John said to him, ‘Teacher, we saw someone casting out demons in your name, and we tried to stop him, because he was not following us.’ But Jesus said, ‘Do not stop him; for no one who does a deed of power in my name will be able soon afterwards to speak evil of me. Whoever is not against us is for us. For truly I tell you, whoever gives you a cup of water to drink because you bear the name of Christ will by no means lose the reward.
In the early days, The United Church of Canada was propelled by a dream of expanding Church union – more and more denominations joining together in organic union, gradually reversing the process that resulted in the proliferation of Protestant denominations in the first place. Like Jesus’ first followers, we imagined that Church unity required Church union. When it became clear that this dream was not going to unfold the way we had imagined, it rather took the ecumenical wind out of our sails. The United Church became just one more Protestant denomination, vying for the hearts and minds of the faithful.
It has taken us several decades to hear Jesus’ response to his disciples’ anxiety about followers who took a different path from them. When John says, “We told him to stop invoking your name when he heals people because he doesn’t follow us.” Jesus replies that anyone who does the work of justice, healing and compassion in his name is an ally and friend of theirs – a partner in the work of building God’s community of shalom. You may not follow the same path, but you share the same goal, and that makes you part of the same team.
Gradually, this vision of “unity in Christ” has taken root among the churches in Canada. Dreams of ecumenical collaboration and cooperation have replaced the dream of organic union. We are learning to work together across our differences to accomplish the work of healing, justice and reconciliation to which the gospel calls us. Full communion partnerships and mutual recognition of ministry agreements honour the unique and varied ways that we know and follow Jesus, while acknowledging that we are together in this discipleship adventure.
The key to this new ecumenical dream is humility. It is a hard lesson to learn, but one which offers rich rewards.
Holy One, teach us the spiritual discipline of humility. May we recognize those who seek to serve you and embody your justice in the world as our relatives, allies, and partners in the work to which you have called us all. We pray in the name of Jesus, who refused to participate in the structures of exclusion. Amen.
The Rev’d Jordan Cantwell served as the Moderator of the United Church of Canada 2015-18 and is the minister of St Martin’s United Church, Saskatoon, Canada.