Sunday, August 7, 2011

One Voice

Live in harmony with one another, in accordance with Christ Jesus, so that together you may with one voice glorify the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ. Welcome one another, therefore, just as Christ welcomed you. (Romans 15.5-7)

He must increase, but I must decrease. (John 3.30)

A reflection on Romans 15.1-13 and John 3.22-36.

Reputation for Brawling

Many years ago a church near my house released a sensational choir recording that whetted my interest in hearing the music live. I called a buddy, assuming he’d heard the album and probably wanted to visit the church too. I was half-right. Although he liked the record, he declined. I prodded for an explanation. “I’ve been and don’t care to go back,” he said. What did that mean? “They sing like angels, but they’re a mess.” What did that mean? “They’re the kind of folks who think they’re going to Heaven and everybody else is damned to Hell. And get this: the preacher spends all his time accusing his own people of not being holy enough. I walked out.”

If we were in first-century Rome and I suggested we visit a Christian service, his response very well might be the same—because the Roman church is a real mess. Its people not only confront anyone who doesn't accept their beliefs, they also fight among themselves. The church is a collective of cliques, each with its own exclusive pipeline to the truth. They can't be relied on to support one another and work overtime to discourage believers they disagree with. It's worse than a real mess. It's an ungodly mess. Indeed, the congregation’s behavior gets so out of hand its reputation for brawling spills into the streets. Heated arguments between Christian and traditional Jews regularly erupt into riots—to the point Claudius banishes all Jews from Rome.

Cease and Desist

With the ban lifted (under Nero), Jewish Christians return. In their absence, the Roman church—which functions less as a single parish than a syndicate of small groups that worship in homes—has undergone major changes under Gentile leadership. Contentious taboos rooted in Christianity’s Judaic origins (e.g., circumcision and dietary restrictions) have been eliminated by default. Rather than adjust to these changes, old-school Jewish believers revert to the very behaviors that got them deported. Paul’s letter is essentially a cease-and-desist order that cautions the congregation about the dangers of religious infighting. Ever the brilliant lawyer, Paul equates acceptance with strength and persistently reminds his readers their primary duty is to reflect the will of God and nature of Christ.

Having meticulously laid out the doctrine of faith as freedom from the Law, he opens his letter’s final segment saying, “We who are strong ought to put up with the failings of the weak, and not to please ourselves. Each of us must please our neighbor for the good purpose of building up the neighbor. For Christ did not please Himself.” (Romans 15.1-3) Then he seals his counsel with a prayer, after which he reiterates his instruction: “May the God of steadfastness and encouragement grant you to live in harmony with one another, in accordance with Christ Jesus, so that together you may with one voice glorify the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ. Welcome one another, therefore, just as Christ welcomed you, for the glory of God.” (Romans 15.5-7) Key phrases jump off the page: “God of steadfastness and encouragement,” “live in harmony,” “with one voice glorify the God and Father,” “welcome one another,” “for the glory of God.”

Something Bigger

While Romans portrays a faith community whose constant squabbles jeopardize its stability and survival, today’s Gospel presages friction between communities that endangers Christian unity. Jesus’s ministry begins somewhat unexpectedly. He originally goes to be baptized as one of his cousin John’s disciples. But a divine declaration that He’s God’s Son changes His course. He assembles His own band of disciples and begins baptizing new followers. John’s people hear what Jesus is doing and instantly sense a competitive threat. They hurry to inform the Baptist, whose response no doubt mystifies them. “This is how it’s supposed to go,” John says, and he gives us a statement that epitomizes the attitude Paul urges the Romans to adopt: “He [Jesus] must increase, but I must decrease.” (John 3.30)

John’s feelings about being overshadowed by Jesus are irrelevant, as are his views of Jesus’s teaching—which is starkly unlike his repent-or-be-damned message—or any compulsions to revert to the reactionary machismo that accounts for his famous charisma. Something bigger than him—too big for him—is underway. It makes no sense to oppose it because he doesn’t like it, may not agree with it, or has to change his behavior to accept it. Does John realize he’s looking at the end of an era? Absolutely. Is he aware his dominance of the roving-rabbi landscape is over? Sure. Yet John demonstrates the extraordinary strength of his faith by setting personal feelings aside to endorse a fledgling Newcomer, Whose mission and message surpass his own. John will not speak against Jesus or His ministry, because a dissonant voice will distract from Christ’s work and discourage believers from trusting Christ’s word. “He Whom God has sent speaks the words of God, for He gives the Spirit without measure,” John explains to his followers. (v34) He adds his voice to Jesus’s voice to increase public confidence that Jesus is God’s Son.

Differences Aren’t Deal-breakers

Differing beliefs within and between faith communities are inevitable. Some of us welcome progress that responds to social change and shifting environments. Some of us perceive change as a threat to traditions and doctrines we believe are sacrosanct. The beauty of our faith is anchored in its intensely personal nature. It speaks to each of us where we are, as we are. Yet each of us—from the most radically unorthodox to the most relentlessly doctrinaire—risks discrediting the faith of all when we foment discord and controversy. When we permit disputes to divide us, we burden Christ’s message with inconsistency. We discourage believers within our ranks, as well as potential believers who yearn to follow Christ but watch our childish squabbling and say, “No thanks. They’re a mess.” We have to learn differences aren’t deal-breakers.

