Unity?, Ephesians 4:1-7, 11-16
First United Methodist Church, August 5, 2018
Pastor Toni Carmer
I look forward each month to meeting with the members of the Marshall County Ministerial Association. I've enjoyed coming to know the pastors who serve in these different churches, and it's always interesting to learn how our various denominations "do" things. We most definitely have our share of differences and similarities.
When I served in Warsaw, I developed a friendship with the Rector of Saint Anne's Episcopal Church. She moved to Arizona soon after I moved to Plymouth, and so we have unfortunately lost track of one another. But we enjoyed sharing stories about our lives and our churches and we laughed a lot. It was always good, and interesting how we did things so differently. Her church had a wine cellar in the basement, which is so not-Methodist. I couldn't wrap my head around that one. When she'd go on vacation, she had an approved list of people she could call on to fill the pulpit, some of whom didn't live all that close, none of whom had any particular knowledge or relationship with her church, which made a Sunday morning away kind of challenging. In the summer time, Corrine would loosen her collar and I'd wear capris. The expectations of our churches were different.
Even our language was different. Episcopalians and United Methodists use different words. She was a Rector or an Episcopal Priest, which I always thought sounded pretty cool. I'm a pastor or a minister. But I decided that Episcopalians make words up. Okay, maybe we do, too. Where else but in the United Methodist Church is the word "quadrilateral" used? She'd tell me something and I'd have to ask—do you mean parsonage? Or, Is that the same thing as our Annual Conference? Explain that to me.
"One Lord, one faith, one baptism," and yet, we're all so different! Episcopalians, United Methodists, Presbyterians, Church of the Brethrens, Evangelical Covenants, Baptists…we look at scripture differently, we practice our faith in different ways. Even within the same denomination, we believe and do things differently. You will smile to learn how much time our General Conference spent a few years ago trying to decide whether or not to retain the phrase, "Faithful people disagree" in our Book of Discipline. I'm sure everyone could see the irony in that, and yet the debate went on and on…
The heading in my Bible to this particular text in Ephesians is entitled, "Unity in the Body of Christ." That sounds really good, doesn't it? But unity, in this day and age, seems to be more of a statement of hope then it is a true description of Christ's Body in this world.
A man was walking across a bridge one day when he saw another man standing on the edge, about to jump off. The first man ran over to him and said, "Stop!! Don't do it!!"
"Why shouldn't I?" the man asked.
"There's so much to live for!"
"Well, are you religious or atheist?"
"Me, too! Are you Christian or Jewish?"
"Are you Catholic or Protestant?"
"Me, too! Are you Episcopalian or Baptist?"
"Wow! Me, too! Are you Baptist Church of God or Baptist Church of the Lord?"
"Baptist Church of God."
"Me, too! Are you Original Baptist Church of God or are you Reformed Baptist Church of God?"
"Reformed Baptist Church of God."
"Me, too! Are you Reformed Baptist Church of God, reformation of 1879, or Reformed Baptist Church of God, reformation of 1915?"
"Reformed Baptist Church of God, reformation of 1915!"
To which the first man said, "Die, heretic scum!" and pushed him off the bridge.
According to scripture, our differences are a good thing. The church is described by Paul in several places as a "body" that is composed of many members that work together in different ways as a unified organism. He says that all parts of the body (different though they may be) are necessary for the proper functioning of the whole.
In order to work together like that, there must be unity.
So, since we're "United" Methodists, we ought be pretty good at that, don't you think?
Well, just for review, Paul says in verses 2 and 3 of this morning's text that we need to be humble and gentle and patient, bearing with one another in love, making every effort to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace. That sounds as though unity doesn't necessarily come to us naturally. It sounds as though unity might be something that we have to work for, in order to have it.
After spending some time studying this text and mulling it over, and scribbling down some notes, I've come up with seven principles that I'd like to share with you to see what you think. Lacking a better title, I'm calling them Principles of Difference and Unity.
The first one is simple enough: Being different is good. Paul writes in this letter to the Ephesians and also in his first letter to the Corinthians and also to the Romans about spiritual gifts, and how each of us in our own way can build up the body of Christ. There are visionaries among us, who help us look ahead and who keep moving us toward our goals. There are evangelists, pastors and teachers. I'm not speaking only of those who have had particular training for those roles, but those who we know have those gifts—that's just who they are.
In addition to our various spiritual gifts, we are different in so many other ways that also contribute to the whole. When we (in love, with patience and in humility) share differing ideas and opinions, we open ourselves to the possibility of changing or being changed by others.
Hearing someone else's ideas makes me think—and that's a good thing. Sometimes I might adapt my original thought because the other person has new or better information, or more experience than I have in a particular area. Other times, I can contribute to someone else's ideas, and they may change their way of thinking. Or, we may both go away unchanged, further convinced of our own "rightness" but stronger, because our ideas were challenged but remained true.
Faithful people disagree. Dissenting opinions keep us on our toes! Talking about and working through the answers to tough questions clarifies our thinking and makes our answers better. (Besides, I find complete uniformity in thinking to be a scary thing!)
Embrace controversy as your friend! Being different is good!
