Jesus prayed that His followers may be one. “Holy Father, protect them in your name that you have given me, so that they may be one, as we are one.” So, how have we done as the Church, as Jesus’ followers, at being one?
Not. So. Good. Not so good at all.
There have always been divisions in the Church. All you need do is read through the book of Acts. Read through Paul’s letters. Take a look at history, and you will see that after Jesus’ ascension, those who followed Jesus often argued about how to follow Jesus correctly.
Let’s take this snippet from the book of 1 Corinthians. St. Paul is writing to the congregation chastising them for becoming divided:
10 Now I appeal to you, brothers and sisters, by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that all of you should be in agreement and that there should be no divisions among you, but that you should be united in the same mind and the same purpose. 11For it has been reported to me by Chloe’s people that there are quarrels among you, my brothers and sisters. 12What I mean is that each of you says, ‘I belong to Paul’, or ‘I belong to Apollos’, or ‘I belong to Cephas’, or ‘I belong to Christ.’ 13Has Christ been divided? Was Paul crucified for you? Or were you baptized in the name of Paul?
Mind you, Paul was working and writing only a decade or so after Jesus’ death and resurrection. These divisions surfaced in the church early on. Very early on. Why? Why such divisions? Where do they come from.
Let’s fast forward a couple of thousand years to get a handle on this question. I firmly believe there is nothing new under the sun when it comes to human behavior and interaction. The things the ancients were dealing with are the same things we modern or post-modern folks deal with. We just have technology. That’s the only difference.
There was an interesting Yahoo! article that came out about a week and a half ago titled “Don’t blame college kids for intolerance. Blame us.” written by Matt Bai. I would like to read a few snippets from this article and see if it resonates with you as it did with me:
We'd grown up with TV news that tried to get at complicated issues (Ted Koppel's "Nightline" was the single most influential news program of the era) and op-ed pages that crackled with competing arguments. I remember meeting William Colby, the former CIA director, at a symposium. A lot of us were disgusted by the role he had played in Vietnam, but it never occurred to us that he shouldn't speak or that his beliefs weren't at least defensible.
It was reasonable to hope, with the sudden explosion of what we called cyberspace a decade or so later, that this kind of exchange would become more commonplace and more enlightening, rather than less so. Only that's not what happened. Almost from the moment the first iteration of political blogs appeared, not long after the 2000 presidential election that exposed a deep cultural rift in America, like-minded activists began to wall themselves off from any version of reality they didn't like. They set about building ideological silos in the space where virtual town squares might have thrived.
Our political leaders and our media might have recognized the danger here and done their traditional duty, which was to ignore all the noise, and focus instead on explaining the complex realities of a country in social and technological transition. With some notable exceptions, that didn't happen, either. Instead, politics in the past 10 years has become a perennial contest of the already converted, a constant pursuit on either side of "base strategies" and data sets that tell you exactly which voters you need to turn out in order to get and hold power...
What's happened is that we've effectively left behind the Age of Persuasion and ushered in the Age of Confirmation. It sometimes seems the whole world exists to re-affirm our conceptions of it; you can get through days, even weeks, without being at all discomfited, if you know which sites to visit and which channels to watch.
Let me repeat one of those last sentences, “What’s happened is that we’ve effectively left behind the Age of Persuasion and ushered in the Age of Confirmation.”
If Matt Bai is correct, and I think to a great extent he is, what does it mean that we are in an age of confirmation? What does it mean that we can go days even weeks at a time without encountering a differing point of view? What does it mean that we can go on and on and on without our beliefs getting challenged and having to argue with merit our particular stance?
I think it means we are curved in on ourselves. I think it means we become self-satisfied with our positions. Our egos never get bruised because we never find out that we could be wrong. And if we never feel like we could be wrong, we become self-righteous in our particular stance and belief. We believe everyone else is the one with the problem and that we are safe and secure and absolutely correct in what we believe. And if everyone else is the one with the problem, then they are the ones who have to change. I don’t. I don’t change. I don’t give. I don’t budge. I am right. You are wrong. And if you don’t agree with me, then I will just go find someone else who does.
And this happens over and over and over again in society. Democrats and Republicans are sharply divided pulled to the extremes in their respective parties. Liberals and Conservatives have their own radio shows, television channels, and websites to frequent; and they rarely mingle other than to take shots at each other. Our churches are not immune to this. In fact, they often mirror society.
