April 12, 2015

Acts 4:32-35
Psalm 133
1 John 1:1 – 2:2
John 20:19-31

“Unity: How Good It Is!”

Oh look and wonder, how good it is! Oh look and wonder, how good it is! How good it is when kindred live in harmony together, joyous and sweet as life God gives on Zion evermore. (Sung: Book of Praise, #93)

How good it is, indeed, when families get along with each other and enjoy spending time together in work, in leisure, and in rest. If you spent time with your family last weekend over Easter, you may be reflecting either on how wonderful it was to get together, or on how difficult it was because of conflicts, or tensions, or misunderstandings between family members.

How good it is, indeed, when church families enjoy coming together to worship, serve, and share fellowship together! Last Sunday after our Easter service, I couldn’t help but notice and celebrate the fact that many people hung around for quite a long time over coffee and conversation in the lower hall. Children were playing, adults were talking, almost everyone was smiling and laughing, and there were even pictures being taken to remember the day.

How good it would be if all Christians could come together in this way – not only in social life, but in shared faith and common worship of God in Jesus Christ. Although we are taking steps towards greater cooperation and sharing, the Body of Christ continues to be divided because of differences in doctrine, church structure, and practice.

How good it would be if all people could live in harmony also – if we could recognize that as human beings we are all children of God, and if our common humanity could lead us to treat each other with respect, dignity, and compassion. How good it would be if Christians could love one another as Christ loved us, and if all people could treat one another as we wish to be treated ourselves.

Oh look and wonder, how good it is! Oh look and wonder, how good it is!

The description of the early Christian Church at Jerusalem definitely provides something for us to wonder about. The Book of Acts tells us that the whole “community of believers was one in heart and mind. None of them would say, ‘This is mine!’ about any of their possessions, but held everything in common.”

In a way, it makes me think of a nuclear family in which the goal is to provide for the needs of the whole family. One or more adults may work to earn an income. One or more adults may nurture and educate the children. The home is shared, as are most of the possessions. Everyone is fed, and clothed, and provided for because they are members of the family.

I guess there’s something instinctive that makes parents want to care for the needs of their children (at least, most of the time). And even if spouses have their struggles from time to time, at least at the beginning they committed to care for each other through good times and bad, and to be faithful through thick and thin.

But the community of believers that we hear about in the Book of Acts was not a nuclear family. It wasn’t even just a gathering of Jesus’ closest friends – say, the group that was with him at the Last Supper. If that was the group, it would not be surprising that the first Christians were caring for each other and making sure that no one was in need. They had been through so much together already that they must have been very close.

But in fact, the community of believers was much larger and much more diverse than Jesus’ inner circle of disciples. Back in the first chapter of Acts, there are about 120 believers. Then in chapter two, the Holy Spirit is poured out on them and they begin to proclaim the gospel in all the languages of the world. Jews from every nation who are living in Jerusalem hear them and listen to Peter’s preaching also. And by the time he finishes speaking, about 3000 people are baptized and join the community of the believers.

And that’s the group that, in chapter four, is sharing their possessions, holding property in common, and making sure that no one is in need.

Oh look and wonder, how good it is! Oh look and wonder, how good it is!

Of course, I know that it didn’t take long before the early Christians were struggling with unity too. Paul’s letters to the Church at Corinth a few years later show that the Christians did start to associate themselves with particular apostles and sub-groups. And when the diversity went beyond Jews from different lands and languages to include Gentiles as well, it challenged them to open their minds and hearts to accept more and more difference and diversity.

When I look around our congregation today, I rejoice in the diversity of our members – in age, experience, income, culture, and background. St. Andrew’s is no longer a group of Scottish immigrants, but we are blessed with the gifts and experiences of people from many different places and cultures.

In addition to cultural diversity, our congregation includes a fairly wide spectrum of theological diversity. We don’t all read the Bible exactly the same way. We don’t all approach mission the same way. We don’t all come to exactly the same conclusions about God or Christ, heaven and hell, the church, worship, and sacraments, or what it means to follow Jesus with our lives today.

