Before I could go to seminary I had to obtain an undergraduate degree. So I enrolled at the University of British Columbia in their religious studies program. In order to obtain a degree in religious studies, we were required to study the religions of the world. My professors and classmates were Islamic, Hindu, Jewish, Christian, Buddhist, atheist, agnostic, and together we explored all sorts of religions, both ancient and modern. I remember registering in a course on ecumenism where I expected that we would study the various movements to restore unity to Christianity. We did that, but we also did so much more. We learned that ecumenism is not just about Christian unity. Ecumenism includes inter-faith dialogue.
During the course I was required to write papers on Hindu-Christian dialogue, as well as a paper concerning what was written about Jesus in the Islamic Qur’an. This course introduced me to the reality that unity does not mean uniformity. In his book entitled “Who Needs God”, Rabbi Harold Kushner writes: “Religion is not primarily a set of beliefs, a collection of prayers, or a series of rituals. Religion is first and foremost a way of seeing. It can’t change the facts about the world we live in, but it can change the way we see those facts, and that in itself can often make a real difference.”
Sadly, over the centuries the religions of the world have shaped the way we see people whose religious practices are different than our own in ways that have made it possible for us to pre-judge our neighbours. Studying the religions of the world broadened my horizons and I actually began to believe that at long last I had escaped the prejudices that were bred into me.
During my second winter at seminary, one of my professors asked me if I would be interested in attending a meeting that was being held by members of a Pentecostal church that she was studying. I had only ever attended one Pentecostal service before, and that service had made me very uncomfortable. The level of energy and excitement was amazing. There was lots of shouting and jumping about. People waving their arms about and yelling “Praise the Lord”. Alleluia, Praise Jesus.
Based on that one experience and what I had read in books or had seen on television about Pentecostals, I had made all sorts of assumptions about what Pentecostals were like. To be honest I would have to say, that I would not have agreed to attend the meeting if the only thing that I knew about this congregation was that they were Pentecostal. What really attracted me was that the congregation was made up of Caribbean Canadians. I wanted to hear just how that old that old time gospel music would sound with a calypso beat.
It was explained to me that the congregation was inviting white people to meet with them because some of their members were concerned that their congregation was entirely black and they felt the need to reach out to the white community to become a more inclusive church. So my professor, who was studying their community, was asked to invite some of her students to attend a small group meeting.
The meeting was held in the home of a lay leader of the church and it was there that I met Verna for the first time. Verna greeted us at her door with a warm embrace. Inside we met half a dozen members of the church and their pastor. After the introductions were complete, Verna began the discussion with the question, “What is Christianity today, for you?”.
The question struck fear into my heart. Images of enthusiastic testimonials began to cloud my vision. All of the assumptions I had made about Pentecostals were swimming around in my brain. I was convinced that no matter how I answered the question it would not be the answer that they wanted to hear. Fortunately, a fellow student was asked to answer first and I had some time to think.
When my turn came I said something about Christianity being relational. I remember trying to keep my answer rather vague, so as not to offend. Even though, I sensed some dissatisfaction with my answer, I was relieved when my turn was over. Then one by one, others in the room gave their replies. Several other questions were posed and as the conversation continued I began to relax. By the end of our conversation we were sharing funny stories with one another.
Before the evening was over, my professor mentioned that I was scheduled to preach for the first time, at the seminary chapel the following day. I told the group how nervous I was about preaching for the first time in front of my peers and my professors. The group encouraged me with some kind words. Before the evening was over, we all joined hands and began to pray. It was like no other prayer I had ever been part of. Prayers darted from one person to the other. Bodies swayed back and forth. Different prayers were offered up at the same time. A rumbling went out from and came back into the group. Finally Verna prayed that I might be anointed with the Spirit to preach the next day. Then they were all praying that I might be anointed. The prayer seemed to sway back and forth in the small circle that we had become. Then just as it built in intensity, it was over and it was time to share some food and drink before going our separate ways.
Before we left, our hostess, Verna confirmed that she would be attending the chapel service the following day. I was pleased that Verna was planning to come, but it also made me very nervous. You see, I was really starting to like Verna, but the sermon that I planned to preach the next day was not a sermon that I thought Verna would approve of. I had written what I thought to be a radically feminist sermon about the anointing of Christ by the unnamed woman. I convinced myself that as a Pentecostal, Verna would be too conservative to appreciate the nuances of my sermon. I was also worried that some of what I had too say would offend Verna.
The passage on which I had based my sermon, ends with Jesus response to the woman’s act of anointing him with oil. Jesus said that, “Wherever the gospel is preached in the whole world, what she has done will be told in memory of her”. However, the gospel writer has failed to mention the woman’s name and her identity has been lost to us. So I began my sermon by stating that, “Jesus was wrong.”
When I wrote my sermon I assumed that I would be preaching to an in house crowd. I was deliberately trying to provoke my seminary colleagues into thinking beyond the traditional interpretations of the text. I was nervous about the radical nature of my sermon. I was nervous about preaching for the first time in front of the preaching professor. I was nervous about preaching in the midst of so many gifted preachers. But none of this compared to how worried I was about how Verna would respond to the sermon. I made all sorts of assumptions about how her theology and her piety would dictate how she would respond. I never once looked passed Verna the Pentecostal to see Verna the woman.
When I got up to read the gospel lesson, I could see Verna’s smiling face encouraging me from a front pew. But, I was convinced that she wouldn’t be smiling for long. My knees were shaking and I tried to remember to breath as I stumbled through the gospel lesson. Then I took a deep breath and launched into what, for various reasons, I thought might just be my last sermon. In a loud voice, before God and everyone, I boldly declared, “Jesus was wrong”.
