Unity

In November of 1905, the Rev. William Reed Huntington, Rector of Grace Church, New York and umpteen time General Convention Deputy, known affectionately as the First Presbyter of the Episcopal Church, preached a sermon on church unity at the Inter-Church Conference on Federation.  In that sermon, he lamented the fractured state of Christianity in the United States.  He laid before the audience three motivations for unity in the Church: intellectual, moral, and economic.  Intellectually, he feared that among Protestants, the question of authority that had been settled, at least to his mind, at the Reformation were being ripped open again.  The infallible title that had been removed from the Papacy in the 16th century had, over time, been placed upon the Bible, which Huntington thought, and I agree, was the source of entirely too much division.  Morally, Huntington wondered what damage the rifts among denominations would inflict upon American society.  If we are too busy arguing and being ugly toward one another, how can we have any positive influence upon the world in which we live?  Finally and reluctantly, WRH asks what kind of stewardship it is to have so much redundancy in faith communities.  Here, we find the money quote (pardon the pun) for this sermon, “The multiplication of half-filled meeting-houses and half-famished ministers in little country towns, is a sight to make the angels weep…”

More than 100 years later, not much has changed.  In fact, the rate at which disunion is expanding seems only to ever increase.  Now-a-days there are 84,000 ways to order a cup of coffee at Starbucks, and just under half as many, 33,000, denominations in the United States.  We are, it would seem, hopelessly divided, doomed to a future of angels weeping over dilapidated churches, opening their doors to four faithful souls, only on Christmas and Easter.  How is it, that we have fallen so far away from the prayer that Jesus prayed over his disciples on the night before he died, “that they may all be one”?

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Having studied the late Reverend Huntington quite extensively, I think his assessment of the situation is quote accurate, even a century later.  The question of authority and where it rests is a wound that is constantly being ripped open again and again, and it is such a fools errand to study.  Whether we place authority in the Church, the Pope, or the Bible, we have missed the point entirely.  For all authority comes from only one source, not made by human hands or intellect, but begotten of the Father, Jesus the Christ.

The question of authority will not be answered by “certain elaborate philosophies of religion, systems of theology, bodies of divinity,… or in the observance of complicated forms of worship, intricate liturgical arrangements, heavily brocaded rituals; but one through Him whom John the Baptist pointed as the Lamb of God, whom Simon Peter owned to be the Christ, whom fifty generations of believers have called Blessed.”

At the end of Matthew’s Gospel, as Jesus seemingly prepares to ascend to the right hand of the Father, he says to the group gathered on the mountain in Galilee, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me.  God therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you.  And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.”  Jesus delegated some authority to the disciples because he wouldn’t be present in bodily form any more, but with the promise that he would be with them, and us, always, we can be certain that authority will forever rest upon his shoulders.  If, somehow, we could all agree on that, perhaps the kind of unity that Jesus prayed for would be possible.

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They will know we are Christians by our…

One of Jesus’ more famous sayings comes early in his Farewell Discourse to his disciples on the night before he died.  After washing their feet, he gives them the new commandment that we heard two weeks ago: Love another.  “By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.”  In my context, as an Episcopalian in the Central Gulf Coast, John 13.35 has become larger than life as it is a key song in the Cursillo Community, a strong voice for renewal in my diocese.  While there is quite a bit about Peter Scholtes’ song that is left to be desired, it is a solid reminder that our call as disciples is to love one another.

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Of course, this isn’t the only thing Jesus says his disciples should be know for.  In fact, in the very same speech, some four chapters later, which we will hear on Sunday, Jesus says that the world will come to know the Father through those who are in Christ, just as Christ is in the Father and the Father is in Christ Jesus.  What it means to be “in Christ” is a little ambiguous in the NRSV, but several older translations (King James and Young’s Literal) spell out what it means to be in Christ.

“… as Thou Father art in me, and I in Thee; that they also in us may be one, that the world may believe that Thou didst send me.”

