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.
The celebration of communion is something we have discussed together at length. Once a month this ritual gives us a chance to think deeply about what it means to come together and this Sunday in particular calls us to look beyond even our usual definitions of community. Today, as we celebrate “World Communion Sunday,” a formerly Presbyterian tradition, we look at how the entirety of the world comes together at God’s invitation. We are asked to be intentional about our thoughts, to see beyond life in this town, in this nation, and see instead the life we share with all believers. As we pray we are able to hear, distant and remote, the prayers of all the Church – in every language and style, in all places and at all times.
The Church began, almost 2,000 years ago, as a small group of believers who came together to form their own distinct branch of Judean faith. Amidst the apocalyptic fervor of the first century, under the oppressive thumb of Roman occupation, light burst out into the darkness of this world. Out of the ancient scriptures of Israel, a young teacher out of a backwater town began to preach. Just thirty-odd years-old, yet all who heard him knew he taught in a special way. He made scripture come alive, he healed the sick and freed the demon oppressed. Jesus of Nazareth, God given flesh, worked his wonders.
Jesus would be executed by the Roman government in order to keep the peace after his opponents painted him as a dissident. The followers of Christ, once numerous, were scattered across Judea and shrank away. When Jesus reappeared, resurrected into a new life in line with his eternity, it took weeks for the Church to reunite. Soon there were just over one hundred believers, waiting and praying for God to send the Spirit to them. When the Spirit did come, pushing them into the world like a strong wind, they began to preach in every language and mode of speech they could. The Gospel was going out into the nations, and nothing could trap it.
Yet, there was an instant concern in the Church. You see, with the Roman occupation, and the Seleucid before it, there was not a single “Judean,” identity anymore. Some Jews spoke Greek, others Aramaic, and only some used Hebrew scriptures – others using Greek or other local languages. Samaritans, the remnant of post-Assyrian Israelites, were shunned from mainstream society even as they worshipped the same God as the Judeans. Still more confounding was the introduction of Gentiles into Jewish worship spaces. Since Judaism had spread across Roman territories, non-Jews had become interested in this ancient faith. While conversion to Judaism was not yet possible, these Gentile “God-fearers,” were allowed partial participation in the community.
The Church was then forming amidst a diverse group of people. This naturally produced challenges. Are Greek Jews equal in dignity to native Judeans? Can God-fearers join Christian Community? If so, do they need to adopt Jewish practices? Beyond these general questions, bigotry set in between all groups and prevented equitable solutions to be found. Judeans saw Hellenists as inferior, relegating them to their own synagogues. Hellenists were more diverse in their attitudes than Judeans, but were often extremist in their adherence to the Law, pushing back on accusations they were not “Jewish enough.” God-fearers and other Gentiles often, upon joining the Church, seemed to think they were better than Jews because they had Christ alone to save them.
This diverse and problematic jumble is where the Church was born. Stranger still, it is where the Church flourished! How could that be possible? On one hand we can point to the Spirit which worked within the Church, but the Spirit did not magic the Church into being. God called people to lead the Church that contributed important perspectives on the problems they faced. With the diversity of believers being what it was, diverse leadership was necessary to bring the people together.
The first conflict of the Church related to the identity of its members is recorded in Acts 6-7. Here, Greek widows are not receiving the same amount of food and resources as Judean ones. It is never stated if this is an intentional act of discrimination or a supervisory oversight, but either way the disciples are quick to respond when this racial inequality is brought before them. Rather than claiming innocence, the disciples accept that they have not been leading properly in this regard and appoint seven deacons to oversee the giving of food. They appoint these Deacons out of the body of Greek believers, doing ministry with the affected group, rather than imposing their ideas of how it should be upon them. They built a bridge alongside those they were building the bridge to.
Despite this action, there was still a wedge between Greek and Judean believers, and still nothing being done for Gentiles. God responded to this by raising up an unlikely apostle. Saul, as he was known in Judea, was born to a Greek-Jewish family in Tarsus, a port town in modern Turkey. Saul was raised in Jerusalem and rejected his identity as a Greek. He wanted to be a “Hebrew of Hebrews,” and actively fought against the Church and its syncretic tendencies. (Phil. 3:5) The story of Acts is, in part, about how Saul grows to accept, not only his place in the Church, but his own ethnic identity. After his conversion, he returns home to Tarsus and reconnects with his roots, soon referring to himself exclusively as “Paul.” While this is often taught as a name change on Paul’s part, it is more likely that “Paul,” is his birth name, something he gave up when he came to Judea.
Paul would go beyond reconciling Greek and Judean believers and began the first major ministry efforts the Church launched to the Gentiles. Only two other apostles had undertaken such initiatives up to this point, Philip and Thomas. These two founded, indirectly in Philip’s case and directly in Thomas’s, two communities that would become the oldest surviving Christian populations of our modern era. Any guesses where they are? They are the Ethiopian Coptic Church, which traces itself back to the Eunuch baptized by Philip in Acts 8, and the Thomistic Christians of India. My brother-in-law, incidentally, is part of this community of Indian Orthodox Christians.
Keeping in mind the cultural potpourri which the Church began in, I hope that we can begin to remove the rose-colored glasses we often apply to Scripture. When we read the Epistles or the book of Acts, the people described are far from perfect. They are bigoted, they are mean, they are prone to fighting over anything they can get their hands on. The letters of Paul are as intense as they sometimes are because the Church has always been a broken group of people, even at its most Spirit-filled moments. We of the Church love to fracture ourselves on social and ideological bases. We in the United Methodist Church are poised to split at our next general conference because we cannot abide the idea of coming together beyond our differences. We are proud to shatter the Church because we see conflict and rejoice in our “righteousness.”
