Learning from the Reformation: Finding Unity in our Diversity




A sermon preached by Joseph Welker, Jr.

Learning from the Reformation: Finding Unity in our Diversity

1 Corinthians 3:1-11

World Communion Sunday, Oct 1, 2017

These notes are intended for distribution to members and friends of the Kirk of Kildaire Presbyterian Church family. While effort is made to give credit for work done by other, the notes may use material for which appropriate credit is not given. Also, the notes may differ from the actual sermon as it was delivered. Remember, sermons are meant to be preached and are therefore prepared with the emphasis on verbal presentation; the written accounts occasionally stray from proper grammar and punctuation.

One of my favorite stories Mark Twain tells is the one where he shares his experience with diversity… He said,

“I built a cage and in it I put a dog and a cat. After a little training I got the dog and the cat to the point where they lived peaceably together. Then I introduced a pig, a goat, a kangaroo, some birds, and a monkey. And after a few adjustments, they learned to live in harmony together. So encouraged was I by such successes that I added an Irish Catholic, a Presbyterian, a Jew, a Muslim from Turkestan, and a Buddhist from China, along with a Baptist missionary that I captured on the same trip. And in a very short time, there wasn’t a single living thing left in the cage.”

I thought about that story when I headed off for my month to the Tantur Ecumenenical Institute in Jerusalem for June… formed after a conversation among, Catholic, Protestant, Anglican and Orthodox leaders.  Pope Paul VI supported these efforts toward understanding and the institute was born…   built on land donated by the Vatican and run by the University of Notre Dame.

Before going I learned that my companions for the month would be quite a diverse group of Christians—living, eating, praying, touring, studying—spending a  lot of time together. In addition to the run of the mill mainliners like Presbyterians and Evangelical Lutherans… we had conservative Baptists from Great Britain… we had evangelical Mennonites from Pennsylvania, there would be a Catholic woman whose work had been in natural family planning and a woman-priest in the Roman Catholic church. She was not officially sanctioned of course, but she had been ordained. Then there was a gay pastor from Colorado… there were Catholic nuns from Singapore and Taiwan…as well as a Catholic OT professor from the Philippines.

Before going, I wondered how we would all live together for a month… would there be a living thing left?! Would it be a month of fighting? Theological arguments?

Truth is, though the theological differences did come through from time to time in our conversation… the grace of Christ shone even more as we shared this experience. We lived peaceably together. I value my new friendships.

When I think about how we are to live together wish such diversity, I take some comfort to know Paul was struggling with the same thing.

Isn’t it interesting that only 20 years after the death and resurrection of Jesus, we see the strains of diversity at work in the lives of the early Christians. I see Paul a bit frustrated with his friends in Corinth… they have begun to fight and quarrel over who is right and who is wrong… He says there is jealousy among you and it is causing a tear in the fabric of the Christian community. He says, you are acting just like everyone else in the world. “Stop it! Christians are better than this!”

Worst of all, they have broken into their little subgroups: One group says they are right because “I follow Paul”… the other group says, no, we are right because “I follow Apollos”… and as I read it, I hear Paul having it up to here (point to top of head) with all of this…  He says when you say that, are you not merely human and you are missing the point… Christian faith is not about following Paul… or Apollos… we are just servants who have roles to play… Put your faith in Christ… who is the foundation…

Would that we had learned that lesson. But have we? Some estimate over 30,000 denominations exist in the world today.

It all began 500 years ago when Martin Luther was just trying to get a conversation going in the church about what he say as practices needing changes. Apparently change was not welcome back then. (Glad we are over that!) He posted those famous 95 Theses on the door at Wittenberg… hoping for a discussion and debate over where he thought the church needed correcting… But no one wanted to debate him. But thanks to the new social media technology called the printing press, his questions and ideas spread… and long story short… as Luther was rejected by the church, a group of people following Luther formed their own church. Lutherans.

A generation later a group following John Calvin, a group who wanted even more changes to the church than Luther… they formed their own church… the Reformed Church of which Presbyterians belong. They wanted more change than Luther.

Every time there was a theological difference, a new church was formed. Now 30,000 denominations or more claim to have it right. You have to wonder what old Paul would have thought about that. “I follow Luther. I follow Calvin. I follow Wesley. I follow the Pope. I follow John Smyth (Baptist)!

