Monday, January 19, 2009

A Meditation on Christian Unity

A Reflection on the Week of Christian Unity
18 January 2009 - 25 January 2009

Matthew 16:13-19
When Jesus came into the district of Caesarea Philippi, he asked his disciples, "Who do people say that the Son of Man is?" And they said, "Some say John the Baptist, but others Elijah, and still others Jeremiah or one of the prophets." He said to them, "But who do you say that I am?" Simon Peter answered, "You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God." And Jesus answered him, "Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah! For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father in heaven. And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not prevail against it. I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.” (NRSV)

Matthew 10:16-22
Jesus said to the twelve, "See, I am sending you out like sheep into the midst of wolves; so be wise as serpents and innocent as doves. Beware of them, for they will hand you over to councils and flog you in their synagogues; and you will be dragged before governors and kings because of me, as a testimony to them and the Gentiles. When they hand you over, do not worry about how you are to speak or what you are to say; for what you are to say will be given to you at that time; for it is not you who speak, but the Spirit of your Father speaking through you. Brother will betray brother to death, and a father his child, and children will rise against parents and have them put to death; and you will be hated by all because of my name. But the one who endures to the end will be saved." (NRSV)

These two readings are the appointed readings for the Feasts of the Confession of St. Peter and the Conversion of St. Paul, January 18th and 25th respectively in the Anglican and Roman calendars. It is these dates that mark the week that is to be observed as the Week of Christian Unity. The first reading has the tone of joy and excitement. Peter recognizes Jesus as the Messiah. He is praised by the Lord himself and promised the keys to the kingdom. The second reading is a dire warning that strife and enmity will exist between family members. Jesus is the messiah, the anointed one, a recognition that gains entrance into the kingdom and because of the Name of Jesus; we will turn against one another. Let’s face it. This does describe Christ’s Church today!

Most orthodox Christians are willing to confess Jesus Christ as Lord. And many Christians are too willing to find fault with another denomination. That is why we don’t belong to another denomination. Which begs the question, “What do we mean when we say Jesus is Lord?” Is he only the lord of some? Or do some get it that He is lord and are following his will while others are not? Just how do we account for our differences? But let us go back to the ‘lord’ question. Are our differences acceptable to our Lord?

As a pastor, I am confronted with the gnawing issue of God’s will in people’s lives. Unfortunately, I do not think these same people are as concerned with God’s will as I am. After all, should we not strive to do God’s will rather than our own? But our culture is a product of the sixties, seventies and eighties where self-actualization was the goal. If one were to look in the dictionary for all the words that begin with ‘self’, one would find that most of the self words are not flattering at all: self-obsessed, self-loathing, self-centered, self-pity. I mention this because it is people who make up the body of Christ. Without people we would have no church. If anyone of us is centered on the self rather than on God, then the whole community of the faithful suffers. And so it is that as a whole we do not hold one another accountable to seek God’s will. To do this would truly mean having to take up the cross. And that has been our problem all along. We are more than willing to sit comfortably in our own traditions and sentimentality because that is how we have always done it. Our self-centeredness becomes a we-centeredness that often excludes the experiences of those different from us. So rather than take up the cross of Christ, we impose our self-made cross upon someone else. Just after receiving the keys to the kingdom, Peter knew better what Jesus should do.

As soon as Jesus gives authority to bind and loose on earth to Peter, He foretells his own death. Peter, armed with his new authority, takes Jesus aside and tells him to stop talking like that pronouncing, “God would never let this happen to you Lord! Upon which Jesus turns to Peter saying, “Satan get away from me! You’re in my way because you think like everyone else and not like God.” Jesus didn’t take the keys back. He just rebukes his friend. And then He goes on to say, “If any of you want to be my followers, you must forget about yourself. You must take up your cross and follow me.” Jesus is clear how our self-centeredness is indeed a mill stone around our necks. We must forget about ourselves. We must not think like everybody else. Our solution then is to think like God. This is the job of the Church. From every individual in the pew to every structure codified as our institution, we must forget about ourselves and what feels good to what matters most to God.

So why is there still disunity and disagreement? Let’s face it, our worship on Sundays often keep us separate. From the theology of the Eucharist to apostolic succession and from whom we ordain to how we read the scriptures, we are not in agreement. But what does Jesus want us to do? Why is it that we cannot agree on what His will is? My guess is, we just do not trust God’s judgment. After all, he did not take back the keys from St. Peter!

He did not take back the keys from St. Peter when Peter imposed his will upon Jesus. If Jesus had succumbed to Peter’s will, we would not have the cross, nor the atonement. We would not have salvation. Jesus did not take back the keys when Peter denied him three times while he suffered. But rather, upon His resurrection asked Peter three times , “Do you love me?” And upon the third confession he was mandated to feed His sheep. Most of us would not think like God our Father. We would have taken the keys back.

We just do not trust following God’s will. After all, it is not just Peter who was entrusted with the keys. Who did Christ call to spread the good news to the Gentiles? A man whose resume boasted the number of followers killed for confessing Jesus as Lord. I do not know about you, but Paul would not make my short list of nominees for teaching others about Christ. But that’s the point. How I think and how God thinks are two different issues. We are called to think like God. We are called to think like God that trusts a man named Peter with the Keys to Heaven and a man named Paul with the mission of the Church. In the end, they both took up their cross not thinking like everyone else. Perhaps the first step in Christian unity is for every individual to give up their self-centered nature and to seek the mind of the Christ. For as St. Paul says, and it was Paul who at one time breathed fiery threats against every follower of the Lord,

“Christ encourages you, and his love comforts you. God's Spirit unites you, and you are concerned for others. Now make me completely happy! Live in harmony by showing love for each other. Be united in what you think, as if you were only one person. Don't be jealous or proud, but be humble and consider others more important than yourselves. Care about them as much as you care about yourselves and think the same way that Christ Jesus thought: Christ was truly God.
But he did not try to remain equal with God.
Instead he gave up everything and became a slave,
when he became
like one of us.
Christ was humble.
He obeyed God
and even died
on a cross.
Then God gave Christ
the highest place
and honored his name
above all others.
So at the name of Jesus
everyone will bow down,
those in heaven, on earth,
and under the earth.
And to the glory
of God the Father
everyone will openly agree,
"Jesus Christ is Lord!"“ (Philippians 2:1-11, CEV)