Yr A ~ off lectionary ~ Acts 15:2-16:5 (selected)
If you weren’t United Church, what would you be? I posted that question in an online discussion group comprised of United Church ministers and the number and range of responses it got was remarkable. Some took the easy way out by saying they’d move to another country and join their version of the United Church – like the United Church of Christ in the States or the United and Uniting Church in Australia. Some said they’d simply move to another mainline denomination like Presbyterian or Methodist. Several named the attractiveness and simplicity of the Mennonite way. Others, like me, said we could be Quakers. Nobody said they’d go Pentecostal, but a few dreamed of being independent.
Three types of responses really shocked and disappointed me though. Several people said they’d go to the Unitarians, a few said they’d go Muslim, and many said they would go nowhere at all. Don’t get me wrong – the vast majority said they’d remain in Christian churches, but a significant number, a surprising number, said they’d leave the fold entirely. And these are ministers! Friends, we have a problem here!
I lightheartedly introduced this 3-part sermon series as a communal confirmation class. I told you that my colleagues and I were chatting about youth confirmation and I jokingly said that more than just the teenagers need this – my whole congregation needs it! Well, apparently, so do us ministers!
We can probably all understand why a minister might be ready to abandon the denomination. I mean, after all, it’s our workplace – and we all know that workplace bureaucracies and politics and strained relationships can leave a really bad taste in your mouth. But my little ad hoc survey revealed something much more troubling. Of course, there could be dozens of really important and valid reasons why some responded the way they did – and for all I know some were joking to get a rise out us – but for those looking to leave Christianity entirely I’d suggest that they need to spend a good deal of time looking at our first two sets of questions from this sermon series and have a refresher course in “Why am I a Christian?” and “Why do I need a church?” These are questions we ought to be continually asking ourselves and wrestling with.
The “why Christian” question dives into the idea that the reason we are Christians and not something else, or nothing, is that we have experiential knowledge of a sacred spiritual mystery that we acquire and express through the language and imagery and metaphors and persons of God and Jesus and the Holy Spirit. How do you describe God? You’ll never get to the denomination question if you haven’t first wrestled mightily with how to describe the God/Christ/Spirit you know.
And once you’ve discerned that it really is the Holy Mystery we call God that you are experiencing, and that you resonate with the spirituality and teachings of Jesus, and can articulate some sort of description of what Spirit means for you, then you start to ask ‘what should I do with these nudgings, these intuitions, these knowings?’
And that leads you directly to the Why Church question. And hopefully, as we explored last week, you’ll come to realize that a place like this is essential for a person to grow their faith because places like this are designed to help you with the 4 foundational pillars of growing faith: learning, supporting, sacraments, and worship.
And now – with all that wrestling going on about why we’re Christian and why we do church, we start to ask the last question: why this denomination? Why are we United Church and not one of the other flavours?
Or maybe you think that question assumes too much? Maybe you think the why Christian question and the why church question are valid, but the why United question is just an organizational, bureaucratic add-on? It won’t surprise you that I think the denomination is essential. Let’s see why.
Why do we need denominations?
They are a natural development as people strive to be the body of Christ. We regularly fail at it, of course, and the body fractures and divides and subgroup upon subgroup form such that there are something like 30,000 different versions of Christian denominations in the world now, but nonetheless the desire and need for a denomination, a larger, connective organization, is real. And they have been with us from the very start. Let’s look at how the first denomination worked…
The book of Acts in the bible is a collection of stories sketching the history of the earliest churches. In the passage we heard today, from Acts 15 and 16, we learn of a theological conflict happening in a regular, local church. The conflict for them was whether Gentiles needed to be circumcised in order to follow Jesus – a pretty drastic and sensitive matter! Leaders of the church were sent to the main church in Jerusalem to consult with the apostles and the elders and get a ruling on the matter. The elders debated, and issued a letter with their official position that no, circumcision would not be required. And the leaders took that message and shared it among the various churches.
Doesn’t that sound a whole lot like how a denomination does its business today?
There were local churches and a “head office”.
There were proposals for theological positions made.
