Sunday’s Sermon: What Does Unity Look Like?

  • The year was 1971. More than a decade had gone by since Rosa Park refused to give up her seat and the Little Rock Nine made their historic entrance into Central High School. In contrast, it had only been a few short years since the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr. Needless to say, racial tensions throughout America – particularly in the south – were still running high. As a new school year approached at a newly-integrated high school in Alexandria, Virginia, the football team gathered for practice … but it didn’t look anything like the teams in previous years.
    • Sound like the backdrop for a movie? It is: Remember the Titans – Disney production, 2000
      • Film depicting what it was like for students dealing with racial integration during the throes of the civil rights era
      • Basic storyline – beginning: two high schools in Alexandria forced to integrate –> started with school board forcing integrated leadership (black head coach, white assistant head coach, etc.) –> tension that the whole country was feeling plays out first on football team –> practices full of …
        • Stubbornness
        • Thinly-veiled remarks
        • Open challenges
        • Fights
        • If ever there was a team in need of unity – in need of something to bring them together as a cohesive unit – it was the Titans football team.
          • Needed something to unite them
          • Needed something they could believe in together
          • Needed something bigger than their differences to form them into the single body they needed to be
          • Hmm … sound a little like the Church today?
            • Church universal – “Church” with a capital C – all the believers in Christ around the world
            • Seem to have found ourselves in a time of …
              • Divisions
              • Theological accusations
              • Building ecumenical walls instead of ecumenical bridges
            • And yet yesterday was the beginning of the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity. Think about that … the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity – an entire week dedicated to praying not for the things that pull us apart but the things that bring us together; an entire week dedicated to lifting up our shared story instead of our individual plot lines; an entire week dedicated to praying for our neighbors, be they easy to get along with or not-so-easy. Because let’s face it: like the Titans, as Christians, we are a body in need of unifying. We need something we can believe in together. We need something bigger than our differences to encourage us to be the body of Christ. But what could that unity look like?
  • First element of unity = radical inclusiveness
    • In “Remember the Titans,” radical inclusiveness was forced upon the players by their coaches.
      • Made to ride buses together –> instead of white/black buses, defense/offense buses
      • Made to room with people of different race
      • Made to treat each other with respect (at least on the field)
    • But in the church, there’s no coach to force us together. We don’t have anyone to put us in a room with those with whom we struggle – those we disagree with, those we don’t understand, even those whom we fear. We must make that critical leap of faith all on our own.
      • Mk passage emphasizes importance of genuinely welcoming “the other” with radical inclusiveness – text: Then [Jesus] took a little child and put it among them; and taking it in his arms, he said to them, “Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes not me but the one who sent me.”[1]
        • Today: not so hard for us to grasp the concept of welcoming a child – taking them into our arms, holding them close, comforting them, teaching them, loving them –> But it’s important that we understand just what a radical move this is for Jesus.
          • Ancient view of children = vastly different than our view today
            • Scholar: The child in antiquity was a non-person. Children should have been with the women, not hanging around the teacher and his students. … To insist that receiving a child might have some value for male disciples is almost inconceivable.[2]
            • Gr. reveals tenderness with which Jesus enacts this radical inclusiveness – “taking it in his arms” = literally hugging –> So not only does Jesus welcome this child – this unwelcomed one – but he also shows us that genuinely welcoming someone involves more than just a superficial “hello.” Welcoming involves compassion. It involves a willingness to connect. It involves acceptance.
  • Another element: focusing on our commonalities instead of our differences
    • Gridlock in Washington D.C. and state capitols around the country –> politicians focusing so closely on differences that they’ve forgotten how to work together
    • And for some reason, we’ve often functioned like this in the church, too. –> differences pulling the church apart for centuries
      • Began with Great Schism in 1054 – created Eastern Orthodox Church and Roman Catholic Church
      • Today: 33,000+ denominations throughout the world –> We have a disagreement, we start to butt heads, and instead of focusing on our commonalities and working things out, we splinter off. We go our own way. We, like society take the popular attitude of “If you’re not with me, you’re against me.
    • But in our gospel reading for this morning, Jesus flips that contentious mindset on its head.
      • After scene with the child – disciples are upset because someone else is casting out demons in Jesus’ name
        • Reason they’re upset: he’s not following the way they are – his faith doesn’t look/sound/act like their faith
        • Text: John said to [Jesus], “Teacher, we saw someone casting out demons in your name, and we tried to stop him, because he was not following us.”[3] – feel John waiting for validation
          • Jesus response: Do not stop him … Whoever is not against us is for us.[4] –> Whoever is not against us is for us. Radical inclusiveness. Focusing on the commonalities while setting aside the differences. Unity.
