Tuesday, January 29, 2008

Wesleyan Unity

Imagine for a moment a congregation of folks so divided with one another that weekly services are more war than worship. What once began as a small, tight-knit community has fractured over time. Some hearken back to a golden age when everyone was exactly the same…sang the same hymns, prayed the same prayers, worshipped the same way, believed exactly the same thing. Now, many lament that difference and diversity has broken the unity and instigated bickering, fighting and division. No one can seem to agree on anything anymore!

Christian conversation has turned to bitter debate as all the many sides try to lobby for their position. Words fly back and forth. Cutting remarks whispered beneath the veneer of nicety wound and divide the Body of Christ. Without consensus on matters of faith and practice, the community continues to fall apart, members leave, coffers dwindle and the very life of the congregation is sucked dry through seemingly endless battles between members.

Sound familiar? It should because it is the lectionary reading from Corinthians this week (1 Cor. 1: 10-18). As with all of the letters written by Paul, this letter is occasioned by happenings in the community. Paul is writing to the community at Corinth in reaction to the rumors he has heard about them.

As you might surmise from Paul’s tone, all is not well in Corinth. In fact, from all reports the community at Corinth was being torn apart. There is name-calling, back-biting, gossip and rumors. Lines of division have become absolutely entrenched, separating and segregating the congregation from one another depending on their opinions on any one of a myriad of different matters.

Rival groups have begun to jockey for power and control within the congregation. “I belong to Paul,” or “I belong to Apollos,” or “I belong to Cephas.” Arguments over differences in opinion have gone well beyond mere intellectual debate. As Paul writes church members are taking each other to court, excluding one another from the Lord’s Supper and fighting amongst themselves about what people should wear, who should be allowed to speak in church and how they should speak.

Paul is concerned not just because the community is going through some tough times, not just because the members can’t get along with each other, not just because there is gossip and infighting, exclusion and marginalization. Paul is more concerned that this inappropriate behavior and division threatens the community’s ability to be the Body of Christ, the Church, the new creation formed through Christ’s covenant with humanity.

Paul rebukes the congregation for the divisions they have allowed to take root in their community:

You say, “I belong to Paul,” or “I belong to Apollos,” or “I belong to Cephas,” or “I belong to Christ.” 13Has Christ been divided? Was Paul crucified for you? Or were you baptized in the name of Paul?

By aligning themselves with particular leaders or factions, by separating themselves by opinion and practice, the congregation had in Paul’s estimation dis-membered the Body of Christ. By coming to worship with the lines of division already drawn, the people at Corinth ripped the once whole Body of Christ into separate fragments. Their behavior created a community that was no longer that cosmic creation of God, that new creation in which all were equal, but rather their behavior turned the Church from all that it could be through Christ into nothing more than a social club.

Of course the church at Corinth is not the only ecclesial community that has had to deal with these same types of problems within the Church, are they?

John Wesley, the founder of the Methodist movement, also faced the problem of division and dissension within the early movement. Part of that was endemic to the time period in which he lived. We must remember that Wesley was born into a society where religious divisions had resulted in more than congregation quarrelling. Not long before Wesley’s birth, England had been beset by war, political instability and bloodshed all over religious differences of opinion.

Although Wesley himself was an Anglican priest, a member of the Church of England, those who joined the Methodist movement were from all different parts of the social and religious strata. Some had joined the movement from Puritan, Moravian, or other communities of faith. In addition to the differences in religious traditions those who joined the Methodist movement differed in social location. Rich and poor, day laborers and aristocrats, women and men were all meeting together. As a result of this inherent diversity, arguments and quarrels naturally arose within the movement from time to time.

Sometimes the arguments were about who could lead classes or preach or even be ordained. Other times these arguments centered around the question whether or not the Church should split, that is whether or not the Methodists in the Church of England should leave and form a new denomination.

Time and again, no matter the particularities of the argument Wesley answered the same. Division and dissension over opinions harms the Body of Christ. He summarized his position in a paper he published in an attempt to quell any notion that the Methodists were a schismatic people:

If you say, "Because you hold opinions which I cannot believe are true:" I answer, Believe them true or false; I will not quarrel with you about any opinion. Only see that your heart be right toward God, that you know and love Jesus Christ; that you love your neighbour, and walk as [Christ] walked; and I desire no more. I am sick of opinions: I am weary to hear them. My soul loathes this frothy food. Give me solid and substantial religion; give me an humble, gentle lover of God and humanity; a person full of mercy and good fruits, without partiality, and without hypocrisy; a person laying themselves out in the work of faith, the patience of hope, the labour of love. Let my soul be with these Christians, wheresoever they are, and whatsoever opinion they are of. "Whosoever" thus "doeth the will of God in heaven, the same is my brother, and sister, and mother."


