Rev. Susan Brecht “An Elephant in the Room”
I Corinthians 1:10-18:
Now I appeal to you, brothers and sisters, by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that all of you should be in agreement and that there should be no divisions among you, but that you should be united in the same mind and the same purpose. For it has been reported to me by Chloe's people that there are quarrels among you, my brothers and sisters. What I mean is that each of you says, "I belong to Paul," or "I belong to Apollos," or "I belong to Cephas," or "I belong to Christ." Has Christ been divided? Was Paul crucified for you? Or were you baptized in the name of Paul? I thank God that I baptized none of you except Crispus and Gaius, so that no one can say that you were baptized in my name. (I did baptize also the household of Stephanas; beyond that, I do not know whether I baptized anyone else.) For Christ did not send me to baptize but to proclaim the gospel, and not with eloquent wisdom, so that the cross of Christ might not be emptied of its power.
For the message about the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God.
It all began with 13 men sitting around a table celebrating a passover meal in an upper room in Jerusalem. I like to think there might have been some women there too. Somebody had to cook! We will never know for sure.
It was to be their last meal together. Jesus and one of the 12 were aware of that, but the rest were blind to what laid ahead. The writers of our four gospels each tell the story in a slightly different way, but in each: “while they were eating, Jesus took a loaf of bread, and after blessing it he broke it, gave it to the disciples, and said, ‘Take, eat; this is my body.’ Then he took a cup, and after giving thanks he gave it to them, saying; Drink from it, all of you; for this is my blood of the covenant…’ (Matt. 26: )
This simple act was to become a sacrament handed down over generations, celebrated for 2,000 years in different forms, with different meanings, for Christians across the globe. It is in this sacrament that we are united, despite our diversity and differences, in Holy Communion, as the body of Christ.
Pastor Reebee had this marvelous idea to send our love and blessings of peace to friends in churches all over our country and world, and ask them to reciprocate. ___ churches from ___ denominations, in ___ countries wrote us back with blessings. Their names are on this map which you can look at during fellowship.
A friend of mine, Father Peter Daly, the principal of a Catholic boys high school in Perth, Australia, wrote me, “It is good to celebrate what we have in common rather than be distracted by the different ways we live church.”
Those 12 disciples, sharing that final passover meal, grew to approximately 2 billion followers of Christ today. In our letter from Paul to the Corinthians, he pleads with those early Christians to put their differences aside, to stay unified in love, but his words have fallen on deaf ears over the years. Today Christianity has splintered into 41,000 different denominations and organizations, 1,500 of them in the U.S..
Considering the state of Christianity, world religions in general, our politicians, our country, and the world right now, Paul has a poignant message for us. As Eugene Peterson paraphrases him in The Message, “I’ll put it as urgently as I can: You must get along with each other. You must learn to be considerate of one another, cultivating a life in common.”
Divisiveness in the church is nothing new. It dates back to the early Christians. Attempts were made early on to impose uniformity on the Christian lifestyle, as well as the liturgy of the Eucharist - with ‘partial’ success. “Widely differing types of Christians lived along side each other, even within the longer established communities.”
I love the story, “back in 100 CE, in Asia Minor where a man named Cerinthas held the idea that the world was not created by the Supreme God. It was said that John, the “disciple of the Lord” ran out of the bathhouse at Ephesus on learning that Cerinthas was there, in fear that the building might collapse on the enemy of truth.” What a picture that creates!
There was even a lack of clear consensus on the relationship required between Christian worshippers and Christ himself. The synoptic gospels, and John and Paul all have their own take on Jesus, and even their own way of referring to him. If those who may have known him first hand or even second hand, couldn’t agree on who he was, and his message, where does that leave the rest of us? No wonder Christians have splintered into different factions down through the centuries.
