Monday, June 21, 2010

Sermon: "One in Christ"

One in Christ
June 20, 2010
Fourth Sunday after Pentecost
Galatians 3:23-29

Now before faith came, we were imprisoned and guarded under the law until faith would be revealed. Therefore the law was our disciplinarian until Christ came, so that we might be justified by faith.

But now that faith has come, we are no longer subject to a disciplinarian, for in Christ Jesus you are all children of God through faith.

As many of you as were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.

And if you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham’s offspring, heirs according to the promise.

When I was a kid back in the 1960s, my best friend and his family were Roman Catholic, while my family were Methodist. And when I say they were Catholic, I mean really Catholic! His younger sister had a nun’s habit that she would dress up in sometimes and we would play church. I know, that sounds strange, but we also made musical instruments out of cardboard and pretended we were the Beatles or the Beach Boys sometimes.

This was in the pre-Vatican II days, when the Mass was still in Latin, so they would set up a little altar and we would read out of a Daily Missal that they had – a Catholic prayer book. I even learned a few Latin phrases: Dominus vobiscum. Et cum spiritu tuo, which means, “The Lord be with you. And with your spirit.”

We would spend the night at each other’s houses a lot, and when I spent a Saturday night with Mark, that often meant I went with them to Mass on Sunday morning.

I have to confess that I was somewhat fascinated with the Catholic Church. It was so different, so mysterious, compared to the Methodist Church. When they walked in to the church, they made the sign of the cross with holy water. The Methodist Church didn’t have holy water.

They genuflected every time they walked in front of the altar. They had kneelers on the backs of the pews that you had to go up and down on a lot during the service. The only time we knelt in the Methodist Church was during Communion.

The priests wore elaborate and colorful vestments and there were altar boys and candles and lots of incense and sprinkling of holy water. Our preacher wore a plain black robe or a suit.

And of course, most of the service was in Latin, which made it all the more mysterious, and made it seem like you were taking part in some secret ritual.

So, very early in my life, I was quite aware that not all churches were alike. There were significant differences. We know that there are lots of different Christian churches and denominations. A quick look at the Gainesville Yellow Pages shows that in our little town alone there are over 40 churches, and I’m sure there are lots more that aren’t listed.

Do you know how many Christian denominations there are in the world? According to at least one count, there are 38,000 churches and denominations in the world. Even if that number is approximate, they have to be in the tens of thousands.

Now what do you suppose Paul would say today about so many groups on the planet all claiming the name of Christ, some exclusively? What happens to his claim in verse 28 of today’s reading that “all of you are one in Christ Jesus”?

Or what does Jesus himself think about so many branches in the Christian family tree? One of the deepest concerns on his heart the night he shared the Last Supper with his disciples was the unity of his followers. Not once, but three times, he commanded his followers to “love one another,” because by their love everyone would know that they were followers of Christ.

He prayed on their behalf, and on behalf of those who would come to believe through their future preaching, “that they may all be one” (John 17:20).

In our reading today from Galatians, the Apostle Paul declares: “There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male or female.” Why? Because “all of you are one in Christ Jesus.”

Jesus prayed so fervently for the unity of the church in John 17 not just so the disciples would get along with each other and have a merry fellowship. He prayed for unity among his followers because he knew the very witness of the church was at stake: “As you, Father, are in me and I am in you, may they also be in us, so that the world may believe that you have sent me” (John 17:21).

This is a bold and sobering thought, people. The credibility of the gospel is authenticated in the unity of the believing community! As the unity of Jesus Christ with God was the foundation of the gospel call of God in Christ, so also the message of reconciliation with God rests on the unity of the Body of Christ. The unbelieving world has no way to see the reality of the good news if the witness of the church is buried in the rubble of division and disunity.

What an awesome responsibility has been given to the church. Our unity in Christ is not for your sake or my sake or for the sake of a jolly good fellowship where a good time is had by all. Our unity in Christ is a command of Christ to be obeyed and a passion of Christ's to be embraced.

It would not be a stretch to call this injunction of Christ the "Impossible Command." It seems almost impossible that the church would have the kind of unity Jesus commanded and prayed about. History is filled with the divisions of Christianity and with the horror of persecution, burnings at the stake, hangings, executions and holy wars. All in the name of Christ.

Almost as soon as the church began, it started dividing up into different factions. Paul wrote about this 1 Corinthians. He said, “I appeal to you, brothers and sisters, by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that all of you be in agreement and that there be no divisions among you, but that you be united in the same mind and the same purpose.”

You see, the Christians in Corinth had already begun to choose up sides. Some were saying, “I belong to Paul,” or “I belong to Apollos,” or “I belong to Peter.” The really pious ones were saying, “I belong to Christ.” (1 Cor. 1:10-17)

In just 2,000 years we’ve gone from those original four “denominations” to almost 40,000! What happened to Christian unity? What happened to “One in Christ”?

The cause of Christian unity has not been lost completely. There are still those who urge Christians to put aside their differences to focus on the common good.

