Luke 9: 46-50
Rev. Kit B. Billings
November 13, 2004
If Jesus were sitting next to you right now, what do you think he might say about Christian unity if you asked him? Do you think he would say that it's important? Perhaps he might respond not with an answer but with a question. He might ask you, “How do you feel about it?” Or he might ask, “What is the spiritual basis of Christian unity?”
Clearly in our society today there are signs of Christian unity and of disunity. One sign of unity is the existence of the National Council of the Churches of Christ, U.S.A., composed of thirty-six member communions (or denominations). Many cities and towns have ministerial ecumenical councils, made up of clergy and laity from many diverse denominations. Why even here in St. Louis there is an interfaith organization that I am now first starting to learn about, bringing unity and cooperation between Christian, Jewish and Islamic organizations.
These faith-based organizations, and many others, are focussing their basis for unity not on doctrinal similarity but on putting their faith into action. These groups want to make a difference in our community. Their combined efforts may be called the unity of service, or the unity of justice-seeking depending upon their emphasis. In the service-oriented approach Christians of various churches may be of use and grow in their sense of unity by working in soup kitchens. They may cooperate in food and clothing drives, and many other caring venues as well.
Then there is the kind of unity we may experience by joining together in fighting injustice. Why, how, and what can be done about racism, urban sprawl and our lack of affordable housing? Some organizations work at answering and solving these problems.
Ecumenical and interfaith movements like these today care less about doctrinal unity and more about worship and action unity. Swedenborg realized that doctrinal unity among all Christians is simply unrealistic. He understood that differences in beliefs are real and should be respected. Clearly he lifted up the importance of every Christian growing and developing in her or his love and doctrinal teachings and beliefs. He underscored the importance of every believer to search out and hold onto only those beliefs that make sense. Real faith, he asserted, only grows within freedom and rationality (or reasoning). If one certain theological structure does not make sense to someone, then it should not be forced upon him or her.
I've known many good-hearted fundamentalist Christians who love their interpretation of the Bible and are happy where they are. For me or any other liberal to expect them to see God and the Word in exactly the way I do is unjust and unloving. I believe Swedenborg was right that the Lord does not try to force himself on people in any particular way. God tries to gain entrance in ways that will be received openly within each person's heart, mind and life. In our church's view, freedom in rationality is the motto of our Lord. We need to honor our neighbor's freedom to choose his or her own best religion and beliefs.
As liberal Christians Swedenborgians, like others, may sometimes fall prey to having a condescending attitude toward conservative Christians who hold ideas that differ markedly from our own. This can be hard not to do especially when one personally encounters a fundamentalist who quickly denounces and rejects everything about my faith I love and treasure. But demeaning conservatives in our hearts and with our mouths is just as much a sin as when a fundamentalist condemns and rejects non-legalistic or liberal views of Christianity. As one of you said in effect during Coffee Hour last year, we can passionately defend another person's vastly different viewpoint because that is their right as a child of God to have it. But, that doesn't mean we have to agree with it.
Now, since all Christians are given to know the Lord as presented in the Bible, our unity can be developed on the basis of God's universal love toward all. Christ expressed his Divine love by lifting up Gentiles when he told the story of the Good Samaritan. And again when he healed the Roman centurion's Jewish slave, whom that soldier loved like a son. God as Love Itself adores everyone equally and passionately and wants everyone to be joined together in love for all, while not giving up our ability to discern and think for ourselves.
Christ spoke to the unifying presence of love for all Christians in John when we said, “As the Father loved Me, I also have loved you; abide in My love. If you keep my commandments, you will abide in My love, just as I have kept My Father's commandments and abide in His love. These things I command you, that you love one another. By this all will know that you are My disciples, if you have love for one another.”
Jesus did not distinguish which neighbor is more important than another—he simply said to love everyone as much as yourself. This commandment is actually harder than it sounds (as you may have discovered in life).
What many Christians and I hear in this message of the Lord's is that real and widespread spiritual community is God's design. Swedenborg claimed that God opened his spiritual senses completely. His encounter with Heaven was awesome. He said that the angelic-human inhabitants there live in countless numbers of societies distinguished by their own unique understanding of and love for God and other people.
The Lord showed Swedenborg various societies of Christians, and others of Muslims, Jews, et cetera. This, my friends, is still today a wonderfully radical theology! Now imagine how amazing such viewpoints were back in the mid-1700's?! Truly, Swedenborg was then in a class by himself.
After years of first-hand observation of heaven, Swedenborg wrote that the essential, unifying or bonding force in Heaven is kindness towards all. Why? Because Divine Love is God! And the Lord's gracious love and wisdom literally makes up Heaven—it's air, land, water, heat and light are composed of love and truth. And we are born to become images and likenesses of the Lord.
The Word and our church teachings make it plain that to essentially love others we need first to accept them as beloved children of God. There should not be conditions on our loving acceptance of everyone as worthwhile human beings. Also, that it is vital that we honor and nurture everyone's affections for truth, which may differ from our own. That is, to allow others to see truth as they are given and choosing to see it. Our openness to working with and supporting Christians and non-Christians of other traditions makes it easier for the Lord to move through and live in all of us. Such ecumenical and interfaith openness is humorously revealed in this short anecdote.
A Baptist preacher tells the story on himself about receiving a call from a woman who was quite upset over the death of her pet cat, Homer. She wanted the preacher to conduct the funeral service for Homer. Imagine that?! The Baptist preacher explained that this was a little out of his line, and he referred her to a friend, a Presbyterian pastor at a church down the street.
Later, the preacher learned that his Presbyterian friend had referred her to a Methodist minister, who had referred her to someone else. About an hour later, she called the Baptist preacher back and she was still upset. The woman said she was at her wit's end. She couldn't find a preacher to conduct Homer's services and didn't know what to do. Then she said that she was planning to give $1000 to the church of the minister who performed this service for Homer. The Baptist preacher said it took him only a moment to mull this over and then say to her, “Well, why didn't you tell me Homer was a Baptist cat in the first place!” Ah, ecumenism at its best.
In closing, we are wise to recognize that those of other Christian faith traditions who see divinity in Christ and who uphold loving others as a high principle of faith are truly on the side of the Lord. Everyone, in fact, who believes in God and lives the best they know is working for the warmth and light of heaven. In our Gospel lesson today, Jesus responded to John the disciple saying, “For he who is not against us is on our side.”
May God help us all to increase Christian unity and interfaith love and support based upon the examples the Lord has given to humanity through so many diverse prophets, revelators and thinkers—examples about life centered within mutual love, faith in one Infinite God, real effort to understand one another, and respect for all. Amen.