January 18, 2015 Ephesains 4:1-7, 11-16
Ephesians 4: 1-16 (from “The Message”)
In light of all this, here’s what I want you to do. While I’m locked up here, a prisoner for the Master, I want you to get out there and walk - better yet, run! - on the road God called you to travel. I don’t want any of you sitting around on your hands. I don’t want anyone strolling off, down some path that goes nowhere. And mark that you do this with humility and discipline - not in fits and starts, but steadily, pouring yourselves out for each other in acts of love, alert at noticing differences and quick at mending fences.
You were all called to travel on the same road and in the same direction, to stay together, both outwardly and inwardly. You have one Master, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all, who rules over all, works through all, and is present in all. Everything you are and think and do is permeated with Oneness.
But that doesn’t mean you should all look and speak and act the same. Out of the generosity of Christ, each of us is given his own gift. The text for this is,
He climbed the high mountain,
He captured the enemy and seized the booty,
He handed it all out in gifts to the people.
It’s true, is is not, that the One who climbed up also climbed down, down to the valley of earth? And the One who climbed down is the One who climbed back up, up to the highest heaven. He handed out gifts above and below, filled heaven with his gifts, filled earth with his gifts. He handed out gifts of apostle, prophet, evangelist, and pastor-teacher to train Christians in skilled servant work, working within Christ’s body, the church, until we’re all moving rhythmically and easily with each other, efficient and graceful in response to God’s Son, fully mature adults, fully developed within and without, fully alive like Christ.
No prolonged infancies among us, please. We’ll not tolerate babes in the woods, small children who are an easy mark for impostors. God wants us to grow up, to know the whole truth and tell it in love - like Christ in everything. We take our lead from Christ, who is the source of everything we do. He keeps us in step with each other. His very breath and blood flow through us, nourishing us so that we will grow up healthy in God, robust in love.
For congregations around the globe, today begins a Week of Prayer for Christian Unity. The community that I migrated from on the Central Coast of California celebrated this week in a special way, due to the persistence and hard work of a tiny Mexican nun who worked at the local San Miguel Mission.
She gathered Catholics, Episcopalians, Methodists, Lutherans, Baptists, Congregationalists, and assorted others to meet at a different church each night and pray for our unity. It’s a rare event anymore when we come together in this way, but it’s something we need more of in this world of division, intolerance and divisiveness.
The events in Paris and Belgium these past two weeks expose the magnitude of evil that can be perpetrated on individuals and groups of people when intolerance and a lack of respect for the freedom to hold differing views goes unchecked and breeds hatred.
Equally horrific events were occurring in Nigeria where Boko Haram strapped explosives on a young girl and sent her on a suicide mission into a crowded marketplace. Is there no limit to the depravity of people who would do such a thing - and in the name of religion and of God. We know that none of this brutality has anything to do with Islam, or God.
And then last Sunday, it felt like, for once the world (or at least the ‘sane’ part of the world) united, as over 40 leaders from across continents linked arms and led over a million French citizens in a march against terrorism. Two million others joined in solidarity in other cities. It’s so sad that it takes such horrific events to bring us together, united despite our differences of race and religion.
It’s a reminder that we need more than just ‘Christian’ Unity this week.
Way back, around 54 C.E. Paul wrote to a congregation he had founded several years earlier in the ethnically, culturally and religiously diverse city of Corinth. We’re not sure what the ensuing arguments were all about, but some scholars believe they had more to do with politics than theology.
“Now I appeal to you, brothers and sisters” pleaded Paul, “by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that all of you be in agreement and that there be no divisions among you, but that you be united in the same mind and the same purpose.”
How we need these words of Paul today, but they seem to have fallen on deaf ears over the millenniums, or is it just part of human nature? Was there ever such a thing as Christian Unity? Paul pleaded for unity throughout 1st Corinthians. Archeologists and scholars will tell you that first century Christianity was not of one mind. From early on various groups of Christians throughout the Mediterranean developed their own ideas about Christ.
It wasn’t until the fourth century when Constantine made Christianity the state religion of the Roman Empire, and the bishops met and wrote the creeds, that Christians were pressured to be of one mind in matters of Christianity.
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 34,000 different denominations, each one declaring they hold the truth, and in some cases, they are the true Christians.
I was raised Catholic at a time when you were told what to believe. You were not to question. Catholics considered themselves the only true followers of Christ. Much of that changed with Vatican II in the 60’s. I was fortunate that my grandmother was Protestant. My mother taught us that it didn’t matter what religion we followed, as long as we had faith in God and followed one. The rest was window dressing, you might say.
