For Christian Unity Week

I was invited to preach this sermon at the Centro Pro Unione this week.  The lecturer was Ladislas Orsy, a 91 year old professor at Georgetown who attended the second Vatican Council.  Orsy spoke about Dignitatis Humanae and what it has given to the church and the world.  It was an honor to be asked to preach, and an even greater one to share the moment with wonderful ecumenical colleagues in Rome.

Luke 24:13-35, Dignitatis Humanae

Week of Prayer for Christian Unity

January 24, 2013

Centro Pro Unione, Piazza Navona

“If we had the right kind of eyes, the right ears, we would look at a person and we would see their divinity shining through.”

Desmond Tutu, the famous Archbishop of Cape Town, said those words at a church service a few years ago in which unity was the theme. Now 81 years old, Tutu is best remembered for his faith, and the groundbreaking work he did in South Africa because of it. Most of us are quite aware of the racial segregation that was part of the South African political and cultural landscape during the middle to latter part of the 20th century–the system known as apartheid.

Tutu not only led the economic boycott movement following the Soweto Uprising in 1976, which eventually paved the way for the fall of apartheid, but he then chaired the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in 1995, which brought victims and perpetrators of crimes face to face in public hearings.

Deep pain and divisions surfaced in the hearings as both abuser and abused told the stories of their lives, sometimes in front of several of their peers. While that truth telling did not undo the violence which had been perpetrated, nor bring back the lost loved ones or innocence of a past age, it did help transition the nation into a new era.

And as an impressionable 2nd grader, I remember being totally in awe of the Archbishop who helped orchestrate that healing, with God’s help, of course.

I remember very few school assignments or projects from that stage of my life, but I will never forget the report I did on Bishop Tutu, as our class remembered and celebrated Black History month, nor the football-esque head I gave him, which was balanced precariously on his pencil-thin frame.

Mrs. Howell, my teacher, was so proud, namely because I had not produced yet another report on Michael Jackson (it was the year of Thriller after all!), or Magic Johnson, the famed Los Angeles Lakers basketball player. As large as those figures were in my childhood imagination, it was Tutu, and that work of reconciliation and truth-telling…the work of the gospel itself…which towered above them all.

Those of us gathered here today in Rome, in the year 2013 and in this week of Christian unity, are called to the work of reconciliation and truth telling as well. Indeed, we are called by Christ to engage in this work will all our hearts, all our souls, and all our minds.

While the stain of apartheid may not haunt us directly, we still have past hurts and scars that must be brought into the light of God’s grace, so that we may move into a deeper experience of the reconciled unity we share through our common savior.

That work happens on a conciliar level, no doubt, and it happens on a personal level, as we seek deeper understanding of each other, so that we might act and witness together in a an advancing secular age… and more fully engage Christ’s work of proclaiming good news to the poor, release to the captives, recovery of sight to the blind, and freedom for the oppressed.

Thank God for all of you who are devoted to this work, and for the great lengths to which you go, with God’s help, in the pursuit of unity. In the short time I have been here among you, I have witnessed sincere affection, rich dialogue, and a genuine desire to live into the one-ness we both know and are called to in Christ.

That oneness is Trinitarian in form: it is a unity borne of the fundamental relationships within the divine self… a unity that does not erase difference and diversity, but rather proclaims the full personhood of each of its members as essential to establishing relationship. One substance, three persons.  One body, many members. It is a unity that cannot be coerced, but rather, invited and accepted.

Like so many of the intangibles we strive for as human beings: faith, hope, love …truth.

No amount of coercion would have brought about healing and reconciliation in South Africa following apartheid.

But sharing the stories of pain and loss, linked the oppressor and oppressed together and revealed their shared need for reconciliation. In the best cases, the invitation to tell the truth to each other, and the hard work of staying at the table and accepting that invitation, helped them to see each other anew.

No longer as enemies, but as children of the same God.

No longer as strangers, but friends.

The third section of Dignitatis Humanae contains the following passage:

“Truth… is to be sought after in a manner proper to the dignity of the human person and his social nature. The inquiry is to be free, carried on with the aid of teaching or instruction, communication and dialogue, in the course of which men explain to one another the truth they have discovered, or think they have discovered, in order thus to assist one another in the quest for truth. Moreover, as the truth is discovered, it is by a personal assent that men are to adhere to it.”

The Second Vatican Council recognized that truth, freedom and faith go hand in hand.

Jesus, though seemingly a stranger, walks with Cleopas and the unnamed other disciple on the road to Emmaus, and invites them to speak the truth they have discovered.

They too had a painful story to share, because their hopes in the Messiah had been apparently dashed. They tell the truth about this as they walk beside each other on the road. Jesus goes on to “assist them in the quest for truth,” by interpreting the scriptures to them, by “teaching and instructing” them.

And, as so well stated in Dignitatis Humanae, Jesus does not force them to accept that instruction, but offers it to them freely, respecting both the human dignity and the free will with which they, and we, are endowed by the Creator. In fact, it is Cleopas and the other disciple who come closest to coercion!  As Jesus begins to move on into the night, they “almost force him” to stay as he begins to go on (the Greek is parabiasanto meaning “to urge strongly”), but stop just short of it.

\I imagine they were impassioned for sure in their invitation since “their hearts were burning within them,” but stopped short of forcing Jesus to remain with them for a meal, out of respect. However, Jesus accepts their invitation, and is ultimately revealed to them as the resurrected Messiah for whom they hoped in the breaking of bread.

In this reading from Luke, we see Jesus establishing a pattern for future ministry and engagement, and we see his followers choosing to accept the pattern and put it into practice. Jesus invites them to speak their truth, they accept. Jesus instructs them about the scriptures, and they put his ministry of hospitality into action, which leads to the revelation that he was already among them the entire time they walked together.

Telling the truth leads to action and ultimately to the revelation of a unity that can never be broken, not even by the sting of death, because we are bound together in the very heart and womb of God.

It is a pattern that has been repeated through generations of the faithful bound by Christ, from Tertullian to Teresa, Theodore to Tillich, Thomas to Tutu. And it is a pattern that may yet guide us as we seek to more fully follow the one in whom our unity was won.

“If we had the right kind of eyes, the right ears, we would look at a person and we would see their divinity shining through.”

On this auspicious occasion, may God grant us shared vision and an even deeper desire and will to hear the truth through each other’s stories, and respect each other’s dignity.

May we reach forth our hands in love, as Christ did, and witness to the truth as one body, one substance—diverse, beautiful, and holy.

And may God be revealed, praised, and proclaimed among us fervently ‘til the end of the age.

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