This thing is bigger than us—too big for us. Imposing personal beliefs and opinions on it creates discord and chaos. Self-appointed soloists who insist on singing their own tunes destroy harmony and reflect poorly on the Conductor. No glory comes of it. The weak aren’t built up. The Gospel is left in tatters. We must decrease, setting aside anything that prevents Christ from increasing. This must be a personal commitment, whether or not other believers evidence strength and maturity to live by it. We must be steadfast, welcoming all who profess Christ, regardless how unsavory their personal beliefs may be. We must encourage one another to grow in the faith, realizing that maturity builds strength to disavow opinions and prejudices that conflict with Christ's Gospel of equality and acceptance. We must practice living in harmony as a global community committed to Christ even though we're engulfed with discord and divisiveness. We must glorify God in one voice.

God of steadfastness and encouragement, we long to glorify You in one voice. Impress on us the imperative of protecting Christian unity, pleasing others and not ourselves. May we reflect Your will and Christ’s nature in all we do. Amen.

Discordant notes and self-appointed soloists reflect poorly on the Conductor. Only by living in harmony and uniting in one voice do we glorify God.

Postscript: Oops!

Apparently my online Lectionary sent me the wrong readings for today. (Imagine my surprise when I got to service this morning and the texts were Joseph and his brothers, and Jesus walking on the water!) I apologize, and trust something here was beneficial for you--if not as timely and in synch as I hoped.


Sherry Peyton said...

Sadly, I think one of the mistakes we make is to leave "difficult" congregations in search of the one that "thinks like we do." While it makes us comfortable, we essentially participate in the separation of the community into factions. I recognize how wonderful it is to participate in a congregation that is alive and moving toward the kingdom by honoring the teachings of Jesus. But at the same I how can we mend the fences if we don't struggle in "difficult" congregations to be a different voice? I, in my Catholic church of course struggle with this mightily, and at times really yearn for the easier and happier days of the Episcopal church where I was among those who thought as I did. I am deeply in conflict over this most of the time.

Blessings my friend, for pointing out our need of unity.

Tim said...

On the whole, I think you're spot-on, Sherry--with one caveat/clarification (offered especially to my LGBT sisters and brothers). We must take care not to confuse "difficult" congregations with demoralizing ones. If we remain in faith communities that preach and practice exclusion and intolerance, we not only endanger our own spiritual health, but we also contribute the endangerment of others through our presence, participation in worship, and financial support. It is not God's will that we subject ourselves to teaching and experiences that dishonor our making as God's handiwork.

I realize this isn't what you mean, yet I feel duty-bound to make the distinction, as I've known many LGBT believers who've remained where the whole Gospel isn't preached--and much of it is mangled to abuse gay and other unorthodox believers--without realizing their presence tacitly approves these erroneous doctrines and attitudes.

But to your point. I agree it's much easier to gravitate toward faith communities where our personal beliefs are like those of the people we worship and serve alongside. I truly believe every Christian should pray for guidance regarding his/her church. Often we will be led to "difficult" communities to do exactly what you describe: be the light that's gone missing, the challenge that others need to come to grips with their passivity and resistance to change. Without a doubt God calls us to be movers and shakers--to inspire and prod and bring new perspectives to the collective pursuit of greater faith. (I love how Proverbs puts it: "Like iron sharpens iron, so one good person sharpens another.")

Without those of us who challenge obsolete and/or misbegotten ideas, unity will not happen. (Even we who serve in "easier" communities are given this task; I've yet to find a congregation that's so together it can't benefit from lovingly offered dissent.) Where we run amiss, I think, is mistaking differences within our local bodies as disrespectful or contentious or both. Some of them are; but just as many or more are not. And we have be trustful that differing opinions are expressed with one intent: building up one another. (That's the litmus test, isn't it?)

I'm apt to believe that's why God calls us to unity without demanding conformity--to force us to respect and love one another despite clashing over questions of faith. As my pastor often says, a church full of cookie-cutter Christians who believe, talk, and act alike is a church that's lost its way. And I myself have witnessed that these sorts of congregations are far and away the least stable and enduring. Pressure to conform and hostility to questions does not build strength and maturity; when trouble visits these communities, their rigid behavioral codes and doctrines shatter the lives that subscribe to them. More times than I care to recall, I've seen believers who've been disillusioned by church problems (e.g., a pastor who strays, financial tomfoolery, etc.) walk away from their faith altogether. It's a tragedy we can avoid by following Paul's instruction and John's example.

Dearest Sherry, having journeyed with you these past few years, I understand your conflicts. Yet I know your heart and your desire to please our Maker. What you say here speaks to your soul's burden. It is indeed a difficult calling to obey, but an essential one. Be that different voice. Speak to complacency and inured injustices that have taken root where you serve. In this, you are following Christ's example and will be instrumental in unifying the Body. The only thing harder than serving in "difficult" places, I think, is taking an easier route and not being fulfilled.

Blessings, my sister,