I know that Luther and Calvin both did not like the idea. Both simply wanted to reform the church… renew the ancient form of the church which had been distorted over time. They didn’t want a division, but renewal. One of Calvin’s greatest concerns was to heal the serious breaches among the churches of the Reformation.

Calvin would likely be happy to know we have have come a long way towards healing those breaches.

In 1992 the Evangelical Lutherans, Presbyterians and other Reformed churches adopted something called “A Common Calling” which is full acceptance and recognition of each other’s ministries. What this means is that I could serve a Lutheran church and a Lutheran could serve and be recognized in a Presbyterian church. We accept and affirm one another… focusing not on what divides us but what unites us.

Calvin and Luther, former Catholics, would likely have been pleased by the Joint Declaration of Justification between the Catholics and Lutherans in 1999. They have come to a common understanding about what that means… which is no small thing since it was the doctrine of justification that pretty much set off the whole reformation.

I find encouragement in such signs of unity. I find encouragement that they are present among you. We have Catholics and Presbyterians married to each other. 50 years ago neither Pope nor many  Protestant would have approved of the mixed marriages. Congregations now consist of people whose backgrounds include a great diversity of denominations. My mother the southern Baptist married a Lutheran from Pittsburgh. What happens to them? They become Presbyterians! Who knew? At the time of the reformation no one could have imagined such a thing.

When people visit the Kirk they often come from a variety of denominations. I often quote my very Reformed theology professor to them… John Leith once told us that denominations are different ways of being a Christian…

Perhaps the Holy Spirit is working among us to remind us that what binds us together is not being right… or following this or that teacher… at the heart of what brings us together is Jesus Christ… Paul, when using the metaphor of a building reminds his fighting friends that it is Jesus Christ who is the foundation…

One of the churches I really enjoyed in Jerusalem was Redeemer Lutheran whose congregants represent quite a diverse group of people from around the world. They live in the midst of Orthodox, Protestant and Catholic Christians of many varieties.

In the midst of that, I really like what Pastor Carrie told her church:

“Because we  are so different, because we have so many cultural, linguistic, and denominational backgrounds, we must always seek what unites us, not what divides us.

And what we share is this: Together, we proclaim Jesus Christ as the Messiah, the Son of the Living God. Everything else is what the Reformers called, “adiaphora”. Everything else is gravy. Everything else can be overlooked or overcome, discussed or dismissed, renegotiated or reformed. But the confession that Jesus is Lord, not only of the church but of our lives and of the world, is the one foundation we share.

Here we stand. Here we find solid footing. Here we can weather any storm- and even the gates of Hades will not prevail against us… the real foundation of the church and any community is who we say Jesus is—and how that confession shapes what we do. We must be clear about this because there is so work to do in the world.: [i]

The hard truth is that Christ’s ministry in the world is diminished when Christians spend lots of time and energy on what I call “intramurals”—fighting among ourselves over nonessential matters. You know how the game is played. We choose our positions. Then we pick and choose Bible passages and follow people to support our positions and we ignore the rest. This is clearly not how Christ imagined his followers living, do you think?

Rather, I think Jesus imagined us living a bit more like our cohort in Tantur… we were so different… so very different. And yet, there was something more important than our differences… there was Christ who held us together.

The Bishop of Jerusalem modeled that for us. I assume you know that it is not the normal practice for Protestants to be able to take communion in a Roman Catholic congregation. We call it closed communion. And there are a few Protestant churches that do the same thing. Only those who belong to the church can take communion.

This is why you sometimes hear someone like me say during communion, “This is not a Presbyterian table… it is the Lord’s table…  We want to make it clear, especially to those who come from “closed communion” congregations, that all are welcome because it is not our table, but Christ’s.

So at Tantur, I was surprised on the first night of evening devotions, that the priest said to us that we would be welcome to take communion. That the Bishop of Jerusalem had granted permission for participants at Tantur to participate in communion – even Protestants. And we did… and Protestants like me were even permitted to lead communion in this Catholic chapel.

On this World Communion Sunday, I want to give thanks for the Bishop of Jerusalem… I think Paul would be so glad that we, amidst all of our differences, came together… again and again… to remember that the real foundation of our faith is found in Jesus Christ and nothing else. If we can remember that, then we will bring honor and glory to our Lord.  Amen.


[i] Rev Carrie Ballenger Smith, Redeemer Lutheran Church in Jerusalem.