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September 20th, 2014

(In response to concerns expressed by many of us in North Carolina over the UCC’s April lawsuit against our state’s Amendment One, our denomination’s General Minister and President came to North Carolina in August.  Rev. Geoffrey A. Black interacted with concerned church members and clergy in two locations on Saturday, August 23.  He was also invited to preach at Corinth Reformed Church Sunday, August 24, in the 11:00 Traditional worship service.   Rev. Black sent me the sermon manuscript at my request to share more widely.  I do want to acknowledge his own caveat that the written form is never exactly like the spoken sermon.  I can relate!)

 

One Body- A Meditation on the Quest for Christian Unity

Sermon by Geoffrey A. Black

General Minister and President, United Church of Christ

Corinth Reformed Church (UCC), Hickory, NC

August 24, 2014

 

“So we, who are many, are one body in Christ, and individually we are members one of another.”  (Romans 12:5)

Greetings:

Good morning Corinth Reformed United Church of Christ!

I bring you greetings from the whole UCC and especially from my colleagues in the national ministries of the church – from Ben Guess, from Linda Jaramillo and from Jim Moos.

Thanksgiving:

Thank you for the invitation to worship with you today. Thank you for your gracious hospitality. Thank you for your support of you pastor, Bob Thompson and Thank you for your renewed support of the mission of the Southern Conference of the United Church of Christ through your giving to OCWM.

Reflections on the Text

Readings from scripture are taken from the common lectionary, which is one of the ways we approach the use of scripture in worship on the Christian Church. Bob tells me that here at Corinth Church, the lectionary is not used and that is fine. I am sure that you have other creative ways to approach scripture in worship. Many churches do. In fact it is noteworthy that while some denominations follow the lectionary as a rule for all in an attempt to achieve an experience of unity in worship throughout the church, there are yet several versions of the lectionary. Even in this attempt to be one body, through use of the lectionary, we get close, but only close.

Our reading from the Paul’s letter to the church at Rome provides an occasion for us to explore the theme of the Unity of the Church of Jesus Christ specifically through Paul’s use of the human body as a metaphor for the church. This is not the only time Paul uses this metaphor, but we do hear it today. This letter to the Romans serves more as an introduction of Paul’s views on the Christian faith to the church at Rome, which unlike the churches addressed in Paul’s authentic letters, was a church that he had not established.

He says to the Christians at Rome in this treatise on the church: “For by the grace given to me I say to everyone among you not to think of yourself more highly than you ought to think, but to think with sober judgment, each according to the measure of faith that God has assigned. For as in one body we have many members, and not all the members have the same function, so we, who are many, are one body in Christ, and individually we are members one of another.”

In this passage, Paul is doing a few things that I would like to point out.

First of all he is calling for humility.

Secondly his is acknowledging difference.

And finally, he is pointing out the source of connectedness and unity, Jesus Christ.

A Challenge to the Church

From its earliest days, the Christian Church has struggled with this notion of unity. Yet we all know that the Apostle Paul called for it and envisioned it and more importantly, Jesus envisioned it and in the writings of the one who wrote the Gospel According to John Jesus even prayed for it.

“I do not pray for these alone, but also for those who will believe in me through their word; that they may all be one, as you, Father, are in me, and I in you, that they may also be one in us, that the world may believe that you sent me.” John 17:20-21

Indeed this unity we seek, this one body, has a purpose, a very important purpose.  In the eyes of others, in the world of disbelief or non-belief, it establishes credibility to our faith in Jesus and our faith in God.

If you ever want to get an in depth view of the struggles Christianity with the challenge of Unity, I would recommend this book to you. The title is: “Christianity, the First Three Thousand Years” by Diarmaid MacCulloch. In this extensive work (and I have not gotten through all of it) MacCulloch chronicles just about every church conflict and breach of relationship you can imagine, It leads me to wonder whether Christian Unity Is to be found in our lack of unity.

When I leave you today, I will be on my way to a meeting of the Executive Committee of the National Council of Churches.  Earlier this summer, I attended the meeting of the Central Committee of the World Council of Churches. These are at times very challenging environments. The variations of perspective and priorities and of theological outlook and faith practice among Christians around this nation and around the world are so great.

Yet, we in the United Church of Christ persist in our engagement. Christian Unity is central to our identity. We embrace the concept of being united and uniting.  Our motto is: “that they may all be one.”  While many denominations are organized around a particular theological outlook, form of worship and faith practice, the United Church of Christ affirms and a spectrum of theological views and faith practices often drawn from other traditions. We strive to embody an expression of Christian unity.

