(Ephesians 4: 1-7, 11-16; Psalm 107: 1-32)
When you woke up this morning, you made a decision – perhaps first-thing, or somewhere between the bowl of cereal and cup of coffee – you made a decision to come to church. Which, incidentally, we are very glad you did. We are glad you came here to worship with us at Trinity.
But to suggest that you are only worshipping in this sanctuary with this particular group of people would not be an entirely true statement. In fact, you’re worshipping with Presbyterians all over the country as part of our denomination – the Presbyterian Church (USA). We are approximately 1.6 million members strong, gathering together in just under 10,000 congregations.
But even that’s not the whole picture. Because there are at least eight different Presbyterian denominations in the United States. There’s the Presbyterian Church of America, which broke off from our denomination back in the 70’s over a number of things; the primary one being that they do not ordain women as elders or ministers. There’s also the Evangelical Presbyterian Church, the Reformed Presbyterian Church, the Cumberland Presbyterian Church, just to name a few. Go beyond our borders and you’ll find hundreds of other Presbyterian denominations in countries around the world; including the Korean Presbyterian Church, which claims the world’s largest single Presbyterian congregation comprised of roughly 250,000 members and 32 pastors.
Think that’s it? Not even close. Because while being Presbyterian is, in fact, awesome, being Christian is what it’s ultimately about. And there are all kinds of ways one can be a Christian these days. There are Baptists, and that’s saying a lot. Independent Baptists. Primitive Baptists. Progressive and Southern and Moderate Baptists. There are Episcopalians, Methodists, Moravians, Lutherans. There are Methodist Episcopalians and “Bapstaterians.” There are Friends and Disciples of Christ and Church of Christ and Church of God. There are Catholics and Eastern Orthodox. There are so many ways to be a Christian that it boggles the mind; all of which makes those of us at Trinity even happier that you decided to worship here this morning.
I’ll never forget when our family first moved to Charlotte. We came in late on a Wednesday night and drove through town, down Providence all the way down to Rea Rd. and pulled into the driveway of our new home. I asked my family if they noticed Trinity when we drove by it and they said, “Which church? We saw like a hundred! How many churches does Charlotte have??”
We do have a lot of churches, of all shapes and stripes and sizes. So many churches. So many denominations, and denominations within denominations. So many differing beliefs and creeds that span the spectrum. And yet in the end we are all one Church, with Jesus Christ at its head.
It doesn’t take a genius to figure out that’s the message Paul is trying to get across to these church folks in Ephesus. A port city on the Aegean Sea; a community of what was known in the early church as Gentiles – non-Jews. A diverse community. Paul was writing his letter from prison; so given all that, it’s no wonder the message that permeates the letter from beginning to end, best captured in the opening of chapter four:
There is one body and one Spirit,
Just as you were called to the one hope of your calling,
One Lord, one faith, one baptism,
One God and Father of all,
Who is above all and through all and in all.
A few weeks ago we read a section out of the Belhar confession – our church’s newest confession as of last month – that repeated over and over again the word “one.” Here, the apostle Paul uses it seven times in three verses – roughly one-sixth of the entire passage is the word “one.” There can’t be any doubt about how important the oneness of the church is to Paul. Later in this letter, Paul talks about the church as a body where everyone and everything is joined and knit together by every ligament.
And we have to give it up for Paul here, don’t we? Because it’s almost as if he has a crystal ball sitting in front of him as he pens these words; as he sat in the darkness of his prison cell. It’s almost as if he knows. As if he knows what trials and tribulations awaited the early church, the very existence of Christianity. As if he knows the differences and disagreements that would forever threaten to undo what Jesus lived and died for, what Paul and so many others worked so hard for.
Perhaps Paul sees it in the life of Jesus himself, and the way his own rejected him. Or at Pentecost, and how some who witness the miracle of God’s Spirit equipping the saints chalked it up to too much wine. Perhaps he feels it in his own conversion, and how some could never bring themselves to believe that this former persecutor of Christians now would be their greatest champion. Or maybe he catches a glimpse of it in the events leading up to the Jerusalem council, where many still insisted that Christianity was for Jews alone.
Perhaps Paul even sees into the church’s future, thousands of years after him, and how this disunity, like some genetic disease, would continue to threaten and plague the church century after century. Perhaps Paul catches a glimpse of Christians fighting other Christians they didn’t agree with, or people of faith belittling others because their doctrinal stances didn’t match their own.
Maybe Paul sees all of this. Maybe he doesn’t. The point is, the oneness of the church has always been the critical linchpin to its very existence, and it has not usually come naturally. And I’m not talking about all the different denominations and sub-denominations that make up the church in our day and time. For the most part, these reflect nothing more than diverse historical backgrounds in the church’s history and varied expressions of that oneness. I like to think of all the denominations as a beautiful stained glass window, where every piece of colored glass reflects a unique light from the sun that shines behind it; all coming together to form a single breathtaking picture of the one body of Christ.
What I think Paul is trying to warn the Ephesians and us about are the times when we in the church – either as individual congregations or as the larger bodies of which we are part – when we find ourselves factioned and divided along lines that, for the most part, are of our own making.
This can be tricky business. Sometimes we in the church mistakenly assume that unity and sameness are the same thing. Which they are not. It is entirely possible to have different stances on issues – cultural, theological, political, biblical – and still be committed to living out the one body of Jesus Christ. In fact, that is precisely what Jesus intended for the church, and what Paul himself preached and taught.
But when we mistaken unity for sameness and assume that we are divided if we disagree, that is when division actually becomes a thing. It’s a self-fulfilling prophecy, and we see it played out over and over again in the local congregation, all the way to the church universal.
