Lessons: Amos 7:7-15; Ephesians 1:1-14; St. Mark 6:7-13
I was listening to a podcast of a priest last week and he made an interesting statement. He said, “We are always asking Jesus to answer our prayers, why don’t we work to answer His prayers?” The prayers that he was referring to was the prayers that our Lord prayed in the Garden, where He prayed that we would be one even as He and the Father are one. It’s pretty safe to assume if Jesus was praying for our unity on the eve of His death, knowing full well that it was the eve of His death, that our unity is of utmost importance to Him.
After St. Paul give this glorious introduction to the nature of the Church, being chosen before the foundations of the world and being blessed with all spiritual blessings in heavenly places, he calls the Church to unity in the next chapter.
But St. Paul doesn’t just speak of unity there. This is from his first letter to Corinth. “I appeal to you, brothers, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that all of you agree with one another so that there may be no divisions among you and that you may be perfectly united in mind and thought.” This is from another part of Ephesians. “It was he who gave some to be apostles, some to be prophets, some to be evangelists, and some to be pastors and teachers, to prepare God’s people for works of service, so that the body of Christ may be built up until we all reach unity in the faith and in the knowledge of the Son of God and become mature, attaining to the whole measure of the fullness of Christ.” This if from Colossians. “Bear with each other and forgive whatever grievances you may have against one another. Forgive as the Lord forgave you. And over all these virtues put on love, which binds them all together in perfect unity.” This is from Romans. “Live in harmony with one another. Do not be proud, but be willing to associate with people of low position. Do not be conceited.” This is from Galatians. “You are all sons of God through faith in Christ Jesus, for all of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.”
I could keep going. I don’t think that there was an occasion that St. Paul didn’t speak about unity and yet with all of these biblical references it does not seem to be a priority in the modern church as it was in biblical times. Are our divisions so great that we have simply given up on the idea of unity? Perhaps but given Jesus’ prayer and St. Paul’s admonitions can we call ourselves biblical Christians and not care about unity? I don’t think so, therefore let me offer some words of encouragement to get us thinking biblically, having the same goal as Jesus had, that we all would be one.
First, it is my assumption, based on experience, that there is so much talk about unity in the Scriptures because it is not easy to do. If the early Church was already unified St. Paul would not have spent so much time calling for it. So even in the early Church unity was a challenge. And why is unity in the Church so difficult? That is simple to answer. It is because everyone does not agree with me. If everyone would just agree with ME, then there would be no divisions.
And therein lies the problem. Unity is so difficult because of our pride, our willfulness. That is why St. Paul said, “Don’t be conceited.” It is no great mystery how we can take a giant step toward unity, we just need to get out of the way. If I lay down my will in order to do Jesus’ will and you lay down your will in order to do Jesus’ will then unity is inevitable. If you think of a pyramid with Jesus at the top point and you and I on the bottom points, the closer we grow to Jesus, the closer we grow to one another.
But I don’t want to over simply the issue. It is still a great challenge. So the next thing we should consider is an effective approach toward unity. How do we go about it?
There is a quote, attributed to a Roman Catholic Bishop who converted to Anglicanism, that has proven helpful for centuries. Ironically, even splinter groups like the Moravians use it as a kind of motto. It says, “in the essentials unity, in the non-essentials diversity and in all things charity.” To put it another way, we attain unity by not allowing the non-essentials to divide us.
The next $64,000 question is “How do we determine what is essential?” I had a pastor friend of another denomination tell me his denomination actually split years ago over whether women were allowed to wear feathers in their hats to church. I guess there is a “First Feathered Church” and the “First Non Feathered Church” somewhere. How do we avoid such pettiness?
A great place to start is the historic Creeds because the Creeds focus only on the essentials. I have given you a brief statement about the Creeds in the back of your bulletin that you can use to educate someone who would object that the Creeds aren’t biblical. It is obvious from 1 Timothy 3:16 that the New Testament Church used creedal statements to unite the Church. Any way you cut it, those verses are a Creed.
Let me give you an illustration of how we can use the Creeds to unite us. Let’s take our Baptist brethren since there are so many of them and so few of us in these parts. While they do not recite the Creeds in their worship services, there is nothing in the Creeds to which they would object. We might have to explain what we mean when we say that we believe in the “holy catholic Church”, but once we got over that hump it would be smooth sailing in terms of agreement with one another.
One of the key doctrines that divides us from the Baptists is infant baptism. It is an anathema to them because they claim that it is not in the Bible, while we take great offense when they insist on rebaptizing someone who had been baptized as an infant. So this is not exactly a fight over feathers in hats. How do we get past it?
