By Rev. Dr. Krista S. Givens
One of humorous mistakes I consistently make while typing is the misspelling of United…. Often when I write to colleagues, supervisors, church members or visitors, instead of speaking for or about the United Methodist Church… I write on behalf of the UNTIED (U-N-T-I-E-D) Methodist Church. It is humorous to me because it is the direct opposite meaning of the word intended! And yet sometimes it describes our church better than the correct spelling does! Are we United or Untied?
According to 2014 statistics, The United Methodist Church worldwide has over 32,000 congregations and the denomination’s membership has topped 12 million members worldwide. (1) That is a lot of loose ends to tie up, a lot of disparate opinions, a lot of different values, political views, philosophies, cultural contexts to consider…. Maybe we are more UNTIED than we are UNITED.
But God calls us to correct that spelling. God calls us to be one family and on a Sunday like today – World Communion Sunday – we celebrate the differences we share, we celebrate the different ways God has made us, we celebrate our own cultures, our own languages, our own unique individualism – as we celebrate the ways we are bound together. We are one, even as we are many.
But it is a difficult idea – It seems more and more, we are a distinctly polarized people, focusing on our differences rather than our similarities. How can we – who have such different opinions, such different values – be anything but UNTIED?
We can learn from some lessons from the early church, those Gentiles and Jews seeking to follow the teachings of Jesus. You see, those first Christians were also a community divided.
In the beginnings of Christianity – after the death and resurrection of Jesus – when those disciples who were left behind trying to discover how to organize the people into a unified Body, there was some dynamic tension about who were the REAL Christians: What makes one a true follower? What behaviors showed our Christianity to others? What marks of discipleship must be performed and what could be pushed aside?
In particular there was some conflict around the inclusion of Gentiles in the movement. The disciples and the original followers were Jews – good Jews, observant of Jewish laws and rituals – they’d studied the Torah and the writings of their ancestors. They had followed the rules and recognized Jesus as the Jewish Messiah, and now there were those – from another culture, another mindset, another belief-system – who wanted to join them in the movement!
So the question arose: How Jewish do you need to be in order to follow Christ? Do you need to convert to Judaism, do you need to be circumcised before you are baptized, do you need to study the Torah and practice the religion of Jesus in order to be a follower of Christianity? These were complex questions for the early church and the Apostle Paul tried to explain this new concept to the various communities planted in Rome and Corinth, Ephesus and Galatia, in all parts of the Roman Empire, Greece and Turkey. In his letter to the Galatians, chapter 3, verse 28, he addressed this conflict with this statement: “There is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.”
Can you imagine how frustrating this must have been to the Jews at the time – Jesus was THEIR Messiah, THEIR King, THEIR Savior and now these others from a totally different culture, were supposed to be included in the movement – as equals!
In our scripture lesson for today Paul continues to elaborate on this brand new concept (There is neither Jew nor Greek) to the followers in Ephesus. Here is your new community, he explains in his letter to the Ephesians, chapter 4, verse 4: “4There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called to the one hope of your calling, 5one Lord, one faith, one baptism, 6one God and Father of all, who is above all and through all and in all.”
Here we have a series of ‘one’ statements, focusing on the intended unity of the community: “4There is one body (Christ’s body given as a sacrifice) and one Spirit (The Holy Spirit given for us), just as you were called to the one hope of your calling… (There is one hope in our movement – the Hope of the Kingdom, the hope that all will be recognized as children of God, the hope for peace and love and compassion and mercy… that is the one hope of our calling…)
“One Lord”, “one faith” and “one baptism” – these all belong to the common language of conversion: In this statement, Paul asserts that it is not what WE do to be included in the family of God, it’s what GOD does to accept us. He is our One Lord, there is one faith and only needs to be one baptism to accept the love of God in our lives.
6one God and Father of all, who is above all and through all and in all.”
This phrase directs our attention to God, but not so much as God above as God of, over, through and in all.
Author William Loader says “The idea of unity in Ephesians is not about a huddled unity which keeps itself safe, but about an expansive and open unity. This is so because its understanding of God is like that. God is clearly personal, but also able to be thought of as being like a fluid which flows through all the universe. A positive relationship with God opens us to all of life. It is not about withdrawal or escape. As we shall see, Christ’s body becomes an image for dreaming about the goodness of God filling the whole world. It is like Christ is a large body which keeps expanding as it incorporates more and more of reality and brings more and more of it into unity (both with the body and with all other reality).” (2)
This idea of an expanding Body – in which it keeps growing and growing, incorporating others, adapting to its environment, infecting the world with love and compassion… sounds more like a virus than a nicely controlled movement. But it also echoes Jesus’ parable of the mustard seed.
“He put before them another parable: “The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed that someone took and sowed in his field; “‘it is the smallest of all the seeds, but when it has grown it is the greatest of shrubs and becomes a tree, so that the birds of the air come and make nests in its branches.”
Mustard is a weed that takes over and attracts birds where they are unwanted… The Kingdom of God is like a weed, that grows where it is unwanted, grows with immeasurable intensity so that it becomes a place that attracts birds to perch in its branches.
The Kingdom is like a weed and we – as citizens of this special Kingdom of God – go out and expand and expand, inviting others to join us, until the world is filled with love and compassion and mercy. That’s the kind of body we are to be – not the pieced together kind of “Frankenstein” creature, contained to ourselves, but each of us has a part in the body – different parts – but we all need each other and together the whole body is a unity which can grow. It is a fascinating image of mission. And don’t miss the closing words in 4:16 which carry the emphasis: for the building up of itself in love. (3)
The mystery of this One faith – this UNITED body – is that, through the one body of Jesus, God has brought together many disparate groups under one plan of salvation. Through Christ, Jews and Gentiles are now joined together and draw nearer to God.
In our church, we recognize that we are from different tribes, political parties and cultures. We recognize our differences in language, in music, in dress and in experiences and yet, we are called to be One family, one family of the One God. And furthermore, we are called to invite others – those who are different than us – to be a part of this ever-expanding body!
As we gather to celebrate World Communion Sunday, we mark this occasion by confirming yet again our covenant with God and with each other. Today we recommit to these rules for living, but we depend on God’s guidance, God’s presence, God’s way of nudging us in the right direction.
We gather as one family at Christ’s table and commit to the our One Lord, our One Faith and the expansion of the One Kingdom of God, like a the mustard seed and cannot be contained, like a virus that infects others with love and compassion and mercy! Today, as we gather together, may we acknowledge those who are absent from us and may we commit to sharing the love of God with others in our words, our actions and in our very lives. Today, let us celebrate our One God and our One family! Amen!
- William Loader, First Thoughts on Year B Epistle Passages from the Lectionary, Pentecost 10 found on http://wwwstaff.murdoch.edu.au/~loader/BEpPentecost10.html