Our own denomination has encountered this recently, with our decade-long conversations about homosexuality, ordination and marriage. You probably know that a number of churches in our presbytery and around the country have left the PCUSA over some of those decisions. Our own congregation is in the midst of a conversation about whether Trinity will allow same-sex weddings in our sanctuary, and each of you have been invited to write a letter to the session expressing your thoughts and opinions. Some of you have spoken to me directly, indicating strong support for such weddings, or deep concern if Trinity decides to have them. A few have even indicated that, should the session vote in a manner not pleasing to them, they may wonder if they have a place at Trinity anymore.
As a quick aside, let me assure you, as I shared at our dinner back in early June, that whatever our session decides next month, every single one of you has a place here at Trinity. I am convinced of that. And the reason goes right back to what Paul says: There is one body and one Spirit, one Lord, one faith, one baptism. There is always room in the body of Christ for people to disagree, because the church is about more than any person or any idea or any stance. It’s about Jesus Christ, our Lord and Savior, whose embrace transcends everything and anything that may otherwise divide us.
Still, we’re inclined to ask: where? Where is this oneness? In a time of the church’s history when it feels like God’s mission is arguably the most important it’s ever been, where do we see the unity of God’s mission in and through the church?
Well, I think each of us can answer that for ourselves. I want to tell you where I recently saw it. Some of you know that the other week, I was away leading music for the Montreat Middle School Conference in Maryville, Tennessee, just outside of Knoxville. I know, a Montreat conference that’s not in Montreat. Only place they had space. And it’s beside the point.
The point is that, for a solid five days, I got to witness 500 middle-schoolers come together not just to have fun and do crazy youth conference stuff, but to literally live into church community. I saw 500 kids run in through the doors of the auditorium once opened to stake out prime seats for worship – for worship! When was the last time any of us were waiting outside our sanctuary doors half an hour before worship to get the best seats?
I saw 500 kids sing songs at the top of their lungs, and it very well may surprise you what they were singing about. They were singing about doing justice, loving kindness, walking humbly with God. About how “bridges are more beautiful than bombs,” “an open hand is stronger than a fist, “wonder is more valuable than Wall Street,” and love can change the world. They were singing songs about love being greater than fear. The choir I led sang a song about how “God don’t hate the Muslims, God don’t hate the Jews, God don’t hate the Christians – but we all give God the blues.”
These were the songs they constantly asked to sing over and over again; asked for the lyrics and music so they could sing them back home. And I’m convinced the reason they were so popular was because their message of love and hope totally resonates with them, and stands in stark contrast to the hate and fear they get plenty of in the world we all live in. They intuitively know that’s the wrong way to be, and singing songs like the ones we sang gives them hope.
I saw 500 kids write out prayers on strips of colored cloth; prayers that were far more introspective and deep than you may think. Prayers like “please stop fighting and shooting people” and “I want cancer to end” and “help those who don’t love themselves” and “help me make better choices.” Those strips of colored cloth were part of our worship service every evening – and now they are part of the stole I’m wearing today, a stole given to me at the end of the conference, given to me and the other leadership. I know it’s technically not “liturgically correct,” but it certainly is sermonically correct on this day.
And as I saw all of this, it struck me how the larger church is in the absolute perfect position to be the one church with them and for them. Think about it: our very reason for being – the reason Paul proclaimed to the Ephesians of doing the hard work of loving and hoping and being one in a fractured world – that is precisely what those 500 middle-schoolers, and I daresay millions all over, are looking for. They are seeking precisely what we are designed to do and be.
Make no mistake – this is a tremendous opportunity for the church. The problem? Us! We are our own worst enemy at our unity when we get sidetracked, when we put other things over and above that single mission. When we start drawing lines. When we start to wonder if we have a place in the church. When we allow our differences to becomes sources of division rather than the beauty of that glorious stained glass window.
We need to be the one church. For the sake of those 500 kids and all others, for grown adults and for the very society in which the church resides. We need to step up our unity game.
As I said before, it’s in our DNA. Our first confession confesses it. The Apostle’s Creed calls it the “catholic” church. When I was a kid, I used to get confused whenever we said in worship: I believe in the Holy Ghost, the holy catholic church. I remember thinking, why are we talking about a ghost, and what’s up this Catholic thing? I thought we were Presbyterian!
The key is the word itself; and specifically that it’s a small “c” instead of capitalized. It’s an adjective – granted, a rarely-used one – but the word “catholic” comes from the Greek and means “on the whole,” “according to the whole” “universal.”
So think about what we proclaim every time we say the Apostle’s Creed, as we’ll a little later in worship:
We proclaim our belief in a “whole” church. We proclaim our belief in a “universal” church.
We proclaim our belief in a church that welcomes all, because Christ is the head of the church and Christ welcomes all.
We proclaim a church that has at its heart the very DNA of love and hope, as opposed to hate and fear.
We proclaim a church that worships as one, serves as one, grows as one, disagrees as one, is one.
We proclaim a one church, a universal, whole, catholic church, that looks like a beautiful stained glass window with all different colors and hues of light shining forth from the one sun behind it.
That is the church we labor to further here at Trinity, in our denomination, in all churches everywhere. That is the church that 500 middle-schoolers and millions of young people everywhere long to see become a reality. Let’s build it together, shall we? One church for all people.
In the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit, thanks be to God – and may all of God’s people say, AMEN!
Because sermons are meant to be preached and are therefore prepared with the emphasis on verbal presentation, the written accounts occasionally stray from proper grammar and punctuation.