“I believe in the Holy Catholic Church, the Communion of Saints . .”
This coming Sunday is World Communion Sunday – a Sunday in which we celebrate the unity of the church within and beyond our cultural and denominational differences across the world. Alas, even as I think about this unity, I cannot help but think about the present powerful divisions within our society, and then, too, about the divisions that have so often afflicted the very church whose unity we celebrate.
For example, some of the divides in both church and society focus on . . .
- Doctrine – we disagree over certain understandings of the truth (in the church – the role and interpretation of the Bible; in our American society – living constitutionalists and originalists).
- Organization and power – we disagree on who holds power and how it is to be wielded (in the church – bishops, pastors or lay leaders?)
- Atmosphere – we disagree on levels of formality and informality; pomp and circumstance versus simplicity (high church or low church; rural/western or eastern elites)
- Essential tasks – (evangelism or social action; personal piety or public engagement, maximizing or minimizing government involvement, regulation and spending).
In the church, our Presbyterian tradition, stemming from the 16th century Reformation, has frequently (though not always) tried to take a middle path in many of these issues, opting for “both/and” rather than “either/or” wherever possible.
And for good reason: the disciples chosen by Jesus were hardly a perfect bunch, and the mixture of backgrounds must at times have been abrasive. Think of Matthew whose work as a tax collector for the Romans occupation forces would have been seen as collusion with the enemy; yet Matthew had been called by Jesus to live side-by-side with Simon — not Simon Peter, but Simon the Zealot (Luke 6:13), whose party affiliation (with the Zealot party) indicated that he thought that the only good Roman was a dead Roman. Yet these were the ones whom Jesus called to be members of the same community, pillars of the fledgling church.
Further, a few years later, when the Apostle Paul reflects on the nature of the church, he describes it in terms of a body with many parts, with each part necessarily being different both in appearance and function:
1 Corinthians 12 21 The eye cannot say to the hand, “I have no need of you,” nor again the head to the feet, “I have no need of you.” 22 On the contrary, the members of the body that seem to be weaker are indispensable.
In other words, from the earliest days of the church, the potential for disunity was enormous, but the solution was never deemed to be a pollyannish agreement or uniformity. Rather, what held the church together was a common allegiance to a single Savior and Lord that permitted and promoted vigorous discussion and difference (the New Testament epistles are testimony to this!) without degenerating into demonizing or fearing “the other,” or losing the unity and purpose of the larger whole.
In calling us to gather together to celebrate communion, Jesus provides us with a tangible tool to express and enable this kind of unity.
- At the table, we meet Jesus one-on-one, yet together, holding in common our confession that he alone is the one who can feed and nourish us, and quench our human thirst.
- At the table he claims us as individual members of his royal family, but only as a relative of those with whom we share the meal: brothers and sisters, members of the same family, together.
We all long for the pandemic to be over, and that we could all gather in person, face to face. Come if you feel comfortable this Sunday, and join the congregation in person. But, wherever you are – cry out for the Jesus to unify and strengthen his church so that his name is honored and glorified BY US, in all the earth.
GLAD TO BE YOUR PASTOR,