Sermon idea: The source of Christian unity is not us (our beliefs, practices, thoughts, opinions); the source of Christian unity is Christ - we belong to Christ.
Series theme: A Holy Mess: Christian Unity in the 21st Century
I usually outline my sermons and then preach by following that outline. But this morning I have done something a little different; I wrote the whole thing out, word for word. I did it this way because I want to be particularly careful with my word choices today, and also because I want to make sure I say the same thing at all three services this morning. (Most Sundays, my sermons are a “holy mess,” and you never know what you’re going to hear from one service to the next, as Pastor Adrienne can tell you!)
It feels like there is an extra significance to this sermon, because it is coming just a few days ahead of a specially called session of the General Conference of the United Methodist Church, which is the global meeting of 864 delegates tasked to set policy and doctrine for our entire denomination. Normally, the General Conference meets every four years; the last one was in 2016 and the next one will be in 2020.
One of the reasons the United Methodist Church is having a special called session of General Conference next week is simply this: we have been trying to have two very different conversations simultaneously, and that, predictably, has not been very productive.
For some (and I put myself in this group) the conversation is about ecclesial practices, specifically marriage and ordination. These two practices of the church are significant, meaningful, and important aspects of the church’s identity. For our Roman Catholic siblings, they are sacraments.
And so for this group of United Methodists, the questions on the table are, “Will we marry same-sex couples?” and “Will we ordain people regardless of sexual orientation?” Much of the conversation is defined as a dialogue about allowing for differences in the practices of ministry. It is equivalent to a conversation about whether to baptize infants by sprinkling or to baptize teenagers by full immersion. A significant, meaningful practice of the church, done differently in different contexts.
I am able to define the conversation this way, but others are not.
For others (and I have many friends and colleagues in this group) the conversation is about sin and salvation, specifically the church’s response to and inclusion of those they believe are unrepentant sinners. This group embraces the idea, “Love the sinner; hate the sin,” and would say that gay people are welcome to be a part of the church, on the condition that they not be married or ordained here.
For this group of United Methodists, the questions on the table are, “Will we condone sin?” and “Will we be disobedient to Scripture?” It is deeper than just a different way to do ministry, because it speaks to a reality of all human experience, namely our sexuality. For this group, the conversation is visceral, and fundamental to our Christian faith. It is equivalent to a conversation about the nature of God or the divinity of Jesus.
Granted, this is an over-simplification, an artificially binary viewpoint that does not adequately describe the nuance and subtlety of the situation. But I think this is a fairly accurate illustration of the holy mess that lies ahead of us. How is it possible to even converse about a way forward, much less discern one, when we are stuck having two such dramatically different yet simultaneous conversations?
And there are some who have already answered this question, deciding, “No, we cannot talk about this any more. It’s time to go.” Indeed there have already been members, pastors, even entire congregations who have left the United Methodist Church, in part because we do not agree on the parameters of the conversation itself. After next week, there will undoubtedly be more who leave, no matter what the outcome of the General Conference may be.
I want to say that I do not begrudge anyone’s decision to leave one congregation for another, or to leave one denomination altogether and connect with another, when that decision is about discipleship. When you join a church, you join a group of people with whom you want to follow Jesus. A group of people who will encourage you and hold you accountable to your Christian discipleship, and for whom you can provide similar encouragement and accountability.
Joining a church is all about choosing a certain group of people to walk among in your Christian journey.
And many factors go into that decision, among them location, size, style of worship, theology of the pastor, even whether or not the congregation hosts same-sex weddings. The point is to follow Jesus, not what particular church you are a part of.
Different congregations and different denominations are expressions of the diversity of the Church, one body with many members. The Church’s unity is not dependent upon our understandings, but rather depends on God. As Paul wrote, ...to this end Christ died and lived again, so that he might be Lord of both the dead and the living. Why do you pass judgment on your brother or sister? Or you, why do you despise your brother or sister? For we will all stand before the judgment seat of God. (Romans 14)
Christ is Lord of all of us. Resurrection means that each and every one of us belongs to God, and to God alone. If Christ died and lived again for all of us, if we actually believe that we all belong to God, then can we not commit to be united in the hard work of honest, respectful, and gracious dialogue about our differences of opinion?
Or will we insist that our unity comes not from Christ, but from a uniformity of belief? A uniformity which, when absent, thereby erodes our essential spiritual unity. I for one do not equate Christian unity with doctrinal uniformity. Granted, uniformity is tidier than unity, and we do like things to be “neat and tidy.” But unity can actually be quite messy, and it does not even imply lock-step uniformity.
In fact when Jesus himself discussed unity, he did not describe uniformity of specific teachings. Rather, he prayed for unity in profoundly relational terms, expressing his desire in John 17: “I ask not only on behalf of these, but also on behalf of those who will believe in me through their word, that they may all be one. As you, Father, are in me and I am in you, may they also be in us, so that the world may believe that you have sent me. The glory that you have given me I have given them, so that they may be one, as we are one, I in them and you in me, that they may become completely one, so that the world may know that you have sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me.”
