Third Sunday after Epiphany
Isaiah 9:1-4; Ps 27:1, 5-13; I Cor 1:10-18; Matt 4:12-33
As you may have seen in the news, the Church of England finally decided to be more supportive of gay and lesbian Christians this week. Inching forward into a new reality, they stopped short of blessing marriages, but they did agree to bless unions for people of the same gender who are called to live in lifelong, loving, monogamous, and supportive relationships. Modeling unity in diversity, the two senior clerics adopted different stances, with the Archbishop of Canterbury saying that, while he was deeply glad of this decision, he would not personally bless unions so that he could remain a pastor for “all,” while the Archbishop of York said that he greatly looked forward to blessing unions. 1
I was serving a church in Birmingham, Alabama in 2003, when the Episcopal Diocese of New Hampshire elected V. Gene Robinson as their new bishop. As you can imagine, the news that our church was going to have a bishop who was openly gay was not well received in a town that was proud to call itself “the buckle of the Bible Belt.” The following years were characterized by a spirit of acrimony and division which permeated our parishes and wider church assemblies, and even split apart families whose members held different views on the subject. Some months into this, we were gathered for a diocesan celebration, when out of nowhere someone in the crowd called upon our retired bishop to express his views. Bishop Stough was a legendary figure, a man who had played a key and complex role in the struggle for African-American civil rights and who had led our diocese through the Vietnam War and the decision to ordain women. He was firmly on the side of full inclusion, and so, as he stood up speak, I hoped for a rousing word. Instead, after a time of silence, he spoke two sentences: “When Christ calls a man, he calls him to die. It seems to me that some people are refusing to die.” At first, I was elated: he had shown them! A minute later, I was thrust back into an uncomfortable question: In what ways was I refusing to die? That question, “how am I being called to die, and to what?” lies at the heart of St. Paul’s letter to the Corinthians, and of our own discipleship.
In the passage we heard today, Paul calls upon his readers to live into a deep spiritual unity, eschewing all division and being of one mind in all things. It’s an apt passage for today, which is the Sunday of the Week of Christian Unity, but not an unproblematic vision. Unity is one thing; uniformity is another.
The ideal of Christian unity, understood as the full reunification of the denominations, falls afoul of the complex realities of life in flesh and blood. For example, the primary obstacles to full unity between Roman Catholics and Anglicans are probably the ordination of women and the ordination and marriage of gay and lesbian people; in other words, myself and Bertrand. Jettison us and those who are like us, and we could heal a major schism in the Church. But, I would ask, at what cost? At the cost of a fundamental truth: that God has made all people, has endowed us with inherent dignity, has called us into relationship with him through Jesus Christ, and that that relationship involves calling some of us into the vocations of marriage and ordination. Unity, then, could be achieved at the expense of truth and of large numbers of people who were being denied the right to live as Christ called them to live. Is this the cross to which Christ calls us?
I would say, no. Unity is one thing; uniformity is another. Confusing them damages not only our churches and our faith, but our relationships, our politics and our lives.
For too long, the church has hung crosses above our altars, mounted them on our spires, worn them around our necks, and praised them in our sermons without engaging in a serious examination of what, exactly, is to be crucified. Specifically, we have lost sight of the distinction between carrying our own cross and imposing crosses on one another.
Let me give you an example. In the story of Christ’s Passion, we come across a man named Simon of Cyrene, who was coming in from the country while Jesus and the two thieves were being led away to be crucified. St. Luke writes, [the soldiers] “seized [him] and laid the cross on him, and made him carry it behind Jesus.” (Luke 23:26) How do you see that man, Simon? [pause] Christian tradition has held him up as a model disciple: one who literally took up the cross and followed Jesus. He has been honored as the cross-bearer of Christ, as Jesus’ last helper. In certain traditions, he is honored as a saint. And yet, the story makes clear that Simon did not take up that cross willingly. Rather, he was a colonial subject (a Jew living in Roman Palestine) who was pressed into service by the forces of imperialism and made to participate in the destruction of members of his own community. Friends, Christ does not call anyone into that role. It is the forces of coercion who expect passive acquiescence. It is not a Christian virtue.
