As he walked by the Sea of Galilee, he saw two brothers, Simon, who is called Peter, and Andrew his brother, casting a net into the lake--for they were fishermen. And he said to them, ‘Follow me, and I will make you fish for people.’ Immediately they left their nets and followed him. As he went from there, he saw two other brothers, James son of Zebedee and his brother John, in the boat with their father Zebedee, mending their nets, and he called them. Immediately they left the boat and their father, and followed him.
They had no idea what they were getting themselves into. They just blindly followed. At least, according to the writer of this gospel. Maybe they were bored with fishing? - needed a change? - looking for adventure? Christianity certainly wasn’t on their radar. But somehow, they were compelled to follow this man they didn’t know. And eventually, after Jesus was no longer there to physically follow, they too fished for people. And they came! - lots of them! - and Christianity was born.
It’s really quite amazing, when you think about it, how this little band of disciples grew to over 2 billion followers today. That’s mind blowing!
But it was never smooth sailing. After all, Jesus never wrote anything down. There were no formal, written instructions - at least not from him - on how to be a Christian. They had to rely on people’s memories, on stories they had been told and various interpretations of those stories - and we all know how murky that can be. Anyone ever played telephone?
Paul tried to keep them all in line. We hear it in his letters, like this one to the Corinthians:
1 Corinthians 1:10-17
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.
Paul tried to keep them united, but it didn’t work. After all, we’re humans, and we rarely think alike, or remember events in quite the same way. Paul was not exempt. He couldn’t even remember who all he had baptized. Can’t blame him. After all, he was running all over the Mediterranean, spreading the word among people with different cultures, backgrounds, religions and economic status, all the while arguing with those back in Jerusalem over who could eat what with whom and whether gentiles had to be circumcised.
Decades later, people started writing it all down, as best they could remember - in letters and gospels and travel logs, but they didn’t always agree, and some were declared heresy, and others were lost for centuries. When finally found, the stories became even more confusing and conflicting. Today we have a whole book of gnostic gospels that weren’t included in our sacred scriptures. What are we to make of them?
When Emperor Constantine decided it would be in Rome’s best interest to abandon the Roman gods in favor of Christianity, he called the bishops together in his lavish summer residence, to unify those various factions who called themselves Christians, into “one, holy, catholic, apostolic church, administered by a hierarchy, with one creed and one catechism to follow, and a unified form of worship.
The bishops who didn’t agree were executed, or banished to a solitary life on a remote island. Christians were now pressured to be of one mind in matters of faith and belief and practice.
For the first thousand years of Christian history there were no denominations, as we know them today, only offshoot groups. They were quickly declared heretics.
The first major division came in 1054 with the split between the Western (or Roman Catholic) church and the Eastern (Orthodox) church. Theological debates raged on concerning the inerrancy of the Bible, the meaning of baptism, the meaning of Jesus death, the eucharist, the Trinity - you name it, they argued about it.
Then in 1517 Martin Luther posted his 95 Theses on the doors of the church in Wittenberg and the reformation was born. In the 500 years since, Christians have splintered into 41,000 different denominations and organizations, 1,500 in the U.S., many declaring they hold the truth, and in some cases, they are the true Christians.
How many of you were raised in, or once worshipped in a different denomination than the UCC? Which ones? … The diversity here at Eliot reflects so many of our churches. It reminds me of another time and place.
Over 100 years ago, when the community where I served a UCC church in California, was being formed, those who were buying property there, came together and decided that the ideal church for a small community should not be Baptist or Methodist, fundamentalist or modern (as they called the progressives of the time), but all of those things, to meet the spiritual needs of the different people who were coming to form its membership. They were unanimous in thinking they should have an undenominational church for all Christian people of any denomination or no denomination.
The church should have no creed except the commandment laid down by Jesus himself: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and all your mind and with all your soul, and your neighbor as yourself.” The emphasis in this church should be laid not on theology but upon Christ -like living and community service.
The initial 120 members represented 30 different denominations. No wonder they eventually joined the UCC, a denomination that brought four different denominations together in 1957, with the motto: “That they may all be one. In essentials unity, in nonessentials diversity, in all things charity.”
It’s in differentiating between the essentials and non-essentials that arguments still arise. I will always remember the young seminarian sitting across from me years ago, fists clenched, blood rising to his face, saying “I don’t understand why we all can’t believe the same things?!!” to which I replied, “You mean, what you believe? If God wanted us all to think alike, God would have revealed herself to us all in the same way. It’s that insistence of uniformity of belief that has caused so much violence and bloodshed between Christians themselves, and those of other faiths.”
