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Holy Mess (1): Diversity & Unity

. 7 min read

2015/01/11
Christ Church, Mountain Top
Prayer,
Psalm 133
Children,
Luke 6.12-16 (with Mark 3.13-19)
Message,
2 Kings 10.10-17
Over
the next five weeks, we will be looking at some of the most controversial
topics in our culture today – science and faith, human sexuality, human life,
church and state. We open the series today with the question of diversity and
unity and we will close with an examination of judgment.
      In all these, my purpose is to make
certain you walk out of here thinking exactly like me, because I am right. Ha!
Do you have any opinions that you think are wrong? If so, then they aren’t your
opinions! John Wesley had some wisdom on this in his sermon on unity and
diversity, and I have included the quote on your note sheet:
Every
man necessarily believes that every particular opinion which he holds is true .
. . . He knows, in the general, that he himself is mistaken; although in what
particulars he mistakes, he does not, perhaps he cannot, know (I.4, p 445).
That
is, on any specific matter for debate, if we hold an opinion and are not simply
undecided, we think we are right. We know that we are not right about everything,
but we have no way of identifying the specific ways we are wrong. Therefore,
no, my purpose is not to persuade you to think like me. Nor is my purpose to
provide a comprehensive summary on any of these issues. Others are more capable
and gifted to do that work.
      My purpose is to expand our imagination,
to guide us to search our own souls, to open us to ambiguity not only in the
heartbreaking stories that we can find throughout our society but especially in
the weird and unsettling words of Scripture. In this regard, and particularly
with this issue of diversity and unity, John Wesley shows the way. Over 250
years ago, well ahead of the postmodern obsession with ambiguity and narrative,
John Wesley cherry-picked the strangest odd couple in the Bible and one of the
most violent chapters in the entire book as the text for his message “Catholic
Spirit”, which teaches us how to acknowledge our differences and still
acknowledge what is universal in the church.

Let’s
take a look at the characters. The stand-out character is Jehu, who is in the
process of completing a violent coup. In the prior chapter, he killed Joram,
the king of Israel, his cousin Ahaziah, the king of Judah, and the queen
mother, Jezebel. In this chapter alone, the 70 male heirs to Israel’s throne
are decapitated, 42 members of Judah’s royal family are slaughtered, the rest
of Israel’s royal family are wiped out, and every Baal prophet and worshiper in
Israel is killed. Jehu describes himself as “zealous” for the Lord (10.16), but
one wonders how much of that zeal is really for his own power. Jehu, it seems,
was wild with power, fueled by a barely controlled rage. He had a reputation
even as a chariot driver. You could tell it was Jehu, a long way off, because
“he drives like a maniac” (2Ki 9.20). The expression has fallen out of common
usage, but we used to talk about crazy road rage drivers and say that they were
“driving like a Jehu”. All John Wesley says about Jehu as a person is that he
was a “mixed character” (Intro.5, p 444)! Quite an understatement.
      The supporting character in the story is
Jehonadab son of Rechab. This passage tells us nothing about Jehonadab. We
learn about him through the prophet Jeremiah, who 300 years later, met with
Jehonadab’s descendants (Jer 35). Even then, many generations later, they were
maintaining the unique spiritual practices of their ancestor. They refused to
drink wine, they lived in tents rather than in cities or homes, they were
almost monastic in their spiritual devotion.
      A man of action and a man of
contemplation. A man of power and a man of self-denial. A man of the world and
a man of worship. Yet the text tells us that Jehonadab “comes to meet” Jehu and
that Jehu, when he sees Jehonadab, “greets” him. (The Hebrew term here for a
greeting is also translated “kneel” and “bless.”) The indication is that Jehu
greets Jehonadab in a manner that honors him and his devotion to God.
      And Jehu asks this remarkable question:
“Is your heart right (true, straight), as my heart is with your heart?” There
is no discussion of the huge differences between the two men, only the question
about the heart. And, if their hearts are “right” with one another, then Jehu
has grounds to say, “Give me your hand” (2Ki 10.15).