The Church is, however, definitionally non-homogenous. It was founded by native Judeans, brought in Greek speaking Jews, then Ethiopian God-fearers, and then people of all tongues and nations. There were Roman citizens, the enslaved, freedmen, and people of all social strata. If we think that there were not divisions among these first believers, we would be deceiving ourselves. Yet, the Church moved from more divided to more united over time, not the other way around – at least in those early days. Scripture is a story of people coming together, not of people pushing one another out.
The first step to achieving an awareness of one another sufficient to overcome our problems is to remove ourselves from the center of the story. Beyond the fact that the Church only has one “protagonist,” that is Jesus Christ, we must not see Christianity as a single block of people with no differences between them. Even just in North View, we have multiple Churches with different styles, ideas, and beliefs – but all worshipping the same God and hopefully working to do that God’s work in the world. Globally, the picture of Christianity is much different than the people gathered in this room.
Close your eyes and picture what you think the average Christian looks like in the world. Picture their clothing, their skin-color, the language they speak, the particular denomination they are a part of. What kind of music do they sing in worship? Are they Protestant or Catholic? What are their political ideas? Now open your eyes. While I cannot give a definitive answer to what the average Christian looks like and believes globally like I might for American Christians alone, the Pew Research Center conducted research to give us a rough idea. The average Christian in the world is Catholic, they live South of the Equator, and they speak one of three languages – Spanish, French, or Portuguese. While I cannot tell you which nation they come from specifically, or what politics they hold, we can assume that they are far more diverse than we can imagine.
The point of me drawing this sketch of the average Christian is not to centralize any specific identity in the Church. Instead, I hope we can decentralize our own images. The Church is not white, it is not Protestant, it is not American, and it is not any one political or ideological strain of thought. It is the people of God called together to go out and live into the Kingdom which God has made for us to be a part of. The differences between us are real, the cultures we have are important and worth celebrating, but they are not the primary identity a Christian should hold.
We are a continuation of the same Church that Paul worked to spread across all the world. Yet, we are not even willing to work out our differences with our neighbors, between pews, with those who look, and act like us. How can we ever grow beyond where we are, when we cannot even be of one body together? We saw a call to racial reconciliation last year that was bigger than anything we had seen since the Civil Rights era. Yet, little has changed since then because we have let the differences between races and cultures overcome even the most basic aspects of our common human identity. We were told to acknowledge other people matter and all we could do was list the people we would rather prioritize than the people who were crying out.
The greatest threat to the Church is always division, it has never been differences. I will say it again, the greatest threat to the church is division and not difference. Country folks are different than city folk, they can still be a Church together. White folks are culturally different than people of color, but these differences are superficial and not definitional. Liberals and conservatives are different, but until recently they could come together in pursuit of the common good in society, in their home, in their church.
Difference is the consequence of being individuals. I think differently than all kinds of people but those I relate to I come together with me to form communities. Cultures are born out from the unity of the past and present, they can be particular to a space as small as a Church and as large as language group. When cultures meet, there can be conflict, but there can also be untold beauty that comes from their union. Difference brings contrast into the world; it allows for life to flourish in a way that monochrome existences never could.
Division is not a consequence of difference, but a tool of evil to drive different people apart. Division segregates differing voices that are in conversation and sets them at odds. Division is a Spirit that grows angry at the mention of this group or that group, of this idea or that one. Division disguises itself as discernment, as a wisdom that separates good from bad, when really it simply seeks to keep the body of Christ from coming together to do God’s will. It should also be said, briefly, that acknowledging and asking for problems to be dealt with is not “being divisive,” but that is a conversation for another time.
Our scripture today asks us to identify our faith with something beyond our race or politics or nation, to see it within Christ and Christ alone. We are not brought together to be one thing or another, but to be identified with an unassailable unity. We are one body, in one Spirit, called by one Lord, through one baptism, and brought to worship one God who is Father of all, who rests upon us all, and who is in us all. This uniting identity asks us to look at others firstly as people called to serve God, or if they have not answered that call, to see them as beloved of God. Our primary identity is never white or American or Republican or Democrat, it is only ever Christian.
What this means is that we cannot let our own identity become the axis on which the world turns. Christianity cannot be defined as people who are “like us.” It does not matter that people worship like me or vote like me or look like me, it matters that we together seek the good of one another and the will of God. It means that we should not see a need to make people more like us, but that we should see a need for all people to be more like Christ. Christ the first century Jew, Christ the homeless preacher, Christ the pacifist killed as a rebel. We all are far from what Christ was like, if we wish to be more like him, it will take all people of all nations.
Yet, to gather in that way takes work and time. What can we do today? I recommend reading a book by someone from a different country or of a different race. Watch a news channel you wouldn’t normally watch. Give a chance to those who are different than yourself. Still be a discerning consumer of information, listening only to people acting in good faith and telling only the truth, but we must begin the hard work of understanding those who are unlike ourselves. We must come together as people who are different, because this table we will soon eat at has been set for more people who are unlike us than those who are like us.
Will we greet them as friends in the one Christ who moves through us? Or as strangers we never knew? That choice is ours alone. Choose to understand and choose to bridge gaps rather than tear down roads. – Amen.