Wednesday, September 15, 2021


 A Missiological and Ecclesiological Perspective

 At the outset I like to thank the Church of South India Synod for organizing this three-day consultation in the CSI Jaffna Diocese from 12-14 April 2012.  I am happy that the Directors of three Departments of the CSI Synod viz. Pastoral Concerns, Ecumenical Relations & Ecological Concerns and Mission & Evangelism are with us to help direct the programme.

The topic chosen for our deliberation is the theme of the XXXIII Session of the Church of South India Synod held in Kanya Kumari, Tamil Nadu, India from 13-16 January 2012.  This is the topic that guides this great church in this biennium 2012-14.

The Theme

The theme has two sections viz. IN GOD’S WORLD and CALLED TO BE ONE.    First of all, the phrase “In God’s World” urges all to think clearly that all live in a world that belongs to God.  The doxological assertion made in Psalm 24 is one of the most sweeping assertions of “creation theology” in the entire Bible.

Specifically, the psalm begins with an inverted word order which is not reflected in English translation.  “To Yahweh belongs the earth,” its inhabitants, its fullness.  It is all Yahweh’s property and possession, deriving its life from Yahweh’s generosity and in return living its life for Yahweh in glad gratitude.  In the Hebrew text the psalm’s first word is a prepositional phrase that designates possession: “The LORD’s is the earth.”  The first two verses of Psalm 24 identify the “owner” of the world.  This statement preempts any rival claims. The confession has a polemical function.  The declaration that the Lord is the owner is an intentional denial that anyone else is.   Thus, the theological affirmation of creation has the practical political effect of countering any political ambition to absolutism or ultimacy.

The reason the world belongs wholly to Yahweh is that it was a safe, dry place in the midst of the waters of chaos.  Yahweh is the sole possessor of creation, because only Yahweh had the capacity and will to order chaos in ways that made worldly life possible.  All of life belongs to Yahweh, because only Yahweh could permit, authorize, and evoke life.

Hence this Psalm clearly makes one understand that human beings are not the owners but are called to be stewards or trustees of God’s creation.  The first section of the theme does indeed speak of a mandate, a God-given mandate for human beings to responsibly till and keep the earth and to live in harmonious relationship with all of God’s creation.

The Priestly Prayer of Jesus

The second section of the theme, “Called To Be One” brings to mind of the many years of ecumenical deliberation that unity is integral or essential part of Christian faith.  “The central calling of the ecumenical movement is the quest for the unity of the church,” said Emilio Castro.[1]   When one takes the ‘Priestly Prayer’ of Jesus as recorded in John 17, it is obvious that when Jesus prayed for the unity of his followers, he first offers before all the principle cause of unity as the model of unity for his disciples.  First Jesus prayed for those who took on his work in the world (17. 7-19).  Later, he prayed for those would come to believe through that work (vv. 20-23).  “Father,” “I pray not only for these, but for those who through their words will believe in me.  May they all be one.  Father, may they be one in us, as you are in me and I am in you, so that the world may believe it was you who sent me” (John 17. 20-21).  The contrast brought forth between “these” and “those” is not between the first generation of believers and all future generation of believers but between those in any generation who already believe and those who do not believe but may come to believe on account of the witness of the faith community.

A careful study of this passage will reveal that verses 20-23 consist of a central intercession in verses 20-21 and its elaboration in verses 22-23.  It further demonstrates that 17.21 while it is complex it contains four dependent clauses.  A Greek reader knows that verses 20 and 21 are one sentence in the Greek text.  “That they may all be one” is the first dependent clause and is Jesus’ core prayer for the unity of the faith community.  Jesus prays that those who come to believe in him will share in the same communal identity as those who brought them to faith.  The definition of this unity is supplied by the second dependent clause, “just as” (kaqws).  The unity for which Jesus prays is not intrinsic to the community itself, but derives from the primal unity of the Father and Son for the community to be “one” means they mirror the mutuality and reciprocity of the Father/Son relationship.  The third dependent clause, “that they may also be in us” in verse 21 shows that this unity will be more than simple mirroring.  The community will experience ‘oneness’ because they share in the mutuality and the reciprocity of the Father/Son relationship.  The community’s oneness, as envisaged by Jesus in this verse, never stands apart from Father/Son relationship.  The purpose of the community’s oneness is demonstrated in the fourth and final dependent clause in verse 21.   This oneness will offer a witness to the world about the revelation of God in Jesus.  Here Jesus prays that through the community’s unity, the world will come to believe what the community already believes, that Jesus is the one in whom God has sent.