Here is how we can look to the Creed to unite us. In the Creed we confess that we believe in “one baptism for the remission of sins.” Notice it does not stipulate infant or adult, sprinkling or immersion. The essential point is that we must be baptized. We can agree on that and thereby honor one another. An Anglican is going to be baptized as an infant and then publicly confess Christ at their confirmation. A Baptist is going to make a public confession of Christ first and then be baptized. In both cases the person is going to publicly confess Christ and the person is going to get wet. And both will be in glory. “On the essentials unity.”
There is one caution about seeking unity and that is that we must not seek unity only for the sake of unity. We must have a higher purpose, otherwise unity leads to compromise and the loss of the essentials.
When the Episcopal Church was circling the drain theologically many of us wrested for a long time before we were willing to call it quits. Ours was one of the few churches that did not split during the Civil War because it is simply not in our spiritual DNA to divide. There was no Northern and Southern Episcopal Church. The confederate bishop were simply marked as absent during the war and marked present after the war. So it was an incredibly painful decision to make to split from the Episcopal Church. So why did we do it?
The theological drift was so significant that the only reason to stay was unity for the sake of unity and that was not reason enough. When the Presiding Bishop publicly denied Jesus to be the Way and the Truth and the Life, leaving was no longer an option. In fact my perspective was, since we still believed Holy Scriptures and worshipped using in the Book of Common Prayer, they were the ones who left us!
But I will never forget during the debates, that one of the liberal bishops actually said, “If you have to choose between heresy and schism, chose heresy.” What he meant was that we should chose unity over the truth but we cannot do that because the fact is that there is no unity outside of the truth. We do not seek unity for the sake of unity.
Then what is our reason for seeking unity? St. Paul gives us that goal in the next chapter. “In him the whole structure is joined together and grows into a holy temple in the Lord; in whom you also are built together spiritually into a dwelling place for God.”
As we come together, built on the foundation the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Christ Jesus Himself being the chief cornerstone, we become a holy temple, a dwelling place for God. How is that for a reason to seek unity?
We learn in the Old Testament that while God is everywhere, He chose to be uniquely present to His people in the tabernacle first and then in the Temple. We learn in the New Testament that the Temple was a foreshadow of the Body of Christ that now is the temple of God and where again God is uniquely present.
When I was in college I was a part of several campus ministries. The one thing that they had in common was a very low view of the Church. Each group taught the importance of what they called a “quiet time” where you would go off by yourself and read the Bible and say your prayers. This approach promoted a “me and Jesus” version of Christianity where the Church and receiving the Sacraments was optional at best. These groups were so big on having a quiet time that it felt like the unforgiveable sin to skip it, which I did quit often, so I knew that God was constantly mad at me for being such a slacker.
As I studied the Bible and the history of the Church I realized that this “me and Jesus” form of Christianity is a modern, western aberration. The Christians we read about in the book of Acts thought that gathering together for Word and Sacrament and fellowship was so important that they did it daily. St. Paul speaks of the Church gathering on the first day of the week and he even gives the command not to avoid the assembling of the brethren as is the custom of some.
This is not to say that private prayer and study are unimportant but they do not replace the need of the Church to gather. It is through the gathered Church that the temple of God is built. It is the gathered Church that becomes, as St. Paul said, “a dwelling place for God.” Thus we are united to build a temple and we build a temple so that God will be in our midst.
Jesus did not say “wherever you have your quiet time, I will be there.” He said “For where two or three of you are gathered together in My Name, I will be in their midst.” In the words of institution, Jesus said “Do this in remembrance of Me.” The modern use of the word “remember” does not do justice to the Greek word, “anamnesis.” When we participate in the Sacrament we are doing more than thinking back to Jesus’ sacrifice some 2,000 years ago. The word “recall” gives us a better understanding of this word “anamnesis.” When we “recall” we do think back to a particular time. But when the President “recalls” the troops he is bringing them present to us. “Remember” has both of those meanings. We are both thinking back to what Jesus did AND we are making Him present with us. The Church gathered for Word and Sacrament makes a dwelling place for God. We unite and gather so that we will be His people and He will be our God. We cannot build the temple if we are alone, or over the internet or if we are in division. That is why we week unity.
Next week we will be given an opportunity to manifest our unity with the Archbishop of Burma coming to be with us. As I mentioned last week his priests, most of whom have families, make $35 per month. Their poverty is hampering their ministries. The Bible says that when one part of the Body suffers we all suffer. So as an act of unity we are going to take up a special offering for him to take back to the part of Christ’s Body that is suffering. I also ask you this week to give more prayers and thoughts about what each of us can do to promote greater unity across the Body of Christ. Don’t stop asking Jesus to answer your prayers but give some thought this week about how you can be used to answer His prayer. Amen.