Stuck Together

Ephesians 4.1-16

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. There it is said, “When he ascended on high he made captivity itself a captive; he gave gifts to his people.” (When it says, “He ascended,” what does it mean but that he also descended into the lower parts of the earth? He who descended is the same one who ascended far above all the heavens, so that he might fill all things.) 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 knit 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. 

The prevailing wisdom is that, when a newish preacher arrives in town, he or she should avoid controversial topics at all costs. At least, in the beginning. 

You don’t want to burn any bridges before they have a chance to be built in the first place.

But some things can’t be ignored – some topics demand our attention whether we want them to or not.

I don’t know if you know this, but the church is on the brink of schism.

On either side people, lay and clergy alike, keep flinging their disappointments and their differing theologies at one another and it really truly seems as if there is no future in which we stay united.

One pastor put it this way: “I have spent twenty of the best years of my life serving the church in which I have grown closer to more people than I can count… But for the sake of a high and holy cause, I can let all of those friends go. I can no longer live for myself, nor for the present age alone, but only for God for eternity. I have prayed and I have waited, and I must either submit myself to the ways things are, or to leave. I have chosen the latter.”

Another said this: “It is not just for the great number of Methodists across the world that we plead, not even the millions we have yet to reach, but simply for the church herself. We wish to speak the truth in love. Treating people the way we have is simply wrong, cruel, and unjust in all parts and principles because we have denied freedoms, numbed the mind, and killed the soul. How we have belated particular individuals must cease now and forever.”

And still yet another said this: “It matters not how we treat people – this is the way it has been and it is the way it shall continue. The matters of individual liberties belong to Caesar, and not to the church – otherwise God would have intervened.”

Have you heard people talk like that about the church? Or perhaps you’ve read an article in the newspaper about our irreconcilable differences?

Great and powerful leaders in the church are looking through the legalities of separation because it seems like we can no longer hold onto a common cause.

And, lest we grow apathetic about the possibility of ecclesial schism, lives are at stake.

If you don’t know what I’m referring to, you should. So, let me try to break it down a little bit. There is a sizable portion of the church that believes in the institution of slavery is a right given by God Almighty while the other side of the church believes that slavery and the ownership of human beings runs counter to the Good News of the Gospel.

So, friends in Christ, what should we do?

Or, to put it another way, which church should we align ourselves with?

Oh, I seem to have misplaced the notes for my sermon… I think I grabbed the one from 1844 instead of the one for 2021…

You see, the quotes I just read from different pastors were not shared on various social media accounts over the last few years – they didn’t come from the bitterness of recent denominational meetings in which theological dueling has become a favorite pastime. No, all of those are real quotes from pastors in 1844 when the Methodist Church was fighting about whether or not to stay together. And the matter at hand then, the decisive claim that actually split the church until 1939, was slavery.

I beg you to lead lives worthy of the calling to which you’ve been called.

We don’t know all the details that required the writing of the epistle to the Ephesians, but it’s clear that not all of those who were part of the gathering, the ecclesia, were getting along.

There’s a good chance that it had something to do with Gentile Christians making claims about what the faith really looked like now that they were part of the covenant whereas Jewish Christians were holding on to the faith that had first grabbed hold of them.

Or, it could’ve been a little more like the church in Corinth that was constantly bickering about the nuts and bolts of community meals and how the unified church broke into different factions led by different leaders.

Or, maybe they were arguing about who was and who wasn’t compatible with Christian teaching.

We’re not entirely sure but, taking a step back for a moment, it doesn’t really make that much sense. How could a community founded on radical inclusion descend into rampant division? Why would a people who are commanded to love their neighbors have so much trouble actually doing it? What happened such that brothers and sisters in Christ had to be told to bear with one another in love?

Strange, isn’t it? 

What we do know about the church in Ephesus is that Paul felt compelled to write this letter, a letter we refer to as Holy Scripture, and Christians like us have been gathering together to proclaim these words for centuries.

I beg you to live with humility and gentleness, with patience, and bearing with one another in love, making every effort to maintain the the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace.

Wow.

Who would’ve imagined that a scripture text could ever have so much to say to our current context…

And here’s the rub: Paul can exhort us all he wants to be worthy of the Gospel, he can list off in rapid fire detail all of the practical habits that define what the church can be. But, at the end of the day, we will never be worthy of the Gospel.

Never ever.

At least, not on our own.

We’re fickle and selfish little creatures, we humans. It doesn’t matter whether its the first century, or the 19th century, or today, we are consumed by, and addicted to, dividing ourselves into who is in and who is out, who is right and who is wrong. 

