Sunday, May 27, 2012

Living in Christian Community

They turn round and round by his guidance, to accomplish all that he commands them on the face of the habitable world.  Whether for correction, or for land, or for love, he causes it to happen.   --  Job 57:12-13

As this blog states:  faith is a journey.  My own beliefs have evolved, and continue to evolve.  They have been turned "round and round" by God's guidance.  So I appreciate the analogy that we are all on a journey.  It is possible that we are all at different places along the same journey, or that we are all on slightly different paths.  Either way you look at it, there is no doubt that there is a great diversity of beliefs among Christians.  Even among Lutherans.  Even among the people who attend the same church I do.

Never, in all its 2000+ year history, has there been a unified system of beliefs among all Christians about anything.  The letters of Paul, and the four different Gospels, confirm the great diversity of thought, even about Jesus, that was prevalent from the very beginning.  The creeds were an attempt at consensus, but not everyone could agree on one creed!  Once, I heard someone say that the history of Christianity is more like a long and fascinating argument rather than a continuous system of belief. 

Take, for example, our image of God.  There are some Christians who think of God as an ancient man-like being, sitting on a throne in the clouds above.  There are other Christians who think of God as a spiritual being without physicality of any kind.  And there are other Christians who think of God as the spark of life within every living thing.  I'm sure there are other Christians who think still differently.

Take, for example, our understanding of God's power.  There are some Christians who believe that God controls everything, that God makes the rains come down, and the lightening strike, and the floods kill.  There are some Christians who believe that God controls nothing: God does not intervene in any way in the world; God does not answer prayers.  And there are Christians that hold beliefs of every variety in between these two extremes.

In conjunction with the variety of beliefs about God's power come beliefs about our power as human beings.  There are some Christians who believe that we are powerless:  we can do nothing on our own; we need God's help every step of the way.  At the opposite end of the continuum of this understanding are Christians who believe that we are god-like in our abilities:  we can do anything we set our minds to do. 

Many of these concepts are intertwined; one concept feeds into another.  Christians who believe that we are powerless, also tend to believe in the basic sinfulness, or brokenness, of humanity.  They tend to place less value on works and more on faith, and see great need for the gracious benevolence of God:  witness Martin Luther.  Christians who believe that we are autonomous, masters of our own fate, tend to believe in the basic goodness of humanity.  They tend to place less value on faith and more on works, and see little need for the gracious benevolence of God:  witness Bishop John Shelby Spong.  In between these extremes are Christians who believe that we are a mixture of good and bad, and that we require some mixture of grace and personal responsibility. 

Our understanding of God's character also varies from one extreme to another.  Some believe that God is a god of judgment only.  God shows partiality, favoring one person over another.  The proof is in the life, they say.  If the life is successful, God must be favoring that person; if the life is difficult, God must be punishing that person.  At the other extreme, there are Christians who believe that God is a god of promise only.  All good things in life come from God, all bad things come from the devil.  I recently came across a book titled, "The Positive Bible."  It contained only verses of promise and grace, and none of judgment or correction.

I could go on and on like this.  There is probably a similar kind of continuum for every Christian concept.  The question is, what, if anything, should our response be to this great diversity?  The divisions between Christians seem to be growing stronger.  We are a long, long way from living as Jesus taught his disciples to live.  Jesus taught Jews and Romans, Pharisees and Zealots, the rich and the poor, the educated and the illiterate, the saints and the sinners, how to love one another as God loved.  They did not all believe the same things, and yet, at the end of his life he prayed aloud to God as follows:  "The glory that you have given me I have given them, so that they may be one, as we are one, I in them and you in me, that they may become completely one, so that the world may know that you have sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me." (John 17:22-23).  And he told them to "Love one another as I have loved you." 

So, what does that mean in terms of our great diversity of beliefs?

Well, we must at the very least not be unloving to people who think differently than we do.  What kind of behavior would constitute being unloving?  Certainly, any kind of physical or verbal abuse. Any kind of anger, too, would be unloving.  Or any kind of disparagement.  In other words, anything that harms, or puts a wall between ourselves and the other person, would be unloving.

We are called to love one another, not just those with whom we agree.  "But what if their beliefs are wrong?!" you might be saying with great conviction, as I have on occasion.  Well, love doesn't preclude disagreement.  Anyone who has ever been in a committed loving relationship knows this.

Start with a commitment to staying together and to loving them as you love yourself.  Ask yourself, "Does their belief harm them in any way?  Or, does their belief harm anyone else?"  If the answer is "no", then what does it matter?  We are all on a journey.  Simply seek to understand each other better, and you will strengthen the bonds of love, and possibly learn something of great value from one another.  If the answer is "yes", then you must learn how to persistently, and lovingly, show them a better way.  Such love, the kind of love that God has for us, takes great commitment.  The greatest commitment of all.

Jesus' words, "so that the world may know that you have sent me," leaves me with little doubt that if Christians want to have any credibility in the world, with non-Christians as well as other Christians, then Christians must figure out how to stay in community with those who think differently from them, in a loving way.

And this begins with me and you.
Dear God, please keep me mindful of your ways.  Keep my heart filled with your love so that I may abide with other people as we each abide in you and you in us.  Love always, Pam

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