Full communion and the farewell discourse

June 3rd, 2019

Those of us following the Revised Common Lectionary during Eastertide have had several weeks with Jesus’ Farewell Discourse in the Fourth Gospel. It’s always struck me as a little strange that in the season of Easter, we do a rewind to the night before Jesus’ Passion and death, but in doing so, the RCL lays the groundwork for Ascension and Pentecost — Jesus’ departure and the giving of the Holy Spirit. On the fifth Sunday of Easter, we heard again Jesus’ new commandment, the same one we hear on Maundy Thursday after the washing of the disciples’ feet: “I give you a new commandment: Love each other. Just as I have loved you, so you also must love each other. This is how everyone will know that you are my disciples, when you love each other.” (John 13:34-35, CEB)

If there is a witness to the world that Christians have failed spectacularly at, it is this one. Much of Christian history is rife with division and strife, even to the point of executing those with differing beliefs. In this context, the modern ecumenical movement that started in the 20th century seems rather remarkable — that Christians would seek common theological ground and cooperation instead of further schisms.

For the past year, I have been part of a local dialogue between representatives from The United Methodist Church and the Episcopal Church around the proposal for full communion between our denominations. In the proposal document, A Gift to the World, it notes that, at the very least, the Methodists and Episcopalians never formally condemned each other (a rather low bar for living out the love and unity that Jesus urged for his disciples!). Earlier this month, the UMC Council of Bishops approved sending a resolution to the 2020 General Conference to approve the document. On the Episcopal Church side, there was some concern in the wake of this year’s General Conference decision with regard to LGBTQ+ individuals.

Whether or not the document is approved by both denominations and goes into effect, the process of interdenominational dialogue and fellowship has been a gift. My own ministry has been bolstered by both Methodist and Presbyterian publishing houses, and I frequently wonder what a 21st-century church would look like, in which our life-giving denominational distinctiveness is preserved but the institutional aspects were combined to support the spread of the gospel.

As much as we have discussed the document, our group has also prayed for one another, shared meals, and worshipped together. We have shared the ways that we have seen God working in our personal lives and in our ministries. While the document was the occasion for our gathering, I believe that the relationships built in the process will outlast the immediate relevance of the document.

Though we are ministers in different denominations, though we worship differently and hold slightly different theological commitments, we also see the gifts of one another’s traditions. Perhaps the unity and love that Christ prayed for on the eve of his death is better accomplished by small groups of lay and ordained ministers than by larger denominational bodies. And, just maybe, by this the world will know that we are disciples of Christ.

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