Texts: Isaiah 56:1-8; Acts 2:42-47
Walking this weekend I came across the outdoor labyrinth at Trinity Episcopal Church for the first. I’ve meant to get over there before, walk the small brick path, but hadn’t until now. I was struck by the symbol in the center of the labyrinth – a fish. At least at first glance it’s a fish. The tail on this fish is split so that if you turn your head and look at it from another angle, you see a head with horns. Depending on how you look at it, this symbol can go from one of the earliest symbols of Christianity to the image of a devil.
This little moment on my walk was a good reminder that many things depend on how you look at them. Duck or rabbit in that popular optical illusion; glass half empty, half full; half way there or half way to go. How we encounter the world – from symbols to attitudes – oft depends on how we choose to look at that world.
This truth has been on my mind quite a bit lately. If you’ve been paying attention to church chatter in the last week, month, year, years, you know that there are a variety of issues that people of faith disagree on. While the news media may cover (sometimes better than others) the issues that our national level church faces, those certainly aren’t the only things we disagree on. While I wasn’t here for this time, I have been told that the most contentious decision here at Covenant was what color the sanctuary carpet should be. I can’t speak to the truth of that story but it is a truth universally acknowledged (at least among many ministers) that the worst disagreements in churches are almost always about those little things.
Whether it’s the small things like carpet or the big things like how we interpret scripture, the differences between us, between people of faith, are hard for many of us to accept. In fact, I feel a little strange just mentioning it on a Sunday morning. We are of one body and one Spirit, just as we are called to the one hope of our calling. Shouldn’t we too be of one mind in all things? Shouldn’t the church be that place where we all come together, sing the same hymns, pray the same prayers, worship the same God... by which we mean, worship a God we all understand in similar – if not in the exact same – ways?
There’s something that says to us “we should be of one mind, united in all things.” Wishful thinking? No, but perhaps that’s one of those things that will come to pass when God’s kingdom comes to pass fully. Because God’s people have always been good at dividing ourselves. Cain and Able weren’t just brothers nor the first murderer-victim pair. They were the first to find themselves divided based on their jobs and what they valued. Harvesting versus husbandry. The farmer and the cowboy should be friends, but in the beginning of our story with God, they aren’t.
Division in this story ends in death. Perhaps our fear of differences goes as far back as that. But this fear is not necessary. Not even a little bit.
Why? Look at the church in Acts. The very first community of faith united by Christ, one that has reached out into the Jewish population in Jerusalem, and come together as believers who pray together, eat together, serve together, worship together, laugh and grieve together. Miracles and wonders are being done, all are taken care of, and day by day more people come to this flock, this family.
It might be tempting to look at this very first expansion of Jesus’ followers, the formation of the first community of faith that did not walk and talk with Jesus, and think “how perfect” and wonder who this extra-holy people must have been. But we shouldn’t romanticize the past. This first community of faith was filled not with saints but with sinners – just like you and me. And this community of faith, the body of Christ, was made up of people who from the very beginning saw things – important things like how to interpret scripture and how to live a holy life – very differently.
The Jewish people that Jesus lived among, taught and healed, were a divided people. There was the difference between those who followed Hillel (a first century B.C. rabbi who taught more moderate interpretation of the law and tradition) and those who followed Shammai (Hillel’s contemporary who taught a much stricter interpretation). There was also a division between those Jews who had conformed to the Hellenistic (aka the Greco-Roman) culture – including translating the sacred scriptures from Hebrew the Greek – and those who held tightly to their Hebrew ways and would not conform to the prevailing culture.
When Peter preached that Pentecost sermon, when the Spirit came and people from all over the Roman empire heard the Good News in their own language, it was the Jewish people gathered for a Jewish festival that became the first converts. And these first converts, the members of the first community of faith that had the Risen Christ as their Lord, brought with them their differences. That which could have divided them. As later passages in Acts tell us, this community was indeed composed of people with staunch disagreements on religious matters.
And yet, look at them. Different as they may have been, they created a beautiful, faithful family that worshiped Jesus Christ as Lord. They were the church family, the body of Christ, as we too hope to be.
The church of Acts gathered around the Good News and in doing so, found unity where others might have found division. They wouldn’t always be so faithful, so one in Spirit, but they’d come back to their oneness in Christ.
The first church serves as sort of a prototype for the church throughout history. Over and over people with all kinds of differences – some obvious, some that take a little digging and time to discover – people gather together to worship, to serve, to care for and in the name of Christ. From time to time, the family of faith resembles those first days of the church. And from time to time, we let our differences get the best of us.
Whether we find ourselves bound together in love or sorrowfully divided, the fact that there are differences among us does not change. The difference, perhaps, is sometimes we let our differences divide us and sometimes we live as though Christ is the Lord of all and calls us all together. Sometimes we live as though we truly believe that God’s house is a house of prayer for all peoples… even the ones we don’t agree with.
Our differences, whether you wanted blue instead of red carpet or whether you read all the stories of the Bible literally or not, our differences matter. They are not insignificant details. They are also not, thanks to Christ, insurmountable. For in Christ all things are possible. In Christ, there ain’t no mountain high enough, ain’t no river wide enough, ain’t no division strong enough to keep God from calling us together. To keep us from being one loving family of faith.
We can look at the differences among us and wonder “how can we ever serve God if we can’t agree on everything?” Or we can look at our differences and marvel that we can worship and service God together. We can stand in awe of the One who calls us together.
Praise and glory be to that One, this day and all days. Amen.