Friday, June 18

What is Christian Unity?

Ephesians 2:11-22

This portion of the letter to the Ephesians is concerned with unity in Christ. So, to create a little unity in this room, I am going to steal Bishop Hagiya’s opening joke from annual conference which I think is super appropriate for me since I’m going to a Catholic University…

You know how moms are. They sit around and talk about their kids every now and then. Well, four Catholic women were having coffee. The first woman tells her friends "My son is a priest. When he walks into a room, everyone calls him Father." The second woman chirps, "Well, my son is a bishop. Whenever he walks into a room, people call him 'Your Grace'." The third woman says "My son is a cardinal. And whenever he walks into room, he's called 'Your Eminence!". The fourth woman sips her coffee in silence. Finally, the first three women give her a subtle look as if to say, "Well...?" So the fourth woman says.... "My son is 6'2". He has broad, square shoulders, is terribly handsome and dresses very well. And whenever he walks into a room, women say 'Oh, my God...'."

That has very little to do with my sermon, but it is funny so I wanted to share it! Laughter does have a way of uniting people together unlike many of our social practices. In the world, we build walls and fences everywhere. Keeping people out or keeping people in. Even when we travel to deep space and view the world, where we should only be able to see what God has made, we can still see the Great Wall of China. Another border created to make an “us” and a “them.”

Should we be surprised that we can see the interference of man from space? Interference intended to divide and separate? Sadly, I am not very surprised. Robert Frost put it succinctly when he said sardonically in his poem Mending Fences[1], “good fences make good neighbors.” Humanity is expert at dividing people along racial, social, and economic lines. Even when all this is equal, we divide into athletes, stay-at-home parents, career women and men, geeks, and more. We can think of an infinite variety of ways to divide, classify, and exclude! Even our institutions contribute to dividing us. And our church, unfortunately, has often led the way. In the name of Christianity, we have endorsed slavery, forced conversions during the Spanish Inquisition, forced Jews to live in ghettos, and more. Even after slavery ended, the United Methodist Church had a special conference for African Americans. And just this year we are voting to give the “Central Conference,” which is the entire rest of the world, its own voice and ability to steer its own future...finally. Even at a local church level we can divide. We have music people and word people, traditional vs. contemporary, old-timers vs. newbies.

There are stories, though, that run counter to this human weakness. Where the church has torn down walls rather than built them.

Two examples immediately come to mind. One is the work the Methodist General Board of Church and Society is doing. Through their actions, the church is standing against economic, racial, and social unfairness. One area of recent action has been the work to equalize sentencing for crack and powder cocaine. Apparently, white folks tend to use the more expensive powder cocaine while African Americans use the cheaper crack cocaine. By equalizing the sentencing, it will begin to equalize sentencing disparities between whites and African Americans. For some people, the sentencing will increase, but racial equity will be one step closer.

The second example is something that Bear Creek has been involved with nearly from the beginning. That is Tent City IV. Tent City IV was established at St. Brendan’s in Bothell. When it came time to move to a new location, the first organizational meeting for hosting Tent City IV in Woodinville was right here in this sanctuary. Faith communities from the Cottage Lake Cluster of churches gathered together. Deb Eichstadt from the Unitarian Universalist Association up the road came in with a general game plan and got us going. Lutheran, Universalist, Methodist, United Church of Christ, and more. We were all involved together as an ecumenical group to bring Tent City IV to Woodinville and to care for the people, God’s beloved children, that would be housed there. We are still involved in providing services to Tent City. If you are interested in helping provide food or other goods, please contact the Mission Committee or Chris Aakre.

Today, the seed group that supported Tent City IV when they were at St. Brendan’s has evolved into a group called Eastside Cares which consists of 30 different denominations and over 900 volunteers. That is what the expansive, unifying love of Christ can do. Christ can tear down some walls!

There are some walls that are good—ethical and moral walls that constrain us from behaving badly. These walls should stay, but the ones that we keep erecting that God has already knocked down need to go! God is in the uniting business, not the dividing business! When Jesus said to feed the hungry--that was one wall knocked down. When Jesus said to give the thirsty something to drink, that was one more wall knocked down. When Jesus said to care for the stranger, clothe the needy, care for the sick, and to visit the imprisoned. Bam! Walls were being exploded!

I imagine that the walls stayed down for about 5 minutes before some of us, in our humanity, started stacking the bricks back up. In his letter to the Ephesians, Paul is addressing problems that many church communities were having. A big problem then was the integration of Jewish followers of Jesus and Gentile followers. How do you live as a community that embraces both groups—Jew and Gentile? Jews, even though followers of The Way of Christ, still adhered to the mitzvot or law system[2]. Committed Jews who also followed the way of Christ were committed to following the law and Jesus.

