Tag Archives: division

Neither Delusional nor Pretending

This past weekend, I had the honor of preaching at the Door County Service for the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity. Here is the written version of my sermon for that service.

As Nazareth is to Jerusalem, so Door County is to cities like Chicago or New York. Here we are in the relative boondocks holding a service to celebrate and pray for Christian unity. The irony is not lost on me that we do so at a time when in our national life we are so sharply divided that we are almost unable to talk to each other.

And while we’re at it, we might as well put it right out there that even within the Christian Church — perhaps even among the pastors and congregations represented here — our divisions are sharp and deep. We have sliced and diced our traditions, theologies, and practices every which way, Catholics, mainliners, evangelicals. And to you Moravians in the room, I have no idea where the you fit. Pro-life, pro-choice. Some ordain women, some don’t; some embrace gay marriage some don’t. Some of us think the current administration is saving the country, and some of us think he’s driving it off a cliff. Some of us embrace our Jewish and Muslim brothers and sisters, some of us believe their only hope for salvation is conversion to Christianity.

I’ve long been curious about how good people, faithful people can read the same sacred texts and come to such different conclusions. Social psychologist Jonathan Haidt writes about that in his fascinating book, The Righteous Mind. Haidt makes the case that we don’t make our moral decisions rationally. Rather, we make them in our gut, emotionally, intuitively; then we scan the landscape of religion and politics and culture to find substantiation for the decisions we’ve already made in our gut. It makes a whole lot of sense to me in explaining what I see and experience in the church, but it leaves me a bit troubled about the extent to which we as people of God are really listening to the voice of God in our sacred texts.

So, why would we even bother in this context to get together to talk about unity? Are we delusional? Or worse, just pretending? Here’s what I mean about the pretending part: maybe we have this sense, thus burden even, that we really should be unified — after all, Jesus prayed that his followers should be one — but we know deep down that we are not suspect we never will be. But we just go on pretending anyway.

Listen to this passage from Philippians 2. It’s the great hymn to Christ, a grand poem that you likely have heard many, many times. Pay particular attention how Paul introduces the hymn:

If then there is any encouragement in Christ, any consolation from love, any sharing in the Spirit, any compassion and sympathy, make my joy complete: be of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind. Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility regard others as better than yourselves. Let each of you look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others. Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus,

who, though he was in the form of God,

   did not regard equality with God

   as something to be exploited,

but emptied himself,

   taking the form of a slave,

   being born in human likeness.

And being found in human form,

   he humbled himself

   and became obedient to the point of death—

   even death on a cross.

Therefore God also highly exalted him

   and gave him the name

   that is above every name,

so that at the name of Jesus’

   every knee should bend,

   in heaven and on earth and under the earth,

and every tongue should confess

   that Jesus Christ is Lord,

   to the glory of God the Father.

One of the powerful lessons from this grand Christological hymn is that our unity is not a goal to be achieved; it is a gift that has been given. Our unity lies in the reality that we have been given divine life through the death and resurrection of Jesus, the Christ. Too often I admit, that reality is hidden; nevertheless we are one in Christ by divine gift. That divine gift frees us from having to pretend and allows us the joy of celebrating everywhere and always the unity we have in Christ.

The challenge is to live out that unity for the sake of witness to the world. Here’s where Paul’s grand hymn is so helpful. The hymn of Christ’s humiliation and exaltation not only reminds us that our life is in Christ’s death and resurrection, it gives us also the pattern for our own life as church. For Paul, living in Christ means living in surrender for the sake of others. That is only possible when Jesus is Lord and where people call on his name. Only out of the foundational event described in Philippians 2 can community be formed and divisions overcome. Our back-slapping appeals to solidarity, urging us to just be friends, to get along, to acknowledge our brotherhood and sisterhood are inadequate. The sibling rivalries — our various ideologies, and self-righteous certainties in our own versions of the truth — they’re just too strong.

But if we can live from the dying and rising of Jesus, then we can become something new in the world. Then the differences that normally destroy a community will become our treasures, our wealth. See, there really are differences between us, and not to acknowledge them again is to pretend. In theology, practice, tradition, culture, we are not the same and we don’t want to be. But from our differences, through the power of the Holy Spirit can arise a living community that bears witness to the God who so loved the world that God sent God’s son.

Over and over again, Paul describes our differences in terms of different gifts for ministry. In the Christian community of Door County and beyond, there are a variety of gifts. Some communities have the gift of serving as an entry point for seekers, some care for one another really well, some are places where those with doubts and questions will find a home, some are places where the faith is expressed with more emotion than reason, others with more reason than emotion. Some are seedbeds to meet the needs of the people in our community who struggle. To each is given gifts according to the Spirit.

