This sermon was delivered on June 15, 2014 at St. Paul United Church of Christ, Old Blue Rock Road, Cincinnati, Ohio.
Has there ever been a unified Christianity? This was one of the questions I was to answer on my Church History midterm in seminary. From the surface view it looks as if there is and always has been one unified Christian thought.
But then we see the workings of the early church as seen in Acts (which I will discuss more in a minute). We see the way people were tossed aside as heretics throughout the centuries – like Arius and his followers at the council of Nicea. Or how about Augustine and Pelagius or Augustine and the Manichaeans. Or Luther and the Catholic church.
Even in the early days of this country, people were not unified in their Christian thinking. Those who came to the Massachusetts area did so to escape religion persecution in their homeland, but then imposed their belief on others – leading to some ugly moments like the Salem Witch Trials. When people didn’t follow their religious formula, they were banished to states like Rhode Island – like Anne Hutchinson or Roger Williams. By the way, those back in Massachusetts who disagreed with Anne Hutchinson said some pretty mean things about her and gloated when she later miscarried and then was slaughtered.
It often feels like someone has to be right and someone wrong. So, my question is this: whose version of Christianity is right and whose is wrong? Could it be that, as long as we could love one another and treat one another with respect, that we could ALL be right and and ALL be wrong?
Sitting in adult Sunday school and other Christian education classes, two confirmation classes and various informal conversations with congregants of this church, I have seen the great span of your convictions and beliefs. And it is truly refreshing to see how each of you are serious of your faith journeys even though they each seem so different.
God, the Christ and the Holy Spirit are in one way or form parts of your faiths. You hold your beliefs with such sacredness, and yet, you see it from your own angles. The church means different things to you. Salvation takes different approaches. All of these beliefs spread into other parts of your life and lead to different beliefs on politics, parenting, family structures and more.
And that’s how I see the early church, the Jesus Movement, in the book of Acts.
Lately I feel like I’ve been drawn to reading the book of Acts. Acts was written by the writers of Luke, so it’s basically Luke volume two as the two books together are known in the theological community as Luke-Acts. It reflected a time when the disciples were trying to figure it all out after the earthly ministry of Jesus. The Holy Spirit helped to give them the strength and courage they needed to be the leaders they needed to be in the early church. But there were differences in the early believers. There were the Jewish believers who thought that their traditions and law were necessary in this new figuration of faith – and this included dietary laws and necessary circumcision on the males. But then the Gentiles came in – and the Gentiles did not have this same faith background or the same traditions. So dietary laws and circumcision were not on their radars as they embraced this new faith. There were challenges in reconciling these major differences.
And yet, even in their difficulties to reconcile the differences, they journeyed together in this Jesus Movement.
The New Interpreter’s Bible Commentary on the book of Acts states:
“Acts was written to consolidate disparate (or dissimilar) faith communions. Luke’s irenic spirit (a spirit that reconciles different beliefs in peace) is no doubt an idealized feature of his theological vision. At the same time, his ecumenicity (or yearning for unity) is never divorced from the hard pragmatics of the first church’s mission of the world. A religious movement that lacks solidarity within its diverse membership will be ineffective in advancing its claim.”
Languages and traditions are the differences in Acts 2. Remember the story of the Tower of Babel (Genesis 11)? As they tried to build a tower as high as heaven, God scattered them with a variety of languages. Acts 2 is what I believe is the other bookend of that story. They have different languages, different experiences and different ways of acting out their faith, and here the Holy Spirit comes along and helps them understand one another even with their differing words and traditions. The Holy Spirit opens them up to comprehend what others are saying and how they express themselves.
And that’s what we need for the Holy Spirit to do with us and with our society today.
Is it bad that we think or believe differently than one another? Our society makes us feel like we should live in an “us versus them” world. There are two primary political parties – both who rarely want to talk with one another, a situation that is becoming toxic for our country. It’s becoming dangerous because people see that sentiment of leadership not working together, and those in our country on every level feel like they don’t need to as well. People of various Christian traditions won’t often dialogue with people who profess a different set of beliefs because they feel they hold the only “truth.” We feel that there needs to be a winner and a loser in each situation. But what if we don’t need a winner and loser? What if God is so much bigger than this – that God can hold paradoxes? What if both sides could be right – as long as both sides are loving to God, neighbor and self? Could we live in that wilderness space of grayness and uncertainty? Might we ask how God is working with us in that space of ambiguity?
Here’s the one thing we rarely speak of in our churches or from our pulpits: no two people think or believe alike. We go about our days believing every Christian has or should have a clone belief structure. We don’t validate is that there is a diversity of Christian beliefs. Each person is influenced by life experience in such unique ways that they experience the Divine – the Creator, Christ and Holy Spirit in their own context.
Chances are, the person sitting next to you will have a belief or two different than you. Frankly, I don’t think Christianity and the Church acknowledges or encourages this enough. Maybe people don’t think anyone will accept them for naming an unconventional belief. So we keep quiet about this instead of being our authentic selves.
It’s what I like to call the Stained-Glass Elephant in the Sanctuary. I’ll explain that a little further. It’s an elephant in the room – something we don’t talk about. And congregations are like a stained glass window. Each person within the congregation is a different sliver of tinted glass. When the light of Christ shines through the multi-color window, a beautiful array of color falls upon the carpet and pews of the sanctuary… and in our communities.
If all the colors in the window were alike, the beauty would not be so great.
So let’s embrace the idea of an Acts church, a stained glass church – a church filled with a variety of beliefs and traditions, a church that has members who speak a variety of unique perspectives, a church that pulls the Holy Spirit into its life process so that we can understand one another for where we are at. In being this Acts church, we will embrace the differences between us and come together in sharing the good news of God’s love and grace with everyone around us. Amen.