We’re Mutts

My recent post on The Election of Second Sons in Genesis (and the postscript on 18th century South Carolina revolutionaries with a chip on their shoulders), reminded me of this scene from Stripes.

Like Bill Murray’s platoon of American soldiers, the church of Jesus Christ is composed of mutts and mutants. We are not by nature heirs of the kingdom and members of his family, but only by the grace of God in Jesus Christ.

Paul and Christian Differences in 1 Corinthians

The current series of epistle readings in the Revised Common Lectionary emphasize the importance of unity within the Christian church. The readings are drawn from the first three chapters of Paul’s letter to the church in Corinth. It doesn’t matter, Paul says, which Christian leader you and your associates identify with or what kind of label you apply to yourselves. It doesn’t even matter whether you were born a Jew or a Gentile. What matters is the truth of the Gospel as Paul preached it. Divisions along party or ethnic lines reveal, at best, an immature understanding of the Christian faith. In effect, these divisions deny the truth and power of Christ’s work on the cross.

If you read the entire letter, however, you will not find Paul advocating “think and let think” Christianity or unity at any price. In the chapters that follow, Paul addresses a number of issues that divided the church at Corinth. Paul’s response to differences in belief and practice range from “that’s a great thing to celebrate” to “how horrible that you would even consider this.” It all depends on the matter under consideration.

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Wesley’s Caution Against Bigotry and the UMC General Conference

I understand that UMC General Secretary Gere Reist has called John Wesley’s sermon “A Caution Against Bigotry” required reading in preparation for the United Methodist Church’s quadrennial General Conference which convenes in May. So, even though I am not a delegate, I accepted Mr. Reist’s challenge and read Mr. Wesley’s sermon. You can too. The text is here and here.

Before looking at the text in some detail, here are my takeaways:

  • The bigotry against which Wesley cautions does not require one to turn a blind eye to sin. On the contrary, the behavior Wesley is trying to encourage demands that Christians recognize the difference between sin and holiness.
  • Respecting and honoring God’s work among those who are “not of us” does not require all Christians to belong to the same institutional expression of Christ’s one church. Wesley explicitly states that some differences in practice will require Christians to belong to separate institutions.
  • By the power of the Holy Spirit and the work of Jesus Christ, God brings sinners to repentance and holiness. Wherever God is doing that, we must respect and encourage it. This is the one and only focus of Wesley’s “caution against bigotry” and it is identical with the emphasis of the entire 18th century Wesleyan movement.

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On Religious Community Self-Definition

A healthy society hinges upon the freedom of communities to have and to express their take on the most contested dimensions of human identity and morality. And in our brighter moments as a species we have shown that that doesn’t have to involve inflicting harm on members of communities who have reached different conclusions.

This is from James Mumford, via Peter Leithart, writing about British reactions to recent events within the Anglican communion. It seems that quite a few folks are upset about Anglicans continuing to hold ostensibly outdated moral positions that have deep roots within the church’s scripture and tradition.

Mumford adds,

The conviction that organisations and communities cannot determine their own distinct ethos, their own rules for membership and their own criteria for leadership imperils the very survival of a pluralistic society. What is the point of institutions if they don’t have the freedom to organise themselves in the way they see fit?

And while the topic of the discussion is the Anglican communion, Mumford’s comments bear on the current situation in the United Methodist Church as well. It seems to me that it is both the right and the duty of each church body to establish its own identity and to live within the boundaries that it has set for itself. Being who you are as a religious institution is not itself an obstacle to either catholicity within the Church or neighborliness within the world community.

The Sacramental Foundation of Christian Unity

For in one Spirit we were all baptized into one body – whether Jews or Greeks, whether slave or free – and we were all given one Spirit to drink. 1 Corinthians 12:13

This Sunday’s epistle reading from 1 Corinthians 12 is an extended reflection on the diversity of gifts within the church, the one body of Christ. The Holy Spirit who bestows these gifts is the same Spirit in which we were baptized, and the Spirit which we drink in the sacrament of Holy Communion.

By faith in God’s word, we are surrounded by the Holy Spirit as we are baptized in water. In accordance with God’s promise, we welcome the Holy Spirit into our lives as we drink the wine.

The apostle Paul wrote that Christian baptism effects the union of the believer with Christ in his death; here he teaches us that it is also immerses the believer in the Holy Spirit. Paul instructs us that the bread and wine which we eat at the Lord’s table is a participation in Christ’s body and blood; here he shows us that it is also an incorporation – a taking into the body – of the Holy Spirit.

Our unity as Christians is not found in right thinking or mystical experiences or subjective feelings or human good will. Rather, it is found in the objective unity of the triune God and the reality of the font and the table through which God has promised to abide in us and with us by the power of the Holy Spirit.

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