Back in the 60s, as part of the “ecumenical movement,” there was a group formed called the “Consultation on Church Union” that tried to bring about mergers of the main American denominations into a kind of “giant Protestant Superchurch,” sort of like the talk last week about forming huge football “super-conferences.” But just like with football, the church mergers never panned out. Churches were still too insistent on their unique identities to give those up.

That kind of large-scale unification is pretty much dead, but there are still ongoing efforts on a much smaller scale to work out agreements between churches where we maintain our autonomy and identity but work toward unity on a significant level. For example, since 1977 the United Methodist Church has been engaged in dialogue with the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA) to move toward a relationship of “full communion” where we would recognize one another’s baptisms, ordinations, and Holy Communion.

As churches go, the United Methodist Church has always been open to dialogue and cooperation with other Christian churches and denominations. We’ve never been a church that says ours is the only true church or our way is the only way to heaven.

John Wesley is sometimes credited with a maxim that even if he didn’t coin it, has become a good description of the United Methodist attitude: “In essentials, unity; in non-essentials, liberty; and in all things, charity.” As United Methodists we believe that we can disagree with other faiths without being disagreeable.

John Wesley did like to quote a verse from 2 Kings 10:15 – “Is your heart right, as my heart is with your heart? … If so, give me your hand” (Sermon XXXIV, “Catholic Spirit”). Wesley held firm to the belief that we may not all think alike, but we may all love alike.

I’m glad I belong to a church like that. I’m glad that I belong to a church that invites me to learn about other faiths so that I can better understand my own. I’m glad I belong to a church that allows me as a pastor to be an active member of the local Ministerial Alliance, as I have everywhere I’ve served, so that we can live out our common faith in community Thanksgiving services, Lenten luncheons, food banks, clothes closets, mission projects, and the like.

Paul was writing to a church in Galatia that was in danger of being torn apart. There were certain people who were saying that salvation was not by grace through faith, but through the law. People didn’t know what they should believe. So Paul reminds them of what unites them, not what divides them. Maybe we need reminding too.

First, Paul reminds them of the foundation of Christianity. As I said, the church in Galatia was confused over whether salvation was through the law, as the Jewish Christians believed, or through faith, as Paul had been teaching the Gentile converts.

Some people made it sound like you had to choose between the old faith of Judaism, based on law, or the new faith of Christianity, based on faith. But Paul said that was a false division. Salvation had always been by faith, Paul said. He used Abraham as proof. Abraham had faith and he was considered righteous by God, even before the law ever came around through Moses. The law was just meant to keep people in line until God’s plan of salvation was fully revealed in the life, death, and resurrection of God’s Son Jesus Christ.

Jews didn’t need to give up the law and Gentiles didn’t need to follow the law to be right with God. All people are made right with God through faith.

Faith is still the foundation of Christian unity. You may follow Calvin and I may follow John Wesley. You may say there are seven sacraments and I may there are two. Or you may not even call them “sacraments.” But what Paul says in verse 26 is still true: “for in Christ Jesus you are all children of God through faith.”

We may still have our differences, but a common faith makes us one in Jesus Christ.

Second, Paul reminds the Galatians of the fact of Christian unity. Our oneness in Jesus Christ through faith, Paul says, is not just a future possibility, it’s a present fact. “You are one in Christ Jesus,” he says. The barriers that you think divide you have already been done away with: no more Jew or Greek; no more slave or free; no more male or female.

Those distinctions did in reality continue, even until today, but the fact is, Paul says, they don’t make any difference to God. Once you put on Christ in baptism, from then on, when God looks at you, God doesn’t see a Jew or a Gentile, a slave or a free person, a man or a woman; all God sees is Jesus Christ.

If we truly affirm that we have been made right with God through faith in Jesus Christ, then we must see others who share that same faith as God sees them – as our sisters and brothers. If you are in Christ, then you are, in fact, my brother or sister, no matter what other realities may define our lives!

Finally, Paul reminds us of the future of Christian unity. The foundation of Christian unity is a shared faith in Jesus Christ as the Savior of the world, and the fact is that we are one with those who share that faith with us, whether we always live like it or not.

The future of Christian unity depends on us. It’s up to you and me, in our own time and place, to work toward Jesus’ deepest desire that he prayed for in the upper room, that we would all be one and that the world would know we are his disciples because of our love for one another. Love – that is the future of Christian unity.

It does no earthly or heavenly good if we believe exactly alike on every point of theology if we don’t love one another. In 1 Cor. 13 Paul said that without love, we are like a sounding gong or a tinkling cymbal.

The world doesn’t really care what label we wear: Methodist, Baptist, Catholic, or whatever. What really matters is do we show the world that Jesus Christ is real and living in our hearts by the love we show other people. The world will know we are Christians not by how many Bible verses we can quote or how much Christian jewelry we wear, but as the song says, “They’ll know we are Christians by our love.” Amen.

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