This sermon was presented to the 144th General Assembly of The Presbyterian Church in Canada at its meeting in Waterloo, Ontario, as part of the Monday morning worship on the first full day of the Assembly.
“Now the whole group of those who believed were of one heart and [one] soul, and no one claimed private ownership of any possessions…”
As the psalmist would say, “How very good and pleasant it is when kindred live together in unity!”
But really! Do you think it was really like that in the early church?
Someone asks that every time we have a Bible study on Acts chapter 4, don’t they? Did they literally share everything they had with each other? Or is that just an idealized memory of what the early church was like?
It is difficult to imagine a group of people so dedicated to the wellbeing of the community that they give up everything they have for the good of each and every other person. But even if it was true back then, we are well aware that it hasn’t been true for a very, very long time.
The conflicts and divisions in the church got started almost right away, with disagreements about doctrine, conflicts about different gifts, and sometimes a certain degree of unwillingness to fully give and share with the whole community.
And since those earliest days, the church’s history has been marked by one break or schism after another… East from West, Reformed from Catholic, Free from Established, Progressive from Traditional, and on and on into more and more Christian sub-groups.
As you may know, I am just finishing my term as Convenor of the Ecumenical and Interfaith Relations Committee, and ecumenism – Christian unity – is a big deal for me, both professionally and personally. As a Presbyterian minister who is married to a Roman Catholic theologian, I am well aware of both the ongoing divisions between Christians and the unity that we nonetheless share in Christ despite our continuing disagreements on some important matters.
In the Ecumenical Committee’s report to the General Assembly back in 1997, we described our denomination’s commitment to unity like this:
“We recognize the common calling in Christ which we share with all Christians and we seek ways of making visible the unity which God has given us. We affirm one church, one faith, one Lord, sharing in worship, witness and service to the world.
“As part of the Church Universal, we strive to listen to and learn from one another, to break down the barriers which divide people and to promote justice and peace in the whole human family and the integrity of all creation.
“We work towards a church which shares one baptism, celebrates one eucharist and recognizes one ministry. At the same time, we acknowledge that unity is not the same as uniformity and that diversity of polity and practice can be faithfully sustained within Christ’s church.”
You are probably aware that the PCC participates enthusiastically in ecumenical relationships and councils at various levels. One of the international groups to which we belong is the World Communion of Reformed Churches.
In contrast to our historic tendency to disagree and divide, the formation of the WCRC eight years ago (bringing together two other councils of churches) is an example of Reformed Churches making an intentional effort to come together in spite of the differences between us.
There was a lot of theological reflection that went into the formation of the new World Communion of Reformed Churches, and the word “Communion” was chosen very intentionally. “Communion” and “Justice” would be the two foci of the WCRC with an emphasis on unity and sharing between the Reformed Churches of the world, in spite of the great diversity of culture, experience, practice, and theology within the Communion.
As we were preparing to come together into one Communion, the churches described the unity and sharing we envisioned as being like a family in which everything is held in common.
Just think about it: Within families, food and fellowship are shared, important decisions are made together, property is held in common, and vulnerable members are cared for. Families bring together members with diversity in age, experience, gender, skills, and talents, and sometimes also ethnicity, culture, or religion.
Now, I don’t know if you can imagine Christian churches living together in unity, sharing all of their possessions, holding everything in common… but perhaps you can imagine a family living like that. Perhaps you belong to a family that lives like that – what’s mine is yours, and what’s yours is mine.
That’s what my family is like. We share ownership of our home. Our money goes into the same bank account. We eat the same food. We take care of each other’s needs. And generally speaking, we are of one heart and soul.
But, you know, it’s not that long ago that a lot of Christians would have said that my marriage wouldn’t work. Or, at least they would have said that it wasn’t a very good idea. There was an article in the Presbyterian Record in the 1960s titled, “So you’re going to marry a Roman Catholic?” and it came with all kinds of dire warnings about the troubles Presbyterians would encounter if they decided to marry across denominational lines. Those deep differences just could not be reconciled, or so many people thought at the time. It was simply inconceivable.
Inconceivable! That word always reminds me of one of my favourite movies when I was growing up in the 1980s – The Princess Bride. Do you remember the three outlaws that kidnap the Princess Buttercup near the beginning of the story? They are pursued by a masked man in black, who turns out to be Westley, the farm boy who loved Buttercup.
As they are sailing away with Buttercup at night, they look back and see another ship following them. “Inconceivable!” exclaims Vizzini. “No one could have known that we were here with the princess!”
Then they try to escape by climbing a rope up the massive “Cliffs of Insanity” with the giant Fezzik carrying the others up to the top. But when they look down, the man in black is climbing too, and he’s gaining on them. “Inconceivable!” shouts Vizzini. “No one but a giant is strong enough to climb a rope like that!”
Next, the man in black duels with Inigo Montoya, the Spanish fencing master, knocks him unconscious, and continues his pursuit to rescue Buttercup. That also is “inconceivable” to Vizzini, but the chase continues.
The man in black then survives a fight with the giant, Fezzik, getting past him to face Vizzini in a battle of wits. All of this was “inconceivable” to Vizzini, and yet it happened. The man in black was triumphant.
Now, maybe it was because he was the smartest, strongest, bravest man of them all. But I think the story-teller would suggest that it was TRUE LOVE that enabled Westley to be victorious. It was TRUE LOVE that made what was inconceivable into a reality.
For many of us in The Presbyterian Church in Canada right now, it’s not unity with other Reformed Churches, or unity with the Catholics that is our biggest concern right now. We’re worried about the internal unity of our little Presbyterian Church in this part of the world. We are currently deep in discussion and debate over appropriate sexual expression that seems to be dividing our church right down the middle.
Our tendency is to believe that we must convince the others to change their minds, to change their position on the questions at hand. How can we be unified as one church with this difference of conviction? It’s inconceivable to many of us.
Many people have asked Interchurch Families a similar question. How can you have unity in your marriage when one of you is Reformed and one is Catholic? Why don’t you convince him to convert? Or maybe you should switch for the sake of agreement.
But our experience has shown us that diversity on various questions can actually live together, even within the same family. Because even though we have differences, we have something much bigger and stronger that binds us together, and that is TRUE LOVE.
And I don’t mean TRUE LOVE in the overly romanticized way that it is demonstrated in The Princess Bride. I mean the TRUE LOVE that Paul writes about in his letter to the Corinthians – love that is patient and kind, love that is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude. I mean the TRUE LOVE that is enacted in the marriages and families of Christians who have made vows of faithfulness and love before God and their communities of faith.
Even if you’re not married to a Roman Catholic, I know that many of you have learned from your own experience that a great diversity can be held together within the LOVE of a family. Think of all the diversity that is held together within your family or other families you know… diversity of age, gender, culture, background, race, political perspective, and even religious conviction.
If we can hold all of that together within our families… while still loving, respecting, and caring for each other, and holding everything in common… can’t we do the same within our congregations, and within our denomination?
Right now, it may seem inconceivable to many among us. We can’t imagine what it might look like, what it might feel like to disagree and yet to stay together and make space for our differences, to care for each other’s needs and hold all things in common. But I believe that with TRUE LOVE, we can do it.
The good news is that the TRUE LOVE of God has been made known to us in Jesus Christ and has been poured into our hearts by the gift of the Holy Spirit.
As we meet together these next few days, may the Spirit grant us glimpses of the unity Christ desires for us. May God bless us with glad and generous hearts. And may the inconceivable become the reality through the true love of God.