Monday, January 22, 2007

Week of Prayer for Christian Unity

Q: How do you know that Lutherans will be the first ones to rise on the day of resurrection?

A: Because scripture says that the “dead in Christ will rise first.”

I used to tell that joke a little differently. Instead of “Lutheran” I mentioned another church family that would drive me theologically crazy. But then Rebekah gave me a good talking to about being so mean to some of our Christian sisters and brothers. I didn’t think I was being mean. I thought I was being funny.

Today, I’m supposed to preach about Christian unity. To be honest, I haven’t a clue where to begin. I haven’t had a whole of confidence over the whole Christian unity thing over the last little while. To me, it too often seems to be one sided. Only voice speaks, only one interpretation of the gospel is expressed. It seemed that there was only one way to “do” Christian Unity.

But it wasn’t always that way.

When I was in Halifax and was Conference Dean, I was invited to go to all sorts of inter-church, inter-faith, and ecumenical gatherings as the token Lutheran. Some gatherings were wonderful. I had the opportunity to connect with some brilliant, compassionate, and wise church leaders, folks who shepherded me as I took on a greater leadership role within my faith community.

Other gatherings were not so great. From one group of church leaders, I was made fun of for believing certain core doctrines, or scorned for not having the same pastoral priorities as them. And the message was clear: if I wanted to partner with them, if we to do common mission activities, then I and my denomination had better shape up.

Maybe the international ecumenical movement would fair better.

In 1999 the Lutheran World Federation and the Roman Catholic Church signed the Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification. In other words, they were going to sign a paper that said the other side wasn’t going to Hell for believing what they did about what was the defining issue of the Reformation.

Well, the ink wasn’t yet dry before Cara statement from atop the Vatican was released asserting the primacy of the Roman Catholic Church over every other Christian body, including the Lutherans, of course. So much for a historic agreement, we Lutherans muttered to ourselves.

But then, in case you think I’m coming down hard on our Roman Catholic friends, a Lutheran body took out a full page ad in USA Today and the National Post

to make sure the world knew that whoever Lutheran signed and affirmed this declaration with the Roman Catholic Church didn’t speak for them, and that, the Roman Catholics, were indeed, still bound for eternal heat blisters.

No one fights as well as Christians.

Don’t get me wrong, I would LOVE for Christians to find better ways of coming together. I just don’t know exactly what it looks like or where we really need to begin.

Even Paul has trouble finding concrete ways of bring diverse Christians together with a common message.

“You all are different members of one body,” Paul scolds a terribly fractious Corinthian church. “you have a diversity of gifts. Some of you are good at one sort of ministry, but others of you are have gifts for another sort of ministry, etc.”

But I tell you, this time around, as I was trying to come up with something hopeful about Christian unity, a phrase jumped out and grabbed me by the throat, shook me up and down, and become more than mere words on a page, they became the Word of God.

Paul simply says, almost off-handedly, “Now that you are the body of Christ.” It’s amazing to me that Paul would have said that to that particular church. For the last number of chapters Paul was hammering away at them for everything they were doing wrong. The ecclesiastical fist fights they were getting into. The smear campaigns they launched against each other. The fact that they were tearing their church apart because they couldn’t agree on what the heart of their faith was.

He said they ought to be ashamed of themselves, calling themselves Christians and acting they way they were, with their family feuds and doctrinal ignorance, petty divisions and cowardly disloyalty to the faith that Paul so lovingly nurtured in them. This body of Christ was cancerous, and surgery might have been able to save its life.

But, even after all that scolding, Paul does NOT say something like, “You OUGHT to be the body of Christ,” or “If you stop fighting with each other, if you get your theological house in order, if you stop behaving like children crashing down off a sugar high, and start behaving like the Christians you were taught to be, THEN you will be the body of Christ.”

No, Paul just says flat out “You ARE the body.” It’s an amazing thing to say about a group like them. It’s would be an amazing thing to say about a group like us Lutherans.

But Paul just says, Whether you like or not, you are a church family. You are Christ’s body. For all your faults, for all your disagreements, for all your mistakes, you are the only visible form the risen Christ has in the world.

That’s quite the rebuke, don’t you think? But a rebuke and a promise. It tells us that no matter what we do to each other, no matter how much we fight and disagree, no matter far we stray off the beaten theological path, we can’t escape each other. We’re stuck with each other, like it or not.

Does that sound like good news to you? It does to me. But I had to dig around for it. I think God not only sees as we are, fractious groups beset by petty rivalries, but also as we will be: God’s people united in the gospel, joined together by Jesus’ death and resurrection, bonded by a common mission. Christian unity isn’t just something we have to work at, it’s something we’ve already been given. It’s a gift that we’ve received.

I don’t know about you but that brings me tremendous comfort. Sometimes when I think that Christians are probably the only group in the world that can’t get along, I come back to this passage, and the promise that we are already united because we have a common faith in the one who knit us together.

But God still has a lot of knitting to do. But I wonder if the real unity that God is building happens not in the sanctuary during worship, but in the fellowship hall afterwards, at the college where we partner with other churches to serve a good Christmas meal for students, at joint choir rehearsals.

And maybe God is calling us to greater co-operation and partnership as we tackle the greatest threats to life on this planet. The World Council of Churches decided that this year’s Week of Prayer for Christian Unity theme will be the HIV/AIDS crisis in Africa. It’s as if God is saying to us, Stop your fighting and start doing something real. And nothing is more real than an entire continent cries out in agony away while we play religious games.

I believe history will judge us as Christians by how we deal with the African HIV/AIDS crisis. And God will uphold that verdict.

It’s like God is asking us to die to, our cultures, our histories, our customs, and maybe even some of our theologies, and to look in the eyes of a dying child. It would be blasphemous for children to die of horrible diseases while Christians were more interested in keeping the walls between each other strong and clean.

I believe God is placing a challenge before us. God didn’t create this disease, but God wants it stopped. And God is bringing us together and equipping us as God’s people to meet this challenge.

It’s a challenge, an opportunity, and a call for us to respond to suffering cries of an entire continent dying from AIDS. But together, we can help, we can answer that call – together. Those suffering children are asking the world from us. And God is asking even more.

May we have the strength and the will to follow wherever Christ leads us, and may we follow Christ together. Amen.


Blogger Steve Bogner said...

Christian unity, from a Catholic perspective, has always seemed like an effort to convince everyone else they need to join the Catholic church. More like evangelization, I suppose. It will take, in my opinion, some serious effort for Catholicism to bend/repair/change some of the post-Reformation theology to the point we Catholics can really talk seriously about unity.

And I think there is a lot of vested interest in keeping denominations separate & different. It's the differences that have seemed to form so many churches, and if one takes away those differences, or minimizes their important, then that can be a big identity issue.

4:01 AM  

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