Jeremiah 1:4-10 * Psalm 71:1-6 * 1 Corinthians 13:1-13 * Luke 4:21-30
This week of prayer for Christian unity has been unsettling time of prayer for me. I do not know what has been stirred in you by God this week or if you . For me I was unsettled by having this years theme of this years Week of Prayer for Christian Unity, "You are witnesses of these things" came into conversation with Paul on the Spirit and the nature of the body of Christ. What follows is my own attempt to articulate how I have been unsettled, and hope to invite your own reflections and offerings of your own experiences of prayer for Christian unity to come in conversation with my own experience, the theme, and these text before us today.
The beginning of my discomfort is in the very fact of praying for Christian unity, for in so doing we admit that we remain in a state of disunion. Then In speaking of being witnesses, we speak of our desire and our sense that although we are divided as Christians we have something in common at our core, and that our witness to these things we hold together is compromised by this disunity. Paul uses the metaphor of the Body, to give us an understanding of the nature of the church, the nature of Christ. Through Baptism and the life of the Spirit we are one body, Christ’s body. Yet, this whole passage as an exhortation means that we can live in contradiction to the unity we are given through baptism and the Spirit. In the unity of baptism and the Spirit we are empowered to witness to the things of Christ: his life death and resurrection. And yet this week of prayer for Christian unity should give us pause, in terms of our own spiritual health, and our being formed by the nature of the Church Paul explicates for us in Corinthians. If we are willing to remain content with our own particular witness, whether of our own individual journeys of faith, or as journey tied to a particular denomination, are we not in a sense giving priority to our own “giftedness”? And doesn’t even the various schemes for seeking unity and understanding between Christians keep us divided, if it stops at merely seeking to understand each other and work together? In our attempt to find ways to work together across institutional barriers and barriers of belief, or to work towards convergence in the area of doctrine and belief, and even to work towards ecumenical congregation are we assuming the need to get along rather than assuming we need to be conformed to the Spirit and our Baptism. Yet this week isn’t the week of focus on the work of ecumenism but of prayer. In this we admit that the unity of being witnesses of the life death and Resurrection of Christ, of truly being the church is Spirit directed and Spirit gifted reality into which we must be formed by God. I want to suggest that this sort of prayer should open ourselves up to God showing us the ways in which we all uphold the state of disunity, and the ways we abandon the Church. For our disunity is a sign that we have walked away from the truth of our Baptism and our Spirit filled lives in the Church. This is the urgency of Paul’s address to the Corinthians. We must not remain in the sense of sufficiency of our separate witness and distinctive ways of proclaiming Christ, for to do so is to walk the path of schism. But the hope of this week and of our texts is that we don’t have to work harder Rather we must be opened up to the reality of the church as Spiritual institution and organism.
Our Corinthians passage challenges any notion that Christian unity is coexistence, or acceptance that we all truly believe in Jesus even though we differ and at times contradict one another in our beliefs and actions. What is imaged for us of Christ, the Church, is a great symmetry and an organism made up of parts that cannot survive or even exist apart from the whole. Thus our unity as Christians as based upon the preceding reality: the unity of the Body of Christ, the Church. Granted we could miss this mystical reading of the Body imagery and read Paul’s words as exhortation to just get along for one must not overlook that Paul’s teaching is also about diversity. However I think in following the diversity path we miss that the difference Paul speaks of is not of human origin but of divine origin, of the Spirit. Paul’s use of the metaphor of the Body challenges our current language of diversity that is for the most part a tolerance of separate coexistence. A body isn't a confederation of interrelated differentiated sovereignty's, but an organism that is dependent on the right functioning of every part and member of the organism that has no possible existence outside that organism. For a body to functioning fully and properly each and every member not only needs the others but an integration in the whole.. We aren't to view our giftedness as a reason to separate from others, rather we are to see that we all equally need the other.
I feel that the force of Paul’s indictment against us in his language of the body of Christ, is reinforced if we think along side this metaphor the reality of what is needed to truly be witness of Christ. When we receive gifts from the Spirit, whatever they may be, we are so gifted for a purpose of bearing witness to Christ. Thus in speaking of the Spiritual reality of the church as organism and institution we must not for get that we exist for and as Christ. Thus the unity of our witness is that we witness to the singular work of God through Christ in the world. My own denomination will often speak of our contribution to the building of the Kingdom of God which also goes on beyond our borders. Yet, this in practice means that we celebrate and witness to the ways we believe according to our denominational distinctive we are accomplishing the work of God in Jesus Christ. This way of speaking and thinking fails to question how our identity may stand in the way of the work of Christ and the Spirit and may impair the witness to the life Death and Resurrection of Christ as that which establishes the Kingdom of God in the world; bringing release to the captives, bringing sight, and hearing and healing to all in need. Are we in our separation whether based in denomination or personal identity, or race or class truly joined to the work of Christ and the coming Kingdom of God? It is one thing to claim this, it is another for it to actually be. The challenge of our being called to be witnesses when Christians are divided and content to remain in separation, is that it is very possible we aren't witnessing to the work of God in Christ in the world. In our current states of separation we are perhaps at best witnessing to our own pet projects within the larger work of God, and at worst witnessing to our own agenda with little or no relation the God’s reign and work. Given the force of the metaphor of the body and the need to not witness to our opinions or positions, I am challenged that we need make our hearts ready to receive and be formed into the church, the Body of Christ. Hopefully that is what this week of prayer of Christian unity is doing and has done in we who have so prayed. This is a challenge because I am unsure this is what I want.
I will admit that I am challenged by my own words, and it is a challenge to my self as an ecumenist and those of us here who are members of this ecumenical congregation as much to anyone here who identifies strongly or in part with a particular denomination. We are Christians but more important than our being of the same religion is that we are part of the Body of Christ, the Church. If we cling to a certain distinctive, or find ourselves separated by our opinions how then are we the Body of Christ? True we all may be baptized into Christ and able to claim some form of faith in Jesus Christ, faith and the sacrament of Baptism cannot be belittled, but are we in our current life and way of being Christian truly living into the fullness of our baptism and faith? Am I? In what ways do I resist the unifying work of the Spirit, and mistake what I have been given as the defining fact of my spiritual life? Am I, are we, living into our baptism or contradicting our baptism? And are we perhaps doing both at once? These are hard questions that this time of prayer set aside to seek God for Christian unity has brought up for me. I wonder if I, and we really desire to be the people of God, members of Christ's body or if in the end other identities prove more important in our day to day lives of faith? Are we going to truly allow the Spirit to bind us together to form us as the Body of Christ, or do we in fact in subtle ways resist? Does the fear of needing to get it right or the fear that we may have missed it keep us from truly seeking God in this matter? Are we praying for Christian unity in truth? Are we asking God to reveal to us our separation from Christ? Finally I can’t but see that all our separations (not just denominational or doctrinal) separate us not only from each other but from our head, Jesus Christ, and thus from the Church. This is why we seek God in prayer, for we must confess our known and unknown participation in divisions from the Body of Christ. Such division inevitably means that we have hidden from ourselves the fullness of Christ and the Spirit in our lives and the world. Even so the Spirit gives to us; Christ binds himself to us, and beckons us to live into the unity of our faith and baptism. We are continually invited by our baptism to allow the Spirit to form us into the Church, into Christ. Amen