Three important assertions can be made here.  The first being, as mentioned earlier, the fact that Jesus prays that his followers may be one as Jesus himself is one with his Father.  The Trinity, therefore, is the highest form of unity to which all Christians are called.  Such Trinitarian unity is not uniformity but means unity in the diversity of persons and diversity in unity.  The Trinitarian unity is an expression that “God is love” (cf. 1 John 4. 8, 16).  Thus the unity of the church has to be defined as communion in faith, worship and love.  Secondly, the unity Jesus prays for is not our own work but a divine gift, which is already given in and through Jesus Christ.  In him we already are one by the one Spirit.  Hence unity is a gift from the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit.  But at the same time unity is an obligation.  It is given as a task.  This obligation is founded in the ‘new commandment’ Jesus gave his followers, “A new command I give you: You love one another.  All men will know that you are my disciples if you love one another” (John 13. 34-35).  The third assertion is that when Jesus prays, “May they be in us so that the world may believe that you have sent me” (17.21) and “That they may become perfectly one, so that the world may know that you sent me and have loved them even as you loved me” (17.23), he indicates how he shares the glory, the divine unity of the Holy Trinity with human beings, and what consequences flow from their receiving that gift as live that same life on the human level.  All of Jesus’ followers must come together in perfect visible unity, so that the world may see in them a visible sign to the world, offered as authentic witness of their faith in Jesus Christ.  The search for unity and the mission to evangelize belong inseparably together.

Call to be One – Search for the visible unity

The quest for unity involves a concerted effort to overcome great ecclesiological and doctrinal differences which are rooted in the history of the church.  With the establishment of the World Council of Churches (WCC) in the year 1948, the aspirations and efforts for unity received a new and effective instrument.  Accordingly, the first constitutional function of the WCC is “to call the churches to the goal of visible unity in one faith and in one Eucharistic fellowship expressed in worship and in common life in Christ, and to advance towards that unity in order that the world may believe.[2],[3]   It became quite evident that on the one hand people have to be together and grow together and move forward together because of the prayer of Jesus Christ in whom they are already one.  On the other hand, it was acknowledged that the unity people discern was not sufficient to enable them to partake together at the common table of the Lord or recognize each other’s ministries or mutual reality as churches.[4]   According to Emilio Castro, former General Secretary of WCC and a Missiologist from Uruguay people may differ about their claims of each of their churches to be the repository of that tradition.  But they must affirm that the unity of the church in God exists as something made evident in a pilgrim people who celebrate, serve, and confess one and the same faith, one and the same love and one and the same worship.

Michael Root has said, the unity of the church is deeper and more resilient than its divisions.[5]    Hence the real task of ecumenism in the 21st century is to make a difference together through building further upon what has already been achieved in terms of unity.  As such a critical self-reflection becomes mandatory.  When one focuses on Trinitarian unity that person needs to understand the dialectics of “togetherness” and “the problem of the translation of Trinitarian unity into contemporary practice.”   The Trinity has provided a strong theological grounding for the development of koinoniaecclesiologies with their emphasis on ‘unity in diversity.’  The notion of perichoresis meaning ‘mutual interpenetration’ has aided the process of referring to the inter-relationship of the three persons of the Trinity.  This idea is well expressed through the image of a “community of being” that while allowing the individuality of the three persons of the Trinity, insists that each shares in the life of the other two.[6]  It is important to know the critical comment raised by a Yale theologian Miroslav Volf in his After Our Likeness: The Church as the Image of the Trinity, “Today the thesis that ecclesial communion should correspond to Trinitarian communion enjoys the status of an almost self evident position.   Yet it is surprising that no one has carefully examined just where such correspondences are to be found, nor expended much effort on determining where ecclesial communion reaches the limits of its capacity for such an analogy.  The result is that reconstructions of these correspondences often say nothing more than the platitude that unity cannot exist without multiplicity nor multiplicity without unity, or they demand of human beings in the church the (allegedly) completely selfless love of God.  The former is so vague that no one cares to dispute it, and the latter so divine that no one can live it.”[7] 

The translation of the Trinitarian unity into Praxis

There are few ways in which the Trinitarian challenge can be translated into praxis.  Firstly, the World Council of Churches’ final statement from its consultation “Ecumenism in the 21st Century” not only duly recognizes that Christian unity is ontologically derived from the unity of the Triune God as expressed in the prayer of Jesus in John 17.21 but also discerns a sense of urgency to recognize the imperative “to transform our self-centered mentality into selfless love for the other and the society of which we are a part.”[8]     The Trinity has the capacity to transform our self-centered mentality by redefining our personhood in a highly interdependent and relational way, which can act as a powerful critique of the modern tendency to understand personhood in individualistc and privatized terms.[9]   Secondly, the translation of the Trinitarian analogy into practice should take the form of change in attitude rather than a mere strategic change of stance.  One is called to discern that an attitude is permanent while a stance is temporal.  One needs to take to heart the epistemological shift from the epistemology of division to the epistemology of difference.  An epistemological primacy of difference is sought for.  The epistemology of difference offers respectful ‘space’ for the otherness of others and confers on the other the difference that matters without subsuming it.  It is of pertinence to observe what the Britain’s Chief Rabbi Jonathan Sacks has said in his book The Dignity of Difference, “because God creates difference, it is in one-who-is-different that we meet God.”[10]   One needs to constantly affirm the importance of conversation that necessarily implies speaking one’s fears, listening to others, and in that sharing of vulnerabilities discovering a genesis of hope.[11]   Rabbi Jonathan Sack goes on to emphasize the need to listen and be prepared to be surprised by others when he says, “We must make ourselves open to their stories, which may profoundly conflict with ours.  We must even at times, be ready to hear of their pain, humiliation and resentment and discover that their image of us is anything but our image of ourselves.  We must learn the art of conversation, from which truth emerges not, as in Socratic dialogues, by the refutation of falsehood but from the quite different process of letting our world be enlarged by the presence of others who think, act, and interpret reality in ways radically different from our own.”[12]

