Then he went home; and the crowd came together again, so that they could not even eat. When his family heard it, they went out to restrain him, for people were saying, “He has gone out of his mind.” And the scribes who came down from Jerusalem said, “He has Beelzebul, and by the ruler of the demons he casts out demons.” And he called them to him, and spoke to them in parables, “How can Satan cast out Satan? If a kingdom is divided against itself, that kingdom cannot stand. And if a house is divided against itself, that house will not be able to stand. And if Satan has risen up against himself and is divided, he cannot stand, but his end has come. But no one can enter a strong man’s house and plunder his property without first tying up the strong man; then indeed the house can be plundered.
“Truly I tell you, people will be forgiven for their sins and whatever blasphemies they utter; but whoever blasphemes against the Holy Spirit can never have forgiveness, but is guilty of an eternal sin”— for they had said, “He has an unclean spirit.”
Then his mother and his brothers came; and standing outside, they sent to him and called him. A crowd was sitting around him; and they said to him, “Your mother and your brothers and sisters are outside, asking for you.” And he replied, “Who are my mother and my brothers?” And looking at those who sat around him, he said, “Here are my mother and my brothers! Whoever does the will of God is my brother and sister and mother.”
As is often the case, there is much in our scripture we could discuss. Gathering as we are in celebration of Holy Communion, it seems appropriate that we should investigate the most consistent thread throughout this Mark reading, the idea of unity in the Church. A united household is the only one capable of surviving conflict. This unity testifies that the Spirit of God is good, and that our lives together are defined by the will of God we live out and share with one another. God has called the Church to stand united against evil in this world. The question for us today is whether or not we are united as the Church, and if not, if we can become united.
The story of Christianity is like any history we might survey. It is not often that we can identify true “good guys,” or “bad guys,” within it. Though we certainly try to see a Hegelian spiral of successive narratives, with us standing as victors at the end of that story, history is a human science. The raw data of the past is scattered through the prism of personality and what caused a thing to happen, let alone the goodness of that thing, is difficult to figure out.
In the early days of Christianity there were distinct schools of thought regarding faith. These were usually defined by which apostle or what minister began the church the various groups were a part of. We know Paul and James differed from one another in how they taught about the Gospel, as did Apollos. In Asia Minor the apostle John taught a faith that at times seemed alien to that of the other apostles. Yet, all stayed united by the reality of Christ’s incarnation and resurrection. The early conflicts within the Church were focused on people who challenged either of these tenets and that threatened the unity of the Church.
The focus on unity began to degrade over time. With the Edict of Toleration, the emperor Constantine set a precedent that would make Christianity the eventual religion of the Roman Empire. His reign, and that of his successors, eventually lead to a Western shift in the faith. Rome had become one of the major centers of Christianity and political and creedal divisions eventually led to the first major split in Christianity – the Great Schism of 1054. Now Christianity was split along two major factions. Conflict would further splinter Western Christianity as various Catholic factions grew up alongside nation states.
The Protestant reformation solidified these informal separations. Now every country, except those that remained Catholic, claimed their own church. The various churches would then split again, and again, and again. If we were to drive even down the main street of our own town, we will see the evidence of this fracturing. Even Shenandoah Junction, as small as it is, has three churches from three denominations, on each of its three main corners. The house of God is divided, can it hope to stand?
The root of our divisiveness is not unlike what we see in Mark. We see other Christians engaging with God in ways we do not agree with or understand. Perhaps we blame leadership for acting one way or another. Legitimate disagreements are sometimes behind these conflicts, but we historically have the initial impulse, in the midst of struggle, not to try and come together but to threaten to leave. The scribes who saw Jesus did not understand Jesus and so labeled him as evil. Why? Because it was easier to write off him off as a dissident than to figure out what God was doing through his ministry. It was easier to leave him there and fracture God’s people, then come under a banner of mutuality.
The nature of the Church is such that when we disagree on even the simplest matter, we are able to convince ourselves that our side is not only correct, but that the cause we stand for is the difference between salvation and damnation. “The other side” must be in league with the devil because we are clearly in the right. Priests of the opposing faction are labeled as demonic and their leadership as antichrists. We see all wicked things in them and all goodness in us. Whether we divide over matters of Calvinism and Arminianism, sacramentality, ecclesiology, meat eating during Lent, or whatever else may motivate us to part ways, we see ourselves as heroes and the other side as villains. More than that, we will employ our most effective tool to try and persuade the opposing side that they should reconsider.
One of the reasons we default to leaving one congregation to go to another as the Church is because we know it has such a strong effect on our community. People begin to question if they too should leave, the trust the community had built up begins to fracture, soon everything is in question because the community has confessed its willingness to implode if its demands are not met. Oftentimes the damage is done, one group leaves, another stays. Both are dismayed to look at their opposing faction and find out that God is still working the Gospel through them, even as they continue to label them as in league with Satan.
In our division and our accusations, we commit a grand sin. We label those that God has called to serve the world as demonic, and in so doing we accuse the Spirit. Not content with weakening the Church through our actions, we grieve the Spirit directly. Think of all the churches you have known, with rare exception God uses them to do good. With rare exception the Spirit finds a way to take sinners like you and me and make them instruments of peace. I would go so far as to say that it is the schismatic that is the greatest threat to Christianity – more than most any other worldview or disposition.
Jesus defines the family of the faith as anyone who does God’s will. There are plenty of people I know who do God’s will whom I disagree with. Sometimes this disagreement is intense, the issue along a binary, and yet both those who agree with me and disagree with me are servants of God doing what they can to bring about God’s will on earth. It is only in threatening to leave, to destroy the unity of Christ, to end rather than continue these conversations, that we do damage to the Church.
The United Methodist Church is planning to split. That is a wretched thing. We have the chance to do it gracefully, but in setting out detailed plans on how we will split, we have admitted defeat. The Global Methodist Church will not be magically cured of its problems, nor will the Post-Separation United Methodist Church, or any of the other denominations that fracture off of this latest implosion. If we believe our present solution, which is that all parties take their ball, stop playing, and go to their respective homes will fix anything, then we are fools. A house divided cannot stand, and the actions we take over the next few years will divide the Church still further. When the dust settles, when will still have not grown and all our troubles are still there, even if every congregation changed church signs, will we then acknowledge that schism has never saved a single soul?
We gather soon to take the body and blood of Christ. We remember our savior who died for us. We were baptized in one baptism to be a part of one body in worship of one Lord. Can we find in these accidents of bread and wine an unmistakable and unbreakable substance? One savior, for one Church. A Church that is in the world presently broken, divided, and standing but by the grace of God. Let us repent of our divisiveness, let us stand together even in conflict. Let us praise the work of the Spirit even and especially in those Christians who think differently than us. – Amen.