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Washing Each Other’s Dishes (for Christian Unity): Sunday, January 22, 2023

The Third Sunday after Epiphany
The Week of Prayer for Christian Unity
Isaiah 9:1-4
1 Corinthians 1:10-18
Matthew 4:12-23

Bookended between two big feasts of the Church calendar — the Confession of St. Peter and the Conversion of St. Paul — comes The Week of Prayer for Christian Unity. It’s existed within one Church body for over 100 years, and then extended to lots of other churches when the World Council of Churches was founded in the middle of the 20th century. What it means… is probably different for different people. I think it’s good to get a little reminder to have it as some sort of focus in our prayers (and sermons). There might be some interesting posts or articles on the internet and social media. I’ve engaged friends from other denominations for sermons and written reflections in the past. (I was a bit late to find someone this year.) And sometimes there are ecumenical services that take place, or engagement with resources that have been put together. Sometimes they’re quite good, but I find that by the time that I know (or remember) about these things, it’s too late to plan something well. But there’s always a sermon.

But even if we haven’t attended any special services, or been in study groups, it is a gift to be given that gentle nudge to give some thought (and prayer) to how we exist in a sort of quilt of Christian relationships, and how we’re called to a visible unity that shows the world something of the love of God. (Even if that quilt is a bit frayed, imperfectly sewn, and in need of a good wash.)

Our bulletin mentions, at the back, that the Eucharistic Prayer (the long one we don’t use too often) was created by a group consisting of Anglicans, Presbyterians, Methodists, Lutherans, and Roman Catholics; and ultimately based upon a much older prayer coming from the Christian East. We have hymns today that come to us from Presbyterians, someone from the Free Church of Scotland (more Presbyterian than Presbyterian!), and the United Reformed Church in the UK. Beethoven, from our second hymn, was Roman Catholic, though a sporadic attendee, though that’s not uncommon in most church traditions. Ralph Vaughan Williams who wrote I think two of the hymn tunes we’re hearing today, was an agnostic. And our last hymn this morning is derived from a poem (or creed or hymn) in Paul’s Letter to the Philippians, which might even pre-date him, so we’re going way back to two or three decades after the Crucifixion.

And think back to your last week or two; you’ve surely had some sort of engagement with Christians, and even Christians from other churches. Some of these may have even been good interactions(!). At a nursing home a few days ago I had a long conversation with a United Church minister while we awaited our Covid test results. A staff member from the home had met us at the door, and proudly described his church that used to meet in a shopping mall. A retirement home with a Lutheran connection has been in touch with me, in conversation about helping with services there. I sent a colleague some requested stewardship resources; one of which was from the United Church of Canada. I received a commentary on The Gospel of Matthew written by Stanley Hauerwas; a United Methodist theologian. I’m auditing a course on Monday nights from Knox College, the Presbyterian seminary at U of T. I had a meeting concerning Trinity College alumni, and an interesting development there is that many of our current and future alumni will be coming not so much from Anglican backgrounds, but from Eastern and Oriental Orthodox affiliations, due to some fairly recent program and course offerings. A couple weeks ago I received a card from my Roman Catholic friend Fiona, who helped me lead a workshop recently. And here at St. Andrew’s, our Thursday night service online often includes a Mennonite and a United Church minister, and in-person here, on some Friday and Saturday evenings, you’ll find Indian Orthodox and Pentecostal congregations (holding very differently-styled services).

I wonder what you would add to that list, for yourself? A conversation you had. A chaplain you met. A book you read. Or a program or televised service you watched.

And this past week while all of this was happening, news comes from our cousins in the Church of England: some developments regarding views and resources regarding sexuality and marriage, and not everyone is happy underneath that big tent. It goes too far for some. It doesn’t go far enough for others. Sometimes Christian unity comes hardest within a particular Church. I mean, you probably rarely get into arguments with your friends. But you probably do with your brothers and sisters, especially when living under the same roof.

