At my first Mennonite Church Alberta assembly as area church minister, one of my official tasks was to offer a prayer of release to Calgary Vietnamese Mennonite Church. It was one of two congregations that had withdrawn its membership from the area church in response to the Being a Faithful Church decision at MC Canada’s 2016 Saskatoon assembly.
Three of its leaders had accepted our invitation to come to the afternoon session so we could offer each other a parting blessing. It was an odd feeling. Their church had been a part of MC Alberta for more than 30 years. While we, as MC Alberta congregations, may not have always shared the closest of connections, we had walked alongside each other as brothers and sisters in Christ. Now their congregation had decided to go its own direction.
In a society that feels increasingly fragmented, it is a challenging time to be the church. While Mennonites have a long history of parting and dividing, in today’s world unity seems more difficult to achieve than ever. In our highly charged political climate, divisions seem amplified around the globe.
This past January, Mennonite World Conference prepared worship materials for World Fellowship Sunday highlighting two familiar Bible passages.
One was the Genesis passage of the Tower of Babel. It is a story that begins with unity. People are of one language and one mind, fixed on building a tower with its top in the heavens. Yet their true goal is to “make a name” for themselves, aside from God. As the story goes, this trust in human achievement ends in confusion and division. The people cease to understand each other’s language, and as a result are scattered abroad over the face of the earth.
The second passage was the story of Pentecost from Acts 2. In this passage, the movement is reversed. People from every nation are living in Jerusalem. When God’s presence arrives in the form of divided tongues, as of fire, the gathered people are bewildered that they can hear Jesus’ followers speaking in their own language. The arrival of God’s Holy Spirit transcends the boundaries of speech and culture, speaking into human divisions in witness to the unifying power of Christ. This power does not promote any one people, nation or human achievement, but offers hope to all in the name of Jesus.
In my prayer to the Calgary Vietnamese church leaders, I offered lament that Jesus’ call for unity among his followers has not fully come to pass. I acknowledged our common desire to be faithful to God’s calling. We offered each other God’s blessing as we prepared to go our own directions in figuring out what it means to be faithful followers of Christ in our various contexts.
As the Vietnamese church representatives prepared to leave our meeting, one offered me the words, “Hope to see you again soon.” This is also my hope, and I believe it is God’s hope.