The Gospel for May 14th, 2017: “Last Supper Discourses”
Reflection: Ecumenism is Biblical
Sometimes I strive for a comprehensive, thematic reading of the gospel, and other times I choose to focus on a small part of the reading because it is important in its own right. The latter is the case with today’s gospel. Today’s reading contains a discussion between Jesus and his apostles at the last supper. Jesus is preparing them for the shock of His eventual departure, both in His death on the cross and in his ascension after the resurrection. Part of this dialogue is Jesus’ assurance that even with his departure as God-Made-Man, God will remain among His people as the Holy Spirit, or God-In-Spirit. During this discussion, Jesus makes a statement that I find an interesting case for ecumenism among the varying Christian churches and competing religious groups. He says, “In my Father’s house there are many dwelling places. If there were not, would I have told you that I am going to prepare a place for you?” (2).
The “many dwelling places” Jesus speaks of could mean many things. Perhaps He means a place for a select group of repented and confessed saints under the same roof as the place for angels and the triune God. But I cannot help but wonder if Jesus is speaking to the many varieties of Christians in the world, or even to the many varieties of God-fearing peoples on the planet. Could it be possible there is a dwelling for Catholics, Protestants, Evangelicals, Fundamentalists, or even Jews, Muslims, and Buddhists, to name a few? Could it be there is room for every person who opens his or her heart and surrenders to Jesus’ unselfish love of others, in spite of theological or dogmatic differences? For every one of these faiths are filled by a sinful people who are created by God and struggle with the press of the gospel to love one’s neighbor. One could even make the case that most, if not all, of these groups aspire to righteous worship of God and contain His inherent goodness as well.
This brings me back to the challenges of ecumenism. While this may seem paradoxical or contradictory to some, I wonder if Jesus intended that we would all worship in precisely the same way. It seems unlikely that the salvation of the diverse billions of God’s people would be through a one-size-fits all religion when we see Jesus reach out to some many in the gospels who were perceived as different and criticize the Pharisees who championed legalism over love. Could it be that when Jesus said, “For where two or three are gathered together in my name, there am I in the midst of them” (Matthew 18:20), He meant that believers might have to gather in smaller groups as a diverse people to worship their creator? Furthermore, could it be that in His Father’s house there are “many dwelling places” for these small groups of believers who by design are not meant to gather as a monolithic people, speaking in one voice, but rather in many smaller groups speaking “in our own tongues” (Acts 2: 1-11). Under such a paradigm, the triune God may still gather all those into one house built on His unselfish love for all His creation. Unity is only through God’s grace in such an explanation, consistent with God’s salvation plan through Christ’s resurrection.
I recognize this interpretation and the territory of ecumenism is fraught with the possibility for the destructive rationalization of selfish forms of worship and behavior that is not Jesus’ intent. I am uncomfortable writing about this for fear of providing justification for myself and others to reject God’s will. Yet, I cannot ignore the notion of how unlikely it seems that the way Jesus intends for us to love our enemies—especially when they are so different from us—is to attempt to convert them into a life that is just like our own. It seems like a prideful conceit that does not fit with how Jesus treated outsiders in the gospel. In addition, it seems even more unlikely when such attempts at conversion through human history have been used to justify violence against one’s enemies instead of love. Let me end this uncomfortable reflection with this thought. There are ecumenical projects in many churches and religious organizations throughout the world. Let us pay closer attention to their work and what they have to teach us about their efforts at dialogue and finding common ground. It is quite possible we may find God’s will at work in these efforts, which aims to teach humility before His creation, a humility that allows us to live peaceably under His roof.