by T.V. Philip
T. V. Philip, born in India and a lay member of the Mar Thoma Church, has worked and taught in India, Europe, USA and Australia. He is a church historian, and a former Professor at the United Theological College, Bangalore, India.
The following appeared in The Kingdom of God is Like This, by T.V. Philip, jointly published by the Indian Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge and Christava Sahitya Samithy (CSS), Cross Junction, M.C. Road, Tiruvalla-689 101, Kerela, India. The material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted & Winnie Brock.
From the foundation of the world, God had a plan and purpose for his creation. It was kept secret, but now he was pleased to reveal it to us in Jesus Christ. It is about the unity of all things.
Ephesians 1: 9-10
Throughout his life and ministry, Jesus witnessed the unifying love of God for all: Jew and Gentile, Greek and barbarian, male and female, the righteous and the sinner. The Gospel was a simple message about the unity of all; it was a message of reconciliation. The writer of the epistle to the Ephesians sums up the gospel thus:
He has made known to us his hidden purpose — such was his will and pleasure determined beforehand in Christ — to be put into effect when the time was ripe: namely that the universe, all in heaven and earth, might be brought into a unity in Christ.
From the foundation of the world, God had a plan and purpose for his creation. It was kept secret, but now he was pleased to reveal it to us in Jesus Christ. It is about the unity of all things, and the process of unification is already started with the coming of Christ. This unity is radically all inclusive. It is not limited to one group or one race or one nation or one denomination. It includes the whole creation.
The ecumenical movement is concerned about this unity of all creation in Christ.
Ecumenism in the first place is a vision, a vision of God’s plan and purpose to bring all things together in Christ. In the epistle to the Colossians it is said that the whole universe has been created through him and for him. “Through him God chose to reconcile the whole universe to himself.” (Col. 1:16-20).
In the second place, ecumenism does not mean simply organizational unity. Unity in Christ expresses an inner wholeness, a quality of life and relationship. It is said that for the Hindu salvation means the individual soul merging with the ultimate Reality like a drop of water merging in the great ocean, but for the Buddhist the image is rather the ocean entering into the drop.
The ecumenical experience is like the whole ocean pouring into a drop of water. It is the expansion of our consciousness, the widening of our mental grasp. When this happens, we will be able to see the whole world as our world.
The ecumenical vision frees us from too much pre-occupation with ourselves and with our own problems. We are freed to love and serve the needs of others. St. Augustine once said that a man feels more at home with his dog than with a foreigner. This is the nature of human bondage. It is from this bondage that Christ has made us free. Ecumenism is an expression of this freedom, freedom for others, freedom from ego, freedom from the little world of my denomination, race or community; it is a freedom which helps us to see the world as my parish and my family.
Ecumenical vision is also a vision about a larger Christ. John R. Mott, the pioneer of the modern ecumenical movement, used to speak of this larger Christ, the Great Gospel, larger evangelism and the whole Gospel. The ecumenical vision is a vision about a larger Christ who is not active only in my little world, acting in familiar ways, but in the whole world, acting in surprising ways.
Ecumenism is not only a vision of God’s plan to sum up everything in Christ, it is also a task, a mission given to us. Archbishop Nathan Soderblom of Uppsala, who was the great leader of the Life and Work movement, a movement concerned with the church’s social witness, once said, “When the spirit of God visits humanity, it kindles a flame in our heart, a flame of love and justice
The ecumenical vision kindles in us a flame of love and justice which drives us to action. It is not enough that it remains a vision, the vision needs to be translated into actual realities in our everyday life. The unity of human kind, the unity of the church, is a gift of God, but at the same time it is also a task. Our unity in Christ is realized only to the extent that race, color, caste, national prejudices, segregation, denominational separateness are historically conquered and the separateness based on them done away with in the life of the churches and in the life of the society. Bishop Charles Brent of the Protestant Episcopal church in the USA, who was the main initiator of the Faith and Order Movement, used to say, “Whenever God gives a vision, he also points to a new responsibility”.
The early church saw not only a vision of God’s plan to unite all humankind, but incessantly struggled to manifest that unity in the life of the church and the life of the world. St. Paul not only proclaimed that God was in Christ reconciling the whole world, but he also reminded the Christian community that, “therefore you are ambassadors of Christ”.
Christianity from the very beginning tried to be an inclusive community. This is what differentiated Christianity from Judaism. Christianity was born in Judaism and its founder was a Jew. But very soon Christianity separated itself from Judaism. The new wine could not be contained in the old bottles. The Law, the temple, and separation from the Gentiles were essential elements in Jewish identity. Judaism was a national, an ethnic religion. Christianity, which was a universal religion, could not remain within the confines of Judaism. From the very beginning, Christianity incorporated into itself Jews and Gentiles, the Parthians, the Medes, the Elamites, the Greeks and the Barbarians. It mocked the barriers of race, language and nationality. It accepted everyone and everything except Jewish nationalism.
It was not easy for early Christians who were born and nurtured in the Jewish religion to accept the Gentiles into the Christian community. In the Acts of the Apostles (chapter 10) we have the story of Cornelius and Peter. When Peter in his vision is asked to kill and eat the animals, his reply is, “I have never eaten anything common or unclean”. God replies to Peter, “What God has cleansed must not be called common”. On that day Peter made a great discovery. “Truly I see God has no favorites”.
We read in chapter 15 of the Acts of the Apostles about the Jewish-Gentile controversy where Paul fought for an all inclusive Christian community. After speaking of the great plan of God to unite all things in Christ, the epistle to the Ephesians goes on to describe how the plan of God was being realized in the life of the church. In the second chapter, the author reminds the Gentile Christians of the great transformation that has taken place in their life.
You remember you were once separate from Christ, excluded from the citizenship in Israel and foreigners to the covenant of promise, without hope and without God in the world. But now in Christ Jesus you who were once far away have been bought through the blood of Christ.
Then he says:
For he is our peace, who has made the two one and has destroyed the barrier, the dividing wall of hostility. His purpose was to create in himself one new man but of the two, thus making peace.
This is what happens in Christ. Out of the Jew and the Gentile, Christ has made one new person. Our ecumenical task today, in a world divided by race and color and religion, is to create one new person out of whites and blacks, out of Protestant and Roman Catholic.
In India, a large number of people were considered ‘untouchables’. The stigma of untouchability that rested upon them for generations had condemned them to a semi-human existence. They were systematically exploited and kept down by high caste Hindus. It was among them that the Christian Gospel was preached. Today 80% of Protestants and 50% of Roman Catholics have come from among the ‘untouchables’. For many of those who joined the Christian community it represented an escape from dehumanizing values and conditions of their existence. The very fact that these people were considered as human beings, with dignity and freedom, and were brought into the fellowship of the church, was a powerful witness in India to the transforming and unifying power of the Gospel. Our Lord prayed, “May they be all one”.