Too often, the powers of the church have sought “unity” at the cost of creating people like Simon, that is to say, at the cost of imposing the cross of suffering onto people within and beyond our community. Those who have pressed for change of various sorts, particularly for the recognition of the full human dignity of categories of people who had been excluded from power, are often called “troublemakers,” slandered as people who are willing to undermine our “peace.” But peace which is secured at the cost of oppression is not the peace of Christ. God speaks through the prophet Jeremiah, saying of the leaders of Israel, “They have treated the wound of my people carelessly, saying, ‘Peace, peace,’ where there is no peace.” (Jer 6:14, 8:11) When we speak of unity, when we speak of erasing division, we must always ask, “What is the cross imposed by this vision, and on whom is it imposed?” Or, in Bishop Stough’s words, who is being called to die, and to what?
This is a very different question from the one which should center our life in Christ: “What is the cross we are called to take up, and for what?” The false cross, the cross of earthly domination, involves imposing burdens on others, but the true cross, the cross of Christ, asks us to take burdens willingly upon ourselves. Our cross, our virtue, is to bear one another in love in order to help one another become whole. The Romans can take away the burden of the cross from Simon, but Christ will not relinquish his love for us. It was that love which pinned him to the cross— not nails, not iron, not earthly power, but his own love for us: he willingly paid the price of setting us free. This is the true cross, the one of which St. Paul writes, “the word of the Cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God.” (I Cor 1:18)
When Jesus called his disciples, he called them each into relationship with him. Each became holy, but they did not become the same. The stories in the Gospel make that quite clear: there is hot-headed Peter, gentle John, Thomas in all his blunt honesty and courage. They fought with one another, jockeyed for position, even disagreed sharply with one another — but they were united in, by, and through Christ.
Perhaps that is the image of true Christian unity, not uniformity of opinion with no division, but a unity given by Christ which transcends our apparent markers of difference. When we were baptized into Christ, we were adopted into the household of God. In Roman law, the law which was in effect during the life of Jesus, there was one key difference between biological and adopted children: a paterfamilias could disown a biological child, but adoption was forever. That means that our unity in Christ is a given: it is a mystical reality which cannot be undone. In Christ, “there is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer [Armenian Orthodox or Anglican]; for all of [us] are one in Christ Jesus.” (Gal 3:28)
But that very unity is what gives space for our human differences, just as a single human family can include a banker, a poet, a scientist, and an Egyptologist. Indeed, perhaps the denominations themselves, whose existence has often been perceived as a scandal, are really just different types of fishing nets, a way that Christ lets the church be all things for all people, so that he may by all means save some.
Rather than seeking what is called “the full visible unity of the church,” ie, the reunification of the various Christian traditions, perhaps what we are called to is acknowledgment of our unity beyond and in spite of our differences. That would be a Pentecost vision for the church: people from all nations and tribes and languages, each proclaiming the mighty deeds of God in their own tongues. And it would be a significant step forward for humankind: a way to model respect for those with whom we disagree; care for the wellbeing of those who differ from ourselves; a way of being which gave up the power of oppression in the service of true human freedom.
Can you imagine what our families would be like, if what we heard from our pulpits was “Stop trying to control one another; Give each what he, she, or they needs to thrive.”? Can you imagine how things might change — in our homes, in our societies, in our world — if we were no longer willing to make other people pay the price of our own comfort and peace?
St. Paul writes that the Gospel is not to be preached with eloquent wisdom, but with our lives, “lest the cross be emptied of its power.” I do not know what he means by that phrase, but I think he is calling us to the living witness of a crucified life, a life in which we willingly restrain our own freedom so that others may be freed and healed and whole. When Christ calls a person, he calls that person to die, and also to live. What would accepting our unity in Christ invite you to do today? And how can you respond?
1 “All,” in this context, seems to be defined as “those who prefer that unions not be blessed,” as opposed to LGBTQIA people and their allies.