A Sign Of The Times

John 14:15-21

A Scottish Presbyterian is rescued after many years of living alone on a deserted island. When he is picked up, the captain says to him, "I thought you were stranded alone." "I was," replied the castaway. "Why are there three huts on the beach?"

"Well, the first one is my house, and the second one is where I go to church."
"What about the third one?"

"Oh, that's my old church."

This seems kind of funny, but I'm pointing to something serious, the continual emergence of new churches. They are new because people divided. What is interesting as we look at our 217-year-old history today is a Wikipedia article called List of Christian Denominations The article lists hundreds of different denominations, including various branches of the Orthodox Church, various kinds of Catholic churches, a great many Lutheran denominations, a very long list of Methodist churches, then there are the Anglicans, Presbyterians, the Pentecostals, the Charismatics, and many, many other branches and twigs on the Christian family tree. A look at the Baptist tradition proves my point. Here in the US, we have the major groups listed—Southern Baptists, American Baptists, Conservative Baptists, Baptist General Conference, National Baptists and Progressive Baptists. Then, there are some groups that are a bit more esoteric: Old Baptist Union, Old Regular Baptists, Old Time Missionary Baptists, General Association of Baptists, General Association of General Baptists, General Association of Regular Baptist Churches, General Six-Principle Baptists, and the Two-Seed-in-the-Spirit Predestinarian Baptists.

Throughout church history, the Christian movement has often grown through disagreement. For instance, the Reformation started over a disagreement about indulgences that led to deeper disagreement over justification by faith. Martin Luther never intended to start a new church. He truly meant to reform the existing church. But when the Catholic Church booted him out, he established churches based on the teaching of justification by faith, and from that beginning the Gospel spread to the ends of the earth. Here's my point: God is able to use disagreements to advance the cause of Christ, and no church denomination understands this God given gift of disagreement better than the one you are sitting in here this morning. Congregationalism—the church of the people, by the people, and for the people. This is the long-established church tradition where differing ideologies, differing belief systems, differing practices, and differing experiences are not molded or beaten down into one neat, cohesive bundle everyone agrees with because Congregationalists know this true: there is not one neat, cohesive bundle everyone agrees with. We understand perspectives, viewpoints and yes, conflicts. These perspectives, viewpoints and conflicts don't divide us. We are not going to be rescued on some deserted island where our rescuer finds not three huts but thirty because we, as a people, can't agree. The rescuer, and I want to you to think of Jesus in this scene, is the head of our church. On our island, Jesus is going to see one hut, one church — not thirty, or fifty, or a hundred.

And oh, this is a beautiful, harmonious picture, yes? Well, it depends on what you call beautiful. Yes, there is one church, and yes, it is old because like all old things still working, it still does its job. My dad had a saying you may have heard or used yourself, and it's this. "If it ain't broke, don't fix it."

But is it beautiful to see disagreement, debate, and inner division? I say "yes." See with me that there is beauty in the mud. There is beauty in the mess. Why? How can you call banter beautiful? Because we are alive. Why? Because we care. Why? Because the disagreements we have are worth airing out. Differences are worth deliberating, not dividing over. We here in the United Church of Christ come to God because we are His children, but we are not childish where we, all upset, go home and pout because we only share our toys with those who always and completely agree with everything we ever say or want.

Over any issue, we here in the United Church of Christ are not going to agree completely—and we know we have two choices in disagreement, one is to leave because you have a completely false notion that "being Christian" means always happy, happy church people live in an idealistic bubble where no one at no time ever bumps into someone else or dare says a strong, heated or passionate word. The other choice is the one you've already made, and that is to stay and with love and with deep respect for your fellow congregation, live with disagreement.

This is what Congregationalism turned to the United Church of Christ asks, or should be asking, and it's this: How do we, the people, discover God's will in areas where we Christians disagree?

Let's start this answer by understanding that Christians have been disagreeing with each other since the very beginning. In fact, the New Testament itself records some of the early arguments among believers. When you read Romans and I Corinthians, you discover that Christians disagreed on things like eating meat offered to idols, on whether or not to observe the Sabbath Day, on whether to eat meat or be a vegetarian, and on whether or not to drink wine. In Colosse, the church was torn by controversy over the proper role of angels, New Moon celebrations, and the proper diet for spiritual Christians. In Thessalonica, the young church was deeply confused about the Second Coming of Christ. In Philippi, there was evidently a major power struggle within the church, which is why Philippians contains such a strong plea for unity.

The truth is that there are occasions and issues over which well-meaning, sincere, God-loving Christians will not see eye to eye. That fact has been a reality in the Church since its inception and it will continue to be the case until the King comes back. Maybe it should be otherwise but it isn't. Perhaps we want to deny it but we can't.

The truth of God never changes, but our understanding of that truth does and should change because we ourselves are being changed from one degree of glory to another.

Then what hope do we have of ever being in one mind and of one accord? Doesn't the Bible teach us that we are to agree with one another?

Yes, it does. But does that agreement refer to a uniformity of conviction on any and all issues? I think not. The very fact that the Apostle Paul acknowledges and allows for the reality of "disputable matters" suggests otherwise.

Think of agreement not in terms of every believer thinking the same way on all issues but in terms of orchestral music. Imagine the picture of an orchestra with me now. We have violins, bassoons, woodwinds, cellos. There's a grand piano. Maybe two. All of these very different musical instruments in an orchestra are under the guidance of the one conductor. Each musician may have his or her own opinion and preference as to which piece of music ought to be played and how it ought to be played. That's difference. But each musician is committed to follow the lead of the conductor and allow that conductor to coordinate it all to achieve one goal—awesome sound! That's agreement. Each musician is responsible to the conductor, not to the other musicians. Their experience of agreement comes about not because they all think alike—oh, heavens no—but because they are all respectful of their differences and are trusting the conductor to utilize their differences in a way that produces harmony.

You know who are conductor is. And our conductor sometimes lifts your part in the church out far and above anyone else. You may hold the melody of the piece for a long while, and that melody does need to be heard or we do have a mess. But you're not always the star. In fact, there are time, just like an instrument, when you're not even heard. There are rests in music. There are long places in the music when this is your job—to listen to someone else play.

font-family:"Times New Roman",serif'>This is what orchestra members have: the belief in the musical ability of everyone else on the stage. This is what Congregationalism runs on: the belief that God speaks through everyone, and everyone here—the fantastic and the fallible, the mighty and the messed up—and we are all a mix of the four groups I just described—are valued.

Amen.