Sermon - Sunday, 20 January 2019

The following sermon was delivered by the Very Reverend Dr Russell Barr on Sunday, 20 January 2019.

Scripture: 1 Corinthians 12: 1-11 / John 17: 1-11

Text: Jesus said, Holy Father, protect them by the power of Your name, the name You gave me, so that they may be one as we are one                          (John 17: 11)


What does it mean to be ecumenical – and why does it matter?

Growing up in the west coast of Scotland, if I was told someone was in a mixed marriage, it meant their partner was Roman Catholic.

And if I was told someone belonged to a different religion, it meant that person was Roman Catholic.

And I could be quite sure in either case it didn’t mean the spouse or the person was Baptist or Methodist or Episcopalian or Free Church; they were Roman Catholic – and that was a different religion!

My primary school, Loanhead Primary, was immediately across the street from St Columba’s.

And the reason I attended Loanhead Primary and the children I could see playing in the playground across the street attended St Columba’s was because we belonged to a different religion.

Years later, sitting in a history tutorial class at university, I discovered the student sitting next to me came from Kilmarnock.

As we struck up conversation we learned we had been brought up a few streets from one another but as he had been a pupil at St Columba’s and then St Joseph’s, the Roman Catholic secondary school in the town, and I had attended Loanhead Primary and Kilmarnock Academy, the history tutorial class was the first time we had met.

And all because of a different religion!

If the issue of denominational and non-denominational schools has yet to be resolved, thankfully in so many other respects Scotland is a very different place.

Today many of us do indeed live and work beside people of different religious traditions – Muslim, Hindu, Jewish, Sikh – and I think Scotland is a richer and more interesting country as a consequence.

Meanwhile, within the Christian tradition, if they have not exactly disappeared, denominational boundaries have blurred considerably.

Over the years of my involvement with Fresh Start, the board included directors nominated from the various supporting Christian denominations – Church of Scotland, Roman Catholic, Scottish Episcopal, Baptist, Methodist, United Free, Free, Quaker.

Whatever the different ways we worshipped on a Sunday, at Fresh Start we were united in our common Christian commitment not to walk past on the other side of human need but to see what we could do to help people who had been homeless make a home for themselves.

Until his retirement, our former associate minister, Colin Douglas, was minister in Livingston as part of the Livingston Ecumenical Parish which brought together congregations of different denominations to work and worship together.

For more years than he now likes to remember, our present associate minister, Tom Cuthell, has been leading groups of pilgrims to Assisi in celebration of the life and ministry of St Francis.

And during his year of office as Moderator, my successor Derek Browning was invited to attend a private audience with Pope Francis.

Exchanging greetings on behalf of their respective communions, in the course of their conversations, the Moderator and the Pope affirmed that which they held in common.

Prayers connect us to God and the faith we profess said Derek, practical compassion empowers us to speak out for the marginalized in all our communities, and for the better stewarding of the creation that is entrusted to our care.

Acknowledging no one can become a Christian on their own or can live as a Christian without others, Pope Francis replied saying we belong to the family of believers, of so many of our brothers and sisters, who have begun to walk in newness of life through baptism and who accompany us along that same path.[1]

A different religion - whether it is the board of Fresh Start, Livingston Ecumenical Parish, pilgrimages to Assisi or a conversation between the Moderator and the Pope, here is what it looks like when we take seriously Jesus’ prayer,

Holy Father, protect them by the power of Your name,

the name You gave me,

so that they may be one as we are one

So what does it mean to be ecumenical – and why does it matter?

This is the week of prayer for Christian Unity.

Held every year between the 18th and 25th January, the feast day of St Peter and the birthday of Robert Burns, no, sorry, the conversion of St Paul, each year a church in a different part of the world is invited to produce worship material which is then offered for local adaptation.

This year the material has been produced by Christians in Indonesia.

The theme they have chosen is taken from a verse in Deuteronomy: Justice and justice only you shall pursue[2]

Once a rich and diverse country, living albeit in a fragile harmony, with a motto that translates as ‘Unity in Diversity’, Indonesia has become a divided society with rifts running along religious and ethnic lines.

Greed and corruption have led to a widening gap between rich and poor.

Faced with such growing inequality and division in society, as evidenced from the material they have produced, the churches in Indonesia have come to a renewed awareness not just of their calling to unity in Christ but of their need to work together to address the injustices that are damaging both the environment and the harmony of public life.

However they are also mindful of the way in which the church is complicit in the attitudes that feed injustice.

There is no room, they say, for self-righteousness.

At a time when there are so many examples of xenophobia and racism shaping attitudes across the world, including our own country, here is something for us to ponder.             

When people who have made their home among us for decades are made to feel unwelcome and are taunted in the streets and told to ‘go home’, it is important that the church speaks out.

It is also important that we acknowledge our own complicity.

As church members we are not immune from sharing attitudes that would ‘other’ those whom we perceive to be different.

Silence in the face of a growing hostile environment is complicity.

Our faith demands more of us.

And in this week of prayer for Christian Unity one of the things the Indonesian sisters and brothers remind us is the church is called to be a ‘foretaste of the kingdom of heaven’.

In other words, healing our divisions matters, for only then can we speak out with integrity against the injustices that feed the divisions within our society and among the nations of the world.

So what does it mean to be ecumenical?

Far from being an extra or something we do from time to time, being ecumenical is of the essence of what it means to be Christian. St Paul could not put it more clearly when, in his letter to the church at Corinth,  he speaks about there being different kinds of gifts but the same Spirit, different kinds of service but the same Lord, different ways of working but the same God.

Quite simply in the Christian tradition there is no different religion. Instead, as St Paul put it beautifully, there is one church, one faith, one Lord, one baptism, one God and Father who is over all and through all and in all [3]

Being ecumenical is of the essence of what it means to belong to the Church of Scotland.

Although at an official level much of the ecumenical life of our church is carried out through the work of the Committee on Ecumenical Relations, the Church of Scotland has always understood itself to be part of the one holy, catholic or universal church.

Being ecumenical is of the essence of what it means to belong to Cramond Kirk.

Although I was brought up in the Church of Scotland, I happen to know within our church are people who grew up in different Christian traditions.

Looking around the congregation this morning I see people whose background was Methodist or Free Church or Anglican or Episcopalian or Roman Catholic or Brethren or Baptist – but can you tell?

No, of course you can’t: and that is just the point, isn’t it, we are all one in Christ.

And why does being ecumenical matter?

At a time when the talk is of trade barriers and border walls and the divisions within society and among the nations of the world threaten to pull us further and further apart, it has never mattered more that, with Christian people the world over, we renew our commitment to the things we share in common - our passion for justice, our concern for creation, our faith in Jesus Christ as Saviour and Lord, the one who prayed and who still prays that his people may be one.  

Now unto him who is able to do exceedingly abundantly above all that we ask or think according to the power that worketh in us, unto him be glory in the church by Christ Jesus throughout all ages, world without end, Amen


[1] Report of the Committee on Ecumenical Relations, Church of Scotland General Assembly 2018, 5.2.1, 5.2.2

[2] Deuteronomy 16: 20

[3] Ephesians 4: 4-6