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A SERMON BY Jean-Baptiste Lipp

during the opening service of the “2nd world conference of Interchurch families

Dear interchurch families,

We are meeting together in Rome for our second world gathering. I would therefore like to start by telling you a story which occurred in Italy, this beautiful country so rich in culture. As you know Toscanini was a great conductor. He was not only able to interpret the music; he could also hear everything, absolutely everything. He had such a good ear that he could hear every sound his musicians made (or did not make).

One day during a full rehearsal, when all the musicians where playing fortissimo – when the violins where sawing away at their strings, the wind instruments where blowing as hard as they could, the brass was tumultuous and the percussion was covering the whole – well on that day – Toscanini interrupted the orchestra with all his authority. And do you know what he said to the numerous musicians?
- “The only one who played this passage correctly was the little flute!”
The little flute! The piccolo! Is that not a big compliment? The most important conductor greets the smallest instrument. It is both beautiful and moving.

And what is more it is encouraging to us who are just an unimportant meeting in the world’s overloud concert: 230 adults and about a hundred children…. Let’s say it: we, the interchurch families who are motivated to achieve the visible unity of our churches do not count for much in our world... And even in the ecumenical movement which is part of the always unfinished symphony of our churches, we are only a little flute. As long as... we have played our score correctly, without being overwhelmed. As long as we have stayed faithful to our call: this call which we have received. For we have well and truly received a call.

Listen once again to the apostle Paul, this great conductor who said: “I urge you to live a life worthy of the calling with which you have been called.” (Ep 4:1). In the middle sixties, when there was a risk that the Churches might again become like prisons for the increasing number of interchurch families, some people prayed, cried and heard a call. This was the particular calling to dare to be “laboratories of unity”. I am impressed when I reread the famous “Charter of Lyon” which is from 1965, so forty years or a generation ago. I am particularly struck by the first point, which sets out as follows the specific calling which our Lord has given us:
“The religious question is of fundamental importance for the future and the development of couples in a mixed marriage. If it is considered something to be ignored or merely tolerated, it will lead to the parents or the children becoming indifferent to religion, and it will be a difficulty for the couple themselves. It will on the contrary be a uniting factor and a cause of spiritual emulation if it is considered as the fundamental basis for the couple and for the particular vocation to which the Lord calls them.

Yes, how true. Amen! We have received a particular call. Our part is to remain faithful to this call. This is at a time when most couples in mixed marriages are indifferent to religion, and some, unfortunately are feeling discouraged… When most of the churches appear indifferent or discouraging for many of us, the call is there and it will be there till the end. I mean the end of the division of the Christian churches:
“I urge you to live a life worthy of the calling to which you are called.”
(This phrase of Paul’s is repeated in English, German and Italian in the original.)
The first words “I urge you” translate differently in the different languages. But as the Italians say “traduttore traditore”, which translated into English gives “translator betrayer”. These are only translations, the imperfect translations of a Greek word with even richer meanings than our four translations. In Greek this verb means not only to urge but also to console. So there is an idea of consolation in our passage. A consolation which we also find in the St John’s Gospel where Jesus promises the Holy Spirit, the Paraclete to his disciples. We have today, then a text which commits us at the same time as it consoles us. So here we are both strengthened and consoled!

We do need this consolation, we who can feel in our flesh just how long time is in the ecumenical movement. On top of which people offer us cheap consolation by saying “the ecumenical winter through which we are passing will be followed by spring”. It is a consolation for our Lord who is our conductor-in-chief, and it is even – this is my profound conviction – a consolation for our churches. Because for them, our church institutions – thank God – there is only one baptism!

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I would now ask the children who speak English to do a little exercise. Listen carefully to what Paul has written and count how many times he uses the word “one”:
“There is one body and one Spirit, just as you too were called to the one hope of your calling, one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and father of all, who is over all and through all and in all.” (Ep4:4-6) …

Seven! Seven is the number expressing perfection.
(This passage is repeated in the other languages in the original)

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I would like, as an ending, to tell you that Paul’s letter to the Ephesians is, for us, interchurch families, one of the books of the bible which is most rich in promises. I point out three, in the order in which they appear in the text:
1) “The one who rose higher than all the heavens to fill all things is none other than the one who descended.” (Ep 4:10).Paul speaks to us of Christ as of Him who joins us at our lowest – there where we are, where we really are – in order to open for us the widest horizons. Where we are, where we really are, is in the basement of ecumenism, perhaps on the ground floor, certainly not the first floor … But with the Orthodox bishop, whose saying is well known, we can proclaim and proclaim again that the barriers which exist down here between the churches, theses barriers cannot climb up to heaven. Christ, Lord of our churches, has he not risen higher than the heavens.
2) The second promise concerns the ministry which some have for the good of the ministry of all. It is written, “And to some, his (Christ’s) gift was that they should be apostles; to some, prophets; to some, evangelists; to some, pastors and teachers; so that the saints together make a unity in the work of service, building up the whole body of Christ. In this way we are all to come to unity in our faith …. with the fullness of Christ himself.” (Ep 4:11-13). Christ here does not distribute ministries as one might distribute playing cards at the beginning of a card game. No, he rather gives people who, each with his own gift, are at the service of all and of the growth of the whole. For me, inter-church families are a gift of Christ to the Churches which are still divided. I would go so far as to say that the gift which interchurch families offer is part of the prophetic ministry to the church. In effect we are announcing in our flesh and thanks to the Holy Spirit that the Church is one. That the church is one, is that not an apostolic witness? And indeed the prophets, in the various lists of ministries, are always named just after the apostles. What the apostles received and said, it is the business of prophets to real to today’s world.
3) Last but not least. Moving beyond the fourth chapter there are other points that seem to me to be of the greatest importance. In order to describe the unity of the people of God in Christ, the apostle uses three images in his letter to the Ephesians:
- the image of the body, the Church of which Christ is the head
- the image of the building, of which Christ is the cornerstone
- the image of the married couple, more precisely of the Church being the spouse of Christ.

This last image comes from the famous passage in the fifth chapter (Ep 5: 21-33), which we hardly dare use any more at marriage services. And yet! But if we look the other way round we can find there the relationship of Christ and his Church in the image of the relationship between a married couple in antiquity, where the role, and even the identity of the man and the woman are so different. While doing this, I looked more closely and asked myself the following question: Are Christ and the Church a sort of interchurch couple? Yes I think they are: Christ and the church are the archetypal interchurch couple!