January 22, 2023

During the 60’s, with the Vietnam protests and its racial upheaval, with marches & riots and even students shot by the National Guard the United States seemed hopelessly divided. I had one Anti-Vietnam War church member spit on by another parishioner who was Pro-War, as he held a sign at the Memorial Day Parade down Main St. Some wondered if America could ever again unite and deal with our problems, or rise to the occasion as we had in WWII, and be able to respond as ‘one people’ to threats that might arise in the world.  By the end of the mid 70’s the question was raised; “Were we so dominated by our national angst and our seeming self-loathing that a uniting vision could ever bring us together in patriotic unity and purpose again?”

We were still languishing in the aftereffects of that morass when 9/11 happened there was an immediate surge of patriotism and young men and women rushed to the sign up for military duty. There was a surge in our identity as Americans. Churches even had a brief rise in attendance. All that was needed, it seemed, was some clear discernable threat that united us again and stirred a call on our sense of faith and duty.  Of course, all that unity, has dissolved in the last 20 years and some of the same old questions are being asked about our democracy again as were asked in the late 60’s and early 70’s.

My point in talking about our chaotic last 60 years is simply to point to the sense of call and duty on the part of the disciples, and in the early church, in response to Jesus. What held the church together as it expanded out into the Roman Empire? What made the disciples so suddenly commit themselves to Jesus as they listened along the lake shore? What made the disciples respond so totally as they did?  -They gave up family duties and committed themselves wholeheartedly the rest of their lives.

Rationally, one might say, patriotism may have been a small part. The frustration over Rome’s control over Israel served to strengthen Jewish identity and increased the longing for the Messiah the Prophets had forecast.  –But certainly, the thrust of their fervor was brought by their sense that God was doing something new in the world, and that Jesus was a part of that action. Jesus’ message struck a chord of faith and hope that gave them a sense of commitment to God and to each other.  God, and God’s hope for the world, became the cause which brought them to use their lives in a way that no one could have predicted, in spite of persecution and even death.

Fast forward just 20 years from Matthew’s calling story, and Paul is writing to the church at Corinth about unity in Christ. They had become divided in their loyalties. They were splintered over small issues of theology and faith, and even over differences in background and status.  It was a diverse congregation. Cliques had developed. Some were wealthy some were not. Some came from Jewish backgrounds, some from Gentile. Some were highly educated some were not. Some even were slaves.  Paul was adamant, -none of that matters, we are to see each other through the eyes of Christ, and in commitment to Christ. Paul’s theology included a radical sense of Christian identity, an inclusiveness, with which churches have long struggled. It has been noted, you know, that Sunday morning is still one of the most segregated times in American life.  Slaves in America, of course, if they were allowed in church, were relegated to the balcony. They then developed their own churches. -It is a part of our history like it or not. And who can forget that September 15, of this year it will mark just 60 years since white racists bombed the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama, killing four young African American girls who were attending Sunday School.

Martin Luther King’s charged eulogy for these small children spoke of them as martyrs for the cause of justice, Dr. King said that “These girls have something to say to every minister of the gospel who has remained silent behind the safe security of stained-glass windows. They have something to say to every politician who has fed his constituents the stale bread of hatred and the spoiled meat of racism…. they have something to say to each of us, black and white alike, that we must substitute courage for caution.”   While all of us today would decry the deaths of those Sunday School girls, and many more since, churches still struggle over the implications of racism and how to address it and remedy it. It remains a part of the divisions of our nation.  While all of us here might decry racism, the seeds of racial bitterness linger in the hearts of many, even those who claim faith in Jesus. A faith that should unite us over basic human rights has failed to overcome old prejudices and bring us where we ought and need to be,

More recently, churches have come to stress and struggle over issues around sexuality. Issues such as Gay marriage and transgender issues have brought many churches to the brink of division.  Back in 2007, the United Methodist pastor, Rev. Frank Schaefer, was stripped of his credentials for presiding over the marriage of his gay son.  The divide has only grown since. A whole group of churches in the south have officially severed their tie with the United Methodist denomination over the issue.  The divisions move along the lines of the Civil War divisions over slavery. And did you see that the Church of England presiding Bishops voted just this month not to allow gay marriage in the church.  On the Catholic side, Pope Francis has tried to ever so slightly move the Catholic Church towards a more accepting position on Gay rights, but the forces of resistance within the church are strong and the orthodoxy of the past holds sway. –It might seem incredible to many of us, but that is the state of division in the church.  It mirrors divisions in our society as a whole. -Thankfully, I can say I think we are on the right side of faith, and the right side of history.  But the Church Universal cannot speak with one voice.

I suppose one might ask, if the Christian church can’t even come to a united position on moral issues based on love and acceptance of all people how can we expect a whole nation to reach sustainable consensus?

What I think Paul would tell us in the church, in this 21st century, is that faith in God and Jesus should trump everything else. It should surpass the nationalism that claims so much loyalty in the modern age, as well as the racial and ethnic loyalties that continue to ferment in the background in our time. These are not distinctions that matter if we believe God sent Jesus to redeem the world. And for those who wish to make Jesus’ teachings a part of society, it needs to begin with love and acceptance of those who are different from the majority.

Paul grounds the Corinthians’ unity in the power of the cross of Christ (1:17).  Jesus was put to death at the hands of Empire; sacrificially suffering for the sin and failure of humanity to live humanely.  All traditions and accepted orthodoxies were called into question by Paul and laid at the feet of Jesus’ love and forgiveness. –That was the gist of Paul’s rejection of things like circumcision. Everything had to be seen in the light of Christ’s self-giving.  The Crucified Christ had power to transform a broken and factionalized little church into a community that had a shared, transformative purpose.

I think Paul would set that agenda before our church today, and before the church at large.  He would call us to the commitment that dares to move towards God’s future. That is what made the disciples calling so special. They said “Yes” not knowing how far it would take them but believing God had a destiny in mind.

[email protected]