A congregation of the United Church of Canada
Yr A ~ Pentecost 17 ~ Philippians 3:4b–14
“Go forth, knowing who you are and whose you are.” No, we’re not finished already, but those are the words I typically send you out with at the end of our worship time. I’d like to push on the words for a few minutes and see what happens.
“Go forth, knowing who you are!” Who are you? You’d probably start with your name. But who are you? I know you know, but can you put it into words?
When we meet someone for the first time we immediately ask a few probing questions just to get a sense of who they are. The psychologists will tell you that how you answer says a lot about you. Who are you? Define yourself in a few words.
Umm, Larry, husband, father, musician, minister, mystic?, umm…noticer!
You could probably answer that question too. But what if I asked who you are as a group?
Ok, quick, Faith United Church, who are you? Define your church in a few words. Don’t answer that yet. Let it stew for a while.
Let’s look at the other question – an even more foundational question – whose are you?
“I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection and the sharing of his sufferings by becoming like him in his death, if somehow I may attain the resurrection from the dead…
That’s a fancy way to say that that’s our goal – dying to the former and rising anew – in a word it’s cruciformity – and lived out it’s Christ-likeness.
Not that I have already obtained this or have already reached the goal; but I press on to make it my own, because Christ Jesus has made me his own beloved, I do not consider that I have made it my own; but this one thing I do: forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, I press on toward the goal for the prize of the heavenly call of God in Christ Jesus.”
We press on to make the goal of Christ-likeness our own because Jesus has made us his own beloved. You are God’s beloved! Having this sense of identity – of knowing “whose we are” gives us energy and motivation for living – “forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead.”
“Christ’s beloved” is our identity as followers of the Way of Jesus.
Who are we? We are Christ’s beloved – Christ’s own. We’re family. We’re part of the body of Christ.
But who are we as a church? If being “Christ’s own or beloved” is our identity globally, what’s our identity locally?
We say we are one in Christ – but are we all the same? Do we all have to be the same to be Christ’s own? Should we be?
I’m one who believes strongly in the unity of the body – that all who profess to be Christians, that all who seek to passionately follow the Way of Jesus, are kindred in Christ, or at least we should be.
Sadly though, our denominational divisions tend to keep us from one another.
Heck, sometimes we even feel like we’re in competition within our own denomination. Do you think Paul meant that winning the prize meant to win at the 3 B’s? ~ is that how you measure the “success” of a church, by comparing Budgets, Buildings, and Butts in the pews?
But these are the very types of things Paul said he counted as “loss” when compared to counting “Christ as gain”.
Actually, as passionate as I am about Christian unity within and across denominational lines, I’m even more passionate about our uniqueness. Another Christian paradox!
I think God wants us to have denominations – I think God loves variety and individuality. I mean, just look at creation!
Why do we need so many different kinds of foods when just a few would give us basic nourishment and give us more in common?
Why so many kinds of animals?
Why so many types of plants? God loves diversity and uniqueness – and everything God has created has a unique purpose.
What a dull and boring world it would be if everyone ate the same, and looked the same, and even thought the same.
Let’s do a survey. Hands up if you love music. Now, does that mean if I play some right now you’ll all love it? Depends on what kind, right? And if you don’t like it, does that mean you really don’t love music after all? Of course not. Someone else’s music may not be for you – it might even shock or upset you, or bore you – but it doesn’t mean it’s not still music – or even great music.
We have different styles because we’re unique people – it’s a great strength. So we need to celebrate “music” – to celebrate that we are all “Christ’s beloved” no matter which radio station we tune in – and we also need to celebrate our uniqueness. We are “Christ’s beloved” – but so are the Baptists, and the Catholics, and the Anglicans, and the Pentecostals, and the Presbyterians.
The word “university” is formed by putting together two seemingly opposite words. It means “unity in diversity” – that the various faculties and programs are diverse, yet unified under the banner of the larger institution and goal. The university doesn’t become stronger if the faculty of engineering starts to teach courses in English literature – or if the medical school adds fine arts to their anatomy lectures.
