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Sunday, August 19, 2018 | 8:00, 9:30, and 11:00 a.m.

Bound Together

“A Spirit Revolution”: A Sermon Series on the Acts of the Apostles

Victoria G. Curtiss
Associate Pastor, Fourth Presbyterian Church

Psalm 111
Acts 18:1–4
1 Corinthians 1:10–18

Too often, we retreat to our factions and voice our opinions in the self-confirming echo chambers of those with whom we agree . . . we are called not to retreat to the factions where we are most comfortable, but to courageously engage one another with truth and love.  

Doug Hume

Recently I watched a movie called Paterson. It features a young bus driver who wrote poetry, his creative wife, and interactions among a variety of people in urban neighborhoods. The film moves rather slowly, like the unfolding of a poem. I kept waiting for some tension to erupt—either in their marriage or among passengers on the bus or in the city. But that didn’t really happen. Pretty much everyone was very nice and looked out for each other, like in Mr. Rogers’ neighborhood.

My expectation that at any minute some interaction would go sour shows just how much I have grown accustomed to relationships in our world, and even in churches, being marked more by competition than cooperation, more by quarreling than caring, more by seeking majority victory than by seeking common ground. It doesn’t surprise me that members of the early Christian community in Corinth were quarreling. Sometimes it seems that instead of Jesus’ teaching being “Wherever two or three are gathered in my name, there I am also,” it should be “Wherever two or three are gathered in my name, it’s messy.”

The Apostle Paul was clearly disappointed and very concerned that there were divisions in the congregation in Corinth. He urged those early Christians to remember who they were and to stop fighting. Their divisiveness showed that they didn’t understand their new identity in Christ. They had one Lord, one faith, one baptism. Jesus had been crucified for all of them. They were all part of the body of Christ. They could all drink from the same Spirit. They all belonged to God, and thus all belonged to one another. They were one and were to live in unity. Paul taught that in Jesus 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 Jesus” (Galatians 3:28). To be divided against one another betrayed their new identity as Christ’s church and desecrated their witness in the world.

We don’t know exactly what the Corinthian Christians were fighting about. The congregation no doubt reflected the diversity of their city, which itself was full of a wide array of people. The people of that early church were folks who wouldn’t necessarily associate with one another otherwise. They came from different cultural backgrounds, different social classes, different educational levels. They had different abilities and different life experiences. There was variation in how they were treated by society and in their worldviews. Different leaders baptized them and taught them about Christian faith. Such a community lacked the normal bonds of ethnicity and family that typically hold a community together. Paul was attempting to do what scarcely anyone had tried before, which was to bring a wide variety of people together who all belonged in one community.

Paul was not hoping their differences would go away. Unity is not the same as uniformity. Oneness should not be equated with sameness. In fact, later in 1 Corinthians, Paul points out the need for differences. Using a metaphor for the church as a body with many parts, he wrote, “If the whole body were an eye, where would the hearing be? If the whole body were hearing, where would the sense of smell be? . . . If all were a single member, where would the body be? . . . The eye cannot say to the hand, ‘I have no need of you,’ nor again the head to the feet, ‘I have no need of you.’” God has so arranged the body “that there may be no dissension within the body, but the members may have the same care for one another. If one member suffers, all suffer together with it; if one member is honored, all rejoice together with it” (1 Corinthians 12:14–26).

What concerns Paul is not that there were differences within the congregation but that they had turned their differences into divisions. He urged them to “so speak and act that no one will doubt that you are brothers and sisters in Christ.”

What does all this say to us here at Fourth Church? We don’t quarrel much with one another. I think we’re all glad for that. On the other hand, we may not be engaging with one another as deeply as God calls us to do to be faithful. We shy away from addressing a matter if there’s any chance that tension may result. Some of us equate simply offering a different perspective with being divisive. We don’t have a lot of practice discussing and discerning direction for new ideas. We avoid change and conflict. Many of us would rather withdraw than confront others. We don’t want to make waves or be seen as troublemakers. We may dodge addressing social justice issues because we’re afraid we’ll be seen as partisan. But all this evades our growth and calling to be a strong, prophetic, welcoming church. Just as unity doesn’t equate with sameness, avoidance doesn’t equate with oneness. The real challenge is how do we love one another in the midst of our differences?

We can glean some wisdom from the Rule of St. Benedict. The Rule was written in the sixth century, probably by the abbot Benedict, to guide the lives of monastic communities so they could live in harmony with one another and devote their lives to God. Its wisdom has guided thousands of monasteries throughout the world and many religious orders today. Even we who don’t live in monasteries can benefit from its wisdom.

