October 29 2017
Ephesians 4: 1-7, 11-16
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.
But each of us was given grace according to the measure of Christ’s gift. The gifts he gave were that some would be apostles, some prophets, some evangelists, some pastors and teachers, to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ, until all of us come to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to maturity, to the measure of the full stature of Christ. We must no longer be children, tossed to and fro and blown about by every wind of doctrine, by people’s trickery, by their craftiness in deceitful scheming. But speaking the truth in love, we must grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ, from whom the whole body, joined and knitted together by every ligament with which it is equipped, as each part is working properly, promotes the body’s growth in building itself up in love.
Around 54 CE a letter Paul wrote to the congregation he founded in Corinth echoes this same call to unity: “Now I appeal to you, brothers and sisters, 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.”
Well… they didn’t listen. Neither have Christians, over the centuries.
Fast forward to 1957 and the uniting of four denominations into one, The United Church of Christ, with the motto: “That they may all be one. In essentials unity, in non-essentials diversity, in all things charity.” You might say they took the message to the Ephesians and tweaked it for today.
The question we’ve been arguing about and fighting over ever since is: “What is essential to be a Christian?”
Is it essential to belong to a church? a specific church or denomination?
to be baptized: by dunking? or sprinkling? as an infant or an adult?
to believe in a creed or doctrine?
to profess Christ as your savior, the son of God who came to die for our sins?
to believe in the Trinity? - in a specific way?
in the infallibility of the Pope as Peter’s successor and head of the church?
to believe Christ is present in the bread and wine? - in what way? - or not?
These, and many others, are the issues that have divided Christianity over the centuries - that have prevented us from “bearing with one another in love, making every effort to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace.” Looking back at history, I ask myself; “Were they worth fighting over? Is this what Christ came to teach? What does it have to do with creating the kingdom he kept talking about?”
In the two and a half centuries after Constantine declared Christianity the official religion of the Roman Empire, imperial authorities put 25,000 people to death, for their lack of creedal correctness.
Phyllis Tickle, an historian of Christianity, writes that every 500 years or so, there has been a Reformation, “a time of enormous upheaval in our western culture, a time in which essentially every part of it is reconfigured: politically, socially, intellectually and economically.”
And with it comes changes in religion and religious thought. “Christianity is tied to our culture, just as our culture is colored by Christianity.” Anglican Bishop Mark Dyer has observed that about every 500 years the Church feels compelled to hold a “giant rummage sale” making way for new ideas, practice, growth and change.
Reformations don’t happen overnight. They evolve slowly over time. 500 years after Christ walked the earth, the Roman Empire declined and fell. 500 years later what was considered essential to being a Christian was debated, leading to The Great Schism of the 11th Century; it was a bloody century and a half which resulted in the severance of the east from the west, in all aspects including religion. In 1054 Christianity split between the Western (or Roman Catholic) Church and the Eastern (Orthodox) Church.
500 years later, western culture was experiencing another great upheaval; from fiefdoms and hereditary domains to nation states. We saw the rise of the merchant class, vast improvements in transportation, the rise and growth, and later dominance of the middle class. This all required people to be able to read. For that we can thank Gutenberg’s invention of the printing press in 1440.
Along with this cultural upheaval came one in Christianity, started by a German priest and professor of theology named Martin Luther. It began with the practice of the church filling its coffers by selling indulgences, which people were told erased God’s punishment for their sins. Money could buy your way out of purgatory, or even hell.
Luther strongly disputed the Church’s view on indulgences. On October 31,1517 he wrote to his bishop protesting the sale of indulgences. It came to be known as the 95 Theses. He saw it as a scholarly objection to church practices, but it led to his excommunication in 1521 by Pope Leo X for refusing to renounce all of his writings.
This Tuesday marks the 500th anniversary of the posting his 95 Theses on the door of the church in Wittenberg. There is some debate among historians as to whether it happened on that day, in that way, but regardless, it led to the birth of Protestantism, and a re-defining of the essentials for being a Christian in the minds of his followers. A great rummage sale had begun. We are sitting here today as members and friends of the UCC as a result of that Great Reformation.
Luther, and other reformers that followed, challenged the authority and office of the pope. They split with the Roman Church. They built their reformed church on the principle that the Bible was the only source of divinely revealed knowledge from God, not the Vatican.
