In January, the global church celebrated the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity, while the United Methodist Church recognized Human Relations Day and the United States honored Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
But are we united? The United Methodist Church is bracing for a possible division in May as General Conference delegates vote on a plan to split in two. Meanwhile, the United States seems more fractured than ever, with presidential caucuses and an impeachment trial sharing the news.
It’s simultaneously discouraging and encouraging to read Paul’s first letter to the church in Corinth: “One says, ‘I follow Paul;’ another, ‘I follow Apollos;’ another, ‘I follow Peter;’ and another, ‘I follow Christ.’ Christ has been divided into groups” (1 Corinthians 1:13, TEV)! Discouraging, because the church had just started, and already they were arguing; encouraging, because they not only survived, but grew.
Most people know 1 Corinthians for the Love chapter (13). But the rest of the letter leads up to it. The 12th chapter is about parts of the body getting along; Paul writes, “When one part of the body suffers, the whole body suffers.” Chapter 11 is about people using communion as an opportunity for gluttony and drunkenness. Chapter 10 is about worshipping idols. In Chapter 7, Paul writes, “if you can’t control your desires, get married!” In Chapter 6, he says (in effect), “Stop suing each other!”
Some people accuse Paul of not being a good example. He answers that he is the worst of all sinners, but is trying to build up the church. In today’s terms, the accusation might be translated, “You’re not a real Christian!” Or, “You’re not a good Christian.” Or, “At least I’m a better Christian than you.” Or, “Okay, I’m a sinner, but at least I don’t do that.”
Now substitute “American” for “Christian.” “You’re not a good American. I love my country more than you do. I have a lot of opinions, but at least I don’t believe that.”
The end result of such attitudes is demonization: “Others don’t believe what I do, and what I believe is right; therefore, they are wrong. Therefore, they are ignoring the truth, which means I am better than they are.”
Demonization leads to justification for everything from barriers to Brexit, from the political divide to the split in the Royal Family. But the Bible teaches that judging others is a sin, because it causes not only a horizontal division between people, but a vertical division between humanity and God.
Now I’m going to throw some Scriptures at you. 🙂
Romans 12:16: “Have the same concern for everyone. Do not think of yourselves as wise” (italics added). When people come to our soup kitchen, we don’t ask their political affiliation. When we receive prayer requests, we don’t ask for the denomination of the recipient.
Romans 14:19: “We must always aim at those things that bring peace and help strengthen each other” (italics added). Always? But what if the person is a jerk?
2 Corinthians 13:11: “Agree with one another.” A quick survey at last week’s Bible study revealed that nobody interpreted this passage as meaning, “agree with each other on everything;” for example, that a dish tastes good or that cats are better than dogs. The consensus was that the words mean, “agree on the big things and to everything else, agree to disagree so that your conversation remains agreeable.”
Ephesians 2:14: Christ brought us peace by making Jews and Gentiles one people. With his own boy, he broke down the wall that separated them and kept them enemies.” Did Jesus just say “wall?” He did.
Ephesians 2:4-6a: Be always humble, gentle and patient. Show your love by being tolerant with each other. Do your best to preserve the unity which the Spirit gives by means of the peace that binds you together. There is one body and one Spirit, just as there is one hope to which God has called you. There is one Lord, one faith, one baptism; there is one God and Father of all people, who is Lord of all, works through all, and is in all” (italics added).
When we honor these Scriptures, we look for the God that is in the other person, instead of the human part. When we don’t see it, we look harder. We look for what unites us instead of what divides us: for what’s the same, instead of what’s different. Instead of asking, “How can I dismiss the other person or group?” we ask, “How can I accept the other person or group?” We ask, “if my whole life were laid bare for everyone to see, would I be worth accepting?” The most famous Scripture to use the word “all” is “All have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God.”
So how can we get out of the mess we’re in? The answer is actually simple. I asked a group of people to list what they considered to be “shared American Christian values.” They came up with “charity, peace, love of other humans, kindness and the desire to improve.” If these are our shared American Christian values, and if 90% of Americans still define themselves as Christian, there’s still hope; it’s just a matter of remembering.
To make it even simpler, it comes down to one statement: if we believe that what we have in common is more important than what we don’t, then we have a shot at staying united. The fact that we are all sinners is more important than any particular sin. The fact that we all suffer is more important than the color of one’s skin. The fact that Jesus died for us is more important than the arbitrary worth we give to each other.
We are united by sin, and we are united by grace.
We are one in the Spirit, we are one in the Lord, and we pray that all unity may one day be restored.
Let us walk with each other in perfect harmony. Amen.
When Christmas ends, our emotions change. Some people feel an intense letdown; others feel sweet relief. It all depends on our experience of Christmas: was it what we wanted or expected?
For children, the letdown can arrive as they look at their last unopened present and realize, “This is it.” For me, the letdown arrives a couple days later when I realize that I have finished all the “real” leftovers and still have a month’s supply of desserts in the closet. (Note: others have told me that this should not be considered a letdown!)