To my surprise, Verna said, out loud, “that’s right child”. You preach it sister!” Her smile beamed encouragement, so I carried on. From time to time Verna would continue to shout out, “that’s right child” or “preach it sister” “Amen” “Praise the Lord” and all the while Verna nodded her head and smiled encouragingly. After a while, the history professor, decided to join in the action and added his shouts of Amen to Verna’s. Before long several others, ever so quietly joined in what was for us a foreign practice. There they were, died in the wool Lutherans, shouting out in church.
But as remarkable as their outbursts where, it was Verna who provided me with my biggest surprise that day. Before my sermon was over, Verna had shattered all my assumptions about her. For the first time I began see Verna. Not the image of Verna which I had created based upon my assumptions about Caribbean-Canadian Pentecostals. But Verna, just as she is in the world. Verna my sister in Christ. I know that there are things about my theology that she probably doesn’t agree with. Just as there are things about her theology that I don’t agree with. But our relationship was not based on what we might disagree over. It was based on what we share together.
The Apostle Paul says that we are ambassadors for Christ. The dictionary defines ambassador as someone who is an authorized representative or messenger. It is not easy to be an ambassador. All too often our assumptions about others get in the way. Sometimes our imperfect understanding of the one whom we claim to represent gets in the way. I do not claim to know how to be an ambassador for Christ. I can only aspire to be an ambassador. But sometimes I have seen an ambassador for Christ. In Verna’s encouraging smile, I saw the one whom she represented. And maybe that’s how we do it: one person at a time, one action at a time.
Over the years, I have paid close attention to ecumenical dialogue. I have watched as religion continues to tear the world apart. I have mourned the deaths of friends and relatives who have been killed in the city that once was my home. I have listened as denominations argue over how best to achieve Christian unity. And we have all experienced the lack of unity in our own Evangelical Lutheran Church in Canada as the conservative folks among us dig their heels in and we progressives insist on dragging the church into the 21st century. We are no closer to achieving Christian unity on the denominational level and so we must echo the prayer for unity that we heard Jesus pray. The writer of the Gospel of John puts this prayer on the lips of Jesus as part of what is called Jesus’ farewell discourse. On the night before he dies, Jesus asks that we may be made one. Sometimes called the high priestly prayer it is often used by those who seek Christian unity. Perhaps the writer of the Gospel of John had Christian unity in mind when he wrote his gospel to the fledgling Christian community at the turn of the first century. But I believe there is a lesson for us here in the 21st century that goes way beyond the desire for Christian unity. Jesus prays that the children of God may all be made one—that we may be made perfect in unity. I don’t believe that prayer works because of a so-called all powerful, supernatural being that we call God just happens to be listening and deigns to grant our wish. I believe that prayer works on our own hearts, calming us enough to hear the wisdom of God that lives in us. By working in us, and opening us to the Spirit of God that lives and breathes in with and through us, prayer has the power to transform us. Prayer can reroute habits and habitual responses. Prayer helps us to find good in all that we can not change and to see the light in each person, no matter how difficult they may be in our lives, or how different and strange the may seem to us. Prayer working in us has the power to change us and in doing so, prayer has the power to change the world.
The prayer that the writer of John has Jesus pray is about so much more than unity or sameness or church union. This prayer is a radical re-imagining. Re-imagining of the world as a place where sharing instead of hoarding is the norm where enough food even for a day is better than no food, where harmony instead of discord is healthy, where peace instead of war is a reality. The prayer prayed by John’s Jesus was an invitation for John’s congregation to be inspired to re-imagine a way of being in the world. It is also an invitation for us, here and now. It is an invitation for us to let the prayer work in, with and through us so that we can begin to re-imagine the world. If we look to the one we are to represent as ambassadors, we see Jesus: Jesus who told us to love our neighbour as our self, Jesus who calls us out of ourselves. out of our assumptions, out of our carefully held views and opinions, Jesus who calls us out of our denominational commitments and bids us love one another, Jesus who taught us that love is not something we can just talk about. Jesus who expressed love as action. Jesus who calls us to put our love into action. Jesus who carefully explained to us that he has “other sheep that do not belong to this fold”. Jesus who did not tell us to only love our Christian neighbours as ourselves.
If we are to be Christ’s ambassadors, how best can we represent Christ? How best can we be ambassadors for Christ to our Islamic brothers and sisters, to our Jewish brothers and sisters, to our Buddhist brothers and sisters, to our Hindu, Sieke, atheist, agnostic, and Christian sisters and brothers? How best can we be ambassadors for Christ? Maybe by following Christ and meeting our sisters and brothers one person at a time and responding to them one at a time with acts of love. Maybe then we will be able to see that in Christ there is a new creation. That everything old has passed away — everything! Everything has become new.
It’s not easy, I know, for I have many powerful assumptions of my own. But, perhaps by the power of prayer the Holy Spirit can work in with and through us so that we can become ambassadors for Christ. So, in the words of Jesus high-priestly prayer, let me just remind you, that: Christ has revealed God’s holy name to you and will continue to reveal it so that the love God has for Christ may live in you.”
Let us continue to pray that we may be made perfect in unity, so that we may be made one and as one we will finally learn to love our neighbours as we love ourselves; not just some of our neighbours, but all of our neighbours. As my friend Verna might say. “Praise the Lord! Alleluia! Praise Jesus. Alleluia! Can I get an Amen?”
In Star and Crescent: Words: Mary Louise Bringle; Music: arranged by Marney Curran