The Basics: 21st Century Faith-Unity

This morning we come to the end of our series on The Basics: 21st Century Faith. Three weeks ago, we talked about theology and how we might come to the idea of good theology or better put, healthy theology. The week after, we talked about discipleship. This past week we talked about the mission of the church and how it is not the mission of the church is not self-serving but creates followers of Jesus, for the transformation of the individual and the world around us.

Do you know what the most dreaded daily question is most households? What’s for dinner? 

That leads us to the final basic of our four, the idea of unity. This is often confused with the idea of uniformity. I ran across what I think is a good definition for these this past week. ““Uniformity” is a state of being identical within a group…“Unity” is when parts are combined to form a whole, and does not presume that any individual part needs to give up what makes it unique in that process.”[1]

Think of it this way. If you make a bowl of cereal in the morning, you pour cereal into the bowl and pour milk over it. The cereal doesn’t become milk and the milk doesn’t become cereal. You can separate the cereal from the milk. In science, this is called a mixture. If you take that same milk, pour it into a glass and stir in chocolate syrup, the syrup dissolves. You can’t separate the chocolate syrup from the milk. They are part of one another and incapable of being removed from one another. This is called a solution. 

I think of uniformity as a solution. A uniform group of people are all the same.

I think of unity as a mixture. A group experiencing unity is made of different pieces but remains mixed together.

If we know anything of greater church history, back to the days of the earliest church, we know they didn’t always agree. Starting with events like the disciples arguing over who would sit at Jesus’ right hand in Mark 10 or the Jerusalem Council in Acts 15, the church has had a long history of disagreement. Council after council dealt with what it termed as heresies (literally disagreements) for the first fifteen hundred years, then came the Protestant Reformation.

The Protestant Reformation put belief in the hands of the average church member. Anyone could read a bible and interpret the words for themselves. “But then, “the obvious problem emerged: Whose interpretation of scripture was the right one?”…As believers debated the scriptures and sacraments, churches formed and split based on myriad biblical interpretations, ways of worship and organizational structures.”[2]

According to the Center for the Study of Global Christianity (CSGC) at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, there are an estimated 46,400 Christian denominations worldwide. That means there are over 46,000 different groups who see their ideas as different enough from one another to need to be housed in different spaces. 

Why all the denominations? Why the schism? 

Bishop Ken Carder writes, 

Schism, as John Wesley reminds us, is a failure to love as Christ loves us. Schism transforms doctrine and the Bible into weapons of mass destruction rather than agents for the formation of Christlike character. And it belies faith in the present and final triumph of God’s reign of compassion, justice, generosity, hospitality and joy.[3]

He goes on to say, 

We live the unity that already is by sharing in God’s mission of the salvation of the entire cosmos. Unity is in the missio dei, the mission of God. Participation in God’s ongoing mission of liberation, restoration, reconciliation and transformation of human hearts, communities, nations, and the entire universe fosters unity with God and with one another.[4]

But it seems Christians just can’t get along. This is nothing new. Look at the scripture we read today. Jesus is eating a meal with some Pharisees. When an honored guest sat at table (or in Jesus’ case here, a guest was trying to be dishonored), the people often jockeyed to sit closest to the honored guest’s seat to hear clearly what was being said. Usually, people of greater social standing used that standing to force people away from the guest. If it was a small group, not a big deal, everyone could still hear. If it was a larger group, and that’s what this seems like, the people farthest from the guest of honor wouldn’t be able to hear anything or take part in the conversation. Jesus of course sees the Pharisees jockeying for position, sending their lesser to the far end of the room. 

Jesus tells ‘a parable’ in which he tells the Pharisees not to sit themselves in places of importance because they may not be as important as they think they are. Let those with greater authority decide their importance otherwise, they’ll end up embarrassed. But Jesus, as always, takes this a step further and says, when you have a dinner/banquet/celebratory meal don’t just invite your family or important people. You should invite “the poor, crippled, lame, and blind.” These people were considered outcasts by most interpretations of the law at that time, people who were assumed not to be blessed by or favored by God because of some unknown sin or family curse. Jesus is in effect saying God will make the decisions of who does what, who sits where, who influences who. You go and live lives that embrace everyone, not just so-called important people. I hear an echo of Micah in this for us to act justly, love mercy, and walk humbly with God.

When we stop to think about the Created Order, we see, I think, the intention of God where unity is concerned. All things that exist, exist in connection. Creation itself is a testament to unity not as uniformity, but diversity created in concert with the purpose of interconnectedness. The unity of Creation stands as an example to the true purpose of existence, the mutually beneficial love of all that there is for all that there is. This is the love of God for Creation and in Creation. 

Our physical bodies bear witness to this fact of connection. Cellular structures combine into myriad systems that make up the human form. The writer Paul tells us of this disparate unity talking of the body in 1 Corinthians 12-14,

There are different spiritual gifts but the same Spirit; and there are different ministries and the same Lord; and there are different activities but the same God who produces all of them in everyone.[5]

This reminds me of a recent lunch meeting I had.  About three weeks ago, I remembered that Jeff Johnson and I had talked about getting together for lunch during my first men’s meeting at Adnah. I didn’t want to forget about it, so I asked him about it, and we ended up having lunch the next day. He asked about inviting Tommy Varnadoe to join us and the three of us ended up at The Flipside Cafe.

They say you shouldn’t talk about religion and politics over meals because people tend to be divided and sometimes rather emotional. It’s hard to swallow your burger and yell at someone you’re arguing with (that may be why the Heimlich maneuver was invented). Me being a pastor however, almost all anyone talks to me about is religion and politics. So, Jeff, Tommy, and I talked about religion and politics. We talked various ideas. We talked current events and issues. We talked about things said in recent sermons. What we found is that have very different perspectives on a lot, if not most things. But one thing I think we found to be true was this quote from John Wesley.

Though we cannot think alike, may we not love alike? May we not be of one heart, though we are not of one opinion? Without all doubt, we may.[6]

To me, our conversation was a perfect example of this. We left the restaurant shaking hands and talking about getting together again. We didn’t leave having convinced each other of our ideas because that’s not what we are here for. We are here to bear witness to one another, share the journey of faith God has us on, and let the Holy Spirit iron out the wrinkles of our faith. If we need changing, if we need correcting, it will be the Holy Spirit who ultimately leads and guides us to do so.

Unity is finding connection with one another, regardless of our differences. It is those very differences that allow to reach a greater number of people with the message of Jesus’ Way by connecting us to a wider range of people. One of the reasons I became a United Methodist was the idea of Open Minds, Open Hearts, Open Doors. It was this big tent theological stance that drew me in and gave me room to explore my faith. 




[4] ibid

[5] 1 Corinthians 12:4-6