All parts contribute to the body of Christ

Week of Prayer for Christian Unity
Christ Church Cathedral

24 January 2016

Nehemiah 8:1-3, 5-6, 8-10
Psalm 19: 7- 14
1 Corinthians 12:12-21, 26-27
Luke 4:14-21

I wonder what Paul would say if he were among us today. I wonder what he would think about the hundreds, even thousands of churches and denominations that exist in our world today, all in the name of Christ.

I wonder if he would do the same thing he did in the almost 2000 years ago, and write us all a letter -or maybe an email or a blog- which might begin with something like this:

“Dear Christians of the 21st century:
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 that there are quarrels among you, my brothers and sisters. What I mean is that each of you says, “I belong to the Anglican Church”, or “I belong to the Presbyterian Church”, or “I belong to the Pentecostal Church”, or “I belong to the United Church” or even, “I belong to the Church of Christ” or “the Church of God.” And furthermore, some of you say, “I believe in the transubstantiation” or “I believe in the ordination of women”, or, “I believe in the priesthood of all believers” or I believe that all sexual orientations are a gift from God”? Was your bishop crucified for you? Were you baptized in the name of John Calvin or Henry XIII? Was the Gospel proclaimed with only one issue in mind? Does our faith only address certain parts of our lives?”

Indeed, if Paul were among us, he might point out to us the absurdity and foolishness of the way the Christian church has broken into many parts. He might point out what I often feel when students of other faiths come to me, as Chaplain at Concordia University and ask a seemingly simple question:

“Why are there so many Christian churches? And what is the difference between the Protestant and Catholic Church and some of the others?”

When I am asked that question, I often feel like a member of a very dysfunctional family and I try to explain this reality of the Christian church by using the image of a family tree of sorts, which grows new branches and twigs and leaves, but that nevertheless is one single tree. And with that I try to emphasize the unity of Christianity, even though, at times, the Christian church with all of its branches and divisions and splinter groups seems absurd and ridiculous, especially in a time and place when the Christian church is just one of many faiths and where many call for no faiths.

BUT – let me be upfront and honest here – I truly like having denominations.

I like the church I have chosen to make my own, the United Church of Canada. Even though there are things I don’t agree with, I do believe that it is the right church for me and a good community for me to live out my faith. In fact, I want to go one step further and say that there are some churches and denominations, where I clearly would not be comfortable, because they have a different understanding of the Christian faith than I do and where I simply would not be accepted and where I would probably spend more time questioning and wondering what I was doing than following the way of Christ.

And so here is the question: What do we do with this reality, especially today, when we celebrate the Week of Christian Unity?

Let us take a closer look at Paul.

Paul wrote his letter because the Christians in Corinth asked him for advice. There were divisions and conflict amongst them, “serious dissensions”, as one interpreter calls it and also concrete questions about certain issues, such as questions of sexuality, head coverings and issues around food, including the Eucharist, just to name a few. Now this church with all this dissent and these questions was not one large congregation meeting in a beautiful cathedral. No, the church in Corinth was probably comprised of several house churches. Congregation were probably small enough to fit into someone’s main living area, and so everyone probably knew each other, even across congregations. The church was probably big enough to have some class difference and possibly cultural difference, because Corinth was a major trade centre. Furthermore, the congregations were embedded in the Roman culture, surrounded by pagans, so people who followed the various festivals and games, and who probably did not really understand what this new faith was all about and thus there must have been many stereotypes about them.

Hmmm. So different from our churches today, and so similar.

And so what does Paul have to say to the Christians of Corinth, and by extension to us? Paul uses another image, and a very familiar at that: The image of the one body with many members. Now, this image is probably nothing new to his readers in Corinth. Other writers and philosophers of the Greek and Roman world have used it. And usually, their message is this: While all parts of the body are important, some are more important. The body has an implied hierarchy, and usually, the head is the most important part. But Paul uses the image, so familiar to his readers, quite differently. He states that there is not one part that is more important than the other. And all the parts are needed. We need the eye and the foot and the head. We need the little ear lobe and the big buttocks, just as we need our heart and our lungs and our brains. All parts are important and deserve honour and all parts contribute to the body of Christ.

Can you hear who radical this message is to Paul’s listeners? Can you hear how this would turn the world of the church in Corinth upside down?

All people,
The rich and the poor,
The faithful and the doubting,
The gay and the straight,
The conformist and the eccentric,
Each one is as precious as the next.

But Paul is not just talking about people. He is also talking about sections in the congregation of Corinth And yes, about denominations and churches.
And I must admit that I have a bit of a hard time, accepting that every church is equal and precious, because when I am truly honest with myself, I believe that my church and other liberal churches have it right and others have it wrong:

Those churches which make Christianity into a rule book around sexuality,
Or those that question evolution.
Or those who read the Bible literally.
Or deny global warming.
Or do not ordain women.
Or categorically reject homosexuality as sinful.
Or see Christianity as the only way, and the only call of the church is to convert.

But Paul reminds me that all these churches are part of the body of Christ, because they all have something to offer. For if we look beyond the passage of today, we are reminded that every member of the body has a spiritual gift, something to offer to the Christian community and the world in which it lives.

And so, the question for today is this: What are the gifts of one church to the other?

What can we learn from them from sister denominations, and even those I disagree with in many ways? When I reflect on this question, I realize that I have learned much from my Christian colleagues who believe differently than me. I have a learned to believe more deeply in the power of prayer. When a Pentecostal colleague texted me and asked what he could pray for me for today, I was deeply moved and knew I was held in love and also marvelled, because I have never received such a text from a United Church colleague.

From some of my Roman Catholic colleagues and students, I have been called to explore more deeply the mystery of our faith, to let go of my thoughts and analysis, but to be and be held in the mystery of God.

And from some more activist Christian friends, I am challenged to really put my faith in action and speak out, act out, and seek justice, even when it is hard and even at the risk of making enemies.

And from some evangelical groups, I have been encouraged to speak out unapologetically and in spite of what our culture says, and declare that my faith brings meaning to my life and hope and joy. I have learned so much from friends and colleagues, maybe especially from people who have quite a different version of Christianity than me.

And that is what Christian unity is all about: Not to be all in agreement, or to have one single way to live out our faith, or even to find agreement on all ethical questions, but rather to be united in our quest to learn

Ever more deeply,
Ever more broadly,
Ever more richly about the love of God through Jesus Christ
And to make that love visible in the world.

And as such, unity is about relationships. and about humbleness and an earnest desire to learn from one another, as hard and as difficult as it may be. Christian unity means accepting that we are unique and different and diverse. and knowing deep down that there is room for our individualities as a church.

For we are all held in God’s love, called to share that love, encouraged by Christ and inspired by the Holy Spirit.

May it be so, Amen.

Rev. Ellie Hummel
Chaplain and Coordinator
Multi-faith Chaplaincy
Concordia University

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