Notice, Jesus asks us not to believe in a list of particular ideas, but rather to believe in him. It is our relationship with Jesus that unites us, not our beliefs about Jesus. And the reason Jesus unites us as one body is so that the world will know. Our unity is a witness to the world, a testimony to the power of God’s love.
I have heard some criticize “unity for unity’s sake.” They ask, “Are we to remain united at all costs? How much disagreement is enough, and how disagreement much is just too much? Are we just wanting unity for the sake of unity?” My answer: “Yes, in a way.” Unity in diversity is inherently a witness to the power of God’s love, and to the death and resurrection of Jesus. When we are united in spite of disagreement, we are announcing to the world that Christ is bigger than us, that God’s love is more powerful than our disagreements, and that the Holy Spirit is alive and well within and among us all.
This profound, relational unity is accomplished not by us but by the Holy Spirit, whose unifying power on Pentecost gave all who gathered the ability to understand, in spite of their obvious linguistic diversity. This spiritual unity is not something the Bible says should happen, it is something the Bible says does happen.
Unity is described in many places, including Ephesians 4:1-6. Paul writes, “I therefore, the prisoner in the Lord, beg you to lead a life worthy of the calling to which you have been called, with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love, making every effort to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace. There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called to the one hope of your calling, one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all, who is above all and through all and in all.”
This passage asks us to “maintain” Spiritual unity, not create it. This passage says there “is” one body, not there should be. Spiritual unity is assumed in the Bible. Relational unity in Christ is a given in Scripture. Galatians 3:26-28 emphasizes the point this way, “...in Christ Jesus you are all children of God through faith. As many of you as were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.”
Unity is described, taken as a given for followers of Jesus. The Bible doesn’t say “You should be one.” The Bible says “You are one.”
We who are called “Methodist” should understand this more deeply than anyone. It is in our theological DNA, so to speak. The founder of our movement, John Wesley, seemed to get this better than most. Wesley understood Christian unity and was able to talk about it in powerful, articulate ways.
He said, “Every wise man, therefore, will allow others the same liberty of thinking which he desires they should allow him; and will no more insist on their embracing his opinions, than he would have them to insist on his embracing theirs. He bears with those who differ from him, and only asks him with whom he desires to unite in love that single question, ‘Is thy heart right, as my heart is with thy heart? … If it be, give me thy hand.’”
This is a quote from Wesley’s sermon titled “The Catholic Spirit.” Every United Methodist ought to read the full sermon at some point; this week would be a pretty opportune time to do so. Because, as I may have mentioned before, we have a pretty significant meeting coming up this week.
Friday evening, I’ll head to St. Louis. Saturday the delegates will convene for a day of prayer together. Sunday we will focus on prioritizing the various proposals. Monday is scheduled for legislative work, amending and perfecting the plan. And then Tuesday, final debate and vote. At least that’s the idea. We’ll see how things go once we get there. It may get a bit … messy.
I’d like to share my personal position with you, knowing that there are people listening to this right now whose position is different than mine. So please don’t get mad and leave - this is me being honest about me.
I do not believe the Bible directly blesses same-sex relationships, nor do I believe the Bible directly condemns same-sex relationships. I believe that, in order to bless or condemn them, one has to interpret what the Bible truly says.
So I interpret the Bible to condemn relationships that are idolatrous, abusive, objectifying, and degrading, no matter the gender of the individuals in the relationship.
On the flipside, I interpret the Bible to bless relationships that are loving, respectful, grace-filled, mutually affirming, and committed to a lifelong covenant, no matter the gender of the individuals in the relationship.
And because of how I interpret Scripture, I would like the United Methodist Church to change our policies that restrict marriage to only heterosexual couples and restrict ordination to only straight people.
But I know that others interpret Scripture differently. And so I would like for the United Methodist Church to also include an explicit statement that says pastors are not compelled to marry any couple, nor are bishops compelled to ordain any person, if their conscience does not permit them to do so. For the record, that makes me a fan of what is known as the “One Church Plan.”
And along with that change, I want us to stay together, as messy as that may be. I want us to recognize that unity is not uniformity. I want us to honor Christ’s life, death, and resurrection by affirming the truth of our spiritual unity, in spite of our diverse theological perspectives. The source of our unity is not us, not our beliefs, not our practices, not our thoughts and opinions. The source of Christian unity is Christ.
The United Methodist Church seems to be at a tipping point, and the old structures of the connection are rapidly eroding. It is a theological Gethsemane moment for us - And if we believe in resurrection, this is not a bad thing.
Rather than worry about who might leave the denomination after next week, shouldn't we be excited about who might join? Shouldn't we celebrate the new life emerging from the tomb? I, for one, commit to a resurrection redefinition of our beloved connection, and I hope the other delegates will too.
We are all, each and every one of us, a beloved child of God. We all belong to God. That is a stronger bond than any we could ever create ourselves.