Grace Presbyterian Church
June 21, 2020, Pentecost 3A (livestream)
When Unity is Unholy
I’m not thrilled with the idea of being tear-gassed while at the church.
I am of course referring to the incident a couple of weeks ago at an Episcopal church building in Washington, DC, in which the rector and others from that church found themselves unexpectedly choking on fumes as the property was cleared for some kind of presidential event, one that mostly seemed to involve the president holding a Bible. (As to that event I can only say that, as a veteran of that old event known as “Bible drill” back in my youth, I wasn’t taught to hold a Bible that way.)
What was particularly interesting about the aftermath of that incident (to me, at least) was the reaction of other religious groups or leaders. Many naturally expressed concern about the incident and support for the rector and church. There were others, though, who reacted in quite the opposite fashion. At least one such leader, a president of a seminary my wife and I attended many years ago in our past life, went so far as to imply that, because of the ways Episcopalian (and other) churches disagree with his denomination on particular bits of scripture interpretation, those folks were not really “Christian” at all.
At the very minimum, such a response goes to show that “the church” – or that body of different denominations or institutions that use such terminology to describe themselves – is not unified. Given the great theological differences between such bodies it isn’t a surprise, but perhaps what might surprise some is that one could say that Jesus predicted it. And it might even be necessary.
It’s a shocking enough passage. It starts with the expectation that if others call the teacher (Jesus) the Devil, then Jesus’s followers should expect to be called much worse. It slips into more heartwarming stuff for a bit (if you ever wondered what inspired the song “His Eye Is On the Sparrow,” your answer is in verses 29-31). It turns darker in v. 33, at the suggestion that those who deny Jesus will in turn be denied by Jesus, but the real shock blast comes in verse 34: “Do not think that I have come to bring peace to the earth; I have not come to bring peace, but a sword.”
Whew. And it doesn’t get better, as Jesus go on to suggest that his work and teaching will set family members against one another, pointing to the three family relationships considered most important in that culture – son/father, daughter/mother, daughter-in-law/mother-in-law – as points of likely division. The thoroughly-not-uplifting conclusion to this passage suggests that choosing those family relationships over Jesus – over “taking up the cross and following” – makes one unworthy, and that losing one’s life for Jesus’s sake is to be preferred to its opposite, against all human rational thought.
My goodness, where does this leave us?
About a year ago, Layton E. Williams, a PC(USA) minister in South Carolina, had published a book with the title Holy Disunity: How What Separates Us Can Save Us. (It’s a really good book and you should read it.) I have no intention of writing a book on the subject, but I’m going to flip Rev. Williams’s title around: there are times when unity, or at least the pursuit of or insistence on unity at all times and at any cost, is flat-out unholy.
Our call is nothing less than to pursue a true and faithful relationship with God, through Christ, in the power of the Holy Spirit. And that will inevitably bring us into conflict or disagreement with others, even including our own fellow “Christians.”
Indeed this very discourse from Jesus we read today is born of exactly such conflict. Jesus’s principal attackers at this point in the scripture were none other than the religious leaders of world, as can be seen as recently in Matthew’s account as twice (three times, actually) in chapter 9. Taken with this context in mind, Jesus’s words to his disciples, about to be sent out on their own witness-bearing journey, sits rather differently; if you are truly proclaiming my good news, if you are ministering as I have called you to do, you’ll get in trouble for it, and not just with outsiders.
Now this isn’t carte blanche to go be a jerk all over the place. Being a follower of Christ isn’t about causing trouble merely for trouble’s sake; it is about causing trouble when justice is denied, when the poor and oppressed continue to be poor and oppressed, when the good is suppressed and silenced and the wicked is supported and allowed to prosper. Taking up your cross and following is no cute metaphor; crosses aren’t about anything but the strong likelihood of suffering, but Jesus still says that the one who doesn’t take up that cross and follow – no matter the suffering – is not worthy of him.
This kind of following requires spiritual and moral discernment. When I was in seminary (the second time, not the one I mentioned before) I did a year’s internship at the Virginia Interfaith Center for Public Policy, an organization that works with faith groups of all types to help them learn about social issues and, within their faith tradition, to aid them in taking action on them. The Center, at least when I worked there, had a direct three-word slogan that summed up its work quite well: “Learn. Pray. Act.” It’s a good summary. Learn: do the research, listen to those affected. Pray: that’s always a part of any discernment. And then, act – do what your learning and discernment leads you to do. (In other words, follow the leading of the Spirit.)
The “suffering” involved here, let’s be clear, is not abandoned suffering; this is where that part about the sparrows comes in. Sparrows were, in effect, cheap food in this culture, in effect sold two-for-a-penny. The same God that follows and cares for even such lowly creature follows and cares for you, even in the midst of the worst the world (or even your fellow Christians) can throw at you.
But following is still required, even if it causes division. You can’t sit by and say nothing when that crude and awful racist or homophobic joke is getting laughs around the table. You can’t sit by when any kind of injustice is perpetrated, even if you’re the one who profits or benefits from that injustice. And it’s not about passive responses either; it really does require taking action to put such injustices to a dead stop.
Where does that leave us today? We current Christians are actually pretty good at responding to the effects of injustice – we provide meals for homeless folk, for example. Where are we when it comes to erasing the injustices of our society that make homelessness inevitable for some, no matter how many jobs they work?
Those of you who have been part of this church for a while know that I consider the church’s worship an indispensible thing, its most distinctive contribution to the lives of its members. But even with that being so, the church is at its most Christlike when it is not all tucked safely inside its own walls, but is out in the street, out in the halls of power, out in every space of society calling out what offends Jesus and demanding that what is unjust be made just; both responding to and ministering to those who have suffered at the cruelty of the world, and calling to account those who administer such cruelty. That is indeed the church being the church.
And to compromise on that, to forsake that call to follow Jesus for the sake of “keeping the peace” with our fellow Christians or even for the sake of “furthering the peace, unity, and purity of the church,” as the line from PC(USA) ordination vows goes? That’s not faithful, and can only lead to what can only be described as “unholy unity.”
Let us not go there.
Thanks be to God. Amen.
Hymns (from Glory to God: The Presbyterian Hymnal): #718, Take Up Your Cross, the Savior Said; #766, The Church of Christ Cannot Be Bound
I still have the t-shirt.