We are the people of God. We are the the Body of Christ. Even in the midst of our differences, our differing gifts, what binds us together in agape love is something that is not possible on our own, but a gift of the Spirit, that same Spirit released through Jesus’ death and resurrection. The agape love that God has demonstrated for us, that we have for one another is also our posture towards the world. “Let each of you look not to you own needs but to the needs of others.”

In our unity, we become the place where the rich come to the aid of the poor, where the laughing console those who weep, the healthy minister to the sick, those who live in families become companions to the lonely. And we discover in the practice of that love that the converse is also true, something that is more than a mere social institution can muster: the poor teach the rich what it means to trust God; the sick teach the healthy by demonstrating joy in the midst of suffering; the weak have a sensitivity to the needs of the community that they share with the strong.

No, friends, we are not delusional; we are realists; and we are Christians. We understand that what binds us together is not our intentions nor our frail and weak-kneed actions, nor our mealy-mouthed pronouncements. What binds us together, what gives us unity, what makes us one is nothing less than Jesus’ death and resurrection, the life we have in him, the community that has been formed by his love.  Now we are called to live that love. And dear God, does the world need to see and feel and be shown that love, especially at a time when hatred and fear and sexism and racism and xenophobia are bearing such miserable fruit. Our unity is in Christ. Our calling is to love. It’s really that simple.    

Which Jesus?

Jesusicon

As young associate pastor in St. Petersburg, Florida, I served at a large Missouri Synod church out in the western part of the city by the beaches. We used to have regular meetings of all the Lutheran clergy in the area, both Missouri and ELCA. One of the the guys who was almost always there was Priit Rebane, an older pastor who served the historic ELCA church in downtown St. Pete. I had the greatest respect for Priit.  He was soft-spoken, theologically astute, and to me, simply oozed pastoral wisdom out of very pore of his being. Priit was the kind of pastor I wanted to be some day. At one of our meetings, he told a story. (Priit, if you ever read this, I hope you’ll forgive inaccuracies; it was 25 years ago, and the particulars are a little fuzzy, but this is how I remember it.) He told about coming out of the seminary, ready for ordination.  He had learned all the theories about the virgin birth, about the resurrection and whether it happened or not, the various criticisms of scripture. By his own estimation, he was a young theological hot shot, headed out into the parish ready to unleash all his learning on some unsuspecting parish. His grandmother sat him down and told him, “Priit, just tell them about Jesus.”

At our Night Prayer service last night, we read from the Gospel of John about some Greek seekers who asked a couple of Jesus’ followers to introduce them. “We wish to see Jesus.”

For those gathering in devotion this week, it’s easy to see ourselves in those wanting to get more of Jesus than a mere glimpse. In our bones, in our souls, to the depth of our being, we understand that what’s happening this week is at the center not only of the Christian faith, but of our own lives with God and of our life together as a community of faith. So, we want to see Jesus.

But what should we tell one another and the world about Jesus this week? In all the conflicting reports of who Jesus was, what he wanted, and what he was trying to accomplish, it doesn’t appear to be as easy as, “Tell them about Jesus.”  By all estimations, he was a good man, a good teacher, a miracle worker, gave his followers an example to follow. Some would argue even that he was a zealot, or a gentle man who inadvertently got caught up in the politics of the times.

In his own words, Jesus invites us to see something different. Last night we read how, as he approached his own impending death, the image he wanted people to behold was his being lifted up, his moment of glory (John 12). He invites us to view the culmination of his whole ministry, the work that he came to do. He invites us to see his enthronement as king of the universe.

Yet that glorification comes as he ascends the throne of the cross. In that cruel, paradoxical enthronement, we are invited to see that in his death life came to us, that his crucifixion removed the barrier of sin and brokenness that stood before a loving God and a fallen humanity and creation.

“And I, when I am lifted up, will draw all things to myself.”  That’s the thing. In his death, he was drawing all people, all things, into the restored unity of God’s love and grace, God’s purpose for the whole world.

I think that’s pretty important in these days when too many of us who identity ourselves with Jesus are seeking to create divides — between the good and the bad, the sinners and the righteous, those who get it and those who don’t, those who stand for biblical values and those who don’t, those who welcome and those who don’t, those who are racist and those who aren’t, those who are Christian and those who aren’t — to pause for a moment and realize that we’re getting it way wrong. His intention was not to create divides, however well-intentioned we might be. His intention was to draw us to God. All of us. Period.

Maybe that’s the Jesus that Priit’s grandmother was looking for. It’s the image that I hope gets burned into our being this week, the image that gets so seared into our minds and our hearts that it starts to issue in the way we behave. That would really be something.