16 August 2009

Christian Unity

SERMON for 2 August 2009

Ephesians 4: 1-16

By Sharyn Hall

This past Wednesday, we received an e-mail in the church office from a young woman who was inquiring about getting married at St. Luke’s. She has no connection to this parish, but she wants to be married in our area to be closer to her family. Presently, she and her fiancĂ© are taking marriage classes with a Baptist Pastor, and they would like him to perform the wedding in St. Luke’s. I responded to her e-mail with a polite explanation that St. Luke’s is an Anglican church, and we only have Anglican weddings here. Since they were Baptist, perhaps she should inquire at the local Baptist parish.

Her reply was startling and somewhat offensive, and yet it made me think. She said that they are not Baptists; they are Christians and she didn’t realize that the Anglican Church was exempt from I Corinthians 1: 10-17. In this scripture passage, St. Paul urges the Christian Corinthians to be unified in the same mind, and not to be divided into quarrelling factions according to allegiance to Paul or Appollos or Cephas instead of to Christ. I think her point was that all Christians should be the same, so the Anglican Church had no right to set itself apart from other Christians. To emphasize this point, she also quoted the gospel passage we read a few weeks ago, in which Jesus tells his disciples to kick the dust off their feet, if they are not made welcome.

As much as I found her comments condescending, she drew attention to an ingrained problem of the Christian Church. We are all Christians because we believe in Jesus Christ as our Saviour and our Way to a closer relationship with God, but we seem to disagree on everything else. We argue about scripture, doctrines, theology, morality, liturgy and leadership. The Christian Church in the 21st century is much the same as the Christian communities of the first century.

In our reading today from St. Paul’s letter to the Ephesians, he is trying to persuade the Christians in Ephesus to be unified in Christ. They may be diversified in their gifts and talents, but together they form the body of Christ. St. Paul returned to the theme of unity in Christ many times in letters to various Christian communities. It did not take long for the Christian groups in certain centres to form their own identities and fragment the Christian movement.

Over the centuries, history records the great schisms of Christianity, the separation of the Roman and Orthodox Churches, and the Reformation led by Martin Luther and John Calvin. The creation of the Church of England was another schism in the Christian Church, which was further fragmented by John Knox to form the Presbyterians, and later by John Wesley to form the Methodists. In the Anglican tradition, we have had internal groups which disagree: the Evangelical Anglicans who emphasize scripture and preaching, the Anglo-Catholic Anglicans who emphasize sacrament and ceremony, and many Anglicans whose theology and liturgy are on a continuum between the two poles of thought. In the past few years, our world-wide Anglican Communion has been preoccupied with disagreement over specific issues, but underlying tensions within Anglicanism have been present for generations. Will there be a schism in the global Anglican Communion? Time will tell; but if there is a division, it will not be the end of Anglicanism, nor will it be unusual in the Christian Church.

As Christians we cannot criticize other religions for disobeying God’s commandment to love your neighbours, when our own Christian history reveals numerous examples of Christians being cruel to Christians; and yet in recent years, Christians have reached out for greater understanding and appreciation of our diverse traditions. Christians have worked together to benefit the well-being of people, not only of differing denominations, but also of other faiths. As someone who believes in ecumenical dialogue, and works on behalf of this diocese with Lutherans and Roman Catholics to maintain such dialogue, I can be both encouraged and discouraged as we seem to take steps forward and steps backward in our struggles for Christian unity.

However, what I have learned is that Christian unity does not mean uniformity, and I cannot help but wonder if God intended that diversity should exist in religion as it does in every other aspect of human life. The problem has been our human tendency toward arrogance, prejudice and insecurity, all of which can lead to hatred, cruelty and violence. The prospects for Christian unity are good as long as we do not expect uniformity in a global world of diversity. The prospects for Christian unity also are good if we return again to the life and witness of God’s love in Jesus. Jesus recognized the diversity in the people around him. He respected that diversity, and then he tried to teach people to have respect and compassion for each other.

St. Paul is a prime example of the model Jesus set before us. St. Paul rejected God’s commandment to love your neighbour. He violently persecuted any Jew who accepted the teaching of Jesus, and who believed that Jesus was the Messiah sent by God. St Paul was arrogant, prejudiced and cruel, but Jesus dramatically challenged Paul to see that his way was not God’s way. From Paul’s writing, we get a glimpse of a stubborn, single-minded apostle, who has little patience with those who foster discord within the small Christian communities. St. Paul was struggling for uniformity of Christian beliefs and behaviour, and already the struggle was proving difficult.

There is no single answer to the centuries-old challenge of Christian unity, but St. Paul gives us clues in today’s letter to the Ephesians: we need humility, gentleness and patience; we need to bear with one another in love, and we need to make every effort to maintain the unity of Spirit in the bond of peace.  Amen.

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