The second principle for you to consider is this: Being different doesn't contraindicate the possibility of unity. Unity isn't uniformity. We don't have to march in lock step, go to the same university or vote for the same politicians in order to be united and to work effectively together towards a common goal.
One of the events Scott and I have enjoyed attending over the years, is the annual haystack supper and auction for Habitat for Humanity in Shipshewana. Scott served in the UM church in Shipshe for a number of years, and that's when we were introduced to this important event in the life of that community, and that's how you came to experience a haystack meal last fall. This event has been incredibly successful in raising funds for a number of years, because all of the churches—both Amish and English—come together to do it, working on a common goal.
Each year we go, I love walking through the hand-pieced quilts that will be auctioned off. All these colors and patterns are sewn together in a way that creates beauty beyond what any one color or pattern could be on its own.
You and I come together like a beautiful quilt, and our differences make us richer, deeper and stronger. We're challenged to go beyond the issues and the conversations of this world, beyond the superficial and the temporary, and to look toward the Master Quilter, the one who binds us together with a common thread, giving us meaning and purpose—our Savior, Jesus Christ.
Closely related to #2, principle number 3 is: Unity doesn't mean that you have to ignore or compromise your principles. I've got all kinds of great quotes that go with this one, starting with verse 14: "We must no longer be children, tossed to and fro and blown about by every wind of doctrine."
Thomas Jefferson said, "In matters of style, swim with the current; in matters of principle, stand like a rock."
And finally, last but not least, there's John Wesley, the founder of Methodism, who in his sermon "On a Catholic Spirit," [catholic as in "universal", like in the Apostles Creed, not Catholic as in Roman] said, "If your heart is as my heart, then take my hand."
In this sermon, Wesley speaks of the essentials of our faith, things like belief in the triune God—Father, Son and Holy Spirit, the sins of humanity redeemed through God's love, and the giving of Jesus Christ. We, as United Methodists, along with other Christian people believe in the mystery of salvation…we believe in God's redeeming love poured out through the Holy Spirit…we believe in the oneness of the church of Jesus Christ, and that our diversity enlarges our understanding. These are some of the basics of the faith…but then, there are non-essentials that shouldn't tear us apart, but should instead, offer us the freedom (and fun!) of living within the mysteries and the unknowns of our faith.
Fourth principle: Just because everything looks good and smooth on the outside doesn't mean there's unity. Unspoken disagreement can be a really bad thing! It's kind of like never expressing your anger. It just isn't healthy.
Families that avoid talking about the difficult times in their life together miss out on the opportunity of offering support and instruction to its younger members. They miss the chance of modeling appropriate disagreement, problem-solving and compromise. The church that avoids talking about the difficult things in its life together also misses out on the opportunity of offering wisdom and support and modeling how to deal with challenging times and situations to its younger members.
Fifth principle: The presence of grace in our lives turns our differences into gifts that can be used by the Body for service in mission and ministry. We haven't all had the same experiences, and those experiences haven't always been good or easy. But, God is able to transform what we have and use it to benefit the body.
Those who have experienced illness, who have survived divorce, who have raised wayward children…and who have healed and gained wisdom from those experiences, have unique gifts to share with those who are going through the same kinds of experiences. Through grace, these difficult times can be turned into gifts that benefit the community.
Principle number 6: Recognizing, affirming and using the gifts we've been given (our own and others), knits the body together and promotes spiritual growth. It's important that we recognize and make use of the spiritual gifts among us. No one person, no particular family, no particular committee or work area is—on its own—able to provide what is needed to make the church a strong and healthy place.
We're all needed; each of us together.
I think of 1 Corinthians 12 (14f): Indeed, Paul said, the body does not consist of one member but of many. If the foot would say, "Because I am not a hand, I do not belong to the body," that would not make it any less a part of the body. And if the ear would say, "Because I am not an eye, I do not belong to the body," that would not make it any less a part of the body.
If I'm not good at Finance, that doesn't mean I don't belong to the body. If I'm young or if I'm old, that doesn't mean I don't belong to the body…if my hair is lime green, my skin is tattooed, or I drive a rusty Volkswagen Bug…that doesn't mean you are any less a part of the body.
We're all members of the same body…we're individually members of it…our gifts and graces are important…and our various differences are what make us better than what we would be if we were all the same.
The final principle: Our task is not to be uniform duplicates of one another, but to use what we've been given in concert with others, so hearts may be won and God may be glorified. That's our ultimate goal. We do it for no other purpose, but to share the love of God with all we meet, and to give honor to God in all that we do. We weren't meant to be the same, to have the same ideas or the same areas of expertise. But we're each needed—to give, to receive, to offer input, to respond.
Each of these principles is closely related. It can be hard to define one without describing the other. You might be able to come up with a few more; I'd be interested in hearing them if you do. The point is, each of us is needed and necessary. Our differences are what make it a challenge to be together sometimes, but it is our differences that make us good. Our priority is that we remain centered and focused on the main thing (GOD), that we demonstrate love and respect for one another, and that we encourage one another always. Then we can be the people whom God intends us to be. Amen.