The world will know that we are disciples of Jesus, who was the one sent by God to save the world, by our unity.  If this really is a criteria for God’s successful evangelization of the world, then we are doing a pretty poor job of living up to it.  American Christianity, in particular, seems to have as many flavors as there are ways to order a cup of coffee at Starbucks.  How, then, can we live into the ideal that Jesus set for us in his Farewell Discourse?  The key seems to be that we go back to the first test of discipleship: that we have love for one another.

Unity comes from love.  It comes from respecting differences of opinion while honoring the core values we share.  Unity can be found between Southern Baptists, Congregationalists, Orthodox, Episcopalians, and Presbyterians in our shared love for Jesus Christ and for one another.  We may disagree on governance, on scriptural interpretation, on the relationship of science and faith, on same-sex marriage, on liturgy, on an educated pastorate, on musical style, and even on the date of Easter, but in the end, our unity can be found in Christ, just as Christ is in the Father.  Would that we could show the world that unity instead of the messiness of our differences that they might come to believe in the one whom God has sent.

The Challenge of Unity

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On the average Sunday at Saint Paul’s, there will be 150(+/-) people gathering in the same space to worship God, to hear the word read and proclaimed, and to receive nourishment in  Christ’s body and blood.  And while we all come to the same place, we are far from the vision of unity that is often lifted up as the hoped for fruit of Jesus’ high priestly prayer.  We are 7:30 and 10 o’clock.  We are young and old and somewhere in between.  We are deeply committed to our faith and not quite sure what it is all about.  We are apostles, disciples, seekers, and skeptics.  We are worship and doubt; joy and anxiety; intellect and feelz – some of us all at the same time.  Each person arrives on Sunday in need of something different.  Expand that out to include all 1.8m Episcopalians, the roughly 226m Christians in the US, and the maybe 2.2b Christians world wide, and it seems like we are falling woefully short of Jesus’ prayer that we all might be one.

Unity is a challenge because each of us comes to our faith through the lens of our own life experiences.  Some have been deeply rooted in the practices of Christianity since a young age.  They are deeply devoted to a life of prayer, corporate worship, and Bible study.  They listen for the Spirit at work in their lives.  And they come up with any number of different ways to live, vote, shop, and work for the Kingdom of God.  Others are relatively new to the faith.  They are learning the practices of Christianity maybe in fits and starts.  They are striving to hear the voice of God amid the cacophony of other voices.  And they come up with any number of different ways to live, vote, shop, and work for the Kingdom of God.  In America, in 2016, in the midst of one of the worst election seasons on record, with three of the four top candidates professing the Christian faith, it is clear that unity is still a long way off.  However, as disciples of Jesus, it seems foolish for us to not strive after the fulfillment of Jesus final words before his arrest.

How do we find unity amid such diversity?

Just as his prayer comes to an end, Jesus speaks a deep truth that we ought not miss in all the unity language.  “I made your name known to them, and I will make it known, so that the love with which you have loved me may be in them, and I in them.”  Even as we struggle to find unity with those in the pews around us; those who work in our offices; those who live in our neighborhoods; those who vote in our precincts; it is important to remember that the source of the unity for which Jesus prays is the love of God in us.  In order to acknowledge God’s love for me, I have to also be willing to acknowledge God’s love for my neighbor who votes the wrong way, drives the wrong vehicles, owns the wrong number of guns, and worships in the wrong church.  Across all the things of this world that would pull us toward disunity, the love of God serves as the great unifying force.  God’s love for each and every individual he has created is the underlying factor in every push toward unity in the church.  To recognize the love of God in another is to recognize their inherent dignity which serves as the starting point of unity.

A House Divided?

