In 1910 in Edinburgh Scotland, hundreds of Christian leaders from around the world met to discuss the meaning and the nature of Christian mission. A reporter from the Christian Century, was on the scene. He described the goal of the conference as bringing theconcerns of the local church into a global conversation:
Indeed one is safe in saying that there is no home problem which the church is today facing which is not forced to the foreground in the consideration of missionary expansion. And it is coming home to many with the force and surprise of a revelation that these home problems — the problem of Christian union, the problem of Christian education, the problem of a socialized Christianity, and even the academic problems of criticism and theology — wait for their solution until they are carried into the white light of missionary passion.
The conference was not billed as a conference of Christian unity. But that reporter suggests that as these people talked about the various ways they do mission and experience mission, the final result was that a great and surprising sense of comity prevailed. He concludes:
What I can write is but a sip of the overflowing cup of good things. The theme of Christian unity is running through the whole conference like a subterranean stream. It breaks through the ground of any subject the conference may be considering, and bubbles on the surface for a time. It is almost the exception for a speaker to sit down without deploring our divisions. The missionaries are literally plaintive in their appeal that the church of Christ reestablish her long lost unity. But tomorrow is to be given over to a discussion of the whole subject, and my heart thrills with expectancy and eagerness to hear the great words that I cannot doubt will surely be spoken.
Perhaps the idea of an eight day meeting about the problems of churches and about mission would not inspire you all that much. It is in fact difficult to read through that Christian Century article without having to stiffle a bit of a yawn. And that is my point this morning: even in the midst of the difficult realities of our modern life, realities complete with tragedies like earthquakes and broken homes, all of us somehow, in different times and in different places, thrill to the sense that God is in our midst, leading us as our Gospel reading put it, to peace; or perhaps to unity.
Unity has always held Christians in a spell. I’m not sure that that early Church of Christ of which the reporter spoke has any basis in fact. Nor am I sure that the myth of unity meant to be anything more than a myth. Perhaps, instead of being a vision of how we are to be as Church, it is instead a story about the aim of our lives. The myth speaks to the dangers of the human drive to isolate ourselves in individualism, in the strong, almost urgent desire to go-it-alone. But just as rampant individualism leads to societies where a sense of aloneness, fear, distrust and a sense that corporations will rule the world without a care for me, so complete unity would lead to ennui and boredom, lack of creativity and luster.
I had a colleague once who would often throw up her hands in the face of disagreement and exclaim, “I guess we’ll just have to agree to disagree.” Certainly in the face of intractable disagreement, it is a high position. But often it was an excuse not to penetrate the wall of individualism. But a community of people who are merely tolerant of one another’s individualisms, and not really open to conversation, not really open-minded, is a community soon marginalized and ineffectual in any real progress toward a fuller, more creative future.
The fact of the matter, is that what makes a community interesting is that we experience conversations, events, sermons, meetings, differently. We have to. We are not people in general, we are persons in particular. We have our own needs, peculiar to our own situations. Even the idea that we ought to be healthy people, when we really think about it, is not something that means the same thing for two people, one with a broken leg, and the other whole-legged. Our differences cannot be lumped into a whitewashed unity of tolerance.
At first blush this seems rather pedestrian. Not so much fodder for a sermon. But the fact is that in order for church communities to move beyond mere tolerance of difference, in order for people in churches to have real conversations about their differences and their convictions there must be a willingness to reason about God. The pursuit of truth, just because it is about matters of ultimate concern, cannot be side-tracked by authoritative revelations about truth, as though there were nothing to argue about, nothing to discover on one’s own and by one’s own insight.
I noticed in the recent issue of the E-kit of the Vermont Conference that the UCC theologian, Tony Robinson, will be in Boston holding a seminar for clergy titled, “How to Get your Congregations to Think Theologically.” I once met Tony Robinson where I had presented a short paper. I don’t remember now what I was talking about. I was not far from my usual theme, I’m sure, just as today is not. Afterwards, he came up to me and facetiously thanked me for correcting his theology, and then turned and walked away.
I have no doubt that I can come off, especially to someone who does not know me, as insistent that my way is the right way. But unless I’m completely blind to my self, I also think that I’m open to conversation. But the fact is that Rev. Robinson has a view of reality which “can be defined correctly” as he puts it in his latest book (p. 35). The subtext to that, of course, is that if your view of reality challenges his view, you’re wrong.
A few pages on, Robinson states his confused point when he refers to the Easter story as Peter retells it in the Book of Acts while he is addressing a crowd of people who know nothing about it. He writes,
Peter enumerated what God had been up to in their history and in the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus [saying] ‘This is what’s really going on!” In the Acts story of the early church, the real issue is not moral failure, but ignorance.
In other words the failure of the crowd to “get with resurrection” had to do, not with the quality of their lives, but with their refusal to accept what Peter’s reality. According to Rev. Robinson, that reality is that Christ rose out of the grave, resuscitated, and walked with the living. If you don’t see this, then it is because you have not yet learned to accept as reality what your senses, your experience do not verify. If you do not see it, then the job of the church leader, as the Peter was doing, is to make you see it, to lift the veil of ignorance.
It is precisely this confused way of putting the story we Christians tell about resurrection that moves it from a story that has to do with the quality of a life lived in the love of God, to a dogma that must be believed, that is hurtful and uninviting and needs to stop.
Teaching us to think theologically should be about inviting us to walk down a twisted, exciting, interesting, forking path in a search for truth. And the question, as we consider Christian unity, cannot be whether we will all arrive at a unified vision of it that has “to be defined correctly.” Easter is instead an answer that each of us formulate in the face of the many tragedies and the troubles of our lives, in the face of fear and want, that these things shall not strike us down. That though we ask, “Where, O God?” yet do we rise up and find the courage to go on, and to go on with dignity and hope, and with a song of praise in our hearts.
That’s a moral vision. And when the Psalmist wrote about the Hart panting after a cool stream he described in personal terms what the search for truth is about. The Psalmist describes a moral vision which by his experience of it, he knew as holy, as leading him to common cause with the good and the true and the beautiful.
The news of resurrection spread, not only in Peter’s day, but through the centuries and even now, not because it made all of us into one with the same correct view, but because this path is so interesting and compelling. Because we are at once satisfied by the path, challenged by the path, and finally, in the community through which that journey is supported, we are renewed by it and made to see that despite our differences we are brothers and sisters of the God who lives. Amen.