And yet, we all belong here. We are bound together by our shared faith in Christ and our desire to seek God’s will and follow the way of Jesus. We have chosen to be a part of a Presbyterian Church whose only King and Head is Christ, but that is led by elders – lay people and clergy working together in Sessions, Presbyteries, Synods, and General Assemblies, to discern where the Spirit is leading us as a church.

Many of you have probably heard that there will be an important conversation happening at General Assembly this year. The national meeting of our church will take place in Vancouver in the first week of June, and several overtures from Presbyteries and Sessions will be received as usual. Overtures are one of the ways that local churches can make suggestions and proposals to the wider church community, and this year there will be a few overtures that ask the General Assembly to consider making the church more explicitly welcoming and inclusive to LGBT Christians.

Many Presbyterians are wondering and perhaps worrying about how this conversation will go. Some hope that we will move together towards full inclusion of people with different sexual orientations. Some hope that we will take a firm stand against same-sex marriage and the acceptance of same-sex relationships as a valid option for Christians.

I, like most people, have an opinion about which way I think this ought to go. But I have another concern also. I am concerned about the unity of the church. I am concerned about how we can have this difficult conversation – recognizing our differences and our diversity – and at the same time maintain our respect, care, and compassion for one another.

A few months ago, I went to a presentation by an evangelical ministry called, “New Direction Ministries Canada.” Interestingly, “New Direction” used to be a Christian ministry that aimed to help homosexual Christians to become heterosexual (or at least celibate) Christians. But over the years, the ministry changed as its staff worked with gay Christians and learned from their experience.

Today, “New Direction” tries to help churches to engage in loving, respectful conversation about sexual orientation, and to build churches that are open and hospitable to all people. Now, that doesn’t mean that everyone on their staff believes that same-sex relationships are an appropriate choice for Christians. Some do, and some don’t.

The staff who shared their stories at the event I attended included a lesbian married couple, as well as a gay man who has chosen to be celibate. Both had struggled with the Scriptures and with their own experience of same-sex attraction and came to different conclusions about how they believe God is calling them to live their lives. But they could work together as a team with respect and care for each other, and help others to honestly consider and discuss the difficult questions around sexuality and the church.

Oh look and wonder, how good it is! Oh look and wonder, how good it is!

The director of “New Direction,” Wendy VanderWal-Gritter, has written a book titled, “Generous Spaciousness,” that encourages churches to make space for a diversity of conviction on this issue, just as we make space for diversity of opinion on so many other issues of doctrine and practice within the Christian community. It makes me wonder if there is a way for our Presbyterian Church in Canada to move forward together, rather than coming to a conclusion that is unacceptable to a large portion of the members of our church.

With the Spirit’s help, can we discern a way to make space for one another with our differences on this issue that impacts so many of our lives so deeply? Are we bound together strongly enough by our shared faith in God and our common love for Jesus that we can live with some different convictions about sexuality? I pray that we are.

Earlier this week at St. Andrew’s Session meeting, we discussed the fact that the full inclusion of LGBT Presbyterians will be up for discussion at the General Assembly in June. And we agreed that it might be helpful for our local church community to have a chance to discuss it also. In the next few weeks, I promised to provide some more information about what will be discussed at the Assembly, and we decided to have a conversation about it in May once the General Assembly reports and overtures are made available.

If you want to mark down the date, we’re going to have an evening of sharing and discussion on Wednesday, May 27th, here at St. Andrew’s. I think what is most likely to happen at General Assembly is the initiation of a study process and a conversation in the church (rather than a final decision being made) and we will endeavour to provide opportunities here in Saskatoon to engage with the whole church in this important conversation.

Today’s Scriptures remind us that the unity of the church is a gift from God that can exist with an amazing diversity of people who are bound together by their faith in God and their desire to follow Jesus. Where we have hurt one another and divided in the past, the Spirit gives us the power to forgive and be reconciled. And this is necessary because fellowship with God is not the sum total of being a Christian. We are called to fellowship with one another – to strive for unity in Christ with all the wonderful diversity of the many members of the one body.

May God help us, as together we discern the way forward as a church. May God bind us together in love, and keep us together in unity in Christ.

Oh look and wonder, how good it is! Oh look and wonder, how good it is!