Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Litmus Test

What does it mean to be a Christian? Having grown up in a different denomination, I’m all for ecumenism. We share so much in common with each other that it makes sense for us to celebrate those commonalities and downplay our differences. As soon as I’m ready to build a bridge between the denominations, however, I discover again just how far apart we actually are. Pick an issue—one that seems critical or one that seems rather benign—and we realize that there’s still a lot that separates us.

Baptism—infant or adult? Confirmation—necessary or not? Communion—memorial, sign, means, or actual? Alcohol—for it or against it? Dancing—same story. Crucifixion—divine punishment for sin or purification of human nature? Empty tomb—really empty, a metaphor for salvation, or doesn’t matter? Virgin birth—essential or out-dated? Scripture—literal or figurative, simple or complex, instructive or informative? Church governance—congregational or hierarchical? Tradition—historical or binding? Women—unequal, separate, prescribed, or no distinction? Divorce—sinful or lamentable? Abortion—evil or unfortunate? Where does it end?

While it’s true that I have a lot in common with people from any number of churches in town, it’s also true that we’re miles apart. This weekend, I’m leading the program for EYC convention, and the theme I’ve been assigned is “The Human Puzzle: Piecing Together the Body of Christ.” It’s a reflection of the youth’s interest in what holds Christians together despite all that divides us. Honestly, my answer depends on what side of the proverbial bed on which I wake up in the morning. Perhaps Paul’s words from today’s New Testament lesson (Romans 10:1-13) can help.

Brethren, my heart’s desire and prayer to God for them [unbelieving Jews] is that they may be saved. I bear them witness that they have a zeal for God, but it is not enlightened. For, being ignorant of the righteousness that comes from God, and seeking to establish their own, they did not submit to God’s righteousness.

Paul’s worried about his Jewish brothers and sisters who have not understood who Jesus was and what he represented. Although a different time and a different problem, I think Paul’s concern is one we share today. The “Christianity” put forward by others (e.g. Terry Jones and the burning of the holy Koran) can repugnant. Although less extreme examples aren’t quite as distasteful, I take strong issue with any Christian minister who teaches a) that women must submit in all things to their husbands, b) that homosexual people are going to hell, or c) that sharing in the Lord’s table fellowship is reserved only for those who agree with everyone else at the table. None of those things represents the Christianity I love nor the God I worship. And I would say, with Paul, that those other “Christians” have a zeal for God, but it is not enlightened. And I’m sure they would say the same thing about me.

What is it that holds us together? Can we find a simple formula to which all Christian can ascribe? That was the endeavor of the great ecumenical movement of the 1960s, which is still alive in smaller ways today. Honestly, I’m not sure whether there’s a statement of faith basic enough to attract all of those who would call themselves Christians. There would always be someone that someone else would want to exclude. But Paul, despite his willingness to criticize his fellow Jew’s misplaced faith, does give us the gospel in what might be its simplest form: “If you confess with your lips that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved.”

I’m sure we could quibble over that. Invite more than one church leader to comment on it, and I’m certain disagreement would ensue. But let’s not do that. Instead, let’s just take Paul at his word and resist the temptation to solidify what might otherwise be a beautifully fluid statement of faith. What does Paul mean? I don’t want to know. (Well, I do, but I’m deciding as a Lenten discipline not to dissect his words.) I’d rather just read it again and let the gates swing as wide open as God can swing them.

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