They joined it with the concept of the “Priesthood of all Believers”. Reebee and I are your pastors, but all of you are ministers. One no longer needed a human confessor for their sins. They could go directly to God.
For me, one of the greatest contributions Luther made to the history of Christianity was his decision to have the bible translated from Latin into the vernacular. Finally people could read it for themselves, not relying on others to interpret it. This led, as we know, to conflicting interpretations and a further splintering of the church into 34,000 denominations in the 500 years since - each one believing they knew the essentials required to be a Christian.
500 years later, historians say we are in the midst of a New Reformation. I have no doubt that we are. It is tied to a cultural upheaval they call “The Great Emergence.” In the last century and a half, every part of how we live our lives has been in the process of being reconfigured, partially due to:
- amazing advances in science and technology
- artificial intelligence
- human labor being taken over by automation
- a global economy
- global warming and increased natural disasters
- computers and smart phones, the internet and world wide web,
- leading sometimes to information overload
- social media replacing human interaction
- we send 247 billion emails every single day
- and the rise of militarism and terrorism throughout the world
And with “The Great Emergence” comes Emergence Christianity. We are in the midst of another “great rummage sale” searching for the essentials of what it means to be a Christian in the 21st Century.
Church attendance has been shrinking in Europe, and now in the US, across denominations for decades, but it’s being felt hardest here in mainline denominations. Churches are being shuttered or sold. Denominations and Associations are merging and reconfiguring. The national offices of the UCC are laying off long time staff as they restructure. Seminaries are closing, selling off property, and moving to embed in larger institutions as their enrollment drops. Yes, this feels like a rummage sale to me.
At the same time we cannot give in to fear. Christianity did not die after the Great Schism, Catholicism did not die after the Great Reformation, and Protestantism will not die as a result of the Great Emergence. Neither will Christianity. But it will change, and we have no idea what it will look like, although we are getting glimpses.
Christians are experimenting with how to do church outside the confines of institutional church. New forms of community and worship are emerging: communities like Taize and Iona, house churches, gatherings of Christians in coffee houses and bars; joint worship services between physical churches and others gathered in a cyber church.
Emergent churches are being formed. We get a glimpse into the future as we look at what they hold as important. Tickle has studied them extensively. These are some of her findings:
The church is the people, not a place to go to. They are not interested in owning buildings, or being part of an institution.
They’re about creating the kingdom, not filling the pews and the collection plate, or maintaining a building.
They are non-hierarchal. They practice a vigorous egalitarianism. All are welcome. They organize by consensus.
The pastor is not the source of all knowledge and right interpretation. They have the web.
Their theology integrates science into belief, with a both/and approach to life and faith.
They move away from statements of faith or belief, and are suspicious of humans who claim to describe what God is and what God thinks. They tend more towards mysticism over absolutes.
They are both spiritual and religious.
They have a passionate engagement with scripture, but like us, they take the bible seriously, not always literally, encouraging doubt, questioning, and the search for meaning.
They have a strong emphasis on social justice and ecological concerns.
They think of themselves as communal and relational. They are diverse by race, sexual preferences, gender, socioeconomic class and intellectual privilege.
They are techno-savvy, using the web and social media to connect to everything and to each other.
Their worship is filled with a variety of music, visual stimulus, interactive dialogue, where bodies and minds are equally engaged.
The Great Reformation took Christianity from the heart to the head. The Emergent Church is taking it back to the heart, combining the mind with soul and heart and spirit.
I think what the Emergent Church and 21st century Christianity is showing us is that where there was once a long list of essentials, now there is no one set of beliefs or ways to be a Christian.
Paul warns the early Christians not to let matters of doctrine divide us. Be patient and gentle with each other, even those who hold differing opinions. Be humble, don’t feel you have all the answers, that your path is the only one. Others have their own right paths. God is here, in and through all of us. There is only one body of Christ, who we have been called to follow, who ties us together through love. That ultimately is what Christ came to teach us. That may be the only essential.
I think the UCC got it right when they said: “That they may all be one. In essentials unity, in non-essentials diversity, in all things charity.” Words for us to take to heart.
Many of the ideas in this sermon are attributed to Phyllis Tickle from her books: The Great Emergence and Emergence Christianity