“Who Do We Think We Are, Anyway?” – Wholeness
Rev. Melanie Harrell Delaney
November 10th, 2013
20 ‘I ask not only on behalf of these, but also on behalf of those who will believe in me through their word, 21that they may all be one. As you, Father, are in me and I am in you, may they also be in us, so that the world may believe that you have sent me. 22The glory that you have given me I have given them, so that they may be one, as we are one,23I in them and you in me, that they may become completely one, so that the world may know that you have sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me.
He always wore sweater vests and drank his coffee black. I visited Tom a few times while in college; he was a member of the church I served. I loved visiting Tom because even in his later years, he was full of life. His eyes sparkled with a sarcastic humor and he always had a new joke or two to share. Tom loved jigsaw puzzles and every time I went to see him he had a new one in the works, pieces set up and perfectly organized by color and shape as he worked to fit them together –some with intricate nature scenes or city skylines at night, some without edge pieces or building a 3D shape.
One day, as I walked into his home, instead of finding a single jigsaw puzzle nicely organized on the table, I found boxes of puzzles open and spilling out all over the room. Every square inch on the carpet was full of tiny little puzzle pieces. “Tom! What is going on here? Is everything okay?” I asked, delicately stepping over a mess of pieces and parts of an ocean scene as I followed him into the room.
“Well, no,” he said to me, his voice sounding weary. “You see that puzzle over there that I’ve been working on? It’s one of my favorites, an old one that my daughter and I used to do together. I got it out to put it together again, but look at it!”
I tiptoed over to the card table in the corner where a puzzle was nearly complete – a beautiful meadow speckled with flowers, in the center a lion and a lamb cuddled up together. “Do you see?” Tom asked me, coming to my side, “I have the whole thing almost complete. It’s beautiful, isn’t it? But that one piece…it’s missing.”
Sure enough, off to the side, in the middle of what would have been a beautiful grass field, a gaping hole marred the picture. Tom had been searching for days for the missing piece, pulling out every other puzzle he owned to look through the pieces, sorting through drawers and cabinets and looking under beds. He was determined to find it –for the puzzle wasn’t complete without it.
Complete. Perfected. Whole. “We are Disciples of Christ, a movement for wholeness in a fragmented world…” this is the first part of our identity statement as part of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ). Today we look at the second part of the four-part series looking closely at our identity as disciples of Christ in the 21st century. Last week we explored what it means to be a movement: to be working and walking forward with a purpose, to be an organic gathering of faithful and seeking people with a vision of unity in Christ. We are a movement.
But we are movement with direction, for we are a movement for wholeness in a fragmented world. Like a puzzle with many pieces, all unique in shape and color and design, we recognize that we are a part of something bigger than our individual selves. We are part of a story that began long before our birth and will continue long after we are gone from this earth; a story of creation, healing, and hope.
In the first books of our holy scripture, the author of Genesis tells of God’s creation of the world. Out of a chaotic nothingness, God brings forth water and land, animals and plants, human beings with personalities and loves and curiosities. Each day, as God put the finishing touches on the flowers and fish and fruit, God sat back and sighed… “it is good.” In all of the earth’s createdness, in all of humanity’s perfect imperfection, God calls the world “good.” As God’s creation, in God’s eyes, each and every one of us is good, created to be just as God intends.
But we forget that sometimes, if not far too often. The teenage girl or the young woman who looks at herself in the mirror and calls herself fat; the brothers who have been fighting for so long they cannot remember what started it all and thus don’t know how or what to forgive; the inability of democrat and republican to work together to find a middle ground; the disparity of rich and poor in our own city. We live in a world defined by fragmentation, division, and difference.
Last spring, the community Ministers Association (that I’m a part of) decided that we should probably have a mission statement. We are a group of 8-10 clergy from many different denominations who gather monthly for the benefit of the wider community. Although our faith traditions and expressions vary widely, we have become a close group of friends. But when a task force of a few brought a suggested mission statement to the larger group, something happened. We started arguing about precise wording about Jesus Christ. Some wanted to include parts of their denominational creeds and others claimed that would exclude their own faith. We were stuck, divided and angry. Finally, after an hour of argument and irritation, someone asked the question: “Do we really need a mission statement?” It seems to me, she said, that we were far better off before, when we didn’t try to define ourselves but came together simply out of our love for God and one another. The room was silent for a minute, but the Holy Spirit’s presence was suddenly palpable. She was right.
For so long Christians have been defining ourselves by what makes us unique and different (dare I say “right”) that we’ve nearly lost our ability to even see what ties us together: God’s love through Jesus Christ.
That’s why it’s so important to gather at the communion table as often as possible. It’s so important that we come to this place, to sing the songs and hear the scriptures, to share bread and cup with one another – to remember that we are not alone on this journey of faith. We are on the road together and we belong to God.
