So. Let’s look at the story so far. In the first decades of the Christian movement, there were conflicts between Peter and Paul over observance of the Jewish law by Christians. Something of this famous quarrel is related to us in Paul’s letter to the Galatians. Paul relates the divide between him and members of the somewhat awkwardly named “circumcision faction”.
In Corinth, there were those who claimed to be followers of Paul, versus being followers of Apollos, or of Peter.
Later there were those who argued over whether the pre-existent Christ had always existed or come into being at some point prior to his incarnation as Jesus. This controversy went on for some time, with both parties taking turns being in power and excommunicating the other arguing over whether the Son of God was begotten or made.
These debates were later followed by debates about how it was that the divine and human natures of Christ dwelled within Jesus—did they sit side by side? Did they blend together into one fused nature? Did the human Jesus have his own human nature that invited the divine nature in? These disagreements wound up in divisions that persist to this day, with the separation of the Monophysite and Nestorian Churches from the rest of the church.
Later, another controversy erupted as the church debated whether ordinations were valid if they’d been done by bishops who had succumbed to persecution and betrayed the church.
The church also saw controversy and division over the question of whether a person was able to choose to do good on their own or only able to choose to do good with God’s help.
And then there was the issue of whether the Holy Spirit proceeded from the Father alone or from the Father and Son together. This question of Single or Double Procession, coupled with questions of priestly celibacy and whether the bread for communion should be leavened or unleavened (that were ultimately about questions of authority in the church) were the “straw-that-broke-the-camel’s-back” issues that led to the separation between the Catholic and Orthodox Churches.
Of course, then there was the granddaddy of all theological fights: the Protestant Reformation, when issues of papal authority, the centrality of scripture, the justification of humanity, the nature of the eucharist, the role of the clergy, the number of the sacraments, and many more wracked the church and produced a division that lingers until this day.
Of course, they were just getting started. The Lutherans have themselves subsequently divided. In this country alone, there are the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, the Lutheran Church Missouri Synod, and the Lutheran Church Wisconsin Synod. The Calvinists of Switzerland have subsequently become the Dutch Reformed, German Reformed, Presbyterian, Baptist, and Congregationalist churches, who come in a variety of flavors. Of course the Baptists and Presbyterians come in a variety of flavors, too: American Baptist, Southern Baptist, National Baptist, Progressive Baptist, Independent Baptist, Presbyterian Church in America, Presbyterian Church in the USA, and so on.
In England, the church of England separated from the Catholic Church over reasons that weren’t really religious, but that didn’t stop them from having religious divides later on over questions of clerical vestments, whether they were celebrating a “mass” or a “service”, what language the prayers were to be in and so on. Later on in the church of England, a priest named John Wesley got it in his head that Christians should be holy and led a reform movement within the church. They were not entirely successful in reforming the church and eventually these Methodists were compelled by circumstance to go their separate way from the Church of England.
In America, the Methodists would wind up splitting into the Methodist Episcopal Church, the Methodist Episcopal Church, South, and the Methodist Protestants before reuniting a century later. But there were also those that didn’t reunite with their parent Methodists: the Wesleyan Church, the Free Methodists, the African Methodist Episcopal, African Methodist Episcopal Zion, Christian Methodist Episcopal, Nazarene, and Salvation Army churches. Then there were the Pentecostal movements that gave rise to the Assemblies of God and a whole host of other churches.
So many divisions of Christianity. So many different Christian communities, often born out of division and strife.
It’s the kind of circumstance that gives rise to jokes like the old joke about the man who is stranded on a desert island. When he is rescued the rescuers note that he has built three structures on the island and they ask him about them. “Well this one is my home,” he says pointing to the first. “And that one,” he says pointing to the second, “is my church.” “What about that third one?” they ask. “Oh that,” he says. “That’s the church I wouldn’t be caught dead in.”
My friends, divisiveness and division is something that we Christians are very, very good at. And have been doing for a very long time.
II. DIVISIONS IN THE CHURCH
Now divisions in the church are nothing new. Paul himself had to deal with that in the middle of the first century. But certainly the number of divisions within the church today would no doubt appall him. He was worried enough about the divisions in the church at Corinth to say to his readers:
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?