          • Scholar: Unlike the scribes and the Pharisees, Jesus seeks to draw the boundaries between those who are “with Jesus” to include as many people as possible. He came for sinners, not for the righteous. The disciples fall into the trap that snares many religious groups: They wanted to restrict salvation to their group alone.[5]
  • Important element to recognize: unity in challenge strengthens faith
    • In “Remember the Titans,” the football team soon learns that their diversity is one of their greatest strengths.
      • Form strong bonds as a team
        • Lead them to win every game
        • More importantly: lead the way for racial integration within their school and within their community
    • And when it comes to our faith, we can also find strength in our differences.
      • Passage from Prov.: Iron sharpens iron, and one person sharpens the wits of another.[6] –> You see, when we find ourselves needing to explain our faith – why we believe what we believe, how we understand our role as a child of God, the ways in which we practice our faith and why we do things the way we do … When we find ourselves needing to explain these things to someone, it makes us actually think about them! We have to figure out why we believe what we believe. We have to come to our own understanding of our role as a child of God. We have to scrutinize our faith practices in light of our own belief system to see if they hold water.
        • E.g. – some of my greatest friends from seminary fall on completely opposite side of the fence that I do on most issues –> But our differing opinions gave us grounds for some truly holy, passionate, and compassionate conversations, both in the classroom and outside it. Did we change one another’s minds? No. But we came to a better understanding of body of Christ as a whole.
          • Understand the “other” better
          • Understand ourselves better, too
    • And when we work together toward Christian unity, we get the opportunity to strengthen and grow in our faith.
      • Difference between Christian unity and Christian uniformity – not talking about all of us having to believe exactly the same thing (theologically, politically, socially, etc.)
      • Difference between Christian unity and relativism – not talking about what each of us believe not mattering to the other person
      • Talking about coming together in community and working together for God despite our differences –> scholar: Paul’s relationship to other believers and his thankfulness to God for them is based not on whether he likes them or on whether they view issues in the world in the same way, but on the simple and profound fact that God’s grace is active in them and in him. Our modern Christian community is founded on God’s grace given to all, not on whether we are socially compatible and not on whether we take the same political views.[7]
  • Leads to final critical element –> shared central goal of following Christ
    • The Titans football team had a simple shared goal: winning the championship. And as brothers and sisters in Christ, our goal is not so complex either: Follow Jesus.
      • Lots of things about the way we do this may look different
        • Way we worship
        • Way we share
        • And differences of interpretation are always going to exist. But when we pray for Christian unity, when we work toward Christian unity – be it in our own communities, in this nation, or within the whole world – we are placing God at the head of our lives. We are making our faith the central factor that affects anything and everything else that we do and say.
      • This is Paul’s plea in today’s passage: Now I appeal to you, brothers and sisters, by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that all of you be in agreement and that there be no divisions among you, but that you be united in the same mind and the same purpose.[8] –> Our ways in which we worship may differ, but aren’t we all praising God? Our ways in which we pray may differ, but aren’t we all entrusting our joys and thanksgivings, our fears and failings to God?
        • Different because of our upbringing
        • Different because of our ethnicity
        • Different because of our political views
        • Different because of a million other factors that make up our day-to-day lives
        • But that central trust in God, that central belief in the grace of Jesus Christ, that central reliance on the guidance of the Holy Spirit is the same.
  • And so, in the face of this, I’m going to leave you with some questions this morning, questions that could be especially appropriate on the morning of our annual meeting:
    • What could Christian unity mean or look like here in Zumbrota?
    • What could Christian unity mean or look like across the United States?
    • What could Christian unity mean or look like throughout the world? Amen.


[1] Mk 9:36-37.

[2] Pheme Perkins. “The Gospel of Mark: Introduction, Commentary, and Reflections” in The New Interpreter’s Bible Commentary series, vol. 8. (Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press, 1995), 637 (emphasis added).

[3] Mk 9:38.

[4] Mk 9:39, 40.

[5] Perkins, 639.

[6] Prov 27:17.

[7] J. Paul Sampley. “The First Letter to the Corinthians: Introduction, Commentary, and Reflections” in The New Interpreter’s Bible Commentary series, vol. 10. (Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press, 2002), 800.

[8] 1 Cor 1:10.

 

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As part of the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity, we also shared an Ecumenical Prayer Cycle handout in our bulletins on Sunday. This list will allow you to pray for every country around the world throughout the whole year. We may be a few weeks behind at this point, but it’s an intriguing idea – to literally pray for the whole world. Here’s the link to that Ecumenical Prayer Cycle.

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