no matter how strange we may seem to one another. The ecumenical task, to put it another way, is not to create unity but to make God’s gift visible. … I love the way that William Temple, great leader of the Anglican communion and the ecumenical movement, once put it: “Those who have nothing in common do not deplore their estrangement.” It is because we are one in Christ that we lament the scandal of competing denominations. It is because we have been commonly welcomed that we welcome one another, not just tolerate one another but welcome one another, ecumenically.
Of course, there are important theological differences (as well as cultural differences) that make Christians feel like strangers to one another. But the hard work of reaching a common mind is a consequence of our fundamental communion in Christ, not a prerequisite for it. Ecumenical dialogues often suggest that unity (communion) is dependent on our agreement-but this is simply a form of works righteousness. The logic of the gospel is not “if we love our neighbor, then God will love us.” Rather, “because God loves us, we are freed and empowered to love our neighbor.” In the same way, the logic of the ecumenical movement is not “if we agree, then we will have communion.” Rather, “because we are one in Christ, we are freed and empowered to seek common mind on those matters that have kept us apart.” Welcome one another because Christ has welcomed us. Then, work together on building up the body.
It is this theological insight that gives the movement its prophetic edge. U.S. Christians are bound in one fellowship with Cuban Christians and Iraqi Christians, whether we like it or not. Welcoming them is not an option on which we get to vote. Protestant Christians are related by blood to Catholic Christians, whether we recognize it or not. Welcoming the other is not our accomplishment, but our thankful response to the good news of God’s reconciliation. Rich Christians cannot say, “I have no need of you” to those who are poor. We are one body in Christ, and we are called to express that relationship through tangible acts of welcome–not charity but welcome.
— Michael Kinnamon, Welcoming the Stranger: Defining the Heart of the Ecumenical Movement April 10, 2000
Recognizing and welcoming God’s presence in the other in Jesus’ name (Matthew 18: 5).
Exodus 3: 1-17, The burning bush.
Psalm 34, The Lord saves the crushed in spirit.
Acts 9: 1-6, I am Jesus whom you are persecuting.
Matthew 25: 31-46, Jesus is present in our neighbor.
When God announced that he would liberate the people of Israel from slavery, leading them out of Egypt and into a land flowing with milk and honey, he made known his presence to Moses from within the burning bush which was never consumed by fire. Thus the people are assured of the presence of the God of their fathers: “I am who I am.” This is no distant, uncaring God but a presence and a person concerned with the fate of his chosen people. God would later confirm the nature of his being in the person of his son, Jesus Christ, who reminds us that we must become like little children if we wish to enter the kingdom! It is not in the great of this world that we should first seek Christ but in the innocence of little children (and those who have become like them in innocence and humility). In welcoming them into our midst, we welcome the Christ. Jesus gives us further assurance of his presence with us when we keep his word; when two or three come together in his name; and with those who are persecuted for his sake. Above all, as Christians who obey Jesus’ command at the last supper to “do this in remembrance of me,” – and although we might not agree on the exact nature of Jesus’ presence – we believe (at the very least) that he is present in our hearts and minds. As we feed the hungry, tend the sick, visit the prisoners, clothe the naked and welcome the stranger we also care for and welcome Jesus. The World Council of Churches was set up (in part) in 1948 in response to the urgent need for Christians to collaborate in the task of reconciliation and caring for those whose lives had been devastated by World War II. The diaconal and ecumenical task continues with as much urgency today. At the same time, theologians struggle to find the way towards greater unity within the church. Here too “stranger” is a key word. Jesus told us that we should love our neighbor in all his otherness. This clear instruction to recognize that the stranger, the other, belongs to Christ however different he or she may be is a fundamental clue as to how we can embrace and pursue the ecumenical task. If we recognize the presence of Christ in the stranger from another church tradition we need not fear him or his intentions. Instead we might learn from him and he from us. In this way, we advance along the road to unity. It is in our awareness of Jesus’ continuing presence in so many different ways that we recognize that he is indeed part of our lives. Not just a figure in history who taught us how we should live, but through the Holy Spirit he is present and active in the world today.
Eternal Father, grant us to recognize your presence among us in different ways that our desire for true community in our own churches and society may be increased, and our prayer for unity within the body of Christ, your church, may be ever more fervent. In Jesus’ name we pray, Amen.