Sunday, May 16, 2021

Phil Kniss: All are one? What sort of one?

New chapter, Ancient Story, Same Thread — Easter 7: May 16, 2021
Galatians 3:1-9, 23-29

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For a long time, and more so in the last year,
we’ve been in a season of deep and hurtful divisions,
and we are weary.
We carry, in our spirits, in our minds, in our bodies,
deep longing for healing, for restoration, for justice,
and especially for unity—
in our extended families,
in our church,
in our neighborhoods and communities,
in our political life as a nation.

Enough already, of all this divisive rhetoric,
and refusal to listen or compromise,
and demonizing the other.
Let’s come together for once.

But being one is a real puzzle.
Not just because we don’t quite know how to get there,
how to create the unity we seek.
We also aren’t entirely clear on what we really mean,
or what we want.

Out of our same mouths come a cry for greater unity,
and . . . praise for the beauty of diversity.
We even put the two together, on purpose,
calling for unity in our diversity.

Makes for great slogans.
But life on the ground is too complicated to capture in a slogan.

So let’s talk a bit about unity in the church.
That’s a topic I come back to often,
because I’m passionate about it.
In fact, about a month from now
we’ll be talking about it again in a study on Ephesians.
On June 13 Tom Yoder Neufeld,
a theologian from University of Waterloo,
has agreed to bring us a sermon on the subject.
It’s okay to keep coming back to this.
It’s something Jesus had intense feelings about.
Read John 17 again sometime,
one of Jesus’ most passionate outpourings
of his heart to God in prayer,
was about his disciples being one.

The apostle Paul was also passionate about it.
Today’s text from Galatians ended with,
“So in Christ Jesus you are all children of God through faith.
There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free,
nor is there male and female,
for you are all one in Christ Jesus.”

But what in the world does that mean?
That’s one of the most often-quoted verses in all of Paul’s writings.
But depending on who’s quoting it,
very different things are communicated by it.

If all are one in Christ, what sort of “one” do we mean?

Well, if Jesus and Paul put so much blood, sweat, and prayers
into the unity of the church,
how did that all work out, now 2,000 years later?

The World Christian Encyclopedia
counts over 43,000 Christian denominations.
Mennonite Church USA is only one of those.
There are over 100 separate Mennonite-Anabaptist denominations
around the world.
A dozen or so in the US alone.
Once you add in Baptists, and Lutherans, and Methodists,
and Presbyterians, and Pentecostals, and Catholics, and Orthodox,
well, the mind just spins.

How do you think Jesus feels about all these denominations?
Do you suppose he’s weeping over all this?
It’s popular to think so.
I’ve often heard preachers point to the thousands of denominations,
then point to Jesus’ prayer in John 17 and say, what a shame!

But is it . . . really?
Does Jesus weep about denominations?
I seriously doubt it.
Sure, parts of our Christian story of schism,
are absolutely shameful, and worth weeping over.
I suppose Jesus weeps, and so should we,
there could have been a better way forward
than to walk away and cut off relationship.

But is many denominations proof of the church’s failure?
Should our goal be to eliminate denominations?
I say no.
And God has no interest in that project, either.
Getting Christians to eliminate denominations
and merge into one global Christian body
doesn’t even register on God’s radar, I dare say.

Unity? yes.
But keeping us all in the same organizational body? Ehh . . .
Being ONE in organization, more often than not,
simply gives the impression of being one in Christ.
Organizational unity doesn’t measure a whole lot.
It certainly doesn’t measure spiritual one-ness.

Usually there’s more conflict within a particular body,
than between bodies.
Mennonites have more to fight about with each other
(and we do),
than Mennonites have to fight about with Lutherans.
Episcopalians have more to fight about with each other
(and they do),
than Episcopalians have to fight about with Methodists.

So where do we find our unity?
If it’s not in structure and organization . . .
it must be in theology.
We’ll achieve unity once we are on the same page
in beliefs and practices.

