Wednesday, 8 April 2015

How good it is to live in unity

“How very good and pleasant it is when kindred live together in unity!”

In the words of the Psalmist we are reminded of the joy of living lives which are found to be at peace with one another: the joy of sharing generously one another’s existence as we were created to do.  It is the joy and peace which God longs for us in our relationships with one another; it is why Jesus came and lived and died and rose again that we might have peace with one another and with God.  Life in all its fullness is life with each other and God.  Is this not a great vision of whom we are mean to be as a human race – people who live together in unity: in joy and peace with one another

But let us not deceive ourselves as God’s people – this is not how we have lived and it is not who we have been.  1 John 1 verse 8 confronts us with being people who have honesty and integrity: “If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us.” 

Those men and women who struggled with the idea of bringing the Uniting Church into being recognised that the Church was falling short of God’s gift and will for the church which was its unity.  Jesus had prayed “that they may be one so that the world might believe” but the church has not been one and our behaviours have not been those of people who live together in unity governed by peace.

On a personal level my own experience of being a member of the people of God is a story which involves a continual confrontation with disputes and complaints and hurtful behaviours which have destroyed that peace and unity given to us as a gift.  It has been a journey of trying to understand why the church has fragmented and has been beset by schisms through the centuries. 

On both a grand scale and in the smallest of congregations division and dissension undermines the unity.  And where often we as the people involved don’t see it and we think of ourselves as good people and welcoming congregations often outsiders that we come into contact with tell a different story.

“How very good and pleasant it is when kindred live together in unity!”

But how very, very bad and unpleasant it is when kindred live in tension with one another and despite this tension and disunity try to pretend we are something that we are not.  This self deception is what has left people labelling Christians as hypocrites and I believe our disunity and disputes have caused many to turn away from coming to church or wanting to have anything to do with the church.

In the first letter of John we read, “If say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us.”

You know recently a person told me that they thought they did not like my preaching – they said I was too negative and too challenging.  I actually took the challenging bit as a complement and as for being too negative I believe to understand grace all of us need to be more honest with ourselves about who we are as God sees us.

We do not live in the kind of unity that God has made for us in and through Jesus and in this we sin.  We fail to love each other as we ought as communities of faith and as individuals within those communities.   

The existence of different denominations attests to our brokenness.  The vehement attack of evangelicals against progressives and vice versa does little for the church and its unity as we champion our particular doctrines.  We are a shattered community.

Yes, it is true to say that often within congregations there are deep and abiding and supportive relationships – friendships that have lasted years and in which real care and concern is exhibited.  But just as this occurs in every congregation there are always people who feel marginalised and excluded and more often than not there are disputes that exist between the differing groups of friends.

We are broken people and as much as we might want to love one another more often than not we fail.  Often instead of loving each other we talk about tolerating one another and putting up with one another.  But we need to be honest in this: the gospel of Jesus Christ does not ask us to tolerate one another it asks us to love one another as Jesus loved us, and this means everyone in the congregation not just our friends.

You see whilst we should see each other as friends in the congregation we should also remember that every one of us is to be the friend of all those who are baptised.  The difference of Christian friendship is we do not get to choose who our friends are – we have all been made one with each other.

Now I am not so naïve as to suggest that we are going to ever do this perfectly and given all of the problems of the church it would be very easy to walk away from the church: to walk away from its disputes and complaints and disunity and abuses and congregational bickering.  Goodness knows many have already! But does walking away mean we have given up on the good news or that we expect that the world beyond the church is any less divisive?

The counterpoint to the negative assessment of our human condition is this: the risen Jesus came and stood among his disciples and said peace be with you.  Jesus resurrection speaks to us of a new beginning for the whole creation and all people, a beginning grounded in God’s peace – or shalom as it was in the Hebrew.

The ‘shalom’ of God is more than a sense of serenity, God’s peace is about the mercy shown to us in Jesus Christ and the reconciliation that has been won.  When Jesus declares “peace be with you” to his disciples he is really saying you are forgiven and set free and even the face of death you can find hope.

It is why sharing the peace as a congregation is such a meaningful act.  We admit we need God’s peace and also acknowledges that far too often we lack that peace!

The centring in on Jesus wounds in John’s gospel emphasise two things.  First, that Jesus resurrection was exactly this: a bodily resurrection.  Second, that in his resurrection whilst a transformation has been wrought in Jesus he stills bears the scars as reminders of what has been.

The idea of Jesus resurrection inspired the early Christian communities.  It was a radically new way of viewing life and death and gave hope a new direction.  Jesus’ resurrection was an anomaly for the prevailing Hebrew thought and Greek philosophy.  God was doing something new and different and this gave people hope.

It was these things that kept people in that early church and inspired them to share the good news – God’s peace had been declared and a new hope, a new future was promised in Jesus Christ. 

The witness of those early Christians described in Acts captures something of how that witness occurred: “Now the whole group of those who believed were of one heart and one soul, and no one claimed private ownership of any possessions, but everything they owned was held in common.”

So it was, that from that small band of followers, great proclamation and deeds flowed generously and graciously into the world; the church blossomed and grew from a handful of followers to be the dominant faith in the world.  Here is the echo of Psalm 133 coming to life: oil lavishly running down onto the beard of Aaron or the dew from Mount Hermon filling the streams with life giving water which flowed on to the surrounding plains.

Maybe we need to reconsider how we do things in our day and age.  Years ago I read a great book about the idea of ‘Collaborative Consumption’.  It encourage shared ownership of items in neighbourhoods – lawn mowers, tools, even cars!  It made me think of the early Christian communities but it was not coming from within the church but from people looking to live more sustainably.

We are being given the opportunity to begin again to rediscover together Christ’s call upon us, to be honest about our shortfalls but to find hope in the resurrection and so share the good news in word and deeds.  Sometimes even I worry about what we do not have – there are too few people, and many of those we have are not committed enough, and we need to be more contemporary in our transmission of the gospel and… and… and…

As you hear again the word of hope that our future is not our own, that we belong to the Lord, that his grace is more than sufficient how does that change how you and I live.  We believe in a risen Lord who declares peace – as his people let us again discover that peace and share it with one another. 

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