United As One
Acts 1: 15-17, 21-26; John 17: 6-19
Be with us, O Spirit. Walk with us as we strive to become one as witnesses to the love of God in Christ. Guide us in building a Spirit-led community that bears fruit which is pleasing to you and beneficial to our neighbours. Amen.
Toronto Conference’s Annual General Meeting weekend is coming next week. It is going to be held in the same place as last year,
St. Paul’s United in .
Fred, our Presbytery Rep, Malcolm, our Voluntary Associate Minister, and
I will be there. Some of you remember
that I worked as one of the staff team responsible for the youth group last
year. I am not going in that capacity
this year, just as a member. So, I am looking
forward to spending more time with colleagues, more engagement in discussions
and particularly quiet time at night and a good night’s sleep. Orillia
For those not familiar with the
structure, we have
four church courts: General Council, Conference, Presbytery and the Pastoral
Charge. Our congregation is one pastoral
charge. In many rural areas, multiple
small congregations may form one pastoral charge. Around sixty pastoral charges form one of the
four Presbyteries which constitute the Toronto Conference. We belong to the Toronto Southeast Presbytery
of Toronto Conference. The Toronto
Conference AGM lasts for three days, traditionally
the last weekend of May. This year, as
Pentecost Sunday falls on the Conference weekend, the meeting will be shortened
to only two days. I will be back to lead
the Pentecost Sunday service. There are 13 Conferences across the country and
each Conference elects its Commissioners to General Council every three years. General Council is a conciliar body of Commissioners
and the highest decision-making body of the United Church of Canada. More than six hundred Commissioners will
gather for the Forty First General Council in United
Church this August. Ottawa
According to the passage from Acts, today 120 believers gathered in
to choose an apostle to replace
Judas, who had died by suicide. The “apostles” were the 12 followers whom Jesus
chose to fill a special role—they were the ones to be “sent out” to share
Jesus’ message with the world. The number 12 had a special significance to the
Jewish followers of Jesus. There were 12 tribes of Jerusalem ; 12 was also the number of
full moons in a year, symbolizing wholeness and the fullness of time. With
Judas gone, another person had to be found to join the apostles and enable them
to again symbolize the faithfulness and endurance of Jesus’ community. Israel
During this period the Good News was shared verbally, so it was important that the new apostle be familiar with the whole of Jesus’ ministry and could bear witness to the resurrection. Therefore, the candidate to fill Judas’ position had to be one of the group that had traveled with Jesus throughout his whole ministry—from his Baptism to his Ascension. Two candidates were proposed—Matthias and Barsabbas. The new apostle was chosen by the casting of lots. Names were written on stones and placed in a vessel. Then they were shaken vigorously until one fell out. Casting lots was a common method used in ancient times to discern God’s will. To the believers, it was God who chose Matthias, not chance.
Next weekend at the Conference AGM, several elections will take place to choose candidates for various positions in the
. One of the important elections is to replace
the Rev. Barbara White, who has served as the ordered ministry representative
on the General Council Executive for six years.
There have already been three candidates for that position. Unlike the believers in Acts, we won’t cast
lots: we will choose by vote, after listening to each candidate’s speech. I know all the three candidates well and so,
for me, it is not a difficult choice to make.
No matter who is elected, like believers in the first century, we also
believe God will guide us to choose the one. United
There is no bishop or Pope in the
Our denomination is governed by over 3000 congregations and their lay
and ordered representatives across the country.
It is not a top-down structure but a democratic one. So, all the congregation representatives
gather regularly in each court, Presbytery, Conference and General Council to
make important decisions in order to support our ministries. Each court is mandated to be formed by equal
numbers of both lay and ordered representatives. We elected Fred to represent our congregation
in Presbytery and Conference. I hope he
will be privileged to go to General Council someday in the future, elected as a
Commissioner at Presbytery or Conference.
In the United Church of Canada, decision-making is vested in the members of our Church Council, the members of Presbytery and Conference and the Commissioners to General Council. One important reality we need to note: not everyone in every congregation expresses his or her faith in the same way. United Church congregations usually acknowledge these differences, and do not seek uniformity. One reason for this is that the whole
began with compromise. Three
denominations, Methodist, Presbyterian, and Congregational, joined together to
form the United Church in 1925. They were aware of their differences, but
they decided to be united as one national church to do God’s mission together
across United Church . Canada
To this day, agreeing to disagree is a cherished
tradition. As a
result, it is not easy to obtain consensus among us. That is why it takes us a lot of time and
resources to keep our ministry going.
However, we do cherish our tradition of being united beyond our
differences and value our commitment to working together in harmony to carry
out Jesus’ ministry in our context here and now. Someone has said that the Group of
Seven and the United Church of Canada are the two most original and
distinctively Canadian things United
has produced. Canada
Let us remember that at the inauguration service of our church union in Toronto on June 10, 1925, our church founders read today’s passage from the Gospel of John: Jesus is said to have prayed that God would protect his followers and keep them unified: “Protect them in your name, so that they may be one, as we are one.” Jesus prays that God will give the disciples the strength to continue to live out their faith and not be tempted to divert from the ministry which has been entrusted to them. He also prays that they remain unified, both with God and with each other. The disciples are to be the living symbols of Jesus’ continuing presence and ministry in the world, and thus must not become embroiled in division.
We believe Jesus’ prayer has guided us ever since we were united as one. We, the United Church of Canada, have made many historic decisions to become a living symbol of Jesus’ continuing presence and ministry in Canada: in 1936, we ordained a woman for the first time in Canadian church history; in 1988, we decided to welcome anyone to full membership in the church including ordered ministry regardless of their sexual orientation; in 1998, we offered the first official apology to the First Nations peoples for our involvement in the residential schools. We believe that our being unified with God and with one another has strengthened us to live out our faith here and now.
The United Church Crest, hanging on the front of this pulpit, is the official signature of our church. As part of our ongoing efforts to be united as one, the last General Council made a decision to form a task group to work on the revision of this crest in order to acknowledge the presence and spirituality of the First Nations people in our ministry. Most of our early churches were founded by European settlers who would not have survived without the great support of the Aboriginal peoples and today we still live on their land. Next weekend the task group will present to Conference its proposal for a revised crest, followed by a theme speech by Marie Wilson, a Commissioner to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. The proposed crest reflects the four colours of the Indigenous medicine wheel: yellow, black, red and white and adds the Mohawk version of “All My Relations” to the current Latin words, “That All May Be One (John 17:21)” at the bottom. The upcoming General Council is expected to approve this revised crest.
Today, Jesus prays that we continue to become one as witnesses to the love of God, even when we face disagreement, change, or loss. Empowered by his prayer, may we, united as one, continue to carry on Jesus’ ministry today and in the days ahead. Amen.