One In Christ

Scripture: Galatians 3: 19-29

We must remember, when we hear the scriptures such as Becky read for us from Galatians a few moments ago, that words express a truth, but that the truth only makes sense is a context.   The truth only has a power to order life, to explain life, to provide purpose… in the context within which it was heard.

I.

The early Christian Church was forged in the crucible of a world that could not transcend the clannish religion of the day.  Each nation had its own understanding of God.  Jesus grew up in that climate and battled it all his life.  The Pharisees, so sure that they knew the truth, were a thorn in Jesus’ side every time he healed, or fed the multitudes, or taught that God just might give a care for someone outside their little sphere the pious.

And after Jesus’ death and resurrection, as the fledgling Christian Church was trying to understand itself, and order its life under the direction of the Holy Spirit, what was the major dividing issue of the day?  It was this same issue, in a different guise:

Shall the church be composed of those who, like Jesus, accepted the Law of Moses, accepted the commandment of circumcision that Moses brought?  Shall the church of Jesus, have to follow in His same steps, ritually and culturally?

The earliest leaders of the church, answered “yes.”  To be a Christian, one must be a Jewish Christian.  Circumcision, kosher foods, Sabbath worship, the whole nine yards.  If you wanted to be a Christian, you must first become the best of the Jews…. exceeding the Pharisees in their righteousness.

But in a short time another voice was heard.  It was the voice of the Pharisee’s Pharisee.  Saul of Tarsus, becoming Paul of Jesus after an encounter of the close kind on the road to Damascus, had another vision.   It was a strange vision at the time….. an understanding that those outside the pale, the Gentiles…. the Gentiles should be a part of the family of faith, too.

27  As many of you as were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ.

28  There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.

II.

1750 years later, in slightly different form, the same question arose.  A beloved preacher named Barton W. Stone shared a simple gospel message along the Kentucky/Ohio border.  He and a like-minded band of itinerant preachers and their congregations founded an Association, the Springfield Presbytery, whose intent was to leave behind so much of the trappings of religion that had encrusted the church on the American frontier in the early 1800’s, and to open wide the doors of the churches to God’s fresh blowing spirit.

Less than a year later, in meeting these leaders took another step forward in their movement toward Christian Unity. Barton Stone and other pastors of the fledgling Springfield Presbytery on June 28th, 1804 wrote:

“The Presbytery of Springfield, sitting at Cane Ridge, in the county of Bourbon, being, through a gracious Providence, in more than ordinary bodily health, growing in strength and size daily, and in perfect soundness and composure of mind; but knowing that it is appointed for all delegated bodies once to die; and so considering that the life of every such body is very uncertain, do make and ordain this our last Will and testament, in manner and form following viz.:

Imprimis.  We will, that this body die, be dissolved, and sink into union with the Body of Christ at large; for there is but one Body, and one Spirit, even as we are called in one hope of our calling.”

*

In this movement, declaring that their mission — and as they became the foundation of the movement finally becoming the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ)– also our movement, another truth is lifted high.  Christian community bought at the price of exclusivity, is finally not Christian at all.

Naturally, the established church leaders of their day, particularly the Baptist and Presbyterians, could not understand nor accept this seeming heresy.

III.

Now more than 200 years later, we live in a similarly unecumenical time. Oh, the issues differ.  But the spirit of intolerance?  Just the same.  Maybe even worse.

Paul Hill decides that a medical abortion is immoral, so immoral, in fact, that anyone who performs an abortion should themselves be executed. [i] And he takes it upon himself to become judge, jury, and executioner killing both Dr. John Britton and his bodyguard, James Barrett, in 1994 outside an abortion clinic in Pensacola.

Less than a year ago in November 2015, Robert Lewis Dear killed 3 and injured 9 at the Planned Parenthood clinic in Colorado Springs, Colorado, again violently intolerant of other Christian views.[ii]

Daryl Johnson of the Dept. of Homeland Security said in a N.Y. Times article that the Hutaree Christian militia movement in Michigan possessed more weapons than the combined weapons holdings of all Islamic terror defendants charged in the US since the September 11 attacks.[iii]

The word that describes this spirit is “intolerance”, and the examples of those willing to engage in violence, even just in our own nation are legion:  the Michigan militia; the KKK; ecological monkey wrenchers; the Unabomber; airline hijackers.  These people are so convinced that they are right in their own crusades that they do not stop, even at violence, to get their own way.

*

But we are a people whose mission from the very beginning has been that of trying to bring together those of different perspectives and call to mind… not the differences, but the commonalities… not disputations, but the shared truth…

We are a people who has claimed, in the words of one our movement’s founders, Thomas Campbell, in Declaration and Address of  1809, “That the Church of Christ upon earth is essentially, intentionally, and constitutionally one; consisting of all those in every place that profess their faith in Christ and obedience to him in all things according to the Scriptures… That although the Church of Christ upon earth must necessarily exist in particular and distinct societies, locally separate one from another, yet there ought to be no schisms, no uncharitable divisions among them.  This has been and surely ought always be, the discerning and directing principle of our common life.   And if that is true of the past, it must be even truer in the present and the future!