Paul doesn’t waste any time getting right ot the heart of the matter: “Has Christ been divided?” The question is particularly pertinent for Paul, for in this same letter, he will use the metaphor of a body to describe the church and its various members. Can a body be divided and still live? If the church is the Body of Christ, how can that body be divided and still be accurately reflect Christ to the world? So, one might suppose that if it were necessary that the church be divided, then it must have been over some particularly important issues, right?
That is a thought that occurs to me every time I am asked one question in particular, a question I am asked with some regularity. Often, when someone meets me and learns what I do, or they discover that I’m a chaplain here, they’ll ask a version of the following question: what makes Methodism different from the other denominations of Christianity? I can’t very well answer things like “We sing loud” or “We use Welch’s grape juice for communion” or “We seem to like committee meetings.” What becomes clear to me is that what makes Methodism unique are some fairly arcane ideas—ideas I believe in deeply and sincerely—but not necessarily ideas that the average person outside the church would appreciate. For example, I suppose I could answer that question by saying, “We believe in the three-fold operation of Divine Grace, preveniently to convict and invite us, for our justification, and ultimately for our sanctification in works of mercy and piety.” That is the right answer, by the way, but of little interest to ordinary people who imagine that the differences are something of obvious consequence to them. Now, beliefs do have real world consequences, to be sure. But we seem to really enjoy arguing over the beliefs.
In Jonathan Swift’s famous satire Gulliver’s Travels, he describes the formerly unknown island nation of Lilliput, whose residents are only six inches high. The Lilliputian society is often riven by an ongoing debate that has been a source of division, revolt, and upheaval for years: they are divided as to whether to crack an egg on the big end or the little-end. Swift was an Irish clergyman who was satirizing some of the religious debates in England at the time. His satire might still be relevant, at least from the perceptions of those outside the church.
For so many people outside the church, our divisiveness with one another is the best argument that our claims that Christianity is a way of peace are false. Worse yet, it makes our entire enterprise look trivial. Imagine, in our highly skeptical age, the reaction that people must have to questions of whether the Holy Spirit proceeds from the Father alone or from the Father and Son together. Can’t you just see the eyes rolling and the choruses of “so what?” However important we might understand these questions to be—and theology is important for us—we have to acknowledge that the divisions they create in the body of Christ do not do service to the work of Christ in the world.
So much of what we divide ourselves over must seem to be arguments about which end of a egg to crack to so many people.
When I was practicing law, my boss, who was Jewish, would occasionally ask me a question about Christianity. I remember once answering something like, “Well, if you’re a Catholic or an Episcopalian, yes, but not if you’re a Methodist or a Presbyterian.” And he said, “It always surprises me that there different kinds of Christians.”
What I have taken that to mean is that to an outsider, Christians all look the same. And so, the issues we choose to divide ourselves over seem petty and small. And likewise, we seem petty and small for wasting our time on them rather than on more important matters.
This sermon series is meant to explore the things that so many people think about Christians and Christianity, and divisiveness is certainly one of those things. We have become known as a people who divide into factions, who pick fights with one another over arcane issues of theology, and who do not seem to live out the message we keep preaching.
Because Jesus was pretty clear about how it was we were meant to be known: by love for one another.
I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.
Love is meant to be the defining mark of a Christian, but in the popular consciousness, so many other things have come to define us. We talk a lot about love but rarely show it to one another, let alone to the world at large. Especially when the world could really use some love right about now. In fact, it is almost as if the world is more aware of our mission that we are—they understand what we claim to be clearly, and instead of living out that love to a world in need, we divide and contend, persecute and mock.
IV. THE CATHOLIC SPIRIT
But what then is the answer? Is the only answer a compelled unity? Should we forever ignore matters of theology and authority? Should we simply fashion unity for the sake of outward appearances and for the purpose of being unified? How do we decide which version of Christianity we adopt as the one to unify around?
John Wesley had his own take on this, as you might expect. The early Methodist movement sought to be first and foremost a movement, not a church. And so it included within it Christians of all kinds. They would worship at their own churches on Sundays but come together for the Methodist society meetings during the week. Even after the denomination became its own church, the Methodists still had a fairly broad understanding of their identity and never claimed to be the “one true church”. Much of that was owed to Wesley’s own thinking, of course. A thinking that can be found beautifully expressed in a sermon entitled “Catholic Spirit”.
