A few weeks ago, a colleague remarked, “I am hearing really good things about your church.” That inner voice within, you know the one that always gets us in trouble, wanted to say, “It’s not my church, it is the church of Jesus Christ”. But I refrained from sarcasm, smiled and thanked him. I knew that was not going to be the end of the conversation. The right reverend continued, “To what do you attribute your success?” Again my inner voice wanted to shout, “It’s not my success, it is our success, if success is even the right word.” Again, I quelled my thoughts and instead responded, “We all seem to really like each other.”
“Well”, my inquisitive friend replied, “That is interesting but I am more concerned about your theological roots. What is it that your church believes?” My inner voice is screaming, “He is trying to trap you into saying something stupid.”
I smiled and responded, “We believe Jesus said first and foremost we should really like each other.”
My colleague, who was becoming less of a friend and more of a pain in the you know what, gave me one of those preachy smirches and retorted. “I believe Paul said, “Faith alone.” How does you church respond to Paul?”
Before I could take a deep breath, my inner voice spoke loud and clear, “You are mistaken. It was Martin Luther who said, “Sola Fides, Faith Alone.” What Paul said was, “Faith, Hope, and Love, and the greatest of these was Love.”
Sometimes we get so enthralled by what people think Paul said we fail to give the Apostle the credit deserved concerning what he believed it meant to live as a disciple of Christ and how that effects our interaction with others.
Ephesians 4 is an extraordinary passage. Paul writes, “I beg you to live worthy of your calling. With humility, gentleness, and patience, bearing with one another in love, maintaining unity in the Spirit, in the bond of peace.”
This is where my inner voice correctly reminds me, “You cannot say anything more profound than what you just read.” (stop)
It is such a shame preachers seem predestined to attempt the impossible task of perfecting on perfection, but that seems to be our calling. So forgive me as I try to shed light on on what Paul has so perfectly written.
In the first three chapters of the Book of Ephesians, Paul attempts to persuade the folks in this small community that God loves them and God saved them by grace through the death and resurrection of Christ. The people were overwhelmed by this good news and wanted to know how they might respond to God’s generosity. Paul replied, “Since you have been raised by Christ, live like Christ. In everything you do, glorify God and glorify others.” The message was clear. Because God has accomplished our salvation, we should live together as one in Christ.
How might those words apply to us? Part of the joy of this community is we are an eclectic collection of radically different people. We are Yankees and Crackers, sophisticated and redneck, straight and gay, salesmen and farmers, golfers and fisherman, Republicans, Democrats and Independents. For the most part, the only two things we universally have in common are our age and our love of this valley. But here we are, many spirits, multiple minds, singing at the top of our lungs, The Church’s One Foundation is Jesus Christ our Lord.
Jesus, perhaps better than anyone in all of human history, preached unity does not mean uniformity. One moment Jesus was spending his nights with learned scholars such as Nicodemeus, whispering in the shadows to protect the reputations of the elite and then Jesus was sitting by a well with a woman with a horrible reputation, in plain sight, much to the disgust of both the townsfolk and the disciples. Jesus hung out with everyone. There was no cost of admission to his sermons. Jesus was the originator of the affordable care act. He healed everyone. Rich and poor came to hear him speak. Famous and infamous asked to be touched by his healing hand. He told stories everyone could understand sometimes even made a Samaritan the hero of his tale. Jesus was a strange man who crossed social and economic boundaries as easily as we cross state lines. Everything he said, and everything he did, could be wrapped up in his glorious testimony, “Love God and Love your Neighbor.”
You would think this would make the task of being a church rather easy. We confirm, one Lord, one faith and one baptism. We love our neighbor and life is good. Right?
Ah, if it were only that easy. Ever attempt a serious study in theology. Calvin’s essential belief was in one sovereign God. Luther claimed first and foremost we are saved by grace. You would have thought the two could have discovered commonality within their two statements, but that wasn’t quite the case. For centuries Lutherans and Calvinist argued over which man’s writings were more important to the Reformation. And then there were the followers of Zwingli, Knox, Erasmus and Wesley.
Such is the study of what we believe. Some folks chiefly celebrate the All-powerful, All-knowing Omnipotence of God. Others suggest worshipping an all-powerful God might hinder us from having a relationship with the One who brings the sojourner out of darkness and exile. Add Jesus to the mix and things get further complicated. Do you worship the Jesus of glory or the Jesus of the cross? Are you an Easter or Good Friday kind of guy? Do the words, “This is my body, broken”, leave you shaking your head?
The question is, can the church be a place for the discussion where God can be seen differently, or must there only be one vision and to hell with everyone else? Then what really complicates things is the God discussion is a piece of cake compared to the question, “Who is my neighbor?”
Paul said to the folks in Ephesus, and to anyone who claims God as Lord, “While we claim One God, that same God gave us different gifts.” Simply put, we are not the same. We think differently, we look differently, we talk differently and we probably have different priorities. On the surface, there would seem to be no way we could work in concert to accomplish anything. Yet when the different gifts mesh together toward one goal, amazing things happen.
Most of us can hold a tune……. if we are the only one singing. If our note is the only note that matters than the concept of flat or sharp is not relative. Once singing in key becomes part of the equation, the sound may improve but in the process, many of the voices are eliminated.
Some folks are blessed with ears which hear a collection of notes in harmony. Often the difference between the congregation singing and the choir singing is simply an understanding of harmonics. Most simple choral music is based on stacking one note on top of another until a pleasant sound is achieved. If the bass is singing a C, the other musicians are singing a combination of E, G and the octave C. For many of you what I said makes absolutely no sense. Let me demonstrate.
I am going to ask to Pat play a C.
Now play a C Chord.
If we all played one note, or if we sang in harmony off our one note, we would sound great. But we would not be utilizing the gifts of the whole community. We would be silencing voices that could give the piece some real color.
My favorite pianist is the late great Thelodius Monk. His best known composition is a piece titled, ‘Round About Midnight. Monk would start with a very simple, yet haunting line and wrap it around chord structures that would amaze Johann Sebastian. People stood in line to play with Monk. Many of the greats in jazz never became great until Monk freed them from their conventional way of reading a chart. My favorite piece of advice from Monk was, “Music begins when you trust the ear of the person sitting beside you.”
The human community is in desperate need of churches where faith and practice become one by trusting the person beside them. This means sometimes we play more than one note and occasionally we even dare to venture beyond a simple chord. We place our gifts next to, below, and on top of someone else, creating a unique intersection where God’s sovereignty and our brokenness are held together by the wonders of grace. (stop)
That sounds really profound but how on earth is it possible? I guess we are back where we started. “Live a life worthy of your calling. With humility, gentleness, and patience, bearing with one another in love, maintaining unity in the Spirit of God, and in the bond of peace.”