Paul uses Jesus as the covenant maker in a way that Jew and Gentile would have understood. People during this time had a traditional way of symbolizing new covenants or peace treaties. Two parties that had been in serious conflict would celebrate a new covenant by killing an animal. They would have the animal cut into two pieces, and the two parties would walk between the two pieces to signify the terms of the agreement. Along with stating the terms of the peace came a statement calling the blood of the animal as a witness that the same result should happen to either party that would break the terms of the peace. Paul invokes Jesus as the terms of the agreement between Jew and Gentile. The language he uses, while unfamiliar to us, would have been very easily understood by that culture. Jesus is the peacemaker, the unifier.

Unfortunately, the peace Paul was calling for in these early church communities still needs to be reestablished and reinvented. We are not at peace. We have built more walls than I can imagine. Paul gives us very straightforward instructions to tackle disunity later in Ephesians 4. Paul pleads with the community to “Treat one another charitably, in complete selflessness, gentleness, and patience. Do all you can to preserve the unity of the Spirit through the peace that binds you together. There is one body and one Spirit—just as you were called into one hope when you were called. There is one Savior, one faith, one baptism, one God and Creator of all, who is over all, who works through all and is within all.” Simple instructions! We could boil the instructions down to:

1. Be completely gentle and humble

2. Walk with each other in love

3. Find out what role you are to play in the body of Christ

Or even simple, “love God, love your neighbor.”

Who thinks these are easy tasks?

I also think we get confused as to what unity means. In the case of Tent City IV, it did not mean that we all had to sign a faith statement that would force each of us onto the same doctrinal task. It meant that we provided housing for the stranger. Which comes first, doctrine or love? Is the creed more important than the action? I don’t think so. I think that God laughs each time we try to write a statement of who precisely God is.

So what is unity? The definition I like is “a whole or totality as combining all its parts into one.”[3] Combining all its parts into one. That seems kind of like the body of Christ. We are each a part of Christ’s body combining into one. Somehow we get wrapped up in our individual roles rather than focusing on the unity of the body. If we envision Bear Creek UMC as the hand, suddenly our hand grows disproportionately to the rest of the body and our hand is giant, in our minds. Or maybe another church up the street would say that their foot is the most important part because without feet, where would the support be? We all fall victim to having our own point-of-view. It is natural but that does not mean that we can’t fight against it.

Paul’s instructions are helpful, but not very specific. Gentleness and humbleness are the skills needed to live in the unity that Christ has called his community to. Here, Paul is chastising the Ephesians because of a failure of unity among God's people that is a refusal to be a part of the mission that God is doing in the world. Let me say that again. The people of God are participating in a failure of unity that amounts to a refusal to be a part of the mission that God is doing in the world. When the Ephesians start pointing fingers at each other, they are no longer focused on the details of bringing the kingdom to life, but on the details that turn their heads and hearts away from the mission of God. What discipling can happen when the family is arguing?

It does not take a lot of imagination to see how this letter to the Ephesians is still relevant to us today.

A few nights ago, Robert and I were having a “deep theological discussion” about the role free will plays vs. the role of the all-powerful God. I know, sounds like fun at the Stewart household, right? Anyway, we did not agree on the minutiae of how we perceive God’s plan to work in our reality. Robert finished with a statement along the lines of “I am so grateful that we have a God that lets us hold on to the beliefs that we need to have.” I am convinced of the truth of that statement! I think it is an interpretation of the story in Acts where suddenly, everybody understands what the disciples are saying. We have each been gifted with our own love languages that we use to understand and communicate with God. It is never my way or Robert’s way, but a creative third way that we have failed to imagine. But God never fails to imagine. The unity of Christ’s body is more inclusive than my way or Robert’s way.

John Wesley said, “I want the whole Christ for my Savior, the whole Bible for my book, the whole Church for my fellowship, and the whole world for my mission field.” The whole. That means the parts that we find easy to embrace and the parts that we find challenging. Unfortunately, that is the truth of Christ. Love what you don’t like. The challenge for us is how do we carry this lesson into today? Christian unity is much easier to say than to do.

What can you do today, this hour, to further the church’s unity? I think a good start would be to invite someone here to lunch or to coffee. Reach across the pew and find someone new to talk to. Or next time you come in, sit in a totally different spot—that will start a revolution! Those are small things that will impact people right away.

What we do matters. If we listen with love rather than jump to conclusions, it matters. If we can train our first reaction to be one of love and grace rather than superiority and irritation, we will be able to create a more unified church. Remember, unity is not holding on to the same truth, but unity is allowing God’s different love languages to speak. By allowing the love languages to speak, the realization of God’s kingdom on earth and of Christ’s mission will be one step closer.

And so I leave you with a few questions: What is God saying to you today? What love language are you hearing? What love languages do you see in others? And lastly, can you find a role in reconciling and honoring these languages to further the mission of God?

Shalom and Amen.


[2] As an aside, did you know there are 613 commandments in the Hebrew scriptures?


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