Tuesday, January 25, 2005

Epiphany 4A: Quarrels and Community

The four gospels agree that at the very beginning of Jesus’ ministry he summoned the fishermen, Peter, Andrew, James, and John, to follow him. We have heard this story so often that we assume it was inevitable, but imagine alternative ways Jesus could have begun his public ministry. Jesus could have gone by himself to Jerusalem and proclaimed the advent of God’s kingdom; he could have simply gone around healing and teaching without summoning anyone to follow him; or perhaps he could have transmitted his teachings by writing them down on a papyrus scroll. But he started out by inviting four fishermen to follow him.

We could dwell at length on the significance of Jesus’ choice of fishermen to be his first disciples. They were simple men with little, if any, education, and no doubt there is much significance of Jesus’ choice of the poor and simple to be his first followers. But what interests me most is not whom he chose but that he chose at all.

By summoning these fishermen to follow him, Jesus was telling us three things: First, the Christian faith is a communal enterprise. You can pray and read the Bible in the privacy of your own home, but you cannot be a Christian alone. Someone taught you to pray and read the Bible. Someone baptized you. And holy communion is not like a frozen chicken pot pie; it involves breaking bread with others, not grabbing a snack in front of the TV.

Second, it follows that love is central to the Christian faith, because community is impossible without love. One of my favorite quotations is from The Irony of American History by Reinhold Niebuhr: “Nothing we do however virtuous can be accomplished alone; therefore we are saved by love.” Love is essential to community, because love is a verb, not a noun. Love is what we do, not just a nice feeling. Love is necessary for the creation and maintenance of community because community (as Parker Palmer reminds us) is “that place where the person you least want to live with always lives!" Love is what enables us to smile when the head of the Flower Guild rearranges the flowers we have placed on the altar. Love is what a pastor needs when an angry parishioner takes her to task for her sermon on the Iraq war. Love is what a lot of us need when our old and well-loved hymns are replaced by a five word, three chord chorus, and the words are projected on the wall via PowerPoint.

Finally, Jesus’ choice of three fishermen to be his followers means that there will be quarrels and divisions in the church, because wherever two or three are gathered there will be at least three or four different opinions. And this has been the case from first century Palestine to twenty-first century Philadelphia or London or Rome. Today’s reading from First Corinthians illustrates the point: “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. For it has been reported to me by Chloe's people that there are quarrels among you…”

Counselors frequently say that married couples need to learn how to have healthy fights, because there is no couple that will not occasionally have a sharp disagreement. Similarly, the church needs to learn how to have healthy fights. We need to learn how to be frank and straightforward with each other; to challenge points of view that we believe to be in error; to confront one another in love when we see inappropriate behavior. We are wrong if we either rush to consensus on a topic or if we never take a stand for fear of alienating a faction within the church. A church that engages in spirited debate not only needs to know how to fight, it also needs to know how to ask for forgiveness.

One of my favorite prayers in the Book of Common Prayer is in the wedding ceremony. We pray that the newly married couple would have the grace “when they hurt each to seek each other’s forgiveness” as well as God’s forgiveness. Note that the prayer says “when they hurt each other” not “if they hurt each other,” because life in community, even a community of two people who are in love with each other, will inevitably lead at some point to pain and the need to say “I’m sorry.”

We make two equally disastrous mistakes in the Christian church. The first is to over-emphasize doctrine and the second is to under-emphasize it. Some of our more progressive leaders, e.g., Bishop Spong, argue that our unity is constituted exclusively by becoming Christ’s disciples through baptism. For them, fidelity to historic doctrinal principles is virtually tantamount to idolatry. The second group argues that the Christian faith is constituted by close adherence to a set of propositions that have been passed down through the centuries, especially the creeds and holy scripture.

The truth is somewhere in between. The progressive group is right about the bedrock of our unity. Ultimately, we are Christians because we have been incorporated in Christ in baptism. But the more conservative group is right to emphasize doctrine because, while doctrines are not the path itself, they are (if you will) the signs that help us stay on the path of faithful discipleship.

The summons Jesus issued to the fishermen long ago he still issues to us today: “Come, follow me.” He did not promise that we would like our fellow disciples or that we would always get along with each other. Indeed, if the New Testament’s picture of the early church is to be believed, then we are in for occasional black eyes and bloody noses. But after we have had our say and heard each other out, then we need to hear Paul’s admonition again: “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.”

O God the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, our only Savior, the Prince of Peace: Give us grace seriously to lay to heart the great dangers we are in by our unhappy divisions; take away all hatred and prejudice, and whatever else may hinder us from godly union and concord; that, as there is but one Body and one Spirit, one hope of our calling, one Lord, one Faith, one Baptism, one God and Father of us all, so we may be all of one heart and of one soul, united in one holy bond of truth and peace, of faith and charity, and may with one mind and one mouth glorify thee; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen. (A prayer for the unity of the Church from the Book of Common Prayer)