And obviously, that would be Anabaptist beliefs and practices,
because when Jesus prayed in John 17 that his followers be one,
he meant all Christians should believe and act like Mennonites.
Uh . . . that was a joke.
Even if we’d like to mean it, at some secret level.

Well, yes, we should do good theological discernment
and work toward greater consensus.

But is it God’s will that all Christians
all around the world,
at all times,
think the same way about God?
Is that what Jesus meant when he prayed?
or that Paul meant when he wrote letters?

Should all Christians always
operate with the same metaphors for God?
have the same vision of how God works in the world?
use the same doctrinal language
to describe our experience of God?

If our answer is yes,
we are denying a basic truth about God—
that God is with us in the real world,
and not just in the abstract.
Theology is not a pure intellectual exercise.
It’s a practice in applying truth to our lives here and now.

God has different ways of working
and even different agendas,
when God is at work in a community of new immigrants
fleeing violence and poverty,
or . . . in a 200-year-old Swiss-German village in Ohio,
or . . . among the urban poor in Chicago,
or the wealthy on New England island resorts,
or among Appalachian people.
Not to mention, when God is working
in Myanmar, Israel-Palestine, Afghanistan, or Finland.

Even in our one hometown of Harrisonburg,
should we do theology the same way
in our neighborhood in Park View,
as we do in Old Town Harrisonburg,
or in a JMU student housing complex,
or in a trailer park where little English is spoken?

No! Our practices, our metaphors, our theological priorities,
cannot be uniform wherever we go.
The way we articulate and practice our faith changes,
according to context.

So I have to say,
I don’t think Jesus and Paul were praying
that Christians be theological carbon copies of each other.

So . . . when they call for us to be one,
what sort of “one” did they mean?

For Jesus, it was a profound relational oneness.
His prayer overflowed with phrases like,
“As you and I are one, Father, may they be one.”
“As I am in you and you in me, may they be in us.”

For Jesus, there was a deep continuity and connection
between the mission and purposes of God in the world
and what Jesus did and said.
Jesus prayed for this same continuity to permeate his followers.

The invitation is . . . to be One. In. Christ.
To be steeped in the way and the person of Jesus.
To be so immersed in the life and teachings of Jesus,
so filled with the Spirit of Jesus,
that the line between us and Jesus gets blurry,
and hard for others to distinguish.
That we could come together as Jesus people,
and pray as Jesus did,
“As we are in you, and you are in us,
may we also be in one another, in the world.”

If we are in unity with the purposes of God in Christ,
we will be in unity with each other . . .
even with different languages of faith,
even with different metaphors,
even with different ways of doing moral discernment
in our context.

This is an organic unity,
and needs organic metaphors.
Denominations and organizations and structural cohesion
have their necessary and rightful place.
We do need to sort out how to have an orderly religious life.
But I won’t die on that hill.

I am going to seek out a more life-giving and biblical metaphor.

The Tree of Life, for instance.
What a rich image from scripture!
I wonder what would happen if we Christians
spent as much time and effort contemplating that image,
as we spent arguing over doctrine and church polity.

We’re about to hear the choir sing, from 2019, and you may join,
on a profound organic confession of faith,
centered on this biblical image.
Let me read a few of the lines.

There in God’s garden stands the Tree of wisdom,
whose leaves hold forth the healing of the nations.
Tree of all knowledge, Tree of all compassion,
Tree of all beauty.
Its name is Jesus . . .

See how its branches reach to us in welcome;
hear what the voice says, ‘Come to me, ye weary!
Give me your sickness, give me all your sorrow.
I will give blessing.’

This is my ending; this my resurrection;
into your hands, Lord, I commit my spirit.
This have I searched for; now I can possess it.
This ground is holy!

This ground is holy!
And this ground, where the tree grows,
will help us be one in the way that really matters.

Let’s listen, and sing.

—Phil Kniss, May 16, 2021

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