One of the first Christian preachers, Paul, wrote a letter to the church in Corinth, Greece. The early Christians there were trying to form a community of people following the Way of Jesus Christ. They were trying to spread the gospel, to tell the story of the life, death, and resurrection of Christ, but something was getting in the way. Like too many churches today, they were getting distracted by fights over which preacher and leader they should be following. They were divided over different interpretations and variations of the story of Jesus Christ. So Paul wrote this letter in which he says in so many words: stop arguing. Stop letting divisions distract you. In chapter 3:22-23 Paul says, “whether Paul or Apollos or Cephas,” (all different preachers back then) “or the world or life or death or the present or the future—all belong to you, and you belong to Christ and Christ belongs to God.”
In other words, we belong to each other and we belong to Christ.
During one of Jesus’ final meals with his disciples, he gives a farewell speech and prayer. In John 17:1-26, Jesus looks up to heaven and says, “Father, the hour has come; glorify your Son so that the Son may glorify you.” This farewell prayer has three parts: In the first part of Jesus’ farewell, he prays for himself and his work. In the second part o the prayer, verses 9-23, Jesus prays for the faith community and the future life of his followers, including us today. Then, in the final three verses, Jesus prays for a future of unity among God, the Son, and all believers. The thread that weaves throughout the entire prayer and connects it all is his prayer for the unity of the faith community, “that they may all be one.”
Jesus’ prayer is that his followers would know and understand that we have a part in the same unity that he shares with God the creator. By recognizing that we belong to one another and working toward unity as individuals in community—living in mutuality, prayerful agreement with one another, with respect, courage and grace—we model the relationship of God and Jesus. Through our unity with one another, our wholeness as a community, we experience a spark of the relationship between Jesus and the creator and catch a glimpse of God’s holy vision for the Kingdom of God on earth. Some call it God’s Shalom – a Hebrew word for peace and completeness.
“We are Disciples of Christ, a movement for wholeness in a fragmented world. As part of the one body of Christ, we welcome all to the Lord’s table as God has welcomed us.” When Alexander Campbell and Barton Stone, two of our denomination’s founders that I spoke of last week, when they first began this movement, the last thing they wanted was to begin a separate denomination. In 1804, in a document titled “The last Will and Testament of the Springfield Presbytery,” Stone’s congregation willed that “this body die, be dissolved, and sink into union with the Body of Christ at large.” This group of people agreed to call themselves nothing other than “Christian” as a way to be united with all other Christians. Over time, as the movement spread ever father, congregations of Christians realized that by sharing resources and building connections, our mission and message could go father. Although we are now structured as a mainline protestant denomination, unity, mission, and God’s vision of justice and shalom have always been the polar star that guides us. We Disciples have often led the way in ecumenical movements and inter-faith partnerships around the world.
“We are Disciples of Christ, a movement for wholeness in a fragmented world. As part of the one body of Christ, we welcome all to the Lord’s table as God has welcomed us.” As we live and move in tune with God, as we come to understand that we are all individual pieces of one great big puzzle picture, and that we belong to one another just as we belong to God, we begin to piece together God’s vision for a world of Shalom – of peace and completeness, where God, Jesus, and the faith community are all truly united in love.
But unity doesn’t mean uniform. That is both our blessing and our challenge. Truthfully, we have often struggled with how to live united in our differences and we haven’t always gotten it right. We are not all the same shape, size and color. We have different families and experiences, different learning styles and passions. Some of us are good at taking a leading role and others are crucial behind-the-scenes. Some of us have deep prayer lives and others a passion for mission and outreach. Some of us emphasize Jesus’ power through his death and resurrection and others are deeply compelled by his wisdom and words during his life. Some of us read the words of scripture literally and others value modern interpretation. Many of us are a mixture of all of these, but all of us have a place at the table with Jesus.
We are Disciples of Christ: a movement for wholeness, a movement that acknowledges that each one of us and every human being is created whole – known and loved and called “good” by our creator. We are a movement for wholeness, a commitment to being united in our diversity despite the challenges that poses. We are and have always been a gathering of Christians committed to Christ and a vision of justice and peace. We are a movement for wholeness which, just like my friend Tom and just like God, seeks out every last and missing piece of the puzzle in order to complete the picture…
…to finally complete God’s vision… to reach God’s Shalom.
“Who do we think we are, anyway? – Movement”
Rev. Melanie Harrell Delaney
November 3rd, 2013
Now the eleven disciples went to Galilee, to the mountain to which Jesus had directed them. When they saw him, they worshipped him; but some doubted. And Jesus came and said to them, ‘All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you. And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.’
