“United in Christ”Dr. Brett Patterson Malachi 3:1-4; Luke 1:68-79 and 3:1-6; John 17:20-22; Philippians 1:3-11 Year C - Second Sunday of Advent
I grew up in a Baptist church in the Lowcountry of South Carolina. My earliest memories are of this church, of its pews, and the bright sun coming in the windows, as I sat there with my parents and grandparents. I remember the beautiful, ornate sanctuary, originally built in 1844. I remember the people who were a part of that congregation, the love and support that they showed to me and my family. I remember Sunday School teachers, music ministers, youth ministers, and pastors. I remember Wednesday-night meals and missions programs, Vacation Bible School, and mission trips. Those first 18 years of my life, if you asked me about church, I would describe the Baptist Church of Beaufort.
Of course, I did have friends from my school primarily who belonged to other churches in town. I did get brief glimpses of Methodist, Episcopal, and Presbyterian churches, but I did not really understand the differences then. When I went off to college, I went to Furman University, largely because it was affiliated with the South Carolina Baptist Convention. I eagerly attended the Baptist Student Union and enrolled in the Church-related Vocations Program. This CRV program (as it was abbreviated) allowed me the opportunity first to consider Church on a larger scale–even though I completed internships my first three years with the Baptist Historical Society, the Baptist Medical Center at Easley, and Earle Street Baptist Church. I did share more substantial conversations with Christians of other denominations by the time I got to my senior year. After having attended church at Taylors First Baptist Church and Earle Street, I decided that I would take advantage of the opportunity my senior year to visit other churches–other Baptist, Methodist, Lutheran, and Presbyterian congregations.
At the same time I saw the Baptist battles of the 80s and 90s make their way to Furman’s campus. Although I had once considered going either to Southeastern seminary in North Carolina or Southern seminary in Kentucky, I did not want to go to another campus that was going through such upheavals, so I looked around at some other possibilities and settled on Duke University’s Divinity School. I finally entered into an environment that was not primarily Baptist. Duke as many of you may know is connected to the United Methodist Church. Here I had significant conversations with those of other denominations, including Nazarene, Lutheran, Catholic, and African-American traditions. I finally had the chance to study church history, experienced the Orthodox Church for the first time, and felt that my eyes were opened and that I could appreciate these different denominational traditions, even if I was going to remain a Baptist. I came to wish that our Baptist churches were better about teaching this history, so that we could relate to our brothers and sisters in Christ more effectively, so that we would not be in competition with one another.
Since those days, I have continued to be a student of church history, learning more in Virginia, where my dissertation director belonged to the Disciples of Christ, and in Anderson, where I discussed church history with students. While I was there, students at Anderson University were required to take a course that introduced them to church history and surveyed the major branches of the church–Orthodox, Catholic, and Protestant. Students through that semester were also required to visit at least three separate churches, ones that were different from the student’s own tradition. They resisted at first, wondering why they would have to do something outside the classroom, yet by the end of the semester, most of them were very glad that they had the opportunity to visit in these different congregations. Visiting other churches can be a useful practice; it forces us out of our routines, to observe that there are other Christians in the world, ones who do worship and think differently than we do, yet who read the same Bible, who follow the same Christ, who are guided by the same Holy Spirit, to the glory of God the Father.
We should be proud of what our denominations have accomplished. We should know what it is to be Baptist, yet we should also acknowledge that too often our denominations turn into factionalism. We isolate ourselves from other churches, seeing them as our competition. We do not know what they believe–though sometimes we pretend we do. We are suspicious of them. We may come out for a joint Thanksgiving service, but we do not really want to disrupt our comfortable routines to join them in regular worship or ministries in our community. In the words of the American theologian H. Richard Niebuhr, our denominations have become evidence of “the ethical failure of the church.” Our churches sometimes have become excuses to reinforce divisions of race, class, wealth, and education. Many observe that Sunday morning can still be some of the most segregated time during our week. If we even acknowledge this division, we have the tendency to argue that this is just the way the world is; we all too easily resign, saying that the problem is just too big for us to do anything about it. We do not bother to try to understand why we have a different type of church on each street corner in town. We no longer work to bring unity among believers, much less to the world.