And yet, the church touts itself as a bastion of inclusiveness: open hearts, open minds, open doors. Ever heard of it?

Is the Gospel really for all?

I mean, what about those real sinners (let you imaginations run wild)? How would we feel if they started showing up on Sunday mornings?

We might bristle at the thought, but making the outsiders into insiders was exactly Jesus’ cup of tea. Which, when you think about it, is actually really Good News because the Gospel is the most inclusive thing around: At the right time Christ died for the ungodly.

To be clear: that includes each and every one of us.

And that’s the difference that makes all the difference.

Consider the seven ones that Paul rattles off: 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.

We who we far off and we who were near have been brought together by the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. 

Christ is the reason, and the only reason, we can be one.

Warring cultures divided by heritage, and traditions, and moral codes, and even ethical expectations have collided into a new order, a community we call the church.

Paul’s prayer from last Sunday’s passage transforms today into a call to preserve the peace made possible in Christ. Paul literally begs us to see that even our myriad differences, great though they may be, they pale in comparison to the vast gulf between God and us. And yet God chose us!

Think about that for a moment. God, knowing full and well that we are a bunch of dirty rotten scoundrels, that we will regularly look out for our own interests instead of those in need, that, when push comes to shove, given the choice between life and death, we would choose to nail God to a cross, God still chooses to be for us!

In Christ, we encounter the incomparable new reality of God which both humbles us and exalts us, which knocks us down and builds us up, and that is our peace.

You see, peace, at least peace as defined by the Gospel, comes when we recognize our universal incompetence and our total need for someone to do for us that which we cannot do on our own.

God has claimed us. And, as Karl Barth put it, unity is the consequence of belonging to God.

However, there is a difference between the now and the not yet. Our sin-sick souls are stuck in this terrifying cycle of division and antipathy. But, as Christians, we are called to look beyond and, in so doing, reframe the now.

There are walls of division that threaten to divide the church, to literally break up the body of Christ. They existed in Ephesus, they were there in 1844, and they’re still around today.

Paul, across the ages, pleads with us to live lives worthy of the calling to which we’ve been called, something we can’t actually do on our own, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try.

And, notably, the strange new world of the Bible reminds us again and again that if the steps to a better church or a better life are easy, then they are completely bogus.

The most challenging things in life, namely change, require communities of people willing to sustain us through something as difficult as transformation.

Faith is always a journey.

Paul likens it to the way a body grows – it happens, in time, and it can be painful. And we can try all we want to resist it, but God is going to get what God wants.

It is therefore in the knowledge of the hope that is beyond our current circumstances that we find our peace. Peace is upon the mountain. We have not yet reached the mountain. But we can lift our eyes to the hills, from whence our help comes.

I don’t know about you, but I’ve always been particularly struck by this little moment in the Gospel right before Jesus’ crucifixion. Abandoned by his followers, betrayed by his disciples, condemned by the religious elites, Jesus carries his own instrument of death to the place called the skull, and what does he say?

“Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing.”

The truth is, we still don’t know what we’re doing.

The United Methodist Church, the body of Christ for the world, is at war with itself over who can marry who and who can do what I do. But we’re also on the brink of schism in our community over politics, and education, and a variety of other subjects.

It’s terrifying how content we are to cut off our hands and our feet.

We still identify who is in and who is out based on categories that make absolutely no sense in the Kingdom of God. We view one another through names on bumper stickers, and through ill-advised Facebook posts, and through late-night ramblings on twitter.

And today scripture grabs us by the collar and says, “Listen! God has made us beautifully different! Unity isn’t uniformity! We bring together all of our differences and that what makes the one body we call church so amazing. So stop acting like children for God’s sake, literally. You move about with every new headline, and you give into to such shameful divisions. Listen! Speak the truth in love. IN LOVE! You don’t deserve to be part of the body of Christ. No one does. And yet God chose you anyway! We are not what we can be without you, and neither can we be who God is calling us to be if we keep cutting off our arms and our legs!”

At the end of the day, whether we like to admit it or not, what we really want is to be told that we are right and they, whoever the they are, are wrong.

But again, the Gospel tells us something different – the Gospel tells us we’re all wrong! That’s why the Gospel is more inclusive than anything in existence! We don’t stand on our accomplishments or on our righteousness – none of us are righteous, no not one.

The only thing we stand on is the grace and love of God freely given to us in Christ Jesus.

Or, in other words, we’re stuck with each other because God has decided to be stuck with us. So be it. Amen.