On
the hard topics that we will discuss in the weeks ahead, the first question for
us, in the language of John Wesley, is whether our hearts are right – right
with God and right with each other. The first question is not whether our
opinion is right. Undoubtedly, with as many opinions are represented in this
room on any of these hard topics, we know that there must be a lot of wrong
people here … just not me, okay?
There’s
a New Testament odd couple in Jesus’ disciple band. We’re not given any information
on how they interacted with each other, just enough detail to know that they
had very little in common – except Jesus. Simon (not Simon Peter but the other
Simon) was a Zealot. He was a member of a party that advocated overthrowing
Roman occupation, even by force. Matthew was a tax collector … for the Roman
occupational forces. Today, if we were to go to the same part of the world,
that would be like putting a militant member of Hamas and a Palestinian who
informed for Israel’s Mossad in the same group.
      And there’s a
not-quite-as-odd-but-still-odd couple in the early history of German Methodism
in America. Philip William Otterbein, a highly educated German Reformed
preacher from the Old World, hears Martin Boehm, a Mennonite farmer without
formal education from the New World, preaching at Long’s Barn in Lancaster
County. After the service, he just has to meet him. They clasp hands and
Otterbein declares, “We are brethren” – and their branch of Methodism became
known as the United Brethren. “Behold how good and pleasant it is when brothers
and sisters live together in unity” (Ps 133.1).
      So, can we live in unity and still be
honest about the huge cultural, theological, and moral questions that divide
us? Can a board member of Planned Parenthood and a volunteer coordinator for a
pro-life crisis pregnancy center share the same pew? Can a literal reader of
the Genesis creation account and an evolutionary biologist worship Jesus
together? Can a gay couple and a straight couple gather to eat at the table of the
Lord together? These are huge questions today, for which I only have a local
answer: Yes. I’ve seen it happen. In the larger organizations, denominations
are splitting over these questions, sometimes but not always peacefully,
sometimes still recognizing in one another a brother or sister in Jesus. In our
own conference, our bishop is calling the clergy to gather to pray and discuss
with him questions around same-gender marriage, not because we all agree but
because we must have these conversations if we are to follow Jesus together and
remain a united church.
      John Wesley did not suggest that all
followers of Jesus would end up in the same church. He felt that would violate the
conscience of the individual and prevent the kinds of gifts that come to the church
through reformation (I.10,11; pp 447-448). His conclusion: “My only question is
this, ‘Is thine heart right, as my heart is with thy heart?’” (p 448).
Years
ago, a colleague asked for the scoop on someone he was considering hiring. I
had worked with this person in the past and he has become a dear friend. My
colleague wanted to know if this friend of mine fit his theological categories
and posed a liberal versus evangelical litmus test. I hated the question and
replied instead, “He loves Jesus. He loves people. And he loves the Bible.” When
I look to recruit people in the ministry of the church, these are the most
important matters, far more important than opinions on the hard topics of our
time. And, for me, if I fail in any of those areas it does not matter how
effective I am in all the other professional measures: I will have failed both
as a follower of Jesus and as a pastor.
      John Wesley felt the same way about what
was most important. When he read Jehu’s question, he suggested that we ask what
is “properly implied”, not what Jehu meant, since he is such a mixed character
that we just cannot know his heart (I.12, p 448f). For Wesley, what is
“properly implied” can be organized around the themes of our annual
confirmation class: “Love God, love everyone.” Wesley asks, “May we not be of
one heart, though not of one mind?” (Intro.4, p 444). “Behold how good and
pleasant it is when brothers and sisters live together in unity” (Ps 133.1).
Note:
John Wesley did not simply airbrush our differences and ask us all to “get
along”. He decried a “speculative latitudinarianism” (quite a mouthful!) that
looks a lot like modern relativism, naming it “the spawn of hell”. For him,
there is no room for “what’s true for me is true for me; what’s true for you is
true for you”. There is truth, and it is important for us to make up our minds
about our convictions. From his perspective, the “catholic spirit”, has nothing
to do with “muddy understanding, because your mind is all in a mist … [because
you] are for jumbling all opinions together” (III.1, p 453).
      Disagree. Disagree vigorously. And, yes,
disagree with me. And learn to recognize a brother or sister in the other. Love
God. Love everyone.
On your note sheet, I have a few
assignments for you to consider:
Pray
for us as we have these conversations, to honor our differences and to stay
focused on being united in the love of God. Pray that your heart will be open
to discern a brother or sister in those with whom you disagree.
Read
John Wesley’s sermon on diversity and unity, “Catholic Spirit”, available
online at:
Read
the stories of cultural conflict and resolution in the early church from Acts
chapters 6, 10-11, and 15. Mission is the church’s leading edge and pushes the
church into more and more diverse encounters. These stories from Acts tell the
story of how the primitive church dealt with the unavoidable conflict.
Invite
a friend!
Resources:

John
Wesley, Forty Four Sermons, Sermons on Several Occasions, “Catholic
Spirit”. Epworth Press, London, 1958.