Telling the stories of the Anglican Church in Aotearoa, NZ and Polynesia

We are many, we are one

Here's the unedited text of the sermon preached by the Rev Prince Devanandan at the closing worship of the Indigenous Global Ecumenical Gathering - and WCC 70th anniversary celebration.

Rev Prince Devanandan  |  23 Jul 2018

We are observing and celebrating a significant milestone in the life of the ecumenical movement. The beginnings of the World Council of Churches can be traced to the early part of the 20th century. It became a constituent body in 1948 with the first assembly in Amsterdam. In 2018, we are marking the 70th anniversary.

The council that started with the then Archbishop of Canterbury declaring “we are committing to stay together.” Began with 147 member churches has now grown to be a global body of 349 member churches. On the one hand, we celebrate the increased numbers. On the other hand, we must be sad for the number of divisions in the body of Christ because, we are living in a world where Christless Christianity is becoming the way for many people.

What do I mean by Christ-less Christianity? On 15 of June 2018, Keith Giles wrote in a Blog Post. “Just in case you’re not paying attention, American Christianity is a Christless Christianity. We demand the Ten Commandments to be displayed in our courthouses, but we never give a thought to Jesus’s Sermon on the Mount. We justify our cruelty to immigrants by quoting random passages from Paul’s letter to the Romans, but skip over dozens of commands from Jesus about showing mercy, caring for the weak and vulnerable, and totally ignore his warning that “whatever you have done for the least of these, you have done it to me.”

In this context of a growing Christless Christianity, you and I are trying to be the light bearers of Christ Jesus. The very thing that lacks in our bearing the Christ-light is our weakness of being many. We are many. We are many denominations, many churches, many theologies, and beliefs. Besides the handful of historic churches, church has become a private enterprise. Anyone can start a church or choose to go to a church that will fulfil his or her expectations. It is like ‘what food we have for dinner? Chinese, Indian, Vietnamese, Italian, or KFC. So it is with the church.

One can choose the Christ of his or taste. We cannot see the words “Kentucky Fried Christ,” but it is there for your taste. Amidst this reality, we are striving to do what Jesus prayed [John 17:20-21]: [20] “that they may all be one. As you, Father, are in me and I am in you, may they also be in us, so that the world may believe that you have sent me.”

Year after year the census indicate there are more people leaving the church by death or otherwise. Number of Christians decreasing by 2 percent per year. That does not mean people give up faith. They have, but no faith in the church.

We are many churches. The fundamental question we need to ask is from where did these many divisions come. Did we who accepted to be Christians divide the church like these? Alternatively, did we inherit the already divided denominations from Europe? It is the latter. When the missionaries came, they brought with them their brand of the church and built replicas of what they had back in Europe rather than presenting Christ to the newly found lands. We are formed to be Christians in those moulds. We are unable to be one for the world to believe. Therefore, we have 349 churches as members in the WCC and another 3490 plus churches outside the WCC. Are we doing what Jesus prayed or are we selling KFC – Kentucky Fried Christ?

Let me share story of a Christian unity movement that predates the WCC. Azariah of Dornakal was a South Indian Evangelist. He formed the Indian Missionary Society of Tirunelveli in 1903. He was invited to address the 1910 World Mission Conference in Edinburgh.

He began with a statement: “The problem of race relationship is one of the most serious problems confronting the church today… Too often you promise us thrones in heaven, but will not offer us chairs in your drawing rooms.”

It was a problem of the superiority of the missionaries and the inferiority of those evangelised. How is it today? You make your own decisions. Azariah went on to say “The exceeding riches of the glory of Christ can be fully realised not by the Englishman, the American, the Continental alone, nor by the Japanese, the Chinese, and the Indians by themselves—but by all working together, worshipping together, and learning together the perfect image of our Lord and Christ.”

Azariah not only called for the followers of Christ to work together, worship together and learn together, he worked hard to form the first united church in the world—the Church of South India. Four different church traditions Anglican, Congregational, Presbyterian and Methodist came together in the CSI. All these churches had been established in India through the missionary work of churches in Europe, America and Australia, which had started their work in India at different periods from the beginning of the 18th century. The Church of South India as it exists today came into being with the perseverance and committed efforts of Rev. Vedam Santiago, and Bishop Azariah. The union ceremony happened at St George's Cathedral in Madras on 27 September 1947, a month after India achieved its independence from the United Kingdom.

Azariah was insisting that the riches of the glory of God in Christ will be appropriated by the Church only if all the saints inter-relate in Christian fellowship. In other words when we live and do Jesus’ prayer of “[23] I in them and you in me, that they may become completely one, so that the world may know that you have sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me.” Only then, we will be able to make the world to believe, we will succeed bringing the presence of Jesus back into our Christianity.

We are many, we are legions as the demoniac describes in Mark’s gospel. In addition to being different churches, we have other divisions within. It is not changing the colour of our skins to become one race, but how do we change our attitudes towards one another. Being many is not something that we must do away with. We need the rich diversity, with the richness of our diversity how can we be one. In Aotearoa Collin Gibson wrote the words that describes being one accurately:

We are many, we are one, and the work of Christ is done, when we learn to live in true community; as the stars that fill the night, as a flock of birds in flight, as the cluster of the grapes upon the vine. In Aotearoa, we have to cross the boundaries of Maori, Pakeha, Polynesian, and Asian in order to be one in Christ so that Aotearoa may believe that God sent Jesus Christ.

Over 70 years WCC has brought 349 churches under its wings, but the journey ahead seems too long. How many of them will form unions to bring this number down to one Holy, Catholic and Apostolic Church? Though we are many, if we can work together as one, we will achieve this. If not we cease to exist on earth.

Let us thank God for the 70 years in which the work of WCC began as Faith and Order and Life and Work. Today we struggle and strive to maintain the unity of the church in order to serve the unity of creation. Besides, the work in the Pilgrimage of Justice and Peace is a prophetic call to seek God’s ways to resolve conflicts and restore justice.

As we thank God for these achievements let us dedicate ourselves to live and work on Jesus Christ’s prayer of “they may become completely one, so that the world may know that you have sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me.”

“Righteous God, the world does not know you, but Jesus knows you; and we know that you have sent him. He made your name known to us. We pray, so that the love with which you have loved Jesus may be in us, and Jesus with us” so the world may believe you sent Jesus.