Soon we’ll be taking down our Christmas trees, although for one couple I know, that day won’t arrive until February. They’re fond of saying, “When the Super Bowl ends, we know that Christmas is really over.” Stores will begin a lot earlier; the day after Christmas, they are already beginning to clear out their Christmas merchandise to make room for Valentine’s Day ~ despite the fact that Christmas actually begins on December 25 and lasts for 12 days.
Mary and Joseph probably felt a letdown as well. The shepherds, angels and wise men have gone home, and Joseph can’t find the gift receipts for the frankincense and myrrh. They still have to get counted for the census. Every day Joseph is checking to see if there’s a room has opened up at the inn. And they have other business to take care of as well ~ the dedication of the baby Jesus. But when they get to the Temple, they hear a prophecy unlike the happy ones that have come before. Simeon tells Mary that “sorrow, like a sharp sword, will pierce her heart.” Soon they learn that Herod is trying to kill the baby Jesus, and they have to flee to Egypt, where their ancestors were enslaved.
The killing of the innocents is remembered today with reverence and fear. It’s the part of the Christmas story that we don’t want to talk about, but its proximity to the Christmas story underlines the fact that we’ve blown Christmas into something it’s not. We tend to think of Christmas as a time of peace and love and joy, on which no bad word will be spoken, no bad news will be spread. And when ~ inevitably ~ Christmas is “spoiled” by an intrusion of the real world, we feel the greatest letdown of all.
On my way to Connecticut this Christmas, I saw a giant billboard featuring a Super Flying Baby Jesus. Jesus’ eyes were those of an adult, and one could picture this Jesus flying around the manger, riding the sheep, bestowing blessings on the Wise Men. He certainly didn’t need to be changed. Super Flying Baby Jesus could have stopped Herod in his tracks. He could have kept the planes from crashing this week in Hawaii and Louisiana. He could put an end to war.
But I don’t believe in Super Flying Baby Jesus. There is another super baby who lands on this earth and is raised in secrecy by a loving couple, but that’s Clark Kent ~ later known as Superman. And he doesn’t come from heaven, he comes from Krypton. Please don’t get these stories confused!
Instead, God made himself vulnerable; the protector became one who needed to be protected. He lived one of our lives from the inside out.
Every Christmas Eve, we welcome people who are looking for an inn ~ a place to worship on the holiest of nights. Many of these people are new to us, but some come every year, either relatives of church members or people making their annual pilgrimage. Some people feel comforted by the fact that the sanctuary looks the same as it did the last time they visited, and when they hear the message, they say, “I know this story!”
But there are other stories that need to be told as well. One of them is that there is great pain in life, and that God has chosen to do two things in response: 1) Be with us now and 2) Take away the pain later.
We may want God to take away the pain now; but God wants a relationship. Every December, many of us marvel at the cards we receive from people we once knew well, or wanted to know better, or have completely forgotten about ~ and now they have grandchildren. A card is no substitute for a relationship. In the same way, even though a church needs offerings, an offering is no substitute for a relationship. And even though God loves prayers, if we only talk to God when we need something, that’s no substitute for a relationship either. God wants to be with us in our daily toil and joy; God wants to be with us in our struggles and disappointments; God even wants to be with us in our anger.
A few years ago, my dad asked my nephew (who was five at the time) if he wanted some chocolate ice cream. “YES I WANT SOME CHOCOLATE ICE CREAM!” my nephew yelled. But then my mom said, “We don’t have any chocolate ice cream.” It was a holiday and most places were closed. My nephew started to have a temper tantrum. So I decided to join in. “I WANT CHOCOLATE ICE CREAM!” I yelled. “WHY CAN’T I HAVE CHOCOLATE ICE CREAM? WHY IS THIS HAPPENING TO ME? WHY IS LIFE SO UNFAIR?” I looked over at my nephew, who was partially shocked and partially amused, but was no longer upset. I hadn’t done anything to address his perceived problem (lack of ice cream), but I had been with him in his suffering ~ and it worked!
God is suffering with us. Sometimes when we ask, “Why does God permit such suffering?” I can picture God lamenting, “Why do people permit such suffering?” And when people complain, “I’ve tried so hard and gotten nowhere,” I picture God saying, “I wrote a 2000-page book and people won’t read it ~ and I’ve left lots of messages for them, but now they won’t even return my phone calls!”
God stores our tears in a bottle, but he weeps with us as well. He’s already done something about suffering, but sometimes no words will make it right, so he just sits with us. We kind of wanted Super Flying Baby Jesus, but instead we got a friend ~ and it can take an entire life to realize how much better that is.
Real baby Jesus pooped, and burped, and cried, and woke his parents up in the middle of the night. And 12-year-old Jesus once disappeared for no reason and freaked his parents out and when they told him they had been worried about him he kind of blew them off ~ which is exactly what one would expect of a person of middle school age. And grown-up Jesus stumbled and fell carrying his cross, and bled and died on that very same cross, and this is how we know he loves us ~ he didn’t have to do any of this. He wanted to be with us ~ not far away in the heavens, but as close as a prayer, as the ground beneath our feet, as a baby in his mother’s arms ~ our Lord Immanuel.
The Reverend Richard Allen