We Are (Not) United

1 Corinthians 1.10-18

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. For it has been reported to me by Chloe’s people that there are quarrels among you, my brothers and sisters. What I mean is that each of you says, “I belong to Paul,” or “I belong to Apollos,” or “I belong to Cephas,” or “I belong to Christ.” Has Christ been divided? Was Paul crucified for you? Or were you baptized in the name of Paul? I thank God that I baptized none of you except Crispus and Gaius, so that no one can say that you were baptized in my name. (I did baptize also the household of Stephanas; beyond that, I do not know whether I baptized anyone else.) For Christ did not send me to baptize but to proclaim the gospel, and not with eloquent wisdom, so that the cross of Christ might not be emptied of its power. For the message about the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God. 

The church is on the brink of schism.

On either side people, lay and clergy alike, keep flinging their disappointments and their differing theologies at one another and it seems as if there is no future in which we stay together.

One pastor put it this way, “I have spent twenty of the best years of my life serving the church in which I have grown closer to more people than I can count. For a long time it was my friendships within the church that kept me with the church. But for the sake of a high and holy cause, I can let all of those friends go. I can no longer live solely for myself, nor for the present age alone, but only for God for eternity. I have prayed, and I have waited, and I must either submit myself to the way things are, or to leave. I have chosen the latter.”

Another said this: “It is not just for the great number of Methodists across the world that we plead, not even the millions we have yet to reach, but simply for the church herself. We wish to speak the truth in love. Treating people the way we have is simply wrong, cruel, and unjust in all parts and principles because we have denied freedoms, numbed the mind, and killed the soul. How we have belittled particular individuals must cease now and forever.”

And still yet another said this, “It matters not how we treat particular people – this is the way it has been and it is the way it shall continue. The matters of individual liberties belong to Caesar, and not to the church – otherwise God would have intervened.”

Have you heard people speak this way about the church? Or perhaps you’ve read an article in the newspaper about our irreconcilable differences? Great and powerful leaders in the church are looking through the legalities of separation because it seems like we can no longer remain together.

By the way, does anyone happen to know what year it is? I can’t quite remember. 2020? Oh, you’re surely mistaken. The year is 1844 my friends, how could you have forgotten!?

Those quotes I read, contrary to what we might’ve thought, were not shared over the last few weeks by pastors offering too much information on their respective Facebook pages. Actually, they are all from the year 1844 when the Methodist Church was fighting about whether or not to stay together. And what was the actual matter at hand? Slavery.

One of the great ironies in the church is that we call ourselves United Methodists and we are anything but united.

The church in Corinth was similarly divided. In Paul’s first letter alone we can count at least fifteen different problems the apostle had to confront including lawsuits, idolatry, prostitution, and a whole lot more. But here, right after his pronouncement of grace upon God’s people, he got down to the business of addressing partisanship – otherwise known as divisions.

We’re not entirely sure how it happened, or even why, but the Corinthian Christians factionalized behind different leaders. Some followed Paul, some Cephas, and some Apollos. And the disrespect they held for the rival leaders extended down to the individual followers as well, such that some of the followers of Jesus refused to break bread with one another.

It doesn’t make any sense.

I mean, how can an organization founded upon the principles of total inclusion descend into such rampant division? How can a people told to love their neighbors as themselves cease to love their literal neighbors? How can something as united as a church break down into different factions?

Those questions were asked in Corinth, they were asked in 1844, and they’re still being asked today.

The gospel itself doesn’t make a lot of sense. As I said last week, and will be saying over the coming weeks, grace is really really messy. It is not simple – For, what God did, makes no sense to us. It makes no sense to us because we would not have done what God did had it been up to us.

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The gospel, the Good News of Jesus Christ, the message of salvation made available to all, is so contrary to everything we think we know about the world and even, at times, contrary to everything to what we think we know about the church!

I mean, is the gospel really for all? What about the real sinners (let your minds wander), do they have a place in the church? How would we feel about the outsiders being let into the inside?

We might bristle at the thought, but we can’t ignore that making the outsiders the insiders was exactly Jesus’ cup of tea. 

Faith, whatever it may be, is confounding precisely because it runs counter to so much of what we’ve been taught to expect about the world. It is challenging to wrap our minds around which, incidentally, is why we keep coming back to church week after week in hopes that we’ll get a better angle on all this.

Now, of course, there will be plenty of other folk who will try their best to convince us that there are easy steps to Christianity, that if we follow a simple formula we will get our lives perfectly sorted out. Countless books are sold every year on that premise alone. 

There will always be Cephases and Apolloses vying for our allegiance.

But the word from scripture, and in particular within the Pauline corpus, is that if the steps to a better church or a better life are easy, then they are completely bogus. The most challenging things in life, namely change, require communities of people to sustain us through something as difficult as transformation.