I mean, think about how things often take place in churches. Things might go along swimmingly for a time. Most congregations have periods of harmony when everyone gets along with everyone else, but then something controversial comes up. Sometimes, it’s a matter of doctrine. Sometimes it’s a matter of what color floor should be placed in the bathroom. Sometimes its whether or not the church should hire or fire a particular person. Lines get drawn. People become assured of their own beliefs and thoughts. People begin to believe they are being persecuted for righteousness sake. And before you know it, a new congregation is being formed. A new denomination starts. People stop coming to worship because those people over there fight, and we are better than that. People attend other churches where they find others who share their particular beliefs. In fact, if you don’t like what I say this morning in church, you can easily go turn on the television and find someone who tells you exactly opposite of what I say. That may make you comfortable and happy, and it should. It should because it’s all about you.
And if it’s all about you. If it is all about each and every one of us as individuals. If Christianity is all about each and everyone of us as individuals–if we believe Christianity is all about us and what we believe and what we do, then we will continue to see congregations split. We will continue to see new denominations form. We will continue to argue about which one of us is living the correct form of Christianity.
Remember Paul’s words to the Church in Corinth? “12What I mean is that each of you says, ‘I belong to Paul’, or ‘I belong to Apollos’, or ‘I belong to Cephas’, or ‘I belong to Christ.’” If we continue to focus on what we do–if we are doing Christianity the right way, we will continue to be divided. For it is what we do that divides us. Let me say that again–it is what we do that divides us.
But it is what God has done that unites us. Let me say that again. It is what God has done that unites us. And what has God done?
For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son so that all those who believe in Him may not perish but have eternal life. For God sent the Son into the world not to condemn the world but so that the world may be saved through Him.
Listen to Jesus prayer once more. I know it can be a bit heady to work through, but listen to verses 1-8 once more, “‘Father, the hour has come; glorify your Son so that the Son may glorify you, 2since you have given him authority over all people, to give eternal life to all whom you have given him. 3And this is eternal life, that they may know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent. 4I glorified you on earth by finishing the work that you gave me to do. 5So now, Father, glorify me in your own presence with the glory that I had in your presence before the world existed. 6 ‘I have made your name known to those whom you gave me from the world. They were yours, and you gave them to me, and they have kept your word. 7Now they know that everything you have given me is from you; 8for the words that you gave to me I have given to them, and they have received them and know in truth that I came from you; and they have believed that you sent me.”
You see, Jesus has completed the work the Father sent Him to complete. Jesus has completed the work of reconciling the world unto God. Jesus has completed the work of salvation for each and every one of us. It was not something you and I accomplished. It was not something you and I were able to do. None of us here sitting in these pews this morning could ever live the perfect life–the life required by God. Jesus did. None of us here this morning sitting in these pews could pay enough through our actions or our death to rectify the debt incurred by all the violence, sickness, suffering, and death caused throughout history by the human race. None of us could, but Jesus did. Jesus lived the life we should have lived, and He died the death we deserved. And He did this for each and every one of us here this morning. He did this for each and everyone who calls upon His name.
You and I could argue all day about what we are supposed to do and how we should follow Jesus. We could spend all day pointing out each other’s faults and how we don’t measure up. We could spend all day calling one another to account and pointing out the flaws in each other’s logic. And we would be right in doing so. We would be absolutely correct in telling each other that we don’t measure up. And at the end of the day, we would probably walk away angry at each other. No one likes his or her faults pointed out like that.
Unless it is done by someone who is willing to point to his or her own faults first. Unless it is done by someone who says, “I am broken. I am a messed up sort of person, and I will tell you exactly how. I will show you how broken I am because I know you are broken too. I know deep down you know you are not perfect–that you don’t measure up to even your own standard of how to live. We are broken people, but there is one who was not broken. There was one who walked this earth and lived and died so that our brokenness could find healing. Our brokenness could be redeemed. There was one who loved us when we were still sinners and who still loves us in such a fashion. There is one who has given us eternal life, not because of who we are, but because of who He is. We could spend a lot of time pointing out each other’s faults or we can give thanks to the One who works to heal our faults.” One of these things will divide. The other will unite. In a world as broken as ours, I vote for unity. Let us proclaim what God has done. Amen.