Keep the Unity of the Spirit

Ephesians came at a turning point in the early history of the church. Congregations had formed from Jerusalem to Rome. They knew about each other through traveling church leaders, but 2000 years ago there was no postal service, telephone or internet. Churches were mostly self-contained, but eventually churches developed greater communication between each other. Letters that circulated to several churches contributed to this unity between churches. Ephesians seems to be such a letter. It doesn’t seem to address the issues of Ephesus the way 1 Corinthians addresses the specific issues in Corinth.

When it says, “Make every to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace” (4:3), it doesn’t just encourage cooperation within congregations, but also between congregations. Bigger than the need to be nice, end fighting, or to get the most effective results, the basis for such peace was and is our shared faith—the is one Lord, one faith, and one baptism, and one God.

This week I attended a civic meeting hosted by a church. Representatives from the City, the school district, the community college and the university were present. Everyone in the room probably attends church somewhere, but it was not a church gathering. People were there as educators, administrators and public servants. In a room of 20-30 people, the only ministers in the room were myself and the two people convening the meeting. Nevertheless, lunch was being served and so the minister at the other end of the table said, “Let’s pray.” People were talking—greeting each other, taking care of details, and checking in. The room swirled with conversation, but as soon as she started praying, the room got quiet.

Why? What has the power to silence that many agendas? Were people just being polite? Did we bow our head merely out of habit? I’ve known this particular crowd awhile. We worship, think, and live differently, but, we share a belief that when we speak to God there is only One being addressed. With “One Lord, One Faith, One Baptism,” we were at peace in the Unity of the Spirit. My prayer is that through you may have pockets of this peace as you go through your day today. I pray that our world might finding growing numbers of moments where people from different backgrounds acknowledge the One God and Father of us all. I pray that we might know peace through shared faith in Jesus Christ.

With the newspaper in one hand and the communion tray in the other

Each week at the church I am blessed to serve as pastor, we receive the Lord’s Supper. Most Sundays we declare that all are welcome. All are welcome because the table belongs to Christ and Christ has welcomed all. It’s in the closing verses of the Bible, “Let everyone who is thirsty come. Let anyone who wishes take the water of life as a gift.” I worry that many may not believe us.  I worry that there are those who have been told that they are not acceptable or as worthy because of their gender, sexual orientation, political affiliation, or credal commitments (or lack of credal commitments).  I wish I had the words to adequately express how radical Christ’s invitation to the table really is.  It’s not up to us to decide who is permitted to receive communion and who is not. Yes, we have a responsibility to interpret the table rightly and righteously, but once that is done we must trust a person’s conscience, the Spirit of God and the message of Jesus Christ to determine who does and does not take bread and cup in memory of our Lord.

Yet, if I hold the newspaper in one hand and the communion tray in the other, I fear that our language can be too vague and too familiar to overcome the messages that have been shouted to people this week.  I am particularly hurting this week for women and girls who have heard terrible things expressed about their bodies.  I am hurting for LGBT persons who have heard that a church deems them unfit for membership because of their sexual orientation.  I am hurting for Catholics who have heard the reports that significant leaders in one of the two dominant, American political parties dismisses the sincerity of their faith or the rationale of their theological commitments. I fear that when people have been singled out particularly, it’s hard to hear the invitation generally.

I fear that our language may not always match our actions. I’ve been looking for the right way to say this for a couple of days now and I can’t do it without being clumsy.  It’s not just that the words are hard to find.  It’s clumsy when you need to say something that my life itself hasn’t managed to say fully.  I can say “all” all we want, but with a stern glare or spattered anger or judgmental comment I can also make it clear that I don’t really mean”all.” I cannot pretend that I am not guilty of participating in exclusion. I know the things I’ve done to make people feel unwelcome in the presence of Christ. It grieves me.  However, Christ meant all even if my words and actions have suggested otherwise.

But I want to say to specific people, “You are welcome to receive the Lord’s Supper at any table that welcomes me. If you’re excluded from a Communion table, then I’ll be excluded with you.”  I want to say to LBGT people, you are welcome to receive the Lord’s Supper at any table that welcomes me.  If you’re excluded from a Communion table, then I’ll be excluded with you.  I want to say to women, you are welcome to receive the Lord’s Supper at any table that welcomes me.  If you’re excluded, I’ll be excluded with you.  And that includes those that might excluded an ordained woman to preside at the Lord’s Table because she is a woman.  It’s trickier of course to say that to Catholics or religious conservatives as the sorts of exclusions we’re talking about often happen within their very own churches.  That should not prevent them from hearing the message of grace.  Particularly during a week when their convictions have been publicly diminished, mocked or shamed.  So I say to all people of Christian faith, “You are welcome to receive the Lord’s Supper at any table that welcomes me.  If you’re excluded from a communion table because of your commitments, I’ll be excluded with you.”   I have done nothing to earn the bread and cup.  I have no claim on Christ.  It is Christ who claims me.   All I can do is point to Christ and say, “He is the reason. Christ alone is the reason that I am permitted to come to the Table. You are welcome to receive the Lord’s Supper at His table.  I know this because He welcomes me.”

