Sunday, January 23, 2011

The Chasm (Revisited)

The Epistle reading stood out to me this week, and though I've spoken about The Chasm before, it seems an appropriate metaphor for the divisions in the church.

We can argue soteriology, baptism, Eucharist... or we can love God and love people. That seems to be the choice.

Isaiah 9:1-4
But there will be no gloom for those who were in anguish. In the former time he brought into contempt the land of Zebulun and the land of Naphtali, but in the latter time he will make glorious the way of the sea, the land beyond the Jordan, Galilee of the nations.
The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light;
those who lived in a land of deep darkness — on them light has shined.
You have multiplied the nation, you have increased its joy;
they rejoice before you as with joy at the harvest,
as people exult when dividing plunder.
For the yoke of their burden, and the bar across their shoulders,
the rod of their oppressor, you have broken as on the day of Midian.

Matthew 4:12-23
Now when Jesus heard that John had been arrested, he withdrew to Galilee. He left Nazareth and made his home in Capernaum by the sea, in the territory of Zebulun and Naphtali, so that what had been spoken through the prophet Isaiah might be fulfilled:
“Land of Zebulun, land of Naphtali, on the road by the sea, across the Jordan, Galilee of the Gentiles — the people who sat in darkness have seen a great light, and for those who sat in the region and shadow of death light has dawned.”
From that time Jesus began to proclaim, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.”
As he walked by the Sea of Galilee, he saw two brothers, Simon, who is called Peter, and Andrew his brother, casting a net into the sea — for they were fishermen. And he said to them, “Follow me, and I will make you fish for people.” Immediately they left their nets and followed him. As he went from there, he saw two other brothers, James son of Zebedee and his brother John, in the boat with their father Zebedee, mending their nets, and he called them. Immediately they left the boat and their father, and followed him.
Jesus went throughout Galilee, teaching in their synagogues and proclaiming the good news of the kingdom and curing every disease and every sickness among the people.

1 Corinthians 1:10-18
Now I appeal to you, brothers and sisters, by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that all of you be in agreement and that there be no divisions among you, but that you be united in the same mind and the same purpose. For it has been reported to me by Chloe’s people that there are quarrels among you, my brothers and sisters. What I mean is that each of you says, “I belong to Paul,” or “I belong to Apollos,” or “I belong to Cephas,” or “I belong to Christ.” Has Christ been divided? Was Paul crucified for you? Or were you baptized in the name of Paul? I thank God that I baptized none of you except Crispus and Gaius, so that no one can say that you were baptized in my name. (I did baptize also the household of Stephanas; beyond that, I do not know whether I baptized anyone else.) For Christ did not send me to baptize but to proclaim the gospel, and not with eloquent wisdom, so that the cross of Christ might not be emptied of its power.
For the message about the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God.

This is the Word of the Lord.

I worked for a number of years with a nonprofit ministry whose stated purpose was to bring all Christians of every denomination together to positively impact the lives of teenagers. The organization is quite successful, and operates in cities in all fifty states, but they've never really come close to fulfilling that stated purpose.

The problem is this: the ministry was founded by a conservative Evangelical Christian, and is run on conservative Evangelical principles. As a member of a mainline, less conservative denomination, every time I would try and involve Presbyterians or Catholics or the less conservative members of the Episcopal Church in ministry activities, or suggest women as speakers for their events, I would confront what I call “The Chasm.”

The Chasm, you see, is that place created by sharp differences in theology – where, because your views on baptism are different on my views of baptism, we can't really work together in ministry. Where your views about women in ministry are different than my views, so we can't work together in ministry. Where your views on the process of salvation are different than mine, so we can't work together in ministry. Our differences are so great that there exists between us a deep hole, so wide we cannot reach across.

You may not know about The Chasm, because for most of us it doesn't really exist. We have friends and neighbors and even family members who come from a wide variety of faith traditions, and we get along just fine, thank you.

Still, most of us have seen The Chasm in operation in one way or another. Most of us have a couple of neighbors or coworkers or relatives who are really “out there,” don't we?

Maybe it's someone who is a dedicated Conservative Christian, horrified at the thought of you attending a church where not only are women included in the leadership of the church, but allowed to preach and to pastor! Aghast at the idea of baptizing infants! Dubious about your relationship with God because your church doesn't have an invitation at the end of every service!

Or maybe it's the person who is a dedicated Liberal Christian, who writes in Green Party candidates for any and every election, no matter what, refers to God as “She,” is aghast that you don't eat organically grown foods, horrified that you shop at Wal-Mart, dubious about your worship service because it doesn't include a time for spontaneous interpretive dance, and is still angry that the PC(USA) stopped boycotting Taco Bell!

Imagine all of those people, and a few in-between, all in the same church building. Paul had been hearing about the conflicts for some time now: first from Apollos, who Paul had left in charge of the church at Corinth, then from members of Chloe’s household, and finally from Stephanas and his two friends who were passing through Ephesus, where Paul was staying. From the sound of it, things in that church were bad, and getting worse.