“It has been reported to me by Chloe’s people that there are quarrels among you,” writes St. Paul to the Corinthians. We have successfully preserved that nearly 2000 year old tradition of quarrelling, haven’t we? The Corinthians were apparently a pretty messed up lot. They’ve got not just one, but two letters that they necessitated — and there’s an earliest, lost one, so three letters total. Paul’s trying to get them sorted out on, among other things, marriage. And spiritual gifts. On the eucharist and on other religious tenets, like the resurrection. (This could be any of our churches, in our own day.) And there’s also a reference, as there are in a few of his letters, to a collection he’s taking up, for the poorer church in Jerusalem. A church most of them didn’t know. A church that may have looked with suspicion on the scattered churches cultivated by this new guy, Paul. Looked with suspicion on these increasingly gentile rather than Jewish communities. And yet Paul insists, ‘we are connected; we will offer them some assistance, even if they don’t think too highly of us.’

And then in the Gospel: “Follow me,” says our Lord to Peter and Andrew, “and I will make you fish for people.” I wonder how long into their walk before they got arguing about something. Certainly later on in the Gospels there are scenes of tension between the apostles. Do you remember the end of the Gospel of John? Jesus says to Peter “feed my sheep.” Three times. Over and over. He’s saying “I’m leaving you in charge. Look after my people.” And then when Jesus finishes talking, Peter sees “the disciple whom Jesus loved” coming up behind them. He turns to Jesus and says “do your instructions include that guy.”

“I once heard a preacher say that it might have been crowded and a little smelly inside Noah’s ark, but the folks inside knew it was better to be on board than not.

“The same thing goes for living together in the church. Traveling together isn’t always easy, but the ark saves us from drowning. And it does more than that — it gives us a space where we can learn to live together.” *

That’s from a Christian writer Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove, in North Carolina. I’ve mentioned him before, and so some of this might be familiar. He helped found a little community of Christians that live and worship together: “Baptists, Pentecostals, Methodists, Episcopalians and Catholics.”*

This doesn’t mean that doctrine doesn’t matter. All those issues that our ancestors killed and died for are important, even if a little distance can help us see their significance in a different light. And even when we come to terms on those issues, we still have other disagreements of our own. We don’t all agree on how to read the Bible, the relationship between church and state, sexual ethics or eschatology. We argue about these things, and we don’t anticipate any easy resolutions.

We will, in the meantime, keep washing one another’s dishes. Our little community is unified around a commitment to practices like welcoming the stranger, seeking peace, sharing our economic resources and forgiving one another. We have developed what I like to call a doctrine of adoption. Whatever else salvation history may mean for the church and for the world, we’re convinced that Jesus died and rose again so that we could be adopted into God’s family and have time to live together, even when we disagree. While the rest of the world is rushing to prove their enemies wrong, Jesus has given us the gift of time to wait together, bearing with one another in the practice of a life together. Even when the people God has welcomed get on our nerves, we’re convinced that membership in this family is a gift.*

(He is “A Baptist who draws on the broad Christian tradition and its monastic witnesses,” by the way.)

Someone I suspect he likes (and probably knows), Sister Joan Chittister, a Benedictine, has written (in a book she co-wrote with an Anglican) that “unity cannot be enforced; only uniformity can be imposed.”** Uniformity can, at times and within reason, be helpful. But Wilson-Hartgrove is talking more about unity. A unity that can’t just come from the top-down, but bubbles up from the ground up. Bubbles from the kitchen sink, as we wash each other’s dishes.

“It has been reported to me by Chloe’s people that there are quarrels among you, my brothers and sisters.” That reality will be an at least occasional aspect of our life as Church on this side of the coming of the Kingdom. But what we do with that, and with one another… how we respond to Paul’s letter… is what matters, as we seek and struggle to live together. In our response will we be able to say that we’re following Jesus. To those outside our community, confused, disappointed, or turned off by the divisions of the Church: are we giving witness to having “seen a great light?” A light bigger and brighter than us, than our particular perspectives, and our squabbles?

This doesn’t mean that doctrine doesn’t matter. All those issues that our ancestors killed and died for are important, even if a little distance can help us see their significance in a different light.

We will, in the meantime, keep washing one another’s dishes.
Even when the people God has welcomed get on our nerves, we’re convinced that membership in this family is a gift.

© 2023 The Rev’d Matthew Kieswetter

* Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove, “Together on the ark: the witness of intentional community,” The Christian Century 11 Aug 2009, https://www.christiancentury.org/article/2009-08/together-ark?reload=1555591037532 (accessed April 18, 2019).

** Joan Chittister, For All That Has Been, Thanks: Growing a Sense of Gratitude (Norwich: Canterbury Press, 2010), 104.