+In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
Today we find ourselves right in the middle of the Octave of Prayer for Christian Unity, an ecumenical observance held in one form or another for over a hundred years between the feasts of the Confession of St. Peter and the Conversion of Saint Paul. It’s a time when we are called to pray for that state of affairs which was our Lord’s last desire before his crucifixion, “that they all may be one”, and that God may, as one of our prayers puts it, “give us grace seriously to lay to heart the great dangers we are in by our unhappy divisions.”
I’m often reminded, looking around not only at divisions within the church but the stark divisions within our society, of both the church’s unique potential (indeed, our unique responsibility) to bring about unity in the face of such profound division as well as our historic inability to do so, at least considering just how many varieties of Christians and churches there are. I suppose one could say that’s a good thing (let a thousand flowers bloom, and all that), but I remain convinced that unity should always be the goal for Christian bodies. It’s because keeping the people of God apart from each other is the most powerful tool of the enemy. Thus, creating and encouraging division is quite literally diabolical.
Consider our current reality in light of the situation we see outlined in today’s epistle reading. The Apostle Paul writes to the Christians in Corinth, whose congregation is fraught with controversy and division. The Corinthians were choosing up sides, demanding that their preferred spiritual leader and his ethos be made the norm. “I belong to Paul!” “I belong to Apollos!” “I belong to Cephas!” Why all of this division? If God speaks to us, as we are promised, in a clear, distinct, discernible voice shouldn’t we be able to avoid such divisions in the Church? Should not the same Lord who spoke so clearly to those first disciples beside the Syrian sea, call to us, too, and bring us together. Were these early Christians in Corinth deaf to the voice of God by their own volition? Are we still?
Well, let’s take a step back, and remember how we got here; first let’s recognize the difference between disagreement and division. It is perfectly normal and acceptable that once I have devoted a great deal of careful thought and sincere prayer in the working out of some belief, I have every right to claim that I believe my opinion to be correct. Yet, perhaps, this belief of mine which I now go round purporting as truth may be diametrically opposed to your belief. You have spent just as much time analyzing the ins and outs of the matter, you have spent just as much time in prayer, and you believe your opinion to be more correct than mine (indeed, you, too, believe that your opinion is quite properly “true”). So far none of this is very controversial.
Sometimes these differences, however, lead to fractures in the church like what we read about in the epistle. For us, though, these fractures are often more insidious. There are certainly arguments that have taken place in the church throughout its history which posed the threat of literal schism (and, indeed, sometimes did result in that), but what I mean to discuss is more the growth of a particular mindset.
There is sometimes a tendency, and this is a tendency to which I am personally disposed, to define our position in the church, first along sectarian and ideological lines, and secondly, and sometimes then only with a great deal of prodding, in terms of our baptism and our shared life with all people through Christ. In other words, we get how we prioritize our connection to Christ’s Church backwards.
That is, we are often quite ready to proclaim that we are active members of Trinity Parish in the Diocese of Ohio, in the Episcopal Church, USA (or that we are progressive Christians or traditional Christians or high-church or low-church or whatever). That’s how we define our Christianity, but we fail to first and foremost allow our Christianity to define everything else because we’re uncomfortable with whose company it puts us into. Don’t get me wrong- it is good and proper for one to strongly identify with his or her (lower case ‘c’) church or party within the church; the trick is to do so without falling victim to an ugly form of sectarianism which would claim that a part is greater than the whole (that is, the capital ‘C’ Church).
All of this is to say that our situation is much more like that of the Corinthians than we might like. We cannot, in fact, always expect God to speak to us in easily discernible ways, and this will necessarily lead to some difference among us Christians. We must, nonetheless, struggle to hear the still, small voice of God in our hearts, realizing that others will hear or interpret or act on the same voice in very different ways. Once we think we’ve heard this voice, that is once we believe we have discerned the will of God in our lives, we must also be very careful not to speak as though we know for absolute certain that we have the authority of Almighty God on our side unless we’re willing to stake our lives on it, remembering that these differences exist.
That, my friends, is a sin each of us can fall into and which I sometimes fall into myself. The need to be right or the need to sound smart, which is to say, the sin of pride, can very quickly lead us to deny the Christianity (even the humanity) of the one with whom we disagree. But this is the power of the evil one saying, “you don’t need that member, tear it off.” He was baptized by Apollos while I belong to Cephas. And the worst thing about it, is that even when I start to pray about it, even when I set out to make the most self-abnegating sorts of prayers about it, I keep coming back to what I want out of it. Lord change his heart. No, Lord, change my heart, so I can put up with such foolishness. Is that second one any better?
It seems to me that the best thing we can do when we see the seeds of division have been sewn between ourselves and a brother or sister – whether it’s because of a different view of some religious claim or politics or just conflicting personalities – is to maintain a holy silence, to listen for what God might be saying to us in the quietness of our hearts. This is important, because it has nothing to do with me trying to change God’s mind or make somebody else more like me or even my trying to understand somebody else (which itself has just a twinge of selfishness, because it assumes that I need to be able to understand them). Maybe whatever needs to happen in that relationship is better known to God than it is to me, and I just need to be quiet.
There’s a story I like from the lives of the Desert Fathers about a Fourth Century church leader named Theophilus. Theophilus was Archbishop of Alexandria when he had a dispute in his diocese and traveled to the desert to seek the sage advice of the hermit Abba Pambo. Upon reaching Abba Pambo’s hermitage, the Archbishop was greeted warmly by the brethren, yet Abba Pambo said nothing. The other monks left, leaving Theophilus and Pambo alone, and still Abba Pambo said nothing. After a long while, the Archbishop broke the silence: “Father, say something to me that I might be edified.” Abba Pambo replied “If you are not edified by my silence, you will not be edified by my speech.” Theophilus needed more than sage advice. He needed to quiet down and open himself up to what God was trying to tell him.
And, if we glean nothing else from such prayer, even if we are not yet ready or able to hear the still, small voice of God, we can at least find a greater comfort. We can take comfort that despite our inability to comprehend the mind of God, God still knows us completely. And then, even when we cannot understand why our divisions remain unhealed, we can rest in the heart of the one who knows no division and find in that place the perfect Communion which for all our pettiness and petulance and peevishness cannot permit the dividing walls we’ve constructed to stand. May that spiritual communion then become manifest in our words, in our actions, in our relationships, that all our divisions may cease and that Christ may be all in all.
+In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.