Sunday, January 21, 2018

Epiphany 3 - Christ's Unity Encompasses Diversity

Jonah 3:1-5, 10; Psalm 62:5-12; Mark 1:14-20

So today we are about halfway through something called the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity. A century ago, a few Catholic Friars proposed that the week beginning with the Feast Day for Saint Peter and ending with the Feast Day for Saint Paul would be a week when the Catholic Church should pray for the unity of the church. After all, Christians believe that the church is the body of Christ, and that it is one body, although with different parts. The divisions between us can sometimes make it look like we are acting as separate bodies, which is a bad witness to Christ. About fifty years after the Catholic Church began praying during this week, the  major Protestant churches joined in, and now this week is recognized around the world as a time when the various denominations can engage in deepening their relationships with one another, and acknowledging that each church is doing its best to follow Christ.

On the one hand, this is huge. Our Christian history is full of arguments and excommunications and even wars as we each have tried to defend our own understanding of what it means to be a Christian. We have done such horrible things to one another, all in the name of Christ, that it’s surprising that anybody even wants to be a Christian. That we have finally come to a point where we can, at least in theory, accept one another as belonging to the body of Christ is tremendous. It is, truly, a testament to the peace that can be found when we focus our eyes on Christ, and Christ alone.

At the same time, I can’t help but wonder if God is seeing this and thinking, “What took them so long??” Our Scriptures give us lots of stories of people responding to God’s call albeit in very different ways. Take our Gospel reading for this morning. We often focus on Simon and Andrew and James and John leaving everything and following Jesus. At the same time, Zebedee, the father of James and John, is sitting there quietly in his boat, mending the nets. We hold up the ones who left their nets as our models for responding to Jesus’ call, but there is absolutely nothing in the text that tells us that. Indeed, Zebedee, whose name means God has bestowed, is responding to Jesus’ call in his own way, which is to stay behind and take care of the family, and continue providing for those around him. We don’t give Zebedee, or any of those who respond to God’s call by staying behind, enough credit. And yet Luther tells us that those who stay at home, and wash the baby’s diapers are living out their Christian vocation just as much as those who leave everything to follow Christ. There are many different ways of responding to God’s call.

Our first reading, from the book of Jonah, tells us the same thing. Jonah, born and raised as one of God’s chosen people, responds to God’s call, albeit reluctantly and under duress, by doing what God tells him to do and going to Nineveh and telling them that God wants them to repent. The people of Nineveh, who are essentially non-believers, respond immediately, without any reluctance whatsoever, to the call of this God who is completely new to them. In the end, both the one from the chosen people and the ones who are non-believers respond to God. They just do it in different ways. This idea that there is only one way to walk as God wants us to is not held up by these Scriptures, nor by our own experiences as members in the body of Christ.

And yet... trying to understand how God can be so inclusive is challenging. What about those churches that support the ordination of women and those churches that outright forbid it? How can both of these denominations be right? When we talk about the unity of the Church, can a church that believes in infant baptism and one that does not think of themselves as both following Christ? On a more personal level, does God really recognize that those Christians who advocate for abortion as a woman’s right to choose and those Christians who believe abortion is murder and protest abortion clinics are both following God? Are those who use the Bible to defend capital punishment and those who use the Bible to argue against it both responding to Christ’s call to follow him? What about forgiving abusers? The Bible says to forgive, and the Bible also calls us to fight for justice? Which is the right path for following Christ?

“God alone is my rock and my salvation; ... Trust in God at all times, O people; ... Power belongs to God, and steadfast love belongs to you, O Lord.” This is our psalm for today. God alone is the one we trust and love. Or, as Luther says in his Small Catechism, “We are to fear, love, and trust only God.” This is the heart of what it is to follow Christ––our single guiding principle: to fear, love, and trust only God. It’s simple, actually, although that doesn’t mean it’s easy. It does mean, though, that the right path for any Christian to follow is the one that comes from fearing only God, and not anyone or anything else, from trusting only God, and not ourselves or own good intentions, and from loving only God, and not ourselves or our honour or our life. It is not the particulars of the path itself that makes it right, because each person walks their own path. It is right because it is done out of fearing, loving, and trusting only God.

Peter and Andrew and James and John trusted God’s Son to take care of them on the road, and so they followed him. Zebedee trusted God to take care of him in his boat, and so he stayed. Job (eventually) feared only God, and so he went to Nineveh. The people of Nineveh both feared and then trusted only God, and so they repented. Those churches who ordain women and those who don’t both are trying to fear, trust, and love God the way they think is best for them, and so they are united in their desire to follow Christ. One person can trust God so much that they are willing to die to prevent an abortion, while another person can trust God so much that they are confident that their pregnancy is not what God wants for them at that point. When both make their decisions rooted in a deep trust in God, then, as contradictory as it sounds to us, they are united in following Christ.

One way in which I have come to see that this is particularly true is in the debates and decisions around medically-assisted dying. I have sat at the bedside of a Christian whose trust in God was so profound that they chose not to take advantage of medically-assisted death, believing that God would take them when the time was right. This person’s decision not to take advantage of a medically-assisted death was rooted in fearing, loving, and trusting God. I have also sat at the bedside of a Christian whose trust in God was so profound that they were not afraid to die, and they asked for that death to be hastened so their family would not suffer and so that they could be with God as soon as possible. This person’s decision to take advantage of a medically-assisted death was just as rooted in fearing, loving, and trusting God. Two completely different paths, united in one faith in the goodness of God that they had experienced through Christ.

Just because we come to different decisions about which is the best path to follow Christ for us, it does not mean we lack unity. We are united in our love for Christ, and in us all being recipients of the grace and forgiveness bestowed on us through Christ. Our diversity does not threaten that but points, rather, to the depth of God’s inclusion and love for everyone, far beyond what we can even understand. It points to how glorious Christ is that so many diverse members make up his body. A God in whom unity is made up of diversity is far more worthy of praise than a unity where everyone is the same. We are truly blessed that God has finally brought us to a point in time when we’re able to see this, and where we are able to confess that all who seek the Lord are welcomed into the kingdom of heaven. This is the Good News, thanks be to God. Amen. 

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