Whenever I think about all the divisiveness in the world today, all the partisanship, all the people demanding that they are right and everyone who disagrees with them is wrong, I think of the young seminarian I worked with one summer at Methodist Hospital in Arcadia - sitting across from me, red in the face, fists clenched, speaking through a tightened jaw; “I just don’t understand why we all can’t believe the same thing? !!! ”
Of course my answer was, “You mean, believe everything you believe?”
But a better answer comes from a parable that I first heard in a song written by David Roth. Turns out it originated in India and has crossed many religious traditions. It’s called “The Parable of the Blind Men and the Elephant.” Have any of you heard it?
In the Buddhist version a number of his disciples come to him asking for his opinion of wandering hermits and scholars who are constantly arguing over their version of the truth, of reality.
So he tells them this parable: (and I am paraphrasing) Once upon a time a raja instructed his servant to gather together all the men in the town who were born blind and show them an elephant- but show each man a different part of the elephant, saying to each that that was the elephant. Then he asked them to tell him what sort of thing an elephant was.
Well, each, of course, had a different opinion. It was like a winnowing basket, a plough share, a pilar, and on and on. Then they began to quarrel, shouting, “Yes it is!” “no, it is not! An elephant is not like that!” till they came to blows over the matter.
And the moral of the story? David Roth capsulizes it in his song: “An elephant is all these things and much, much more. The sum of which is greater than the parts we felt before… Whatever you think you see depends on where you stand and how you feel.”
It’s a much needed lesson for our world today, not only for our religious leaders, but our politicians, pundits and all of us out there listening and arguing our own truths to whoever will listen.
Like those blind men, each of us tends to believe we have a hold on the real thing, on the truth, but we only know the world through our own experience, and that is limited. Christ asks us, first and foremost, to love one another. Love, like criticism, can’t be taken seriously when when we don’t respect our differences, and insist everyone agree with us. Rev. Bill Green wrote in a Still Speaking Devotional:
”While faith speaks of our oneness in Christ, this embraces all kinds of difference and contrariety...Speaking the truth in a spirit of love is ... remembering that when your views upset me, or mine upset you, it’s because they trigger something in our respective experiences that runs deeper than reason or logic. We’re the best critics, and the best receivers of criticism, when we remember that our differences cry out for respect before they can be resolved.”
In 1st Corinthians Paul tells us, “You should be united in the same mind and the same purpose.” As Christians, does that mean you have to be united in the same doctrine? I don’t think so - the same liturgy? - no, not necessarily - not even in the same language.
What counts is our purpose - to be united in what mattered to Jesus; “to repent” - which means to turn our lives around, not only our values and sensibilities, but our entire sense of identity - to become followers of Christ, working to create the kin-dom of heaven he is ushering in. We may express it in different ways. We may achieve our common goals in different ways. That’s what makes life rich and interesting.
To follow Jesus, those early disciples had to physically leave their old life behind. They also had to let go of some long held beliefs and ways of thinking. Jesus challenged them. He made them look at different sides of an issue, a belief, even a law - broaden their perspectives.
Let’s take a moment, each of us this week, to take off our blinders and look at that elephant from as many perspectives as possible, realizing that we’ll never have the whole picture, and that’s alright. We have what we need for now. But keep looking and exploring in love, with an open mind and heart. I truly think that’s what Jesus would want us to do.
I received the most beautiful message from those at the Tantur Ecumenical Institute in Jerusalem, on a hill near Bethlehem. It’s a place I studied three years ago, that was founded during Vatican 11, as a place where Christians from all different sects and denominations, could come to study and learn from each other, and grow in unity.
They write: “The Tantur Ecumenical Institute wishes Eliot Church a blessed World Communion Sunday. The story of the Last Supper reminds us that even in times of great trials and sorrow, in the presence of those that wish to do us harm, Christ calls us to break bread and love one another. This message remains as relevant in modern-day Jerusalem as it did at the Cenacle on Mount Sion nearly 2,000 years ago. May it be lived to the fullest in your community as we hope it is in ours!