It happens without fail, every time. You board a tiny airplane, successfully wrestle your carryon into the overhead bin without hitting anyone in the head, settle into your seat and pull out a book. If you’re like me, you open that book and start to look busy. Really, really busy and really, really boring. But it seems to be a truth of the universe that just when you settle in and the cabin doors close – locking you into the metal box of a plane—at that precise moment the woman next to you turns to you and says, “so, where’ya headed?” Usually, if I’m flying solo it’s because I’m heading somewhere church related. Maybe it’s to Orlando for the General Assembly, or another city for the Bethany Fellowship. So the next question, “business or fun?” often leads to the question, “so, what do you do?”
I take a deep breath and say, “I’m a pastor....” and wait, watching their face. First, confusion, as they comprehend that young women can actually do this kind of work. Then, without fail, “what kind of church do you serve?” Answering this question is actually harder than telling people I’m a pastor. Why? Because 99% of the time when I say “the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ),” there is an even longer pause and their heads tip to the side. One time, a woman’s eyes got really big and she looked a bit scared as she said, “is that the new cult I heard about last week?”
“No, we’re not a cult,” I say, “We’re actually mainline Protestant. Kind of like Presbyterians or Methodists, but not. We’re smaller, less well known. Similar to the United Church of Christ – do you know the United Church of Christ?” I search for a spark of recognition as the stranger relaxes a bit. “Oh, yeah,” she says, “I used to know someone who was UCC.” I nod, relieved to have communicated my “normalcy” as a human being.
But what have I just done? In explaining to this stranger who I am, what I believe in and belong to, I never said a thing about who we actually were. If she drives by a church someday that says “Christian Church (Disciples of Christ)” on the sign, what will she know – not that we find our identity and meaning in the open communion table each week; not that we are a place where people can come with lots of different theologies and interpretations and political views and all have a place. She won’t know that we are an open and truly welcoming, grace-filled church. Instead of knowing who we are, she’ll only know who we’re not.
So what do YOU say when someone asks you? What do you say when you’re talking with a friend who has no idea who the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) are? Who do we think we are, anyway?
That’s the title of this 4 week sermon series and the question we’ll be exploring together. Because too often we define ourselves not by who we are, but who we aren’t. Too often we avoid the question or stumble over our answer or just aren’t even sure. But we should be sure! We are part of something really important in our world today –a gathering of Christians who do our best to build bridges over the dividing lines, inviting everyone to the Lord’s Table of love.
“We are Disciples of Christ, a movement for wholeness in a fragmented world. As part of the one body of Christ, we welcome all to the Lord’s table as Christ has welcomed us.” This is our identity statement, written in 2006 by a group called the 21st Century Vision Team, as an effort to put our actions and faith practices into words. It’s a short statement that describes us, so that when someone asks about our church, we have something substantial to say. We are a movement. We seek unity and wholeness. We share communion every week and we welcome everyone to God’s table. That’s who we are and what we love.
We are Disciples of Christ, a movement for wholeness in a fragmented world. That was the vision and dream of Alexander Campbell and Barton Stone, two pastors who brought their growing ministries together on the edge of the American frontier.
Shaped by and in a time of exploration and religious awakening, self-reliant frontier settlers sought a brand of religion that was individualistic, uncomplicated, free of dogmatic authority and unbound by tradition. The formal, institutional church of the time did not offer such characteristics. So, in the summer of 1801 at Cane Ridge in Kentucky, Barton W. Stone led a revival that sparked holy passion and purpose. While most religious traditions had particular denominational names, Stone and his followers called themselves simply “Christians.”
Word of this new movement spread like wildfire until it reached the hills of Pennsylvania where a young pastor named Alexander Campbell was leading a movement with similar passions. Tired of the fragmentation and divides of the Presbyterian church of his roots, Campbell organized one of the very first nondenominational Christian communities in the country. Calling themselves “Disciples,” Campbell’s group was committed to individual interpretation of scripture, sharing the Lord’s Supper weekly, and working toward unity of all Christians everywhere.
While the two founders had their disagreements, they soon realized that they shared a common goal: to reject creeds and division among Christ-followers so that all Christians might be united as one at the Lord’s table. In 1832 the two movements came together as one, sharing common beliefs and a common purpose – to spread the story of Jesus Christ, baptizing, changing lives, and uniting all Christians at the Lord’s Table in worship.
The founders, and the Disciples of Christ movement itself, have always valued Jesus’ words in scripture above others. “No Creed but Christ,” we have sometimes said about ourselves. I’m sure then, that Alexander Campbell and Barton Stone would have had these words of scripture etched deeply onto their hearts: “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you.” They would have held these final words of Jesus as recorded in the book of Matthew (28:19) as sacred and sought to follow Jesus’ call as faithfully as possible.
