Missional Ecumenism has been a big discussion over the last century of church life. If this phrase is new to you, in it’s simplest form, it means unity of the body of Christ around the mission of God. The word “ecumenism” comes from the Greek word oikoumene, which means “the whole inhabited earth.”
This ecumenical vision is both the mission to reconcile “the visible Church of every era” which is referred to as being ‘one body’ (Ephesians 4:1-4) and God’s mission to reconcile the “whole inhabited earth” (Matthew 24:14) as the concern of all who are God’s children (Genesis 12:1-3).
Unity of the body of Christ is always about mission. The mission of God is always about unity. One could also take the words “ecumenism” and “unity” and replace it in some way with the word “reconciliation,” which is the heart behind the whole gospel; Christ reconciling all things to himself (2 Corinthians 5:19).
This reconciliation is wrought by men and women, who through faith in Christ Jesus, live a beatitudes kind-of-life, embracing the poverty of their own spirit, mourning over their sin and sin done against others and themselves, restraining their power to be used for good, and ultimately, working up a hunger and thirst for justice and goodness. This will lead to a life of mercy, purity, peacemaking, and in most cases, a life of persecution.
For a good example of what the beatitudes kind-of-life look like in story form, we could turn to the letter to Philemon, where the reality of reconciliation is employed in all it’s beauty, and missional ecumenism is seen from the very beginning of this Jesus movement.
In this letter we learn of a problem. Philemon had a run away slave named Onesimus, who fled his home, left Colossae and somehow ended up in Ephesus. We don’t know if Onesimus knew of Paul from Philemon, or if he was on the run, and heard Paul preaching while Paul was under house arrest in Ephesus. But somehow, he heard the gospel, received Christ, and became a disciple of Paul there in Ephesus, and falls head over heels in love with Jesus. Paul clearly sees the renewal that took place in this run away slaves life and wants to disciple him by having he and Philemon eventually live out a picture of the gospel; reconciliation.
It’s clear that Paul has in mind reconciliation with his letter to Philemon, because he urges Philemon to not just allow Onesimus back into his community, but to receive him as a brother, a partner in the gospel!
Go ahead, check it out for yourself. Grab a Bible and read Philemon real quick, it’s a brief one-page letter.
Did you see it? The gospel of reconciliation? Paul is crystal clear, he wants nothing less than the unity of two enemies who are now both unified under the Messiah, and one brother is to give the other brother emancipation papers. “Free him Philemon!”
In this letter, we read overtones of the Exodus narrative which was behind all of Paul’s letters and interpreted through Christ’s death and resurrection. Paul now wants Philemon to embrace the new exodus that Christ gave him (Philemon), and extend a new exodus to Onesimus. “Live out the gospel Philemon! Let Onesimus go free!”
We need to know that the punishment for a run away slave was likely crucifixion in this case. After all, if slaves run away without punishment, then who’s to say other slaves won’t follow suit unless somehow puts the hammer down. And what of Philemon if he goes along with it? What will other slave owners say? Will they try to harm Philemon? Paul is asking a lot, but if we continue to look at this passage, we see that Paul may be offering a lot as well.
This is why Paul also mentions, “If he has wronged you at all, or owes you anything, charge that to my account.” (Philemon 18)
Notice Paul says to charge the cost of Onesimus’ offense to his account, which would mean whatever Onesimus would be given, or maybe whatever would be blamed on Philemon for releasing a run away slave, blame it on Paul. So Paul may be saying, “If he deserves the cross, then I’ll take it for him!” Or, “If you might receive punishment for releasing him, let the town know it’s on me, I’ll receive your punishment.” Paul is displaying the ministry of reconciliation here, he’s displaying Christ’s sacrifice in a tangible way.
Clearly after reading Philemon in this context, Paul has a much bigger view of reconciliation than we have after a casual reading of this text. Paul has an entirely different perspective. Indeed Philemon and Onesimus are a part of the new creation in Christ.
For Philemon to be able to receive Onesimus back, he had to think more of him than himself (poverty of spirit). He had to mourn over what he lost, what he’s going to lose in the community if he doesn’t punish Onesimus, and how he may have wanted revenge or punishment against Onesimus. He would’ve had to restrain his cultural power and offer freedom, and this would surely fuel his hunger and thirst for more justice in areas of oppression elsewhere.
The cross of Christ is busting out of this letter to Philemon as Paul is able to say to Philemon, whatever he owes you, put it to my account, I will pay for his offense. This is the ministry of reconciliation that we are being gifted with as followers of Jesus, and this is what God is asking of us to live out for our sake and for His name’s sake.
The purpose of life in Christ was always and will always be a mission of ecumenism, being reconciled to Christ, and laboring to be reconciled to one another. The former empowering the latter. This is at the core of being the church. May we not allow other things to become more important than this reality that Christ prayed for in John 17; that they may all be one… so that the world will believe.