The translation of Trinitarian unity in our practical lives entails the challenge of what the Cambridge scholar David Ford considers as “being guests and hosts.”  He says, “It has the host’s responsibility for home making, the hard work of preparation, and the vulnerability of courteously offering something while having little control over its reception.  It also has the different responsibility of being a guest, trying to be sensitive to strange households, learning complex codes and risking new food and drink.  Ideally, habitual hospitality gives rise to trust and friendship in which exchanges can plumb the depths of similarity, difference and suffering.”[13]


We confess “one Lord, one Faith, one God and Father of all,” yet sadly, this unity is not visible, neither to ourselves nor to those to whom we are called to bear witness.  Our disunity undermines our common witness.  Our vision of unity is not directed toward the construction of an impersonal superstructure but rather toward the sharing of spiritual resources, concrete collaboration in serving humanity, seeking news structures to promote Christian unity and, most of all, the recognition of one another as being faithful communities of Christ’s disciples.  We long for the day when all can sit together at God’s table to share the Lord’s Supper.  We also realize that our deeper obligation of mutual love need not wait for its full liturgical expression.  We need to explore the paths to express our agape in order to bring closer the day of full fellowship around a common table.  Such fellowship is foreshadowed in the biblical understanding of ‘hospitality,’ which is an image of both the mission and unity of the Church (cf. Luke 9. 1-6).  Hospitality cannot be demanded.  It can only be offered and then be accepted or rejected.  In the mission of hospitality, we are both guests and hosts, gathered in a community of faith as equal disciples.  The notions of proclamation, Church and unity are brought together in an understanding of hospitality in which the gospel becomes credible and communion takes place and human unity is restored.

Hence unity means healing and wholeness.  Jesus came with power to subject the spirits of evil, to reconcile to himself the Jew and the Gentile, the rich and the poor, the young and the old, woman and man.  Jesus brought liberation where there was subjection, joy where there was sadness, health where there was sickness, fullness of life where death has held sway.  This is still the mission of the Church.  This is the great mission to heal humanity’s wounds, to unshackle the oppressed, to relieve the burdens of history and to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.

Despite all that divides us, we dare to speak of our common witness, a witness in unity and solidarity with all humankind.  Let us reaffirm our commitment to move beyond confessional differences and the social barriers of our own making.

[1]Emilio Castro, A Passsion For Unity, Essays on ecumenical hopes and challenges, WCC Publications, Geneva, 1992, p.1.

[2] Dictionary of the Ecumenical Movement, 2nd Edition, (Eds.) Geoffrey Wainright, John S. Pobee, Jose Miguez Bonino, Nicholos Lossky, Pauline Webb, Tom F. Stransky, WCC Publications, p. 1171

[3] Also read, G. Gassmann & H. Meyer, The Unity of the Church: Requirements and Structures, Geneva, LWF, 1983

[4] Emilio Castro, Ibid, p.1.

[5] Michael Root, “Ecumenical Theology”, in David F. Ford (ed.), The Modern Theologians: An Introduction to Christian Theology in the Twentieth Century, (2nd edn.), Blackwell, Oxford, 1997, p. 538.

[6] John Webster, “The Human Person”, in Kevin J. Vanhoozer (ed.,) The Cambridge Companion to Postmodern Theology, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 2003p. 232.

[7] Miroslav Volf, After Our Likeness: The Church as the Image of the Trinity, William B. Eerdmans, Grand Rapids, Michigan, 1998, p. 191.

[8] See Gen 11 Final statement from the Consultation Ecumenism in the 21st Century, Chavannes-de-Bogis, Switzerland, 30 November to 3 December 2004.

[9] Jonathan Sacks, The Dignity of Difference, Continuum, London, 2002, p. 58

[10] Jonathan Sacks, Dignity of Difference, p.59

[11] Ibid., p. 2.

[12] Ibid., p. 23.

[13] David F. Ford, “Epilogue: Christian Theology at the Turn of the Millennium”, in Ford (ed.), The Modern Theologians, p. 727.

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