It can take a lifetime of coming to the table over and over again before we really start to believe that Jesus would do what Jesus did, even for us!

It can take decades of Sundays hearing the gospel story before it finally starts sounding like good news.

It can take generations of patient faithfulness before we begin to see how foolish the message of the cross is, and how everything we do hangs on it.

Which leads us back to Corinth, and in a sense back to 1844, and back to the church today. All churches throughout time have fallen prey to the temptation of easy answers. And who can blame them? If people provide the answers we already want to hear, then why not follow them? 

There have been plenty of Apolloses and Cephases over the centuries. As Christians we so regularly self-identify around particular leaders who give us what we want to hear. Tribalism runs rampant in the church such that since the very beginning of the church there have been alternative modes of the church within the church!

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But the cross demands something different and something far more difficult.

Most of us here today have come of age in a world in which we are so comfortable with crosses dangling around our necks and adorning the top of our steeples, that we cannot conceive of crosses as anything but sterile symbols of something vaguely religious.

But the cross is, and forever shall be, a shocking thing. 

2,000 years of church life has made it next to impossible to consider how shocking it was to preach a crucified Messiah during the time of Paul. The next closest thing would be hanging hypodermic needles around our necks, or placing electric chairs on top of churches, or hanging nooses on the walls of our living rooms.

The cross is death. Which is why Paul can say, “The cross is foolishness to those who are perishing but to us who are being saved it is the power of God.”

The world doesn’t want death – it wants other signs of worldly power. And yet our King of kings rules from a cross, and one of his final pronouncements is not an exhortation about all we must do to earn a spot in his kingdom. Instead, Jesus uses some of his final earthly breaths to declare one of the strangest things of all, “Father, forgive them for they do not know what they are doing.”

And, indeed, we have no idea what we are doing. We are a people at war – not necessarily in the conventional sense but we are certainly at war with one another these days. 

The United Methodist Church is battling about who can marry who and who can get ordained. We appear at the brink of schism, dooming ourselves to repeat 1844 all over again. 

Our partisan finger wagging continues to divide families, and friends, and co-workers. We identify who is in and who is out by the name of a candidate on a bumper sticker or by the avenue by which they receive their news.

We write people off for Facebook posts and tweets and delight in our ever tightening tunnel vision about reality.

Our tribalism is going off the rails and, shockingly worst of all, it seems like we actually enjoy it.

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The word of the cross is not easy to proclaim. It wasn’t easy for Paul, it wasn’t easy for the church in the decades leading up to the Civil War, and it’s not easy today. 

The word of the cross is a stumbling block to those who call themselves religious and it is foolishness to those who delight in the rise of secularism precisely because the cross stands as a beacon to a different reality, a reality we wouldn’t choose for ourselves.

For as much as the cross is a sign to the world about the forgiveness of sins, it is equally a reminder that we have plenty of sins for which we all need forgiveness.

Or, to put it another way, we cannot look at the cross without confronting the inconvenient truth that we are the sinners for whom Christ died.

We confess, however, that we would much prefer to hear a different kind of message about the cross. Perhaps something a little more uplifting, or at the very least something optimistic. 

Ultimately, whether we like to admit it or not, what we really want is to be told that we are right and they, whoever they are, are wrong.

But, again, the cross tells us something different – the cross tell us we’re all wrong.

Jesus was put to death by the legitimate powers of his time – He was denounced by the Roman governor, flogged and beaten, and was taken along with common criminals to be executed outside of the city.

He was condemned to death by all of the best people of church and state, and was condemned for crimes against religion and government.

This is a challenging thing to confront – particularly for those of us who feel good in our piety, or happy in our political proclivities… Jesus went to the other side, he went to be with the people we would rather ignore, and he took his place upon a cross because we put him there.

We hate it, we don’t want to even get near it, here in the ivory towers of our own making. But Jesus, the one we worship and adore, Jesus is on both sides. He is on the side of the victims and on the side of the perpetrators. He eats with sinners and tax collectors. He speaks to the powerful and to the weak.

That is why the gospel is so overwhelmingly radical – When we say Jesus is for all, we really mean all.

We are not united. We have plenty of divisions cropping up all the time that keep us from one another. But there is something that truly unites us – the gospel. It is radically inclusive in ways we can’t even dream of. Whether we like it or not the gospel refuses to divide the world up into the correct and the incorrect, the righteous and the unrighteous, the innocent and the guilty. Jesus takes all of that into himself and says I forgive you.

It’s foolishness according to the world, but to us it is the power of God. Amen.