Ship-wrecking Disputes

Imagine receiving a letter from a past parish priest/pastor in our community. Imagine it saying the following:
“I’ve heard that the church is full of conflict and cliques these days. Rumours about this trouble have made it all the way back to me, and I’m horrified! I hear that some of you are even associating yourselves with different leaders, both present ones and past. And I was absolutely shocked to hear that some of you are suggesting that I come back because you like my way of doing things best.

“Well, I’m sorry, but that’s just not going to happen! And I thank God that I baptized none of you … And it really doesn’t matter who I baptized, or who I prepared for membership, or who I worked with on Vestry or Council, because it’s not about me, or any other particular leaders. It’s about Christ Jesus! I want to say this in no uncertain terms: Do not claim allegiance to me or any leader other than Christ. I just will not allow it!”

In my own words, that’s pretty much the gist of what Paul was telling the Corinthian Christians. Quarrels had been reported to him, with some saying, “I belong to Paul,” or “I belong to Apollos,” or “I belong to Cephas,” or “I belong to Christ.” Instead of claiming their unity in Christ and doing their best to work out differences and disagreements, the Corinthians spent way too much time and energy on arguing and dividing; Paul was anything but impressed.

We might think that Christians in the early Church got along so well and were so unified. Acts 4 indeed describes that earliest Christian community as one in which everyone was together in one place and held everything in common. They shared possessions, took care of those in need, and lived, worshiped, and served together in peace and harmony. But that idyllic picture of the church (if it was ever real) didn’t last long. Churches such as Corinth were already experiencing conflict and division, a problem that only increased and intensified over the centuries.

After several little break-ups in the first millenium, around the year 1000, the Church suffered the Great Schism between the Eastern and Western Churches. Then came the Reformation divides of the 16th century, followed by more and more divisions between varieties of Protestant Churches based on different doctrines, different practices, different cultures and experiences. The comedian Emo Philips told a story over twenty years ago, which bears repeating today:
I saw this guy on a bridge about to jump.
I said, “Don’t do it! Don’t do it!”
He said, “Why not? Nobody loves me.”

I said, “Well, God loves you. Do you believe in God?”
He said, “Yes.” I said, “I do, too. … Are you a Christian or a Jew?”
He said, “I’m a Christian.”
I said, “Me, too! …Protestant; or Catholic?”
He said, “Protestant.” I said, “Me, too! …What branch?”
He said, “Baptist.” I said, “Me, too! …Northern Baptist; or Southern Baptist?”
He said, “Northern Baptist.” I said, “Me, too! …
Northern Conservative Baptist, or Northern Liberal Baptist?”

He said, “Northern Conservative Baptist.” I said, “Me, too! …
Northern Conservative Baptist, Great Lakes Region;
or Northern Conservative Baptist, Eastern Region?”

He said, “Northern Conservative Baptist, Great Lakes Region.” I said, “Me, too! …
Northern Conservative Baptist, Great Lakes Region, Council of 1879;
or Northern Conservative Baptist, Great Lakes Region, Council of 1912?”

He said, “Northern Conservative Baptist, Great Lakes Region, Council of 1912.”
I said, “Oh, darn. Die, heretic!” And I pushed him over.

And it has ever been thus, including now the outrageous online sparring between Christians on social media. Yes, great strides have been made in the past century in shedding old prejudices and biases. Yes, significant ecumenical dialogue and agreements have been written and published, and even endorsed by the highest ecclesial authorities. But much of these ecumenical milestones are still rarely shared, embraced and acted upon by both clergy and the people in the pews.

Instead, we continue to hang on to divisions as cherished identity markers. A new book was published recently on the subject of transubstantiation, a thorny subject between Roman Catholics and Protestants. Catholics claim transubstantiation as a firm identity marker (without really understanding its history and original meaning/ intent), and Protestants have an allergic reaction at the sound of the term. What is really sad/tragic is that this book’s sincere efforts to explore this thorny term in the service of Christian Unity and its startling conclusion that we are in fact agreeing, agreeing (!) about Christ’s Real Presence in the Eucharist will likely never reach the minds and hearts of most baptized Christians — bishops, superintendents and clergy included…

Today, we end the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity. What began in 1908 in one person’s heart, Fr. Paul Wattson, has become a global event endorsed by all mainline Christian churches, including the World Council of Churches and the Vatican, the Anglican Communion, the World Methodist Alliance and the Lutheran World Federation, and in Canada the Mennonite Church Canada and the Canadian Baptist Alliance.

