In Today’s reading from St. Paul’s letter to the Corinthians, Paul is appealing to the church in Corinth to avoid divisions and dissension among themselves. It is clear that some Corinthian church member felt that because of the particular pathway—by which they had become Christians—they deserved a “higher” or “better” standing. Paul indicates that these quarrels revolved around whether they had come to the faith by the preaching of Paul, or by the ministry of Apollos, or by the teachings of Cephas, or even by strict adherence to the words of Jesus himself.
There is small comfort—as in the “misery loves company” form of comfort—knowing that this problem of divisions in the church is not limited to our day, but occurred even in the very earliest days of the Christian community.
I would like to spend a few minutes with you today talking about three areas of division, dissension and separation. These three issues might be broken out in these ways:
First, the claim by some in the Christian community to the singular, ultimate and exclusive religious truth over against all other world’s religions. This is the widest gap—the biggest canvass on which this division is seen.
We have Christian groups organized with the expressed purpose of converting Jews—“Jews for Jesus” is their name. Many of us have little or no understanding of Eastern religions, even though some of the expressions of Eastern spirituality have been in vogue for the last several decades. Islam is viewed by many Christians as a barbaric and incendiary religious faith—an attitude which lurks beneath many of our attitudes toward the Middle East—attitudes that have spawned a present war—attitudes that have become highly political and economic as well as religious.
The late Urban Holmes, a seminary professor and dean a number of years ago, used to tell this story concerning Christian attitudes toward other faiths. “Holmes was flying to Winnipeg, Manitoba seated in front of a Hindu, whose companion in the next seat turned out to be a spirit-filled development director for an evangelical college. His home base, he announced to the gentle Hindu next to him was Dallas, Texas, and he was going to take the word of the Lord to the students and faculty at the University of Manitoba. From Minneapolis to Fargo, and from Fargo to Winnipeg, he cited biblical passage after biblical passage to his Hindu seatmate in an earnest effort to convert him to Jesus, while feigning a kind of tolerance for the Hindu that was, at best, condescending. Terry Holms said he worried for the quiet Indian man who responded to every intrusion with polite disinterest. As the plane landed in Winnipeg, the Hindu finally commented ever so gently to the ardent Christian man next to him, ‘Sir, I thought your Jesus lived long ago in Palestine. It strikes me that the man you have been describing to me is more like an aggressive banker from Dallas, Texas!’”
We Christians would do swell to come to a fuller understanding and grounding of other religions without simply viewing them as fertile ground for evangelical proselytizing because we perceive them to be bereft of the ultimate in religious truth.
Carl Sandburg was once asked, “What is the most obscene word in the English language?” Sandburg replied, “Exclusiveness.”
Perhaps our own faith would become more precious to us if we were to know more about the beliefs of others.
The second and narrower area of religious division, divisiveness and exclusivism is without our own religious faith—Christianity. I remember over 30 years ago predicting, in a sermon I preached at a Roman Catholic church during a Week of Christian Unity, that certainly within my lifetime Episcopalians and Roman Catholics would at least come to enjoy inter-communion with one another. With 20/20 hindsight we all know that was a pretty naïve viewpoint. If anything, most of us are more and more pessimistic about whether wider inter-communion and religious sharing will move forward at any significant pace. The division that exists between evangelical, fundamentalist Christians and those of us, who belong to a main-line religious faith, is sharper than it has been in the past. I believe that there is plenty of room for many Christian faith expressions, as there is room for different ways of approaching Jesus, reflecting our various cultures, our liturgical tastes, musical traditions and historical truths. But any exclusive claim on Christian truth, vividly symbolized by the “exclusive” truth of Christianity is an affront to God as God is revealed in Jesus Christ.
As Alfred North Whitehead once said, “Religions commit suicide when they find their inspiration in their dogmas.”
The third—and even more narrow—set of divisions can be found without our own denomination—the Episcopal Church. We used to be divided among “high church” or “low church”. And then we were divided over the “old prayer book versus the “new” prayer book. And then over the decision is 1976 to ordain women to the diaconate and priesthood. And where are we on the screed today? We’re radically divided in the Episcopal Church and the Anglican Communion over whether sexually active persons of the same gender should or should not be ordained and whether “marriage” or “civil unions” should and can be celebrated for lesbian and gay members of our churches. We argue over scripture—the interpretation of the word of God. We argue over the person and authority of Jesus—is Jesus divine and human, or just divine, or simply human—and yes—we argue over whether we should be “inclusive” or “exclusive” in inviting other people to our various parish communities of faith.
With all of these upheavals going on, we might just take a page from St. Paul’s own notebook. He seems to condemn the spirit of those who quarrel, not the content of the quarrel itself. Paul exposes the common error, not the respective claim. Dissent and disagreement is precious to the discernment of religious truth…but the making of an exclusive claim on absolute religious truth over all others tears and rips away at the very fabric of the love of Jesus Christ.
One last thought: are there, then, no ultimate principles and precepts upon which we can say, “this is true, or, that is false?” “This is right and that is wrong?” “This is good and that is evil?” What are the grounds, if any that we can attempt to make value judgments between and among religions and varied opinions in our own church?
I think Paul, again, puts his finger on the answer. He says, “that which empties the cross of Christ of its power” is acting in a wrong way.”
What is the “power of the Cross?” What does the “cross of Christ” represent? It represents ultimate and unconditional love among human beings and for God. The “cross of Christ” represents the sacrifice of a life lived in the love and grace of God.
As hard as it may be—as hard as it may seem—we are called to such an unconditional love. And we are called, as a community of Christian faith, to substitute self-sacrifice for self-righteousness. Generosity of spirit over narrow-mindedness is the way in which Jesus wishes us to live and to love.
Otherwise, I think Carl Sandburg was right on target: “the most obscene word in the English language is ‘exclusiveness’.”