It was a lot like the story I heard this week about a young rabbi who found a serious problem in his new congregation. During the Friday service, half the congregation stood for the prayers and half remained seated, and each side shouted at the other, insisting that theirs was the true tradition. Nothing the rabbi said or did made any difference. Finally, in desperation, the young rabbi sought out the synagogue's 99-year-old founder. He met the old rabbi in the nursing home and poured out his troubles. "So tell me," he pleaded, "was it the tradition for the congregation to stand during the prayers?" "No," answered the old rabbi." Ah," responded the younger man, "then it was the tradition to sit during the prayers?"

"No," answered the old rabbi. "Well," the young rabbi responded, "what we have is complete chaos! Half the people stand and shout, and the other half sit and scream." "Ah," said the old man, "that was the tradition."

Part of the members claimed to be on the right path because they followed Paul. Others claimed to be on the right path because they followed Apollos. Still others insisted that these first two groups had it all wrong, that the correct teaching was found in Simon Peter’s words. And of course there was the group which loudly proclaimed that they, alone, were following Christ.

So what Paul has to confront in this letter to the Corinthian church is factionalism – a factionalism based on a difference in teaching and doctrine.

You see, theology and doctrine in their purest forms are meant to bring the Body of Christ together under a commonality of purpose, a unity of focus, a culture of the now-and-yet-to-come Kingdom of God. In Corinth, the ideal of theological purity has turned putrid. The details of doctrine have overwhelmed the Corinthian church and have become the focus of faith.. Being right has become far more important than righteousness. The rules – and the constant battle over whose rules are the right rules – has smothered love.

It sounds childish, it sounds very unlike the way a church should operate, and it sounds very familiar.

There are, right now, worldwide, some thirty-four thousand Christian denominations, and twelve hundred in the United States alone. Each of these denominations differs to greater or lesser degrees from the others in things like what the Lord’s Supper means, what baptism means – not to mention when someone should be baptized, and how wet they should get when it’s done – matters of polity, ordination, the structure of the worship service, the proper response to social issues, and on and on and on.

Even within denominations, churches split over such important issues as the color of the hymnals, carpet, or roof shingles, the spelling of the word “hallelujah,” or the retirement of a pastor.

Earlier in the week, I read Paul’s rhetorical, sarcastic question to the Corinthians, “Is Christ divided?” and I confess that, in light of all of these factors, I wanted to answer, “Yes.” At least as far as the Body of Christ, the community of believers is concerned, Christ is as divided, and there doesn’t seem to be any hope of repairing the broken places.

Yet despite everything that makes us different, despite all the problems and disagreements which set us apart from one another, there is a common, beautiful thread which binds us together. Paul’s message to that fractured Corinthian church is relevant today: the central focus of the church, whichever name might be on the sign out front, cannot be how we worship, or how we baptize, or what form of church government we adhere to, or whether or not we take the offering before or after the sermon. The central focus, our common message, must be the cross of Christ.

It’s interesting that, despite the fact that Paul’s evangelism and preaching had established the Corinthian church, despite the fact that he himself had placed Apollos as the leader of the church, and despite the fact that, more than once in the New Testament, Paul butts heads with Peter over important matters of doctrine and salvation, he spends no time at all in our reading this morning weighing the merits of those who claim allegiance to his teaching, or Apollos’ leadership, over against those who claim to follow Simon Peter (or Cephas) and those who seem to think that they, alone, have it all figured out and are the singular followers of Christ.

Because when the Body is at odds with itself, when members are so involved fighting that they pay no attention to the real and pressing needs about them, who is right and who is wrong no longer matter. When theology and doctrine get in the way of justice and mercy and faithfulness, that theology and doctrine become irrelevant.

Through our Epistle reading this morning, God calls on us to set aside these factions and arguments, look past the name over the doorway and finally act as if we are a family, because that’s what we have been created to be. It is Christ who was crucified for us, and it is in Christ’s name that we are baptized.

For far too long we have stood at the precipice of this chasm, looking across at one another, flinging mud back and forth, waving our arms and yelling about how the people on the other side have it wrong, the other side is evil and corrupt and apostate and heretical and doesn’t bathe regularly. Deep below, covered ever more deeply by the angry mud we have slung, stand the poor, the marginalized, the sick, the theologically imperfect, and the enslaved.

The thing is, none of them care which side is right. They need help.

It’s time to get down into the chasm with them. The message of the Cross, the message of the centrality and pre-eminence of Christ, does not consist of which denominational label we wear, or whose theology we find most speaks to our spirit about the nature of God. The prophet Micah wrote, “He has shown you, O mortal, what is good. And what does the LORD require of you? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God.” Jesus’ teaching about The Greatest Commandment is similar: “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.” and “Love your neighbor as yourself.”

Our guide cannot be the latest sermon series by this television preacher or the last radio show from that commentator. For us the one non-negotiable standard must be the Greatest Commandment: to love God and love our neighbor. As a result, we bracket our day in prayer and Scripture reading, and we trust the Holy Spirit as our guide and teacher, and do not ignore our common sense.

We are about the business of leading people out of the chasm, and into new life. This makes us neither Fundamentalist Evangelicals or Liberals, or whatever other label someone wants to slap on us. Rather, we are the Body of Christ, in action daily. And though we do so in our imperfect, human, Chasm-dwelling way, we strive to act justly, to love mercy, and to walk on our spiritual journey both humbly, and ever closer, with our God.

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