In that sermon, Wesley reflects on the conversation between Jehonadab and Abihu that we read earlier in 2 Kings. Jehu comes upon Jehonadab and asks: “Is your heart as true to mine as mine is to yours?” Jehonadab answered, “It is.” Jehu said, “If it is, give me your hand.”
Wesley reflects that the question “Is your heart as true to mine as mine is to yours?” (or as he would say it “Is thine heart right as mine is with thine?”) was the only question one needed to ask of a fellow Christian. One needn’t inquire about modes of worship, or beliefs about the sacraments, or systems of church government, but simply to ask, in effect, “Do you love God and me as I love God and you?” If the answer was yes, then: “Give me your hand.” Wesley even goes on at length to describe what it means to give one another one’s hand:
I do not mean, “Embrace my modes of worship,” or, “I will embrace yours.” This also is a thing which does not depend either on your choice or mine. We must both act as each is fully persuaded in his own mind. Hold you fast that which you believe is most acceptable to God, and I will do the same. I believe the Episcopal form of church government to be scriptural and apostolical. If you think the Presbyterian or Independent is better, think so still, and act accordingly. I believe infants ought to be baptized; and that this may be done either by dipping or sprinkling. If you are otherwise persuaded, be so still, and follow your own persuasion. It appears to me, that forms of prayer are of excellent use, particularly in the great congregation. If you judge extemporary prayer to be of more use, act suitable to your own judgement. My sentiment is, that I ought not to forbid water, wherein persons may be baptized; and that I ought to eat bread and drink wine, as a memorial of my dying Master: however, if you are not convinced of this act according to the light you have. I have no desire to dispute with you one moment upon any of the preceding heads. Let all these smaller points stand aside. Let them never come into sight “If thine heart is as my heart,” if thou lovest God and all mankind, I ask no more: “give me thine hand.”
“Let all these smaller points stand aside…” Welsey, like Paul, cuts right to the heart of the matter. So much of what divides us are the smaller points of faith. Points about which we have our own beliefs, our own practices. But they are the smaller points in comparison with the grander point: do we commit to love one another as Christ has loved us?
It is interesting that Wesley advocates neither for contentious debate nor for blending all beliefs into one nor for insisting that such points are folly. They simply aren’t the most important thing.
Today is Reformation Sunday, a Sunday that happens to fall this year on the 493 anniversary of Martin Luther’s posting the 95 Theses on the Cathedral Door at Wittenberg, the event the sparked the Protestant Reformation and the eventual separation of the Protestant denominations from the Catholic Church. I don’t know how to break it to our Catholic brothers and sisters who are in attendance tonight, but, uh, we’re not coming back.
But that needn’t be a tragedy: Our diversity can be a blessing—a richness of a living tradition that is constantly growing, asking new questions, exploring different expressions of the faith.
Because what we can understand here tonight, is that our ability to be the body of Christ is not dependent upon us being under one polity, or embracing one mode of worship, or one understanding of baptism or the Eucharist. We need not agree on papal authority or priestly celibacy or sacramental theology, hagiology, eschatology, pneumatology, or any of the –ologies we seem to like to argue about. We need not contend about all the issues that divide us. Let these smaller things stand aside.
For the time being, we can ask one another “Is your heart as true to mine as mine is to yours?” If it is, give me your hand, and together we will share the love of Christ with a broken and hurting world.
2 Kings 10:15-16a
When he left there, he met Jehonadab son of Rechab coming to meet him; he greeted him, and said to him, “Is your heart as true to mine as mine is to yours?” Jehonadab answered, “It is.” Jehu said, “If it is, give me your hand.” So he gave him his hand. Jehu took him up with him into the chariot. He said, “Come with me, and see my zeal for the LORD.”
1 Corinthians 1:10-17
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 it.
“When he had gone out, Jesus said, “Now the Son of Man has been glorified, and God has been glorified in him. If God has been glorified in him, God will also glorify him in himself and will glorify him at once. Little children, I am with you only a little longer. You will look for me; and as I said to the Jews so now I say to you, ‘Where I am going, you cannot come.’ I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.”