Part of the Rule of St. Benedict is for members of a community to take the vow of stability. Stability doesn’t mean to remain in a particular place but to remain with the same community of people (or any committed relationship of love). Here is the rationale behind this vow: In most relationships there eventually arises an issue or tension that needs to be worked out. One must work out one’s problems with this person, because, if one doesn’t, one will have to work it out with that person. Stability, or faithfulness to one another, is a limit that forces us to stop running and encounter God, self, and one another right now, right here. Moreover, people probably won’t risk confronting or challenging one another if we are afraid such a confrontation will lead to our rejection or the other person abandoning us. Change and growth in relationship are not likely to happen if the relationship lives under the threat of abandonment. Without change, no true reconciliation and harmony can blossom. Without challenge, we won’t be as welcoming and inclusive in our loving as God calls us to be.

Stability is also valued by church consultant Thomas Bandy. Bandy says stability for a church comes when it has named the perimeters of its basic vision, essential values, and shared beliefs. It also comes from leadership teams who maintain the energy field within those perimeters. Leadership does not prescribe what can be done but simply names what cannot be done. On rare occasions when the perimeters may be tested by an unusual idea, the leadership team determines whether the idea is beyond consideration. With this stability, the church can thrive with decentralized power and the multiplication of many, diverse ministries based on people’s different gifts and callings.

Thomas Bandy spells this out. Imagine for a moment that a small group in New-Hope-in-the-Heart Church comes to the leadership team and says, “We believe Jesus Christ has called us to start a ‘white supremacy’ political organization within our church.” It will not take long for the leadership to respond, “We’re sorry, but the idea of a ‘white supremacy’ group within our church contradicts our basic value of racial equity. It can’t be done.” Then those within the leadership team would cross-examine themselves, asking if they need to communicate more clearly the church’s core values, teach more about the Christian faith, or provide additional spiritual training for their small group leaders.

Once there is clarity on vision, values, and essential beliefs, some people may choose to leave New-Hope-in-the-Heart Church. But Bandy says the most common reason people leave or reject this way of being church is that it refuses to control people. It insists on being incredibly diverse. It doesn’t censor anyone’s thoughts or limit anyone’s exploration of God or deride anyone’s behavior or instruct people how to vote in elections.

Thomas Bandy continues: A small group in New-Hope-in-the-Heart Church wonders if their calling may test the perimeters of the church’s vision, values, and beliefs, so they go to the leadership team and say, “We believe Jesus Christ is calling us to ministries that criticize ‘abortion-on-demand.’ We want to do outreach that counsels women to find creative ways to maintain even unwanted pregnancies and that advocates for the right of life for the unborn.” The leadership considers it. “Does it contradict, or move beyond, the perimeters of church life? No. Then how can we help you do it?” Simultaneously, another group approaches the leadership team and says, “We believe Jesus Christ is calling us to ministries that advocate freedom of choice for women with unwanted pregnancies, which counsel women to make wise choices for their own health and future quality of life.” Some on the leadership team were sympathetic to the first group that came to them. Others were sympathetic with the second group. But again, the leadership team asked themselves, “Does this contradict, or move beyond, the perimeters of church life? No. Then how can we help you do it?” In the end, two gifted, called, and equipped groups work within the church with equal recognition. More often than not, they disagree with each other. That does not matter. Agreement is not what binds the church together (Thomas G. Bandy, Kicking Habits: Welcome Relief for Addicted Churches, pp. 136–138). It is God’s Spirit that binds us together and guides us to remember our shared central values and beliefs.

Here in Chicago two rival gang factions in the Pullman neighborhood recently came together. Thirty-two-year-old gang member Sherman Scullark, was tired of the senseless, ongoing violence between the two gangs. It had not only “claimed scores of victims [but] forced children to stay inside their homes or backyards.” Scullark rang the doorbell of police detective Vivian Williams and asked for her help in “brokering peace. But [he] managed to make the deal himself before she could get the police involved.” He walked up to his foes unarmed and “got straight to the point: [he] was tired of the violence. It turned out his former enemies were, too. They talked out their differences right on the spot. Less than twenty-four hours later, peace emerged in the Pullman neighborhood.” “Williams connected Scullark with Chicago CRED, whose president is former Secretary of Education, Arne Duncan. Gang members and CRED representatives began meeting in a local church, and Scullark told Duncan he wanted ‘a park for our kids to play in.’” Eight months later the area had a new playground, built in part by the former gang rivals. “Hands that had once aimed guns at other people grasped the handles of wheelbarrows. Some carried mulch or poured concrete, while others painted sidewalks and playground equipment.” Scullark said that now Pullman children “really could play—they don’t need to worry about anything” (“Two gangs fought over a Chicago neighborhood for years. Then rival gang members helped build a playground together,”, 17 August 2018).

I think it’s significant that rival gang members and community leaders met together in a church. Church doesn’t belong to one gang, or kind of people, against another. In the church we are bound together as one body of Christ, because we all belong to God. We are called to show the world how to love one another, with all our varied callings, gifts, and differences. As our own mission statement says, “We are a light in the city reflecting the inclusive love of God. Comforted and challenged by the gospel of Christ, we strive to be a welcoming, serving community.

My prayer is that we will be such a shining witness to God’s all-embracing love that others will know we are Christians by our love. Yes, they’ll know we are Christians by our love. Amen.