It Makes Me Think of Jimmy Carter

In 1976, Jimmy Carter gave what to this day is considered a terribly embarrassing quotation: “I try not to commit a deliberate sin. I recognize that I’m going to do it anyhow, because I’m human and I’m tempted. And Christ set some almost impossible standards for us. Christ said, ‘I tell you that anyone who looks on a woman with lust has in his heart already committed adultery.’ I’ve looked on a lot of women with lust. I’ve committed adultery in my heart many times. This is something that God recognizes I will do–and I have done it–and God forgives me for it.” He was referring to a portion of the Sermon on the Mount where Jesus addressed a series of relational ethics—culminating with a command to love even our enemies.  Jesus taught that women are not objects designed for men’s pleasure.  Women are people created in the image of God.  Oh, if only that were the kind of sex-talk we were hearing in 2016.

I am saddened by the news today.  I am saddened that we are not focusing on how government can function more effectively for the governed and especially the marginalized. I am saddened by the fact that while people have rushed to either condemn or defend one person’s indefensible remarks caught on tape about a woman and what he tried to do with her, we have not rushed to say to the woman he was talking about, “I’m sorry.”  Politics has a hateful tendency to turn living, breathing people into issues.  He was talking about a woman.  She deserves an apology before anything else gets said. And yes, I do think it can come from someone other than the person who demeaned her.  It should indeed come from him.  I don’t think it will, but it should.

Carter put his finger on a reality we all must face, when it comes to inappropriate thoughts, words and all too often actions regarding the dignity and personhood of women, all men have sins we must confess. Even if our only sin has been the sin of remaining silent in the face of a sexually exploitative and abusive male culture, that sin alone has done immeasurable damage. In the face of what I heard on the video, I want to say, “I’ve never said anything that grotesquely inappropriate.” And truly I have never said anything like what he said.  Nor have I heard even my crudest friends say anything close to what he said.  But that is all a defense mechanism designed to make me feel less culpable for my own thoughts, words and actions.  Instead, I must echo the words of Isaiah and confess, “I am a man of unclean lips and I live among a people of unclean lips.”

We must be willing to name our sin.  We must be willing to take steps to act differently and it begins, as Jesus taught, with thinking differently and speaking differently when we think and speak of other people. That’s not something we can do in general.  We have to do that in particulars.  I saw a man on the corner of Division and Collins holding a sign yesterday that read, “Everybody love everybody.”  It’s a nice thought, I guess, but it neglects the reality that we have biases around gender, race, class, age and sexual orientation. We don’t just look at women with lust.  We look at others with superiority or arrogance or apathy and from that starting point we excuse injustice, tolerate exploitation and abuse, and trespass the sanctity of people’s lives and dignity. Yes, as Carter said, God knows we will do this.  Yes, God offers us forgiveness. Yet, forgiveness does not mean excuse.  Forgiveness is the divine offer to try again.  Our record as men has been awful.  We must do—think, speak and act—better.

Exchange Letters

The letters of the New Testament are windows into a congregation’s needs.  Read them closely and they offer vulnerable portraits of what a congregation was wrestling with and the way they worked toward solutions.  The earliest set of letters in the New Testament were written to congregations—gatherings of believers—and most often addressed the needs whole congregation not the needs of individual Christians.  The congregation’s needs were the needs of people trying to live together.   The later set of letters were written to Christianity in general.  These letters still addressed the needs of people trying to live together as a community of faith.  Yet, these letters reflect the understanding that there is something as a whole church or the “whole body of Christ” that’s made up of believers in different locations and worshipping in different communities.  In between these two points—the specific letters written to specific congregations and the general letters written to the whole church—there are letters like Colossians.

The letter to the Church in Colossae was clearly written to that specific congregation.  But Paul also indicates that they should share this letter with the congregation at Laodicea.   At the same time, they were to read the letter Paul wrote to the church in Laodicea (we don’t know where that letter is now; we have no copies)—Colossians 4:16.  The point is the letter shows this emerging perception within early Christianity that they were connected to Christians beyond their local congregation.

Starting out Christians know the people right around them in their faith community—the people in their Sunday School class, the people in their ministry team or small group.  But somewhere along the line they discover that there are other people who have the same depth of commitment to Christ that they have.  These other Christians may look, talk, worship and believe quite different.  The challenge of Christian faith at that point is this, can the Christian reach out and create a bridge or retreat in judgmental isolation?  That may all seem too extreme.  Perhaps we could learn to follow the example Paul encouraged for the Church in Colossae—exchange letters.  That is, try to understand the issues and problems that another group of Christian faces and understand the solutions they work out and be vulnerable enough to share the same realities existing for you.

Welcome

The background of my computer desktop is a picture of my mother swinging in a swing at 75 years of age.  Her legs are straight out.  She’s leaning back.  She has a look of both joy and effort on her face.  It’s an analog of Bible study.  Bible study involves both effort and joy. It leans back into the past seeking inertia to move forward into the future.