Division for the Sake of Unity
Immanuel Lutheran, Chicago
Jesus said, “I came to bring fire to the earth and how I wish it were already kindled! (Luke 12:49) What are we to do with this week’s readings? Isn’t there already enough polarization, gridlock, tension and violence in the world? These readings seem to fuel the flame.
Religious divisions are among the leading examples of strife. We have one version of Jesus for the red states and another Jesus in the blue states. There are upwards of 41,000 different Christian denominations in the world today. Among them, I don’t need to tell you, are deep divisions and disagreements about what it means to be a good follower of Christ.
According to a study done by the Pew Research Center, The share of countries with a high or very high level of social hostilities involving religion reached a six-year peak in 2012. In 2014, a woman named Meriam Ibrahim was sentenced to death in Sudan for apostasy from Islam, and to public flogging because her marriage to a Christian was not legally recognized. She gave birth to her second child while shackled in prison.
That’s why we give thanks for the actions of those who took part in the international outcry to save her from the death penalty and ultimately, to bring her and her family to live here in New Hampshire. Mrs. Ibrahim speaks of the persecution as a test of her faith, which she says was strengthened by the ordeal. Charlotte Allen, writing in the Wall Street Journal, compared Ibrahim’s story to that of third-century martyrs Perpetua and Felicity, who were also young African mothers (June 26, 2014).
The struggle in Sudan and its new neighbor, South Sudan continues. There are many more Meriams whose families are afflicted with religious persecution. That’s why we pray for the vision co-sponsored by our national church and the Lutheran World Federation to build a new peace church including formerly warring Dinka and Nuer tribes in the capital city of Juba.
Strife among religions is an especially odious example of the depth of human sinfulness. That’s why we celebrate agreements of full communion crafted over the past ten years between our national church and six other denominations. Where the gospel is preached and the sacraments rightly administered, remaining differences between our denominations is enriching, not divisive.
We celebrate the decision at the ELCA National Assembly this week meeting in New Orleans to overwhelmingly approve a new Lutheran-Catholic ecumenical document called, Declaration on the Way. At the heart of the document are 32 “Statements of Agreement” that identify where Lutherans and Catholics do not have differences that divide us on topics about church, ministry and the Eucharist.
ELCA Presiding Bishop Elizabeth A. Eaton addressing the assembly following the vote said, “…let us pause to honor this historic moment. Though we have not yet arrived, we have claimed that we are, in fact, on the way to unity. After 500 years of division and 50 years of dialogue, this action must be understood in the context of other significant agreements we have reached, most notably the ‘Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification’ in 1999…. This ‘Declaration on the Way’ helps us to realize more fully our unity in Christ with our Catholic partners, but it also serves to embolden our commitment to unity with all Christians. ”
We give thanks for every example when followers of Jesus stands apart from the warring world by standing together with people of faith and good will. I wonder, could this is the fire Jesus meant to kindle in us? Could this be the division with which Jesus intends to disturb the peace? Perhaps, this is our baptismal work.
The Holy Spirit is at work deep within us, prompting the overlooked to say, we are not invisible! Teaching the unheard to find their voice. The child will say ‘it’s not okay for daddy to hit mommy’. The spouse will say ‘I am worthy of being loved’. People of color rise up and say ‘our lives matter too.’ Yesterday I heard news anchor Katie Couric describe the work done in recent years to promote greater respect for women in the workplace. When she started working in broadcast journalism, ‘harass’ was two words, not one.
While there is no justice, there can be no peace. The laborer will refuse to be just another human resource, but demand a fair share of the profits wrought by their skill and sweat. God’s grace prompts the teacher to teach, the preacher to preach, the lawyer to advocate, the plumber to restore flow, the electrician to create connectivity. Whatever our vocation or area of service, we are called to distinguish ourselves for the greater good.
This is our work. It is the work of all the baptized and of the ancient prophets. Daniel Berrigan wrote, “Open up the book of Jeremiah, and you do not find a person looking for inner peace.” Poor Jeremiah is called “the weeping prophet” for his life of grief over his wayward people: “Oh, that my head were a spring of water, and my eyes a fountain of tears! I would weep day and night for the slain of my people.” (Jeremiah 9:1)
At times, this baptismal work may cause painful division among us, between father and son, mother against daughter, or in-laws against out-laws. St. Francis stood naked in the street and returned everything he possessed including the clothing on his back to renounce his father. Jesus called the disciples to leave their work and their families to follow him. (Mark 1:17-20) Jesus’ own mother, brothers and sisters came to plead with him to come home and stop preaching. (Mark 3:31-35)
Rather than keep the peace that is no peace, grace teaches us the proper use of our anger to identify things that are not right and to set about making them better. Speak the truth in love. Confront bigotry with human dignity. Overcome ignorance with learning. Seek wisdom by speaking the truth as you know it, and by prayerfully listening, striving to listen more than you speak.
In this way we will keep a song in our hearts and the peace of God for the constant renewal our minds while striving for common good and opening ourselves to receiving one another and all strangers as though we were greeting the Lord Jesus himself, for that indeed is what we are doing. Of course, we will not always be successful. But it is enough to know that in suffering injustice, we share more fully in the divine life at work in the world around us.