Wesley didn’t care about individual opinions, he cared about concrete action. To be part of the Church did not mean that everyone thought alike, but rather that everyone strove to follow the example of Christ; to love God, neighbor and self and to walk as Christ walked.

Unity for Wesley never meant uniformity of opinion or practice, rather it was unity in mission. Those who seek to follow Christ, whose lives and actions conform to the mission of God known fully through Jesus Christ, are full members of the Church no matter what their opinion be on a host of ecclesial or even theological matters.

At the end of the day Wesley sought unity in mission. “If your heart is as my heart, then give me your hand.” All one needed to join the Methodist movement was a simple willingness to follow Jesus.

This is exactly the type of unity that we see in the second lectionary text (Matthew 4: 12-23)…the calling of the first disciples. It is a scene we are all familiar with…having seen it displayed on Sunday School felt boards or sung about in rousing children’s songs complete with hand motions. What strikes me, though, about this first call narrative is its absolute simplicity.

Jesus is walking by the shore. He sees some people out fishing, calls to them and simply says, “Follow me.”

Jesus doesn’t ask them a series of questions or put them to a test about what they do or do not believe. Jesus does not ask their opinions on religious or social controversies. Or their preference in music: “Do you like contemporary or traditional music?” There is no litmus test to becoming a disciple of Christ. Jesus simply asks, “Do you want to follow me?”

You see Jesus calls all of us, no matter who we are, what we do, who we love or what we believe. Jesus calls us just as we are to join in the realization of the coming kin-dom…that vision of peace and justice proclaimed throughout scripture, given to us by God as a promise of a future where all dwell together with compassion, mercy, forgiveness, justice and hope.

While the world may judge us on who we are or what we do, what we believe or who we love, Jesus had no such preconceptions of who is in and who is out. Jesus simply says, “Follow me.”

To be part of the Jesus’ movement all one has to do is follow Jesus. The text tells us that for these first disciples this meant following Jesus throughout the land teaching in synagogues, proclaiming the good news of the kin-dom and curing every disease and every sickness among the people. It meant joining in concrete actions of liberation and hope. Anyone who wants to be part of the movement, to be part of the new creation, this newly formed Body of Christ, can be. All you have to do is follow.

Unity for Jesus was based on the willingness to live out the call of the gospel. It had nothing to do with orthodoxy or even opinions. It was simply about the willingness to follow and participate in the mission of God for the world. This type of unity in mission breaks down cultural norms of belonging and turns traditional family values on its head. Jesus’ call super-cedes ties of family and work. Our allegiance is not to any one person, idea, denomination or way of being Christian, rather our identity as one in Christ is founded on the vision of the kin-dom we know in Jesus. It is the extent to which we respond to Jesus’ call to follow that we find ourselves one body in Christ. Unity is not about uniformity of opinion, but rather about singleness of goal.

We, who seek to follow Christ, are called to participate in this new vision of the way the world could be in many, varied ways. Each of us has been gifted by God with different talents and graces for realizing God’s kin-dom on earth. So, while our goal may be the same, the ways each of us strive toward that goal may be very different…and that’s okay.

If we remember to focus ourselves toward the singleness of goal, to keep our eyes on the prize that Jesus has revealed to us, our diversity and differences in opinion can only enrich the Church.

On that day on the shore so many years ago Jesus asked a group of ordinary folks to follow. Likewise, today in this time and this space Jesus is asking us the very same question. Will we continue to be mired down in the divisions and factions within the Christian faith, within our denomination, perhaps, even, dare I say within our own congregation? Or rather, will we accept Christ’s call to follow in the ways of the kin-dom, joining hands across theological and ideological divides to further God’s mission on earth to create a world of peace with justice?

Jesus says, “Follow me.”

Will we?

1 comment:

Earl said...

Certainly to join the early Methodist movement one needed only to have a desire to "flee from the wrath to come." However in terms of faith and practice discipline within the classes and societies was such that remaining as a member in the movement was much more demanding.
This mirrors the pattern of Christ. To follow Him was not difficult. He invited anyone and everyone without reservation to follow Him. Multitudes did exactly that, they followed him. But He also clearly taught and practiced a demanding discipline of those who followed him.
For Jesus unity was not centered upon mission. Unity was centered in a personal commitment to Him. Full membership in any church must take this personal commitment to Christ as central and indispensable. It is not simply a matter of theological discussion. It is fundamental to the very nature of what it means to be a Christian. Unity in mission is no substitute for this personal commitment to Christ. And as demonstrated by Jesus practice of discipline (Cp. Jn. 6), this commitment to Him is far more than a mere opinion. It is the very basis of everything that it means to be His disciple.