Discernment and debate resulted in official church statements on theological matters.
And the positions were shared among the churches creating, shall we say, church policy?
This is precisely how we have come to be the United Church of Canada. This church stands under the denominational umbrella and we are therefore obligated to share in the policies, polity, and theological boundaries of the whole. The alternative would be being independent. And while that would have some advantages, I suppose, it would come at the cost of a shared vision, mission, identity, and support that comes from being part of the larger body.
The next question then, is what do you know about this national body of Christ that we are a part of? And how did we come to describe our ethos in the way we do? As a confirmand, or someone wanting to join the church – you know it’s Christianity you resonate with, and you know that a church is the right place to grow in, but which church?
What flavour? Why are we United and not something else? And what is it that makes us United?
Let’s talk history!
This is the United Church crest. It speaks volumes about who we are and what our values are. The oval shape represents the Christian ichthus or fish. So everything else about the crest is enfolded within that Christian identity. And the red X that separates the sections represents the Greek letter Chi which starts the word Christ.
The dove, bible, and burning bush in the centre part represent the three founding denominations that came together in 1925 – dove = Methodist, bible = Congregational, burning bush = Presbyterian. And the symbol at the bottom are the Greek letters alpha and omega meaning that God is the first and the last, and all encompassing.
The writing is interesting. Our name is in both English and French.
The lower left words in Latin ut omnes unim sint say “That all may be one” which is both scriptural and symbolic of the coming together of three denominations into one.
And the words on the lower right are in Mohawk – aw gway – nyah day day waw – nay renh – which means “all my relations”. They chose Mohawk because it was the language of first contact between Indigenous people and Christians. And the colours in the middle – white, red, yellow, and black – represent an Indigenous medicine wheel.
So that crest says we’re Christ centred, inclusive, justice oriented, and hold our doctrines loosely rather than rigidly or three different denominations couldn’t have got along together.
I just said the word doctrine. Doctrine means the official theological positions that a church organization affirms.
Our doctrine consists of 20 Articles of Faith adopted at union in 1925 – our 1940 Statement of Faith – our New Creed from 1968 – and A Song of Faith which was adopted in 2006. All that together is our doctrine – probably the most expansive and wide ranging doctrine of any denomination on the planet – which again speaks volumes about who we are and what we hold dear.
And do you know how we got those doctrines?
We voted on them. All of us.
They weren’t dictated by a Pope or Bishops. Our denomination is very much democratic and grass roots based.
You can be a Christian and go to all sorts of different churches to help you grow ever deeper, but for some reason you are here in the United Church.
Most of us were probably born into it, but even so we aren’t obligated to stay. So why do we? Why do we choose to give our affiliation to the United Church?
I jokingly like to say that I’m United Church because nobody else would have me!
How about you? Why are you United?
What is it about the way we do things in this denomination that fits for you?
Maybe it’s because we are famous, or infamous, for being inclusive, having a serious but not literal view of the bible, championing justice issues before many other groups do such as ordaining women, and being on the forefront of LGBTQ issues like equal marriage and not letting one’s orientation be a barrier to participating in any aspect of the church including ordination.
Some folks accuse us of not believing in anything, but that’s just because we encourage questioning rather than parroting certain answers. That theological freedom and openness is very attractive for many people.
We will never tell you what to believe, but we will encourage you to wrestle with spiritual things yourself.
That’s harder work. But it’s worth it.
So why are you United? I hope you’ll talk about your answer to that question at coffee time after church today!
And that brings our series to an end. We’ve asked questions about why you are a Christian and not something else, why you go to church, and why you belong to this denomination.
So, are you ready?
Are you ready to be confirmed, or make a profession of faith?
The Manual says that before you do so you “must have enough knowledge about the Christian faith and the United Church to make (your) commitment with understanding.”
I hope you do! And I hope you will!
But remember, this is just a beginning, not graduation. It’s just another step on this wondrous journey of ever-deepening faith that we’re on. A journey of wrestling with deep questions about who we know, how we grow, and with whom we go.
Christians. Churched. United.