With you, I trust, I weep when looking across the religious landscape or our nation and the Western world… for the picture is the same everywhere.  The clear and consistent picture is that the people of our nation and the west are flocking to the churches and the religious leaders who will give them what their lesser spirits desire.  What is it that they want?

Flip on your television or your radio and listen.  Though there are notable exceptions, by and large the message of the Christian broadcasts  that you will hear is very much in the same vein as the Judaizers of Paul’s day.  It is the message of the denominationalists of Thomas & Alexander Campbell’s, and Barton Stone’s day.  It is the message that says, if you wish to be true to God, you will separate yourselves from the misguided, ungodly supposedly Christian heretics of the day; separate yourself from other Christians who differ in their interpretations from yours, from ours; separate yourself into that supposedly pure, and private fellowship of God’s select few.

This is the message that is popular today.  This is the message that fuels the politics of fear and the politics of self-righteousness.  This is the message that separates and divides, polarizes and balkanizes. This is the message that in our early 21st century has success—at least success in the eyes of the world, written all over it.

*

But my sisters and brothers here this morning, WE are called out, by the song of another message.  There is another message that is being proclaimed by our tradition.

Our message is broader and more inclusive.  Our message roars from the heart of the book of Galatians:

26  for in Christ Jesus you are all children of God through faith.

27  As many of you as were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ.

28  There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.

This is our message, my friends, the message that all who strive to follow Jesus Christ are welcome to this table, are invited into the fellowship.

In time, our Disciples heritage would produce a haunting phrase, THAT “CHRISTIAN UNITY IS OUR POLAR STAR.”

As we worship each Sunday in this upside down ship of a Sanctuary, we pilot our craft by that star…

We make important decisions by that star.  Very important decisions.

From the beginning, that Polar Star of Christian Unity had us opening up  the communion table to anyone who would profess Christ as Lord.  Other denominations were saying, no you had to believe such and such a confession of faith; you had to subscribe to this doctrine.  But our desire to welcome all Christians led to an open table.

*

There are issues that face the church today.  There are issues that face each of us today, striving to live a faithfully Christian life in our increasingly secular age.  On this World Wide Communion Sunday, when we remember the broad fellowship of Sisters and Brothers across the globe striving to live out this charge, we can be guided by that Christian Unity Polar Star.

If we follow that star, where does it lead us to today?  Let me list just three ways– though with a little thought we could name others– three ways, the central focus on Christian Unity will guide us in these days

*

First, because we understand Christian unity as a gift of God, not the result of our striving…. we will discover God’s presence in the lives of others more readily.  We can see and celebrate God’s spirit in the Lutherans and the Church of God, in the Episcopalians and………  We needn’t feel jealous of their successes.  As our forbearers in faith put it, “ We are not the only Christians; we are Christians only!”

Second, because we understand Christian unity as one of our specific callings in the life of the wider Church of Jesus Christ, we ought to find ourselves being & becoming a bridge congregation:  a place where couples of differing backgrounds, where Christians of differing political convictions, and differing sexual orientations; where richer and poorer, educated and uneducated, young and old, American born and foreign born… can not only tolerate one another in our differences, but actually love each other, and further, celebrate the varied colors and textures of our quilted together community, differences that make our life together a tapestry of such beauty and witness.

Witness, I say Thirdly, because when we understand Christian unity as our Polar star, because our oneness in Christ is so fundamental, from our lives will shine forth a Christian witness that is not easily missed.

You will remember 10 years ago 2006 when 10 Amish children were shot, five of them fatally, outside of Nickel Mines, PA.  It was a gut wrenching and awful tragedy.  You recall the picture of the scene.

But we all are also likely remember how the Amish community responded to that evil perpetrated upon them– with an extraordinary offering of forgiveness, comforting the widow of the man who shot their children… establishing a financial support fund for the widow’s family.  This is so far beyond normal, so far above expectation, that the world stood in awe at what a deeply and faithfully held Christian faith can mean in the face of such an appallingly malevolent crime.  Simply put, this Amish community embodied the gospel of Jesus Christ.[iv]

Living in Christian Unity…..as we proclaim at this Communion Table,  both when good & when evil strike our community and our homes, so shall we embody the Gospel of Jesus Christ.

May it be so!  Amen.

 

[i] Paul Jennings Hill (February 6, 1954 – September 3, 2003) was a convicted American murderer. Hill murdered physician, Dr. John Britton, and Britton’s bodyguard James Barrett in 1994. Hill was sentenced to death by lethal injection and was executed on September 3, 2003. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Paul_Jennings_Hill

 

[ii]  http://thinkprogress.org/justice/2015/12/01/3727084/yes-the-planned-parenthood-shooter-was-a-christian-terrorist/

 

[iii] Shane, Scott (24 July 2011). “Killings in Norway Spotlight Anti-Muslim Thought in U.S.” (PDF). The New York Times. Archived from the original (PDF) on 4 November 2014. Retrieved 3 November 2014. http://www.nytimes.com/2011/07/25/us/25debate.html

 

[iv] Michael Kinnamon in http://bit.ly/2dxQqR5

 

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