No wonder I was eventually drawn to the UCC. The United Church of Christ’s motto is “That they may all be one. In essentials unity, in nonessentials diversity, in all things charity.”
Our congregation here at Eliot is living proof that we can all get along, despite coming from different denominations. We can hold different theological beliefs and argue about them, and still be unified in our love of God and each other. That’s the essential part according to Jesus. In fact, we are challenged to think for ourselves, and develop our own theology. I think this is part of what makes us, not just tolerant, but respectful of those holding differing views.
Paul, our ancestor in faith, speaks to us today, as he spoke to the Ephesians, about how to live and journey together, united as Christians.
He instructs us first to walk - no, to run - on that road God has called us to travel. It’s not an individual spiritual quest we’re on, but a group travel experience. Everyone has a role and a responsibility, providing part of the resources for our journey. Christ has graced “or gifted” the community with skills needed to keep us all on track.
Paul tells us that God wants us to stay together, moving together with a common goal. We are to do this with humility and discipline. It’s not an easy journey so discipline is required to stay on track.
Humility says to me we are not to think ourselves better than others - that our way is the only way on this path to God’s realm. It’s the right path for us, but others have their right paths. He tells us God works through all and is present in all.
This reminded me of walking the labyrinth one New Years Eve with 60 or more people of different faith traditions. Those of you who walked the labyrinth last summer remember you stay on the same path that leads, after many twists and turns, to the center, then you retrace your steps back out. It’s like walking into the heart of God, connecting, and then taking a part of that heart back with you into the world.
I’ve walked the labyrinth many times alone, but walking it with all those people was a far different experience. I realized I wasn’t alone on this journey. I walked in step with others at times, but had to make room for others to pass. I was aware of our differences, but also our oneness as we walked together towards a common goal.
Like families who are united biologically, we are united spiritually. It doesn’t mean we all look and speak and act the same. At the Eliot Church we invite all people to be a part of our family of faith: believers and agnostics, conventional Christians and questioning skeptics, women and men, those of all sexual orientations and gender identities, those of all races and cultures, those of all classes and abilities - they are all welcome to join us on our journey.
Like all families, Paul notes that we have our differences and don’t always agree with each other. But by treating each other in a loving way - by reaching out towards one another with loving actions, we can overcome our differences and mend our fences quickly. How we behave towards one another and towards other people is the fullest expression of what we believe.
As Paul grew and nurtured the Christian family in those formative years after Jesus’ death, he realized that “God wants us to grow up, to know the whole truth and tell it in love.” As we continue to search to know and understand the truth, we at the Eliot Church, like other progressives, find more grace in the search for understanding than we do in dogmatic certainty. We see more value in questioning than absolutes. In this way our faith does not become static. We are constantly growing, maturing in wholeness and love, coming alive in Christ.
Christ keeps dolling out the gifts to help us grow and mature. He provides us with apostles, fellow travelers to keep us company, with prophets who inspire us to action, with evangelists who spread the word, with pastors who care for our needs, and teachers who remind us of Jesus and his message.
They are here to train us Christians in skilled servant work - to form ourselves into ministry teams dedicated to equipping one another for the work we feel called to do: striving for peace and justice among all people, protecting and restoring the integrity of all God’s creation, and bringing hope to those Jesus called the least of his sisters and brothers.
Our theme this month is Covenant. At his last supper with his disciples Jesus invited them to form a new covenant with him. Scholars tell us he wasn’t trying to start a new religion, but he inspired others to start one in his name.
The world needs the example of the United Church of Christ right now. We have often been on the forefront of pressing social issues. We need to spread our motto: “In essentials unity, in non-essential diversity, in all things charity.” What are those essentials? - Jesus told us, and so did God in the Torah: Love God and love your neighbor. The Koran says the same thing. If we could just learn that lesson and stop sweating the small stuff, we might be able to see that we are all united in more ways than we realize. What a world we could create.
Marcus Borg ends his book “The Heart of Christianity” with these words:
“Religions are homes, and Christianity is home for me. And home is more than familiarity and comfort. We sometimes sentimentalize home... But home is also about growing up, about maturation, about learning and living a way of life that one takes into the larger world. Christianity is a way of life; that is its heart. To be Christians means living “the path” within this tradition. At the heart of Christianity is the way of the heart - a path that transforms us at the deepest level of our being. At the heart of Christianity is the heart of God - a passion for our transformation and the transformation of the world. At the heart of Christianity is participating in the passion of God.”