1 Corinthians 1:10-17
When I lived in Northern Ireland, I was shocked by how many people believed that only Protestants were Christians. Catholics, they thought, were a completely different religion. They believed that they followed the pope and not Christ. This showed in fascinating ways. In Northern Ireland, the Protestant community did not celebrate St. Patrick’s day at all because he was too Catholic of a Saint. Everyone was Catholic then! The founder of Christianity in Ireland was forgotten because he lived 1,000 years before the Reformation.
There were many reasons for the Protestant Catholic divide. There was stolen land and broken promises, fear of reprisals, and centuries of violence on both sides. But one thing that kept it up this barrier between Protestants and Catholics was the church itself. Leaders and even pastors would claim, “Our church is the only right one. Don’t have anything to do with those other groups that call themselves Christians.” And sadly, that message was passed down to children too. Many of the youth in the community I lived and served in believed that Catholics could not be Christians, and that they should stay away from them.
Luckily, I was part of a church that believed the gospel of Jesus Christ is far bigger than that. And one night our youth group invited a local Catholic priest to speak to our youth. I was excited, but I was a little bit worried about how our youth would receive him. For many, this would be the first time they ever spoke to a priest or had the chance to ask questions to a Catholic person about their faith.
And one of the first questions was one I was most afraid of. A teenage girl raised her hand and said, “Are you a Christian or are you just Catholic?” Now, she didn’t mean it in a judgmental or rude way. She just had always been taught that you are either one or the other, and she was genuinely curious to find out if somehow you could be both. But as soon as she said, I worried, how was this priest going to respond? How offended would he be? Was he going to storm out at being called “just Catholic?”
But he was much wiser and calmer than I would have been in the moment. And he actually welcomed the question with a smile and excitement. He was ready for this question. “I am a Christian before I am anything else. Before I am a priest, before I am Catholic, before I am either male or female, before I am named Ted, before all of that, I am a follower of Jesus Christ. That is the most important thing in my life.”
And from there, he told the youth about his own faith journey, about his relationship with God, his call to ministry, the fact that he needs forgiven, and how amazing it is that Jesus died for each one of us. As more and more students asked questions, they started realizing this man in front of me is just like me – created by God, makes some mistakes in life, but deeply loves the Lord. His testimony of faith became one of the most powerful many of youth had ever heard.
I tell this story, because I think it is a wonderful story. But these divisions within the church don’t just exist in Northern Ireland. They are here in our nation and in our community just as much. We are just better at not talking about them.
In North America, there are over 50 different Presbyterian and Reformed Denominations alone. These are churches that are the closest in theology and tradition and yet can’t stay in the same room with each other. We still have a lot of stereotypes and judgments about people who are Catholic or Pentecostal, or people who prefer high liturgy or rock bands with light shows. We are told you either have to be evangelical or progressive. You can either proclaim the gospel and tell people about your own faith and Christ, or you can speak up for those who are mistreated and oppressed and forgotten. But you can’t do both. Those are separate camps, and the two will never get along.
The church today looks a lot like what Paul greatly feared – a community not of welcome and justice and grace, but of bickering, quarreling and fighting against one another. We have been doing it for so long, we don’t even realize it.
But the rest of the world does. Christians often think that people don’t come to church because of the style of music or the quality of the coffee or the building is too old fashioned. But if you ask someone who isn’t attending, those things actually don’t matter all that much. A much more common answer is that the church spends too much time talking and arguing and debating and too little time acting like Jesus. They are looking for a whole new way to live, and instead they find a church that is just as divided and self-righteous and enclosed among itself as every other group out there in the world.
Are divisions aren’t just hurting ourselves. They are hurting the world. They are keeping the message of God’s love from being heard and trusted. In this passage today, Paul uses the word schismata for these divisions. In hearing that word today, we might think of the Great Schism between the western and eastern churches 1,000 years ago. But in Paul’s day, that word was more commonly spoken by fishermen. When they had a tear in their net, they called it a schismata.
You don’t have to be a fisherman to get the metaphor. If you are casting a net, you want ever chord to be strong. If there is a tear anywhere, you are not going to catch many fish. They will simply swim out of it. You can keep casting that net time after time after time. But it won’t matter until you mend it.
Paul is saying the same thing about the church. We are meant to be Christ’s body, a force for good and love and grace and mercy in the world. But if we have a tear within us, we are far less effective. We can keep casting out day after day, week after week with greater light shows, newer music, fancier buildings, cooler lingo, but that’s not what we need. What we need is to be mended. What we need is healing. What we need is to come back together.
There are over two billion Christians in the world today. Imagine if we all worked together? Imagine the gifts, the dreams we could accomplish, the visions for a better world. There is so much we could be as the body of Jesus Christ if we could simply learn how to come back together.
There is a lot going on here in our own church and in our own community that encourages me today. One of the best visions of the church coming together is what happens each month here in the Mobile Food pantry. We use this space, but it is not just Stone House Presbyterian Church that hosts and serves. We actually couldn’t do it on our own. It needs more people and resources and gifts. 300-400 people receive food here each month because the Church (with a capital C) has come together. Members from St. Olaf Catholic Church and Williamsburg Mennonite and Hickory Neck Episcopal and Tabernacle Methodist, and many others choose to come and pray and serve side by side with one another.
One of my new favorite parts of Lent is worshiping in all the different churches of all different denominations each Wednesday night. I love hearing different styles of music and liturgy, receiving communion together, offering our gifts to the work of great non-profits in our areas, and knowing that we will see one another again soon. Best of all, it means I don’t have to preach each week. I get to worship next to all of you and see the great gifts of my colleagues, as I too am reminded of a Savior who gave so much for me.
In a couple of months our own youth will be traveling to the Eastern Shore of Virginia, serving the community there. And they won’t be surrounded just by other Presbyterians, but with the Lutheran church we partner with, and with Methodist, Episcopalian, Catholic, Baptist, Non-denominational youth of all stripes and colors, serving together, worshiping together, and seeing each other’s faith. My hope is that this next generation will grow in knowing Christ, but they will also become wiser than us. They will see that the body of Christ is one, and it is at its best when we are all together. Amen.