The Scripture passages this morning convict us to remember the context of our being the Church in our world today. Although the passages in Luke focus specifically on the ministry of John the Baptist, they are still fitting for us, as we consider that God is sending us into the world today as messengers, carrying the word of Christ to others. We Christians are, as Zechariah said of his son John, “preparing the way for the Lord”–yet in our time and in our places. If we Christians are so divided, though, if we cannot agree among ourselves even as we gather around our communion tables, then we hold back the blessings of God. Rather than focusing on what Zechariah highlights in his prayer–how God has completed the promises he made to Israel, how God has defeated our enemies, sin and death–we focus on what divides us. We lose touch with our true mission: “to give his people the knowledge of salvation, through the forgiveness of their sins.” We find ourselves in a similar situation to the Jews to whom John preached (in Chapter 3). We should not assume that just because we go to church on Sunday that we are in God’s will. We are to live out our salvation. If we live in division, then we are not listening to the Spirit of God within us. If we do not produce “fruit in keeping with repentance,” then we will find judgment.
The division within our churches has to be one of the worst things that we do to grieve our Lord. We readily proclaim that we are church members, but we lose touch with the vision that is to motivate our churches. Jesus understands that unity is one of the biggest concerns for His followers. The Gospels only record one of Jesus’ extended prayers; it comes in John 17; in this prayer, Jesus asks for God’s blessing on the disciples, that they may be one, and on those who would believe because of the disciples’ ministry, including us today, that they would be united, just as Father and Son are One. We think of all the concerns that Jesus could have mentioned in this prayer, but the primary focus is a call for unity. Jesus Himself prayed that you and I and all other believers in this world would live in unity with one another. Jesus knew the temptations that we face–how we in our sin constantly turn on each other, living more in discord than in harmony. Jesus in this prayer repeatedly asks that the Father would guide us into unity, that we would be one. Aware that we are not capable of living peaceably with one another, Jesus asks that the Father would send His love to transform, challenge, and motivate us into building a community, where we live together, working for His Kingdom.
When we honor the prayer of Christ, we focus on God’s mercies–how we do not deserve to be a part of the church community. God’s mercies, as Zechariah describes them in his prayer, are a rising sun that brings light to dark times and guides “our feet to the path of peace.” We like John are to make straight paths for the Lord so that all people will find God’s salvation. This Advent as we meditate on the first coming of Jesus, we also live in expectation of Jesus’ second coming. Today we pave the way for His return. The prophet Malachi asks us whether we will be able to stand when the Lord comes. If we look around at our churches today, we may seriously doubt whether we can. We may give up, thinking that bickering and in-fighting are inevitable. We certainly see this problem addressed in other parts of the Bible, notably Paul’s letters to the church in Corinth. He scolds them for their factionalism and calls them to remember that they are part of the Body of Christ.
We too should remember that we do not find unity on our own. Peace is a gift from God. We do, though, have to actualize it. If we are willing to seek out God, then we do have the promise that God will not abandon us, that God will bring God’s plans to fulfillment. Paul in Philippians states that “he who began a good work in [us] will carry it on to completion until the day of Christ Jesus.” These verses counter any tendency to become defeatist. God does have a plan for the Body of Christ. It is not going to conform to the models that we have in our churches; instead, we should be conforming to His model, finding the path to love, peace, and reconciliation. Paul’s prayer for the Philippians was that they would abound in love and wisdom. This should be our prayer this day for each other, so that we will grow in “the fruit of righteousness that comes through Jesus Christ–to the glory and praise of God,” not ourselves.
There, of course, will be times for questioning and conversation with other Christians; there will be moments of difference. There will be things that we do not understand or affirm, yet if those who are different from us also serve our Heavenly Father, if they follow Jesus Christ, if they listen to the Holy Spirit, how can we not see that we share one faith, one hope, one baptism–we are all part of one body. This truth is affirmed in the Nicene Creed: “we believe in one, holy, universal, and apostolic church.” This creed was written in the 4th century, some 700 years before the first major split in the Church, and some 1200 years before the Protestant Reformation started. Those who recite this statement of faith are affirming their belief that the Church is to be united: The church is one. This unity comes from the presence of the Holy Spirit: the church is holy, set aside for the work God has entrusted to us. The church also is universal (this is what the word “catholic” means); it encompasses the whole world, all those believers who carry on the tradition of Jesus, as it was handed to us by the apostles–in this way, the church is also apostolic.