Before Abraham Lincoln and license plates throughout SEC country made it famous, Jesus said that a house divided against itself will not be able to stand.  He reiterates that point in the context of the Church that will grow out of his ministry in the High Priestly Prayer at the end of John’s Gospel, but this Sunday, we will hear it in the context of Mark’s third chapter, as Jesus is being denounced as “out of his mind” and “Beelzebul.”  As Episcopalians, we will hear this text two weeks out from the opening of the 78th General Convention, which is always a time of great contention and consternation, and on the heels of a report (albeit one with an obvious agenda behind it) that The Episcopal Church is set to rack up more than $42 million in legal fees on litigation against former members.

A house divided against itself, indeed.

And yet, as I begin to research and write my thesis for a Doctor of Ministry degree at Sewanee, I came upon a short book, written by the Rev. Dr. William Reed Huntington in 1891 called Popular Misconceptions of the Episcopal Church.  In that text, he devotes a whole chapter to the argument, prevalent even in 1891 it seems, that The Episcopal Church was a house divided.  In Dr. Huntington’s day and age, the issue was the ongoing debates between the High, Low, and Broad Church parties, but you could easily bring the conversation forward 120 years and exchange it for debates over human sexuality or church structure or whatever.  He argues, rather convincingly, I think, that it is precisely because of the place of warring groups within The Episcopal Church that we are not divided, but rather models of what it means to be in relationship despite disagreement.

“It is because of its having gradually acquired, during a long history, this inclusive character, that the Episcopal Church is able without immodesty to volunteer its good offices in that effort to come to a better understanding which so many souls in all the communions are earnestly desirous of seeing set on foot.  Such overture would be impertinent indeed if this Church were really ‘a house divided against itself;’ – but is it that?  Come and see.” (Popular Misconceptions, p. 87)

$42 million on lawsuits to the contrary, the hallmark of Anglicanism has been our ability to carry on alongside those with whom we disagree.  One of the great gifts of our Church has, at least historically, been that despite some strong theological disagreements, we can all come to the altar and share in the bread and wine, the body and blood of our Lord.  As we enter the usual period of anxiety around General Convention, my prayer is that we remember that we need not be a house divided, but rather we are a Church built on the foundation of unity, even in disagreement, that our Savior prayed and ultimately died for.

Say Farewell to the Farewell Discourse

Don’t get me wrong, I’m as big a fan of the Gospel according to Saint John as anyone else, but as we arrive on our third week of the Easter season in the rambling prose of Jesus’ Farewell Discourse, I’m ready to say adios to it.

As is always the case with John’s Gospel, there are several nuggets worth digging for in Sunday’s pericope.  First, since this is the Sunday immediately following the Feast of the Ascension, the preacher could spend some time unpacking John’s understanding of Jesus’ glorification; dealing especially with John’s view of the cross as Jesus true ascension.  The problem there, of course, is the strong temptation to turn your Sunday sermon into a theology paper, which is deadly to preacher and congregation alike.  The second possible preaching path is also fraught with danger because Jesus’ one-sided conversation with his Father about the disciples begins to sound awfully predestinationy.  As one who is apt to get too heady with his sermons, I’m not even going to start thinking about this possible path.  So, then, we have the third option, dealing with Jesus’ prayer that we might be one.

This is one of those Gospel messages that is easier said than done.  It is simple for the preacher to stand in the pulpit and describe the perfect vision of the Church Universal, one flock with one shepherd, but the reality is quite different.  Just a few minutes ago, a member of the Centennial Committee for the City of Foley was here to pick up some historical information about Saint Paul’s.  They are working to put together a notebook of the oldest congregations in town, of which Saint Paul’s is one.  In fact, she said there were something like 15 congregations in Foley that are older than 50 years old and 36 (thirty-six!!!!!) churches in the Foley city limits.  36!  That is a lot more than one, and the City of Foley is just a microcosm of the rest of the world, where the trappings of religious expression have long since surpassed theology for the reason for denominational squabbling.

Jesus’ prayer for unity is a dangerous message to preach this week, but it is probably the safest of the rest of our passage from his Farewell Discourse.  What are you going to preach this week?