Those wise founders of the UCC realized that, like the earliest Christians, we could not all walk in locked step, being told “This is what you have to believe to be a Christian. This is how you have to worship.”
Way back in 1908, a week was designated as “A Week of Prayer for Christian Unity.” This year, more than any other, I’ve asked myself, What are we actually praying for? What do we mean by Christian Unity in the 21st century? Have we ever been truly united? I have serious doubts about that. But we all lay claim to the title Christian today.
The theme for the Week this year comes from 2nd Corinthians: “Reconciliation; the Love of Christ Compels Us.” How appropriate in these uncertain, fearful, divisive times. Just as Pope Francis and Patriarch Kirill signed an ecumenical declaration last February signaling that the Roman Catholic and the Russian Orthodox churches could unite on issues after their split in 1054, (wow, that took a while) Christians in the U.S. have become more polarized, especially around this election season. Yes, faith and politics do inform each other - always have.
How do progressives talk to those Catholics and Christians on the right who helped put our current president into office? How does our Christian faith, our understanding of Christ and his teachings inform our choices that seem so far apart, and at odds with each other? How do we come together to share in polite dialogue our beliefs, in order to come to a better understanding of each other? This has to happen if we are to move forward to build the kingdom Christ talked about. We can’t just talk to those who we agree with. This is where the last phrase of our motto comes into play: “in all things charity.” That’s the key.
500 years after Luther posted his 95 thesis on the door of that church in Whittenberg, we’re in the midst of another reformation. They don’t happen over night. They are long, drawn out affairs. Change is not just on the horizon. It is here, and there is no way to stop it. We are moving into the unknown. Christianity is changing. Churches are changing, some faster than others.
What does it mean to call yourself a Christian in the 21st Century? Can Christianity exist without the church? I had a phone conversation with a woman who was very involved at Eliot way before my time. She no longer wanted to come to church. She said praying and reading the bible was all you needed to be a Christian. I suppose for some that may be true. It was for the desert fathers living in isolation centuries ago.
But Jesus formed a community of followers. Without them there would be no church, or Christianity. For decades a formal “church” didn’t exist, but there were communities, who bonded together in people’s homes, who shared meals and stories and rituals, and took care of each other. There are communities doing that today, meeting in homes and coffee shops and store fronts, and even pubs. It doesn’t take a big building, but it does take community to “be the church.”
This sermon began with a ‘call story.’ What are we being called to do in these turbulent times of change - in the church and in our country? Jim Antal, the Minister and President of the MA Conference of the UCC sent out a reflection this week entitled “Called to be the church… at a time such as this.” This is not a time to hibernate in the desert with our bibles. We are being called to action.
What does it mean to Be The Church? How many of you have read the sign we placed on the front lawn this past year? I put it on the front of our bulletin today. Let’s read it together:
BE THE CHURCH
Protect the environment. Fight for the powerless.
Care for the poor. Share earthly and spiritual resources.
Forgive often. Embrace diversity.
Reject racism. Love God. Enjoy this life.
Many of us in the UCC ordered these aprons to wear at the Women’s March yesterday in Boston. A lady happened to notice mine as we were standing, waiting to march and she started reading it. After she finished, she said “That’s beautiful!” Yes, it is. It’s what it means to Be The Church.
Our country and our world needs the church more than ever, to come together, to speak out, and to take action - to truly be the church, one, that if Christ were walking around today, he would be proud of. It’s all about love, that’s what always draws us together, acknowledging that despite our differences, we are all God’s beloved children.
Yesterday, many of us in the UCC met for the Women’s March in Boston at the Duck Statues, adorned with those cute pink hats. From there we prayed and marched to the Commons behind our BE THE CHURCH sign to join 175,000 peaceful people exercising their right to the First Amendment. Over a couple dozen from Eliot attended the march. I can’t tell you how uplifting it was to see all those people streaming in to the Commons, from every direction. This is what it means to be the church.
Ted Loder, in a sermon he preached years ago about Jesus calling those first fishermen, describes Jesus asking us to follow him into a new way of living: “To follow our love over the walls of fear and narrow nationalism, over the hedges of racism and religious dogmatism, over the fences of poverty and exploitation, to shape uncertainty into justice and peace and beauty and glad inclusion of everyone into the feast of the human family.”
That’s what many of us did yesterday. That’s what we will be called to do each day forward.