We who affirm this statement of faith see truths connecting to Jesus’ prayer and to Paul’s image of the Body of Christ. Yet we may also be painfully aware of the disparity between this vision and the reality in which we live: our churches often fall away from this vision of unity. In the twentieth century, there has been a movement among some Christians to promote Christian unity across denominational lines. Many refer to these efforts as the “modern ecumenical movement.” The word “ecumenical” might seem strange or academic, since it is drawing on a Greek word, yet the meaning is simple: it is an attempt to live out Jesus’ prayer. We are called to affirm that we all serve one Lord. The modern ecumenical movement largely arose from the concern of missionaries who thought that competition among believers on the mission field was counterproductive, that it betrayed the message of Christ. People were asking missionaries why they were preaching about God’s love and then “fighting” with other missionaries who said that they were followers of Christ too. Presbyterian, Baptist, Methodist, Catholic did not mean much to those living in the jungles of South America, the deserts of Australia, or the plains of Africa. In the twentieth-century, the Catholic Church was also more open to reconnecting with traditions that had moved away from it during the Protestant Reformation. Christians of like mind in 1948 formed the World Council of Churches to open a dialogue that had not been received previously.
The dialogue, of course, pinpointed significant differences, ones that often have painful histories of violence associated with them. The single most divisive issue over the centuries has been church polity. Just as human beings have tried all sorts of governments over the years, fighting wars over what type of political order would organize our societies, we Christians have carried those conflicts into our churches. Human beings will always struggle over who has the power. Catholic, Orthodox, and Episcopal churches in particular have systems of hierarchies with bishops and other church leaders. These systems of hierarchy developed during times when the golden image of government was an empire governed by an emperor or empress–first the Roman, then the Byzantine. It is not surprising to see that hierarchical models, chains of responsibility and influence, survive in the Orthodox and Catholic churches that spent centuries under such politics. The move to the more democratic model of congregational governance that we Baptists have affirmed did not happen overnight either. There would be stages in-between–Lutheran, Presbyterian, and Methodist–modified hierarchical systems. We Baptists should not automatically be suspicious of such traditions. We Baptists like to say that individual church leaders can become corrupt that a bishop or a pope could be more a political figure than a religious one, yet we should acknowledge that our congregations sometimes have been swayed by the wrong reasons too–that we have made politics or a social-club mentality more a priority than serving in God’s Kingdom. Any political order can be tainted by corruption when sinful human beings are concerned.
If we desire to live out the spirit of unity and love that Jesus prayed would guide us, then we must carefully work through these differences and find the areas that do unite us. We should still affirm that we have significant areas of agreement. We all worship one God. We discover who God is through studying the Bible, through worship, and through service. Many theologians have argued that the Church exists where the Bible is preached, where the sacraments (or ordinances) are celebrated, and where believers serve the poor and needy. There are long, complicated histories that have divided our churches. There are some significant differences which we should not dismiss lightly; we may never be able to settle some of these issues in this life. Yet we should understand that Christ, our Lord, has and is praying for our unity in the Body of Christ. When we harp on our differences, when we let false rumors continue to pass from one generation to the next, we have become stumbling blocks to the ministry of the Church. We should confess our failures; we should pray for guidance; we should look for the presence of the Holy Spirit in our midst, and acknowledge that we are all called to live out the Bible in our worship, to follow the ordinances or sacraments that tie us to Jesus’ ministry, to reach out to the poor and needy in our world. This is the mission that we each, despite our denominational heritages, are to follow when we come to Christ. May we join Him in praying for unity: “I pray also for those who will believe in me through their message, that all of them may be one, Father, just as you are in me and I am in you.”
About the writer: Dr. Brett Patterson is a South Carolina native, having grown up in the Lowcountry and pursued a B. A. in English at Furman University. After receiving an M. Div. from Duke University, an ordination from the Baptist Church of Beaufort, and a Ph.D. from the University of Virginia, he taught biblical studies, theology, ethics, and church history at Meredith College and Anderson University. In 2009, through encouragement from the CBF of SC, he entered into full-time church ministry. He and his wife Stephanie currently serve as pastors for First Baptist Church of Lake View, SC. He is particularly interested in ecumenical efforts and in theology and the arts.
Scripture and Music
Second Sunday of Advent – Year C
Hope of the World
Canticle of Hope
Come, Thou Long Expected Jesus
Angels from the Realms of Glory
Hymn of Promise
I Was Glad (Hubert Parry)
They Shall Know Him When He Comes (Hal Hopson)
Let Our Gladness Know No End (Herman Schroeder)
There’s A Song in the Air (Lloyd Larson)
Noel Nouvelet (arr. Richard Zgodava)
O Holy Night
Mary, Did You Know
Then Shall the Righteous Shine Forth (Mendelssohn)