Lyrical Living: Words to Live By
In Christ There Is No East Or West Click here for audio
Acts 2:43-47, Galatians 3:25-28
Donna R. Buell
This summer Marty and I will be preaching a series of sermons under the broad theme Lyrical Living: Words to Live By. Inspired by phrases from hymns and songs of faith, we will be reflecting upon various aspects of our lives as people of God and as followers of Jesus Christ. I invite you to be thinking about phrases from hymns that are particularly inspiring for you and for your life and faith. In the coming weeks we will be inviting you to share those phrases with us.
As we begin the series this morning, our inspiration is from the phrase which is also the title of the hymn we just sang: “In Christ there is no east or west.” That hymn is inspired by the scripture Sharry read for us from Paul’s Letter to the Galatians. In this passage Paul reminded a divided and contentious Galatian church that those who have been baptized into Christ are clothed with Christ. “There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male or female, for all of you are one in Christ.”
This belief that we are all one in Christ is an important tenet of our faith as followers of Christ. Yet, we have a terribly difficult time living it out in our daily lives, both inside and outside of the church. As members of the United Methodist Church we have all promised to “serve Jesus Christ as our Lord in union with the church which Christ has opened to people of all ages, nations and races.” And when we talk about that vow in our new member classes we always have to acknowledge that this is an ideal which is reflected imperfectly in the life of the church. It may be that in Christ there is no east or west, Jew or Greek, slave or free, male or female, but in human life and in human community, even in the church, those differences are a very present reality. The differences we experience as human beings – differences of race and nationality, gender and sexual orientation, physical attributes and personality traits, cultural norms and political perspectives – to name just a few – aren’t erased when we walk through the door of the church. We carry all of that with us; it is all a part of what makes us who we are, and it shapes the personal perspectives we bring to any issue we may face. So in light of that, what does it mean that we are all one in Christ?
This past week the Minnesota Annual Conference of the United Methodist Church held its annual gathering in St. Cloud. And we were reminded that although there are many things we have in common, there are great differences among us, even as people of the United Methodist church in this one annual conference. Those differences reveal themselves as we debate important issues. But they are also made clear when we see the varying ways in which people employ their particular gifts in service to the church. We heard some great preachers and speakers this week, we experienced people who are able administrators of conference resources and ministries, we saw people with a facility for Roberts Rules of Order, those with a passion for mission, evangelism, justice, peace, compassion and hospitality. We saw newly commissioned and ordained persons with fresh energy and ideas and perspectives right alongside seasoned leaders near or at or beyond retirement. And we were blessed by all of those gifts.
This wasn’t a particularly contentious Annual Conference gathering. There were few items for action that inspired much in the way of debate on the floor. The only real exception was during our discussion of amendments to the constitution of the United Methodist Church that had been passed at the last General Conference and needed to be ratified by a majority of the annual conferences. And what became clear to me was that it is challenging to be part of a global church. You see, unlike other protestant denominations – the Presbyterian Church USA, the United Church of Christ, or any of the various Lutheran Synods – the United Methodist Church is a global denomination. The governing body of our denomination is called the General Conference, which is made up of representatives of all the Annual Conferences around the world. It is only at General Conference, which meets every four years, that changes can be made to the Book of Discipline which orders our life together.
Now I believe that this global nature of our church is one of the strengths of the United Methodist Church, for it makes us far richer as a denomination, and allows us to reflect more fully the body of Christ that exists throughout the world. But it is also a challenge, for issues and beliefs and values that are important to United Methodists in one part of the world are at times very different from those that are important to United Methodists in other parts of the world, and sometimes those differences are in conflict with one another. And because the church is growing more rapidly in areas such as Africa and Asia, the influence of United Methodists from the United States is decreasing. And those who have been watching General Conference through the years are finding that it has become increasingly difficult to find common ground and to speak with one voice about much of anything.
At the last General Conference, the delegates who were finding themselves on the brink of schism, asked the Council of Bishops to help them find a way through. And the result was the creation of a commission on the way forward. This commission, whose members were carefully selected to represent the global church, has begun its work. They have begun by building community so that they might grow in their love and trust of one another. It is this important foundational work that will allow them to more constructively address the issues that divide us and hopefully it will help us find a way forward for our denomination. It is my prayer that they find a way that allows us to hold our denomination together while also allowing for some flexibility in the way we live out our faith across this wide world. Next winter there will be a special meeting of the General Conference to hear and act upon their recommendations. So I invite you to be in prayer for the Commission on the Way Forward, that they may open themselves to the Spirit’s empowering presence as they bear this tremendous responsibility on behalf of our whole church.
Whenever I get discouraged about the inability of the church as a whole to move beyond our divisions and differences, I remind myself that unity is not the same as uniformity. Being part of one body of Christ, whether globally, or within an annual conference, or even within a local congregation, does not mean that we all walk in lock step with one another, that we all see eye to eye on all issues, or that we all practice our faith in exactly the same way. But it does mean that we need to put our oneness in Christ above all of those differences that threaten to separate us one from another. We need to make room and space for one another and for the unique and diverse contributions that we all bring to this one body of Christ. We need to put the mission of the church ahead of our particular differences and perspectives. And above all, we need to love one another.
William Sloan Coffin once wrote that, “Unity is not something we are called to create; it’s something we are called to recognize.” Let me say that again: “Unity is not something we are called to create; it’s something we are called to recognize.” I really appreciate that statement, for it reminds me that our unity in Christ is not something in the future that we have to make happen. Our unity in Christ is already a reality, created for us by God in Christ. And our call is to recognize that unity, to see it and to embrace it even in the midst of our diversity, and to reflect it more and more in our life together.
In his book, Walking with God in a Fragile World, Coffin also wrote these words soon after the events of September 11th.
It is a bedrock conviction of many religious faiths that all six billion of us on the planet belong to one another. That’s the way God made us. From a Christian point of view, Christ died to keep us that way. Our sin is only and always that we put asunder what God has joined together. I believe good religion makes justice and mercy, that is, love, the central value of human life. It is bad religion to deify doctrines and creeds. While creeds and doctrines are indispensable to religious life, they are also only signposts. Love is the sole hitching post. The reasons are clear: doctrines can divide, doctrines are also not immune to error. Let’s not forget that many doctrines once upheld slavery and apartheid, and there are a few that still keep women in the status of second-class citizens. But while doctrines can divide, love can only unite.
Love can only unite. We who have been baptized into Christ are clothed with Christ. In Christ there is no longer Jew or Greek, slave or free, male or female, for all are one in Christ. And “love is the sole hitching post” – God’s love made known to us in Jesus Christ, and made possible in our lives through the power of the Holy Spirit. And so, as members of the body of Christ, and as the people of the global United Methodist Church, as part of the Minnesota Annual Conference and this church family here at the corner of Greeley and Myrtle, let us commit ourselves to recognize our essential unity in Christ, making love our sole hitching post. If we do that, and if we allow God to work through all our many and varied gifts, who knows how much we can accomplish in Christ’s name. Thanks be to God. Amen.