Like the believers in Ephesus we have a challenge: How do we remain a body, how do we remain one, in light of our many disagreements?
Wesley knew that the only way that we could live into the way of Jesus was together. Just like Jesus told his disciples and prayed that his disciples would be one. One people who under the Lordship of Jesus become bearers of the kingdom of God in the world. One people from different places, languages and cultures as the vision of Revelation tells us, coming alongside one another, praising God and witnessing to the world.
Oneness is difficult work!
On seasons like these I am even more thankful for the witness of scripture. For it reminds us over and over again that we are not alone, that the tensions that we feel so strongly today are not isolated, that the struggle of living life together has been the same since the beginning of time (remember the blame game in Genesis 3?).
You know well the tensions that we face today in our country, in our state, cities, and in our local churches. Even among people that look alike, even among families, workplaces and neighborhoods.
Now imagine the tensions that Paul was addressing in today’s scripture. Two very distinct communities, at least two different ethnic groups (Jewish and Gentile), two different religious traditions that seem to be incompatible with one another, two cultures, and ways of looking at the world.
They were coming together because of their shared experience with the resurrected Jesus. A Jewish community with its commitments to be a set apart people and a gentile community called the Ephesians who were themselves a cosmopolitan diverse group of people. In fact in Jewish culture at the time gentiles were not to be trusted, as a early Jewish writing commented:
“we may not keep an animal in the inns of Gentiles, for they are suspected of bestiality, and a woman should not be alone with them, for they are suspected of adultery, and a Jewish man should be alone with them for they are suspected of murder.”
You can imagine the tension that is created when the early Christian leaders decided that these gentile believers did not have to follow the law as prescribed to the Jewish people.
When many of the converts were coming from the temple down the street they were coming from a different set of religious traditions, it was an obvious contrast, between them and the Jewish believers. Now they come together.
You can imagine the the church’s patriarch’s and matriarchs wondering: If we don’t have these requirements, these laws in place how will we be able to be “set apart? What do we have left?
I am thankful that the story of our faith, our sacred text, tells us what we have left is our encounter with Holy Spirit!
As Paul testified in Acts:
“God who knows people’s deepest thoughts and desires, confirmed this by giving them the Holy Spirit, just as he did to us.” (15:8, CEB)
This encounter changes absolutely everything, including our perspective in the world. This is an encounter of connection, an encounter of reconciliation, an encounter of new creation, an encounter that grafted them to one another. This new way provided is rooted in their continued encounter with the risen Lord and their shared witness to others of that encounter.
Now I acknowledge that this sounds wonderful and beautiful as we speak. It has a poetic tone, it rolls off the tongue easily, WE Jewish and gentile alike, our only common denominator being the claim that we have seen the LORD!
You can imagine those potlucks, those gatherings for worship, you can imagine those Sunday School classes, the tensions are real!! Here comes Paul to remind them, to help them re-member (to bring back into being), that they are One people.
They are One people because of their encounter with Jesus, their re-creation, and their reconciliation. They are one people because the wall that had separated them from the beginning of time has been broken, the curtain has been torn, and now by the power of the Holy Spirit, they are one people in their practice of becoming like Jesus, with love of God, self, and neighbor as their primary characteristic.
They needed each other in their difference to grow in that love, to practice that love, they needed each other to see that love incarnate. They needed that love to get beyond their natural tendencies to live their life in an “us vs. them posture,” in a posture that required them to be identical in their way of life and in their religious observance, they needed that love to be free so they could grow in it!
Therefore – because you are a people who have encountered Jesus.
Therefore – because you are a new creation.
Therefore – because you have been reconciled.
Therefore – because the Holy Spirit lives in you.
Therefore – live a life worthy of your calling.
A life together! Yes, it will get difficult, we will have disagreement, we are going to wonder if we are meant to live life together, if the gap in our understanding of God and how God works in the world can be bridged. We are going to argue, we are going to forget, and we are going to clash. But remember that we are One people!
One body, One faith, One Baptism, and One Lord. We are incomplete without one another for it is in the patient living alongside one another that we will become more and more like Jesus.
The temptations will be great, the tensions will be high, and there will be seasons when we will not get along. But let us not forget to live a life worthy of the calling, because as we live this life together by the power of the Spirit we will become more loving, joy-filled, peaceful, forbearing, kind, we will be able to practice goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control.
Sisters and brothers we are not alone. Today two of us stand before you who have very different ways of looking at scripture, theology, and the future of the United Methodist Church, we stand together from two sides of the same road, you can take a Shreveport map and draw a straight line from 1st Church to Grace Community.
We come together with different stories, backgrounds, and life experiences. But though it might surprise you I believe that I am a more faithful follower of Jesus because the Rev. Dr. Pat Day and I are in covenant with one another. I believe Grace Community is a better body of believers because 1st United Methodist in Shreveport is up the street. I believe that the Spirit of God lives in him and I have witnessed that Spirit. I believe that we are better able to witness to the Good News of Jesus Christ together than apart.
This is not wishful thinking, instead is a deep conviction that the power of the Holy Spirit called upon us at our Baptism and Ordination is more important than the differences we hold. A conviction that our shared identity and witness as followers of Jesus in the Wesleyan movement is more important than the differences that we hold and will continue to hold. A conviction that our shared call to be bearers of the Good News of Jesus, the “inheritance of the saints” (Colossians 1:12b, NRSV), is more important than the differences that threaten to tear us apart.
Today we have a call! In the messiness of our disagreements, struggles, trials, tribulations, arguments, judicial council decisions, legislative petitions, and misunderstandings. The call of unity from long ago is not just a call for the Ephesian believers, it is a call for the Shreveport District believers, and the Louisiana believers, the South Central Jurisdictional believers, the Global United Methodist believers, it is a call for ALL of God’s people!
We don’t have to like each other, agree with each other, or be like each other, but we do have to model the unity that we have in Christ Jesus, model what it means to love like God loves (even the perceived enemy within) so that through our witness, the world learns that they too can be reconciled, that they too can be renewed, that they too can be born again, that they too can experience the saving grace of our Lord Jesus Christ. Amen!
This Sermon was preached on October 28 at the 2018 Shreveport District Charge Conference, First United Methodist Church, Bossier City, LA.