Filed under: Sermons | Tags: catholic-lutheran dialog, christian unity, community, lutherans, marriage, relationship, Unity
BibleGrace and peace to you, sisters and brothers in Christ.
Almost ten years ago, Jeff and I left our wedding guests and headed up north to enjoy our honeymoon. Our car was well decorated with love notes in shoe polish from family and friends. We were so much in love, too exhausted, and excited for our new life together that we were oblivious to the world.
Jeff went into a gas station and the guy at the counter greeted him by name. Jeff stopped, trying to recognize him, not being too far from his hometown, until the guy laughed and said he read our car’s “Liz + Jeff = married” decorations.
There was something so fresh in those days, that even people who didn’t see our car knew we were on our honeymoon. As grad students, a tropical beach vacation was beyond our means, so we went with the next best thing: the beautiful coast and mountains of the UP.
One morning, we walked into a gift shop near the Lake of the Clouds to pick out the beginnings of our vacation magnet collection. An older man stood at the counter, smiling at us, asking if we had just gotten married. We had parked our “just married” poster on wheels pretty far away, so I asked how he had guessed.
He pointed down to Jeff’s hands, where Jeff was still fidgeting with this unfamiliar piece of jewelry. “Your ring is so bright and shiny. It hasn’t been dulled or nicked, it’s perfectly smooth, brand new.”
That’s what the beginning of a relationship is like. Or maybe it’s what any relationship is like that hasn’t seen much interaction, much depth, much conflict or growth.
Looking down at my own ring today, I notice that its shine has dulled. It’s come into contact with many surfaces and probably more harsh chemical than it was meant to. Jeff’s is bent, no longer a perfect symbol. It slips off his finger, as his body has changed.
I know we could go into a jewelry shop and have our rings resized and renewed, scratches polished away. But I don’t know that a new ring would fit our relationship anymore. We are still so much in love, and we’ve been able to grow in love because we haven’t tried to keep a perfect veneer over our relationship. Sometimes relationships are gritty and rough, with friction and tears. Love is about commitment to unity through all the strains and struggles of life.
As Jesus prepares to die, he prays for his disciples, that they would experience the love and unity that the Father and the Son share. Jesus longs for them to be drawn up into the relationship that exists within God.
Jesus prays, “I ask not only on behalf of these, (the disciples right there with him) but also on behalf of those who will believe in me through their word, that they may all be one.”
We get to listen in to Jesus’ prayer, just as those first disciples did, and we realize that Jesus is praying for us. Jesus prays for us- and not just us here at Cross, but the people worshipping down the street and around the world and across the ages. God’s prayer is for all of us to be one undivided whole in Christ.
If this is God’s prayer, then surely God will make it happen, in God’s time.
The painful reality for me is that we have not reached the fulfillment of this prayer.
We believers are not all one. Our disunity dilutes our ability to share the love that God has placed within us. In an age when it’s more socially acceptable to be skeptical of religion, when so many claim to be spiritual but not religious because to be religious means to be overly dogmatic, close-minded, and hypocritical, we Christians cannot afford to have our witness derailed by division.
Neither can we settle for false unity. Unity that is only a patina on surface relationships is not true unity. My wedding band may have a few scuffs and scrapes, but it’s solid all the way through. We’re going to have to stretch this analogy because of course, my band isn’t pure gold, and pure gold is softer anyway. But imagine if my ring was plated gold, and instead of something less expensive, but stronger beneath the shine, it was something even softer, like lead.
It would be like a funny trick my brother liked to play, where you hand someone what looks like a wrapped Starburst candy, only to have them discover it’s an empty wrapper, neatly refolded.
You might try to wear the gold plated lead ring, and for a little while it would look shiny and beautiful, but soon it would show signs that its core was inferior and structurally unsound. With enough pressure, it would collapse and the thinness of the gold would be exposed.
Christian unity, Church unity, isn’t accomplished by pretending we’re all on the same page, that we believe the same things, or practice the same ways. We live into unity when our core is strong: when our core is Jesus. When we come together to hear each other’s witness to how God is at work in our lives, when we recognize that God has gifted others, and we are not afraid to speak the truth of God’s revelations within our traditions and our lives, then we step towards celebrating the unity that God creates from our diversity.
In First Corinthians, we read about the Church as Christ’s body, with many members that look and function differently, but are all interconnected. Their diversity is so needed that the hand cannot say to the foot, I have no need of you, nor the foot to the hand, I have no need of you.
It’s a natural fear, to think that the more we know about each other, the more we’ll be divided. But that’s only if you’re living according to a world whose truth declares that you’re only safe when your group is all the same. When our safety, our justification, our salvation, is something God has already accomplished, so that we don’t rely on anyone else’s opinion of us to determine our self-worth, then we are free to be ourselves, to speak from our lives, and to really listen to the other. We have nothing to fear from real relationship that grows out of God’s love.
I experienced this during my formation for the ministry of spiritual direction. For two years, twice a month, I prayed with and listened for God’s work in the lives of six other Christians. While we talked about church, we didn’t dwell on denominations. We listened to how the other talked about God, experienced God, and lived out of his or her faith. I was surprised at how real God’s presence was for us, how strangers could become pillars of faith, supports for my own faith, wise eyes that saw God with me in places I had been blind to God’s work. After two years, when we finally met in person and could measure our heights against each other, when more open conversation about our own denominations and practices happened, I was surprised that these might not have been people I would have chosen as spiritual companions. If we had started with the reasons we were different instead of the source of grace at our center, it wouldn’t have worked. It worked because we lived out of our unity in Christ. In our conversations about theology and practice, we asked questions like, “where did that understanding of God come from?” or “how is that practice life-giving for you today?” rather than closed statements of “that’s not what the Bible says” and “my church says that’s wrong.” We came with the intention of living into unity, trusting that God really is present in the other’s experience of faith.
Our ELCA is a part of fascinating conversations with other Christian denominations as part of our living in to Jesus’ vision for the Church. We start at our common center: Jesus Christ, and then tackle the harder stuff, not to win in a debate, but to discover how God has been present in each other’s faithful living. You’ll find some of the recent work with the Lutheran-Catholic dialog includes hearing again words we’ve always assumed we’ve understood. When we have 500 years of division behind us, it’s easy to think we’re too far to ever come together again. But the fascinating thing about the documents out of this dialog is that it’s about really listening to understand each other and finding that we’re not always so different. Or at least coming to respect how God has been working in both our traditions. I’ve linked in our website some of these documents, so that you can glimpse a way that we are refocusing on unity in the whole Christian Church.
Jesus may have prayed for our unity, and we may be joining in God’s work to reconcile all people, but we are not there yet.
I experienced that in a startling way this week, when I was informed the leader of a Reformation History study tour I was signed up for didn’t want any pastors or people from the ELCA in his Lutheran tour group. I was surprised and angry and sad… and perhaps now I am hopeful.
Because I’ll find another option for my own study… and our unity isn’t up to this pastor, but is in God’s hands.
Maybe there’s a bit of irony in that- when God’s plan is finally complete, those who once rejected me will find out I’m their neighbor in the city of God.
I think by then, it will be ok. My resentment will be gone and their judgment will be gone, and all we will know is God’s love. Because one day, we will be filled with the love that the Son and the Father share- and we will be certain that that love is for us. All of us.
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