1 Corinthians 12:12-31a
How shall they, the world, know us? How can you witness if someone is a Christian? If it is by all of us worshiping the same, being in agreement, unity by similarity… showing love in the same way… we Christians are failing.
As of the last count, about ten years ago, there were over 330,000 Christian churches dotting America; and these are divided into 217 different denominations. World wide, there are about 4 million churches and 33,000 different denominations!
And an awful lot of us are not speaking to each other anymore.
Yet, Jesus’ prayer in John for us is, “that they may all be one; even as You, Father, are in Me and I in You, that they also may be in Us, so that the world may believe that You sent Me. I have given them the glory that you gave me, that they may be one as we are one–I in them and you in me–so that they may be brought to complete unity. Then the world will know that you sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me.”
What happened to Jesus’ prayer? What happened to our unity? Where did it go so wrong that Christians frequently leave churches in anger, never to speak to their former brother and sisters again; and that Christians go out to injure, murder other Christians?
Can we pinpoint a particular moment?
Was it when the United Church of Christ began to openly welcome gays? You and I both know we lost many churches and members in the UCC.
What about several years before that, when in 1959 our denomination aligned itself with Martin Luther King Jr., and became publically active in challenging racial laws? We lost some churches then, who felt King was too radical, and we were mixing politics and religion. Again, we split into different denominations and factions.
But you know and I know, the UCC draws together several different denominations. To draw together denominations means our splitting had already begun.
So the divisions among Christianity had to start earlier.
Maybe our conflicts began in the early 1900s when new scholarship opened the history of the Bible for the laity. People began to see and read, understand, that the Bible has many different translations over millinia, and these translations don’t all agree.
At the same time, people struggled with science, which no longer tried to prove how the world was made in 7, 24 hour days… and science began to interpret the Bible rather than the Bible dictate science. Maybe the early 1900s is where we broke into churches that support science and those that oppose it.
But there were arguments long before science.
In the 1800’s, some people felt church was dry. Scholastic. It was all about lectures, learning, and the mind. It had no heart or soul. It didn’t affect the real lives of the people — lives that are messy and not scholarly at all. The Holy Spirit moved among some of the people and awoke them to reinvent their faith so that it was relevant to them again. Little Bible-study groups led to tent revivals, and tent revivals to new denominations that focused on the Spirit rather than study.
Now we had churches that began and ended when the Spirit moved the people; and we had churches with planned scripture and written sermons. Churches and denominations to serve both kinds of ways to worship God.
But, I tell you, we argued before the 1800’s too. Two hundred years before the Spirit reawoke the church, there were people who wanted to live pure lives, according to Biblical standards, and they felt that the Church – as it was – wouldn’t permit them. These “puritans” sure caused waves too.
Some of them held insane ideas… such as it is wrong to have slaves, others advocated many wives, while still others said one should never marry and be chaste. One such crazy man named William Penn started a whole colony based on treating the native Americans as HUMANS. It’s hard to believe his colony is now the state of Pennslyvannia… several early colonies were purposefully made as havens, safe places, to worship God in unique ways… such as by treating natives as brothers and sisters. Obviously other churches disagreed on many of the strange new ideas – and many new denominations were formed.
Simutaniously, other people felt our sacrements were no longer sacred – anyone could get baptized, anyone take communion – it wasn’t just for the faithful. These scholars read the Bible and saw adults being baptized, not children – and they wanted to baptize only adults who could confess their faith. So they began to re-baptize adults, and stopped baptizing children.
You know that caused major, major fights – because some people believe there is value to a child’s baptism. Some even argued unbaptized children go to hell. Big, big stakes — big, big emotions — lots of bickering — lots of new denominations.
Sexuality, race, what is proper to study, nationality, ethics and theology… these have divided us.
So too has money.
The Protestant Reformation was in part about money and power. The Reformation leaders felt that the Church needed to be far simplier, far less wealthy and powerful on the earth, and far more concerned with souls than with who is sitting on this or that throne. Each Reformation leader had a different idea how to go about this — and the Counter-Reformation — when the Catholic Church reformed — had different ideas within itself too. But all over, people split over how best to run a society with rules, and live a Christian life with rules, without the duties of either conflicting.
… We still haven’t solved this issue.
For example, it is wrong to kill, says the Bible. Is it always wrong? Can we defend ourselves? Is the military acceptable in Christian ethics?
Depends on your denomination.
Your interpretation of Scripture, Tradition, and experience.
They didn’t solve this issue in the Reformation. Nor was the Reformation the beginning of our divisions within Christianity.