People have come to the United Church of Christ bringing gifts. Today many, if not most members of the United Church of Christ began their faith journey in a tradition other than the United Church of Christ. Some were raised Methodist. Others come from Baptist traditions. Actually, people have come to the UCC from a full range of Christian traditions including Pentecostal, Roman Catholic, and even a few Orthodox Christians. While it is true that many of these people were intentionally leaving something behind, they also bring to the United Church of Christ some of the richness of those traditions. For that we give thanks and praise God.

We are coming up on the 500th Anniversary of the Protestant Reformation, that historic event from which this church derives part of its name. The Reformation signals an important turning point in Christian history, one which we celebrate for its opening to the form of Christian faith and practice that we cherish, devoid of hierarchy, focused on the centrality of scripture, the preached word and the sovereignty of God among other things. But the Reformation also represents a breach in relationship among Christians that had not previously existed.

As we remember the 100th Anniversary of WWI, we are also acknowledging that Christians have fought wars against each other. As we recall that war, think of the story of the Christmas Day Truce when in 1914 miraculously British and German soldiers stopped shooting at each other, laid down their weapons left their trenches and socialized, exchanged gifts and even played soccer! There were believers on both sides of the battle line, who soon resumed their shooting in a war that went on for several years.

These are instances are historic in nature and while they are relevant, this last week I was reminded of the absence of Christian Unity in the midst of current event. I was invited by UCC leaders in Ferguson, MO to come visit them, because they were in the midst of a true crisis.

Here the divide is racial. Christians find themselves on both sides of this racial divide that is grounded in the history of this nation. African Americans are Christian. Euro-Americans are Christian. Yet, racism is a thread that is woven throughout the social fabric of the nation and it results in negative stereotyping leading to violence and ultimately death. In light of this reality, Christians on either side of the racial divide struggle to experience their unity in Christ.

The Good News!

The Good News is in the struggle to achieve Christian Unity. Perhaps it is the ideal for which we strive and in the striving find moments of grace where we experience just enough of this ideal to want it achieve it even more.

This morning I want to close with a story a true story from that recent meeting of the world Council of churches. All members of the Central Committee are given a Sub-Committee assignment when they arrive.

I was assigned to the Program and Reference Committee, a committee that works on membership and program review. I participated in the meetings of this committee dutifully, but not with much enthusiasm or any expectation that anything of real importance would happen.  The first order of business was review of a program document on the theme of “Pilgrimage of Justice and Peace.” That was our work for the first two days.  However on the third day we came to what seemed to be a very routine item the admission of Churches who had applied for membership.

As it happened one of the churches applying for membership was actually reapplying for membership. This was a church that had been a founding member of the World Council, The Dutch Reformed Church of South Africa.

Many of you may recall that the Dutch Reformed Church had embraced a theology that supported and even justified Apartheid in South Africa. For people of my generation here in the United States and people around the world this stance on the part of the Dutch Reformed Church was abhorrent and totally unacceptable. For that reason the World Council of Churches, after much soul wrenching deliberation, expelled the Dutch Reformed Church as a member Communion.

This was a severe blow to the unity that the World Council of Churches had always aspired to achieve. It undermined the very purpose of the Council. Unfortunately, the Dutch Reformed Church of South Africa remained estranged from the World Council of Churches for decades.

On the agenda for the committee that third day, was the application for re-admission to membership in the World Council of the Dutch reformed Church. In that moment I realized that I was about to witness church history in the making.  It was a moment of repentance, forgiveness and grace.

Leaders of the DRC on South Africa who were present spoke with us about the fact that as a church they had “lost their way by attempting to offer a theological justification for Apartheid.” They also professed to have experience a “radical conversion by the grace of God.” Their testimony was received with humility and joy. In that moment we all experienced reconciliation, holy reconciliation and most of all the unity of the Church of Jesus Christ.

Good News like this does not happen every day, but it happens and that is the good news for us to remember as we struggle with any issue that divides.

It is good news that brings us into relationship as children of God. It is the Good News that builds community. It is the Good News that transforms and changes lives. It is the Good News that makes us one in Christ!

We may have differences of experience and or outlook. We may at times take issue with each other, lose trust with each other and even experience anger and alienation. All of that is real, but so is the movement of God’s Holy Spirit in our midst and that, my friends, is truly good news!  Amen.

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