When you see someone with a “UOIT” sweatshirt on what does it tell you? – probably that they are (or were) a student there. The shirt is a unifying element – but it’s the diversity and particularity of the program the student is in that makes them unique – a subset of the larger group – a local expression of their global identity.
So today, on World Communion Sunday, we all symbolically wear our University of Jesus sweatshirts. This day is a call for all Christians – of whatever background – and of whatever theological tradition – to recollect that we are in fact one in Christ – and that the table we receive from and share communion at is God’s table – not our own. It’s an image of men, women, and children of every language, colour, and nationality gathering in fields, straw huts, brick schools, wooden shacks, stone cathedrals and modern spaces like this and praising God and entering into both a physical and spiritual communion with one another.
World communion – unity in the wider body of Christ – the holy Catholic (which means universal) Church – all over the world today followers of the way of Jesus will break the bread and pour the juice or wine in solidarity. That’s awesome!
And yet communion practice is one of the things that historically has driven us apart – transubstantiation (that’s really Jesus), or consubstantiation (Jesus is in there too), or symbolic representation (Jesus is remembered or made known) – wafers or bread – wine or juice – common cup or individual glasses – intinction or pass-the-trays? (There’s so much we can fight about!)
But for me, the differences aren’t a burden, they’re a strength – it’s how we practice and treat our differences that makes them troublesome.
A couple of weeks ago we talked about the differences between the Holy Rollers and the Frozen Chosen – and all points in between. So worship style is one of our areas of diversity in the body of Christ – but hopefully we can see that we’re all worshipping (like we’re all doing communion) authentically, each in our own way.
We don’t have to be the same to be unified.
We can’t be all things to all people.
So the best thing we can do is to be authentic.
The power and vitality of the University of Jesus lies in our unified diversity – our global identity expressed locally. Some might call this sense of connection ecumenism – which in some places has got a bad rap. The problem we in the United Church tend to have with ecumenism is we’re so worried about offending anyone that we keep letting go of what makes us unique or distinctive until there’s nothing unique left.
Like that crazy scene from Monty Python’s “Life of Brian” movie where a crowd of people gather to worship a would-be messiah who tells them “You’re all individuals” – to which the entire crowd says as one: “Yes, we’re all individuals” – “You’re all different” – “Yes, we’re all different” and one poor soul cries out “I’m not!”
I feel our United Church has become a bit confused and wishy-washy about some things. We have a pretty strong denominational ethos but for some bizarre reason we’re reluctant to lift it up and celebrate it. We need to name it, and claim it!
I think that being grounded in “whose we are” – Christ’s beloved – gives us the foundation from which to articulate who we are. Which faculty in the University of Jesus are we?
The United Church started in 1925 with a sense that we were hoping to be a church with the soul of a nation (as Phyllis Airhart wrote). We purposely set aside the diversities of being Congregationalist, Methodist, and Presbyterian in order to embrace unity – a United Church. And yet, each individual church has the freedom to express their identity in their own way, and style.
If you were to enter any United Church anywhere in the country you would have the sense that it is both unique and alike at the same time.
That’s a great strength – worth celebrating!
Our denomination is, by definition, a shining example of unity in diversity.
It’s hard to pin down our denominational identity (who we are) but I think the right place to start is to focus on our personal Christian identity (whose we are).
If we can pray about it and discern it for ourselves as individuals I think this church, and our denomination, could better discern it for “the Church.”
At Faith United we like to think we’re a little bit different – and we are. Maybe we’re different because we spend a good amount of time reflecting on and celebrating “whose” we are!
Today is World Communion Sunday – and we will celebrate our global identity as part of the University of Jesus.
Today, with churches all over the world we celebrate “whose we are” – Christ’s beloved – part of the Body of Christ.
And we do that here, in this unique place, under this particular name, among this weird and wonderful community of called-out followers of the Way of Jesus.
May God bless the diversity of our unity.