Two hundred years before that, so about the 1300’s, the Lollards got in a lot of trouble. John Wycliffe believed people needed to understand Scripture. Few people spoke and understood Latin, which the Priests read scripture in. And sometimes even the Priests didn’t know what they were saying! So Wycliffe began to translate the Holy Scriptures into his native tongue, so he and others could understand Scripture better… and this divided the church. Is English too secular a language for Scripture?
But language was already dividing the church before the Lollards. A hundred years earlier, the church has split into the East and West. In the East, Latin was spoke and the Latin Empire was fighting Crusades against Muslims and others. In the East, Greek was spoke and they saw their Christian-Muslim cities being attacked by Latin-speaking Christians.
But their East-West issues began long before this moment. It started back when translations and theology couldn’t be agreed upon, hundreds of years earlier.
This takes us back to 400 years after Christ’s death… and you know what… Christians were arguging even then. They argued: Is it okay to be part of a secular community or should one be monastic? How is Jesus both divine and human? How does Mary fit into this? Is she the Mother of God, or Mother of Jesus, and is she divine?
And what about the Trinity? Not once in our scriptures is the Trinity described. Rather, it is inferred from the talk of God, Son, and Spirit. But once we speak of Trinity, it sounds like we have 3 Gods instead of one.
Oh yes… Christians slaughtered other Christians over these issues and understandings. Several councils were people were supposed to help each other with defining Christian theology ended with shoes thrown, swords drawn, and insults or death.
Yet, if we return to scripture, before this major conflict… we will find more yet conflict. The letters of Paul, Peter, John, Jude and the book of Acts all talk about conflicts in the early, early church! Jewish Christians and Greek Christians fighting; Aramic Scripture and Greek Scripture not agreeing in translations; and no one knowing if the Apostles, John, or maybe James has the most authoritative word.
… Even the Apostles couldn’t agree.
Jesus was right there! Right there with them and they argued amongst themselves! Peter even argued WITH Jesus!
Debate, diversity, has always been a part of Christianity.
… Jesus’ prayer, that we may all be one, has never been answered in the form that we don’t argue with each other.
… I think it never will.
See- Jesus didn’t pray: “Father, don’t let them argue.” No, he prayed that we may be one, united. He never prayed “May they all be identical.” No, he prayed that we be one in Christ, united.
In all the history of Christianity, which we just skimmed through, we have NEVER been united in everything. We have different languages, different prayers, different ways of understanding God, different priorities. We are different people with different souls.
I don’t think we ever WILL be united in these things.
Our unity isn’t in ethics, or governments, or language, or song, or even scripture…
Our unity is in Christ.
We are one because we all confess Jesus as Christ.
As Paul wrote the Collosians, we SHOULDN’T all be the same. Some of us are called to be ears — we hear things others miss. We hear scripture and know there are better, more modern ways to say that language. Or we hear the old hymns and know that these old songs speak a truth modern songs have forgot.
Others of us are called to be eyes — we see things others miss. We see how power and religion are helping or harming one another. We see and understand.
Others of us are mouths — called to be prophets, Called to be a voice to those who are silenced.
Others of us are hands — called to be doers, movers, workers. Called to build new churches, try new things, go new places.
Others of us are rumps — believe it or not — and we need to fill a pew, keep the fire of the faith burning, and pass this faith fire on to a new generation.
We are feet for walking with others; we are knees for kneeling in prayer; we are elbows for networking and shoulders for crying and backs for carrying and bellies for great big childish laughter.
We are the body of Christ.
We are different members, with different gifts, different ways of understanding God and responding to God’s call — but we are united in one Spirit, in one God, under one Christ.
God calls us by NAME. Our own personal name. We each hear our name, not each other’s, and we respond to our own name.
So long as we each are following where our Shepherd calls us, we are united.
So long as we are each confessing Jesus as Christ, we are united.
In the future, we’re going to have more arguments. I don’t know what they’ll be. Maybe we’ll argue whether or not robots have souls, or can take communion. Maybe whether or not computers can be pastors. I don’t know what we’ll argue, but we’ll disagree.
HOwever, I believe in Jesus’ prayer. I belive in the power of the Holy Spirit. I know we worship One God who, in stunning, exhubulant creativeiy, has given us unimagionable diversity. And this One God has One Love expressed in billions of ways.
I believe we will remain united in this love, united in Christ.
Arguments, disagreements, misunderstandings, divisions — these have always happened among Christians. But so too have we always had the prayer of Christ.
And this prayer, this promise, of unity in Christ will always let us extend forgiveness, tollerance, and love to one another.
We never have to agree.
We simply have to love.