That development definitely deserves to be noted and celebrated. But even this Week of Prayer for Christian Unity still does not include many churches and faith communities, either by their own choice or through sheer ignorance of the occasion. I wonder why this passage from Paul’s letter to the Corinthians, addressing directly the disputes and factions in the church, has only ever been the focus for this Week of Prayer …. once… Could it be because Paul’s words are too sharp a rebuke to us all? Could it be that Paul’s challenge to find our unity in Christ alone, and to let that unity guide how we work through divisions and disagreements, is more than we dare to commit ourselves to? Maybe we would rather say, with a certain smugness:
I belong to the one true church of … Martin Luther;
I believe in the Pope and in transubstantiation;
no, the Book of Common Prayer is all that matters to me.
We only baptize adult believers who mean what they promise;
I believe in the gift of tongues as the hallmark of the Holy Spirit.
And I … believe … in angels and … the universe.

Like Peter, Andrew, James and John we follow the One who has made us “fishers of people.” But it can certainly be said that, rather than setting God’s fire of love ablaze in human hearts, we have instead created institutions with membership cards and rules of conduct. Is it any wonder that our fishing nets, tattered and torn from all the bickering and dividing, are not holding together well in this secular, post-Christian world?

At last count, there are over 30,000 different denominations, a number that continues to rise despite all efforts in dialogue. Now, in fairness, some claim that the growth of denominations in fact allows for greater peace and harmony in the Body of Christ. Yet, more often than not, in reality it is perceived as fragmentation that has in fact been breeding contempt, distrust and prejudice towards “those others” in the Body of Christ. While we all claim Jesus as the light in our darkness, as the compass of God to orient our lives towards, we have allowed this Christian light to explode into a million factions, like bright fireworks into a darkened sky, now rapidly losing our shining quality. I often wonder how much our in-house quarrels have contributed to the erosion of credibility in the Gospel of Christ in our contemporary world.

Claiming our unity in Christ does not lead to abandoning our denominational colours. Quite the opposite — claiming our baptismal unity in Christ calls for a deep embracing of all that is good and life-giving in our own tradition without putting down others, and more even. Claiming our unity in Christ enables us to recognize and honour all that is good and holy and life-giving even in other spiritual paths and traditions.

Besides, we cannot share with others what we do not first experience, claim, cherish and love. We claim our particular tradition not as a weapon to hit others, but as the gift we bring to the ecumenical table of the Lord. Secure in who we are in Christ through our denominational belonging, we become free to seek and find unity with sisters and brothers everywhere. I think here of the wise words of Michael Ramsay,
former Archbishop of Canterbury:
Let it be made clear that ecumenism includes every part of the healing of wounds between races and nations… Every breaking down of barriers which divide humanity
—social, racial, economic, cultural—is part of the ecumenical task. The ecclesial aspects of ecumenism
must be seen in this larger context. When they are so seen it is clear that ecumenism is no hobby for church-minded people; it is a task of divine and human reconciliation in which every Christian man, woman and child can have a share. (Also see Nostra Aetate, 1965)

Christian unity for the sake of the world is not easy. The ecumenical quest is not without pain  — there is a lot of hurt and suspicion to overcome, a lot of misunderstandings to clear up still today. It is a good thing that none of this depends on our human efforts alone. It is a good thing, a totally undeserving and merciful thing that, despite ourselves, God hasn’t ditched us yet but remains the ever faithful One. Despite ourselves, despite out tattered fishing nets and online sparring, Jesus keeps calling out to us: “Follow me, and I will make you fishers of people.

It is not too late to be God’s united light in the world. Later this year, the Anglican, Lutheran, Roman Catholic and Ukrainian bishops of Saskatchewan will invite us into a new and bold initiative called the LAURC Covenant. While not limiting this Covenant, the bishops nevertheless want to begin by committing their own traditions while leaving space in the Covenant for other churches to join. This Covenant will urge a deeper concrete partnership among our varying Christian faith families through mutual learning and sharing, through ongoing joint praying and serving those in need. Some of this partnering is already borne from sheer material need and numerical decline. Yet the bishops wish to transform these negative-sounding reasons into positive witnesses of unity for Christ’s own sake.

So, for the sake of the Gospel of Christ, we are compelled to continue mending our fishing nets and tying them together. Jesus himself prayed for our unity, Jesus himself will be our light, Jesus himself will be our glory, and in Jesus lies the hope for all the churches, and indeed, for all of creation.

Homily preached on January 26, 2020
Isaiah 9:1-4; 1 Corinthians 1:10-18; Matthew 4:12-23   

  • Heartfelt thanks to my dear friend and colleague, Rev. Amanda Currie, for the initial inspiration for this sermon.        
  • Thanks also to friend and colleague Rev. Scott Sharman for lifting my ecumenical spirit with his reflection.   
  • The blog title is inspired by this year’s theme for the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity from Acts 27:18 — 28:10 which features St. Paul’s shipwreck experience on the Island of Malta.
  • A poignant reflection on the numerical decline in our churches in western countries, linking this decline to our continued divisions which undermine the message of Christ Jesus. Much food for thought here.