“Go…make disciples” Jesus says to his followers, appearing to them on a mountain in Galilee, just days after his death and resurrection. I imagine the original disciples didn’t much like hearing this word. I imagine that they would have rather stayed there in Jesus’ presence, holding onto him for dear life for fear of what a future without him might hold. I imagine that they felt pretty powerless in the shadow of the cross, unsure how to keep Jesus’ healings and teachings alive.
“Go…” Jesus says anyway. Baptize, teach, love, heal…include everyone from all around the world…Gentile and Jew, man and woman, young and old. Don’t worry about those dividing lines that religions get distracted by. Make disciples of all people. Do what I did, live like I did, love like I did. But don’t stay here, don’t stay where you are. Go!
As Matthew tells the story of Jesus’ final commission to the first disciples, he emphasizes two things: 1. That God wanted the church to be a universal, inclusive community of all nations, not just the Jews in Israel. 2. That people aren’t called to become individual believers, but are to be enlisted as disciples within the Christian community, where the Christian message in faith must become actualized in their lives. This means that Jesus’ message and work is for all people and that being a Disciple of Jesus Christ isn’t a noun—not a static thing or person—but a verb. Being a Disciple is an active, visible, spirit-led movement in their lives.
“Go!” Jesus said to the disciples. “Go!” Jesus says to the Disciples. “Go!” Jesus says to us. Make disciples. Teach. Heal. Baptize. Love your neighbor. Love God. All of these commissions and commandments from Jesus are active and require some sort of movement – a stretching of the mind, an opening of the heart, a walk into the waters of new life, a giving of oneself to another.
To be a follower of Christ, a believer in God, means to be moving.
But as a fellow pastor points out, there is a difference between purposeful and purposeless movement. God doesn’t call Moses to walk in circles around the burning bush; that’s movement, but it has no purpose. Instead, God calls Moses to “Go! Tell the Pharaoh to stop enslaving my people!” God doesn’t call Jonah to sit in the belly of the whale until he wastes away to nothing. Instead, God says, “Go! Take my word to the people of Ninevah. Tell them to change their ways.” Likewise, when Jesus called his disciples, they had to move. Literally. Jesus said “Come and follow me.” They didn’t have pedometers back then, but I’m pretty sure the job description came with a lot of walking…”
To be a follower of Christ, a believer in God, means to be moving. We grow, praise, serve, tell the story, heal, love and come to the Lord’s Table. But we don’t just move for the sake of moving. We do all of these things so that people might catch a glimpse of what God’s Kingdom looks like: a world not divided but united, the sharing of table fellowship and the hospitality of welcome; a world of kind and brave people loving deeply.
“We are Disciples of Christ, a movement for wholeness in a fragmented world.” We are people with a purpose – to unite and welcome. We are people with a vision – of one church where everyone sits down at the Lord’s Table together. Today is also All Saints Sunday, and it seems fitting that we honor and remember the saints of the church who have walked this journey before us. For God’s call to “Go!” is not new, but has propelled and compelled men and women of faith for generations before us. In the ways that they fed the hungry with homemade bread and church pot-lucks, clothed the naked and offered work and shelter for the homeless, in the ways that they welcomed the stranger and showed up week after week to prepare communion; In the ways that they moved, and loved, and kept the faith not just moving, but moving forward, we give thanks today.
A few weeks ago, my spiritual director shared a Lutheran prayer with me. I read it and said, “Oh, that’s nice.” Then, a week later, I walked into a different church fellowship hall where painted in huge, bold letters, were the exact same words of the prayer:
“Gracious God, you have called your servants to ventures of which we cannot see the ending; by paths as yet untrodden; through perils unknown.
Give us faith to go out with good courage, not knowing where we go, but only that your hand is leading us and your love supporting us. Through Jesus Christ, Amen.”
I don’t know about you, but when God has to use big, bold letters painted on a wall to get my attention, I start listening real quick! “Lord, give us faith to go out with good courage, not knowing where we go, but only that your hand is leading us and your love supporting us…” Yes, Lord.
Jesus calls us to “Go!” We may not always know where we’re going, or be able to see very far into the future. We may stumble over a rock in the path a few times or find ourselves wandering in circles for a bit, but we have a mission and a purpose: to welcome all people and unite all Christians at the Lord’s Table. We are called to “go” and to “serve” and to “love,” and so by the grace and guidance of the Holy Spirit, we step out--moving forward in faith.
And as we do so, through all the ways we move and serve and love ever more deeply, we discover the reality of Jesus’ last words in the gospel of Matthew: “And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.”
Pastor Melanie is a preacher, mother, singer, and too-much-coffee-drinker. She is passionate about creative worship and finding God in the midst of our every-day.