Stanley Hauerwas of Duke Divinity School has a poster on his office door that reads “A Modest Proposal for Peace: Let the Christians of the World Agree That They Will Not Kill Each Other.” Ask him about it and he might tell you, “It would certainly be a good thing for Christians to stop killing anyone, but you have to start somewhere." One would suppose we could agree on this modest proposal, if we could agree on anything.
We live in fractured world where division is the air we breathe. Turn on any news pundit and they’ll say, “Well, we’re just so divided now.” It’s deeper than partisan politics. We are a people of tribes—country clubs and civic clubs; Walmart or Target or the Asheville Mall; Ingles or Aldi or the farmer’s market. We are as divided by the logos on our shirts and the food in our pantries as we are by where we live and go to school. By the way, will Duke University and the University of North Carolina fans ever find a way to unite?
My own denomination, United Methodism, has a dubious relationship with unity. We began as a movement within the Church of England blending together strains of Anglicanism, German pietism, Catholic mysticism, and Eastern Orthodoxy. Wesley’s ecumenical spirit led him to take the best of other traditions and juggle them together creating a hodgepodge theology of grace.
But schism is in our DNA. We’re Protestants, after all. Wesley, who vehemently opposed schism with the Church of England, eventually laid hands on Thomas Coke and sent him to America. Today, my ordination is traced back to John Wesley and no earlier. There have since been other splits and mergers. Schism, like divorce, seems to get easier with each iteration. The people called Methodists, and the holiness movement, morphed into pentecostalism and other forms of methodism. Most recently, we nominated ourselves a ‘united’ church only fifty years ago when the Methodist Church merged with the Evangelical Unity Brethren in 1968. We’re due for another break up.
There’s an old motto that circulates attributed to John Wesley, which he never said: “In essentials, unity; in non-essentials, liberty; and in all things, charity." The problem is that we can’t agree on essentials and rampant liberty isn't a viable option to create a covenant together. Some doctrines and practices are so antithetical to the good news of Christ that they merit division, even if it’s to our lament.
The problem for me, at least recently, is this letter to the Ephesians. It’s really inconvenient, isn’t it, that we’re handed this letter when American politics are the juiciest and denominational split seems so appealing. Even when I want the denomination to fall apart and banish political foes to the innermost layer of hell, I read Paul's words and have to bite my tongue. There was no greater cultural or religious divide as that between Jews and non-Jews (Gentiles) and Paul (or whoever wrote this) is pleading for God’s chosen people to start getting along with Gentiles who were the eleventh hour workers, the prodigal sons, the ones begging for crumbs on the floor like dogs.
Here’s a miracle that’s about as unbelievable as resurrection: Christ has created a new humanity—a third race, as the church fathers used to say. The person and work of Jesus is about tearing down walls beginning the wall between heaven and earth. Jesus forgave our sins, breaking down the wall between us and God. His own body accomplished this work, holding together both God and flesh—immortality and mortality—divinity and humanity. In his ministry, he crossed over into Samaria and invited the ‘far off’ to come home, like the prodigal son.
There’s no other sensible reason to sit across the table from someone you hate, unless you believe that Jesus Christ is present in the power of the Spirit breaking down barriers. If it’s true, then there’s a reason to have church. If not, then we should continue to sit with insiders and scapegoat and complain about those on the outside. Let's build another wall because who cares. But the Jews and Gentiles shared a table and broke pita and drank wine. Together, the different notes blended to make a harmony that neither could make alone.
Unity doesn’t exist where there is uniformity; diversity is the key ingredient.
“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.”
It’s a unity based in the very nature of God. There's oneness, but there’s a complexity within the one. God is one, but God is Trinity: Father, Son and Holy Spirit. No one person is separate from another nor is one consumed into another, but each is held in communion in a divine dance of love. It’s the love of a community that spills out to create, redeem, and sanctify the world.RSS Feed
A theologian I admire reminds us that we have one Bible, but it’s infinitely complex. Total consensus is never the chief end, not even in the Scriptures. There are diverse voices, contexts, opinions, and theologies that are all inspired by the same Spirit. The early church canonized four different Gospels with four different christologies, or imaginations of the significance of the person and work of Jesus. When an early Christian named Tatian tried to harmonize all four Gospels into a coherent, uniform story called the Diatessaron, the church called it a heresy. No one wants a drab, watered down story of Jesus that has no context and thus, no courage to say something meaningful to particular people in real times and places.
Can we belong to one another despite our differences in this fragmented world? Our Bible does this. The early church did this with the power of the Holy Spirit that blowed on them and set hearts on fire at Pentecost. Jesus does this in his body and his mission. God does this in God’s self. It’s much bigger than one denomination’s struggle over articulating human sexuality; it extends to our idolatry of political ideologies and even more so to our unwillingness to look a stranger in the eye and listen, have a hard conversation, and admit that we're sinners who might be wrong.
It’s amazing that we still care about this in our culture with our current squabbling. Division may be warranted and lamented as an order of preservation, especially if we disagree over the basic essentials of the faith. But other folks are obstinate in their love for the church with a pigheaded hope that we might become the foretaste of God’s kingdom that will include every race, nation, economic, and ethnic group. And it’s a profound Methodist thing not to believe in some vague sense of Christ’s imputed unity, but to pursue it and allow it be imparted by the Spirit among us today. We’re not there yet. There’s always a tension between where we are and where we are headed—the already and the not yet—and we have an optimism that God’s grace can close the gap.
I also think I'm sure of this: if we will ever bear witness to unity, it won’t be a result of some political ideology spouted from 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, or a Bishop's prophetic stance, and definitely not a blog. But it might start with us and the ways we live our lives as every day Christians--in our churches and in our communities from the grass roots. It's worth a shot. After all, Paul tells us that peace has come and we’ve seen it. It’s Jesus. It’s the body Christ. It must be us.
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