Saturday, January 21, 2017

500 years of 95 Theses: 3rd Sunday OT

Paul wrote two long letters to the Corinthians; he clearly has a lot to say to them. But the very first thing he chooses to focus on - after some greetings and encouragement - the first thing Paul wants to write about is division within the Corinthian church. He’s just out of the gate, and he’s worked up, and he’s calling them out. “You have these slogans: ‘I am for Paul,’ ‘I am for Apollos,’ ‘I am for Cephas,’ ‘I am for Christ.’ Has Christ been divided? Was it Paul who was crucified for you? Were you baptized in the name of Paul?”

I think you could pick any time and place in the history of the Church, and Paul could call us out on this very same thing. Staying together, staying united, is one of the hardest things the Gospel demands. It doesn’t sound like it should be, but I think history proves that it is.


This may not have happened and if it did was probably
way less dramatic than you think, but that's not going to
slow my roll right now.
Today, when people talk about unity and division in the Church, maybe the first thing that comes to
mind is the fracturing of the Church in what’s usually called the Reformation. It began in Europe five hundred years ago and has been followed by division upon division upon division. Like a crack in a pane of glass that branches off and webs out until one crack becomes a hundred… or, in this case, many thousands. And when I say it began five hundred years ago, I’m not rounding. Martin Luther posted his famous 95 Theses in 1517, making this year the quincentennial (and yes, I had to look up that word). There’s plenty of controversial history there that I won’t touch right now, but for many Christians, this is an event to commemorate with celebration and gratitude. For others - including, by the way, many Protestants - it’s something tragic and catastrophic.

Which isn’t to say that the Church wasn’t in need of reform in 1517… I’ve never met anyone who said it wasn’t. To me, it’s like if you’ve got a beautiful glass globe that’s got some dirt on it. And you decide that grime is intolerable, and you want to expose the clear glass inside. Well, one way to expose that clear glass is to clean the globe. Another way is to take a sledge hammer and smash it into ten thousand pieces.

I don’t think the second way is the best. And ironically, if you take that route, you’ll be finding out very soon that ten thousand little jagged pieces are a heck of a lot harder to keep clean than one globe.

I'm saying that's what happened; I’m not saying it's all Luther's fault or that it's what he wanted. We don’t know the intentions of his heart. We know he suffered from extreme scrupulosity that the Church of his time did much to aggravate and little to heal. We know he saw scandals going on that would be intolerable to any of us. We know that as time went by, the debate he’d started spun out of control until the result was something that no one could have foreseen at the start.

But we also know that division in the Church is always a tragedy. Leave the argument for some other time about how to apportion the blame... boring. If we're wise we probably figure there's plenty of blame to go around. Right now I’m not considering who’s to blame so much as who suffers — and the answer is that we all do.

I look at our separated brethren who have such deep love for Jesus, such devotion to His Word, such a drive to share Him with everyone, and I think how badly we need those gifts in the Church, and how impoverished we are to be divided. I also think about how Jesus instituted Sacramental life, culminating in the gift of His Body and Blood not just as a symbol but as a Real Presence, and I think how impoverished we are that so many Christians are deprived of that.

When we look at divisions in the Church today, our first thought shouldn’t be about how we disagree with each other. Our first thought should be that we need each other.  Maybe then, we’ll make better progress on the disagreements — which we do have, and which must be dealt with. Not for the sake of vanquishing an enemy, but for the sake of reuniting a broken family who need each other.

That is an overwhelmingly powerful reason to want Christian unity, but there’s another reason even higher and more urgent still. It’s not only that we Christians need each other; it’s that the world needs us.  When Jesus prays for unity in John 17, He prays that His disciples, “…may all be one, as you, Father, are in me and I in you, that they also may be in us, that the world may believe that you sent me.” And as He continues praying, He repeats and amplifies:  “And I have given them the glory you gave me, so that they may be one, as we are one, I in them and you in me, that they may be brought to perfection as one, that the world may know that you sent me, and that you loved them even as you loved me.”

Why does Jesus want us to be one? Why does He command it? “That the world may believe.” This is, at bottom, about mission. Unity in the Church is mission-critical. Our witness is crippled by our divisions. Not to say it’s completely destroyed — it certainly isn’t — but it’s severely damaged.

We can’t fix that by pretending that doctrine doesn’t matter. We Catholics, for example, can’t say “well we need to come together so we’ll give on this Eucharist thing if you give on the Pope.” And some of these differences in doctrine may seem insurmountable, and they may be insurmountable today. But the Holy Spirit can lead us somewhere different tomorrow. He can build the road in front of us if we’re willing to start walking.


If we’re talking about division in the Church, that’s a much broader topic than Catholicism and Protestantism - much broader! But we are just beginning the quincentennial year of the Reformation, and that would seem to deserve a special focus.

And there are concrete things we can do to help. The unifying work of the Spirit isn’t only among global religious leaders, it’s also in what happens at the local and personal level. When you hear someone attacking the Church with some old canard — worshiping statues or something — mount a defense. Speak up. Not a counter-attack, but an explanation. “Hey, I happen to be Catholic, and I’ve never worshipped a statue, and I’ve never seen anyone worship a statue, and if they did we’d call them out for idolatry. I think you’ve been listening to people who don’t really know what they’re talking about.”

Speaking of old canards, be careful not to perpetuate any yourself. “Those Baptists think you just have to say ‘I accept Jesus as my Lord and Savior’ and then you can go commit mass murder and go straight to heaven.” Really? Does that sound like it might be a bit of a caricature? How many Baptists have you asked about it? How much effort did you spend trying to understand their doctrine? Maybe it’s a bit more nuanced than that.

It might seem like complete unity is a pipe dream, but if you take a long view, I think it’s amazing that we’ve come so far so fast. Listen to the stories about Catholic-Protestant relations in our part of the world from just a single generation ago: it’s amazing how far we’ve come. And look at how we can work together today, with something like Christmas food baskets. Look at how many Protestant Christians leap into action when a Catholic church suffers a disaster, and vice versa, in the flood in 2011 or the tornado in 2012. We cooperate constantly in the ministry of the local food pantry, operated by a Methodist church. That’s amazing — not just because it gives us warm fuzzies, but because it’s a witness that Jesus is Lord, a witness so that the nations may come to believe.

So we have a lot to be grateful for, and we have a lot of work to do. It’ll be the work of more generations to come. We can’t accomplish Christian unity by simply watering down our doctrine until it becomes something so bland that there’s nothing left to offend anyone. It’s going to be harder than that. I don’t hesitate to say it’s going to take a miracle. Fine, good! Everybody loves miracles. This is going to be a great one.

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