S0410 – For the Sake of Unity

Sermon 10 April 2016 GEC Muskogee OK
Acts 9:16 (7-20); Psalm 30; Revelation 5:11-14; John 21:1-19

For the Sake of Unity

We need to do some teaching, preaching and proclamation today.  We will start with some history of the development of the Nicene Creed and then we will talk about human sexuality.  Somehow we will tie this all together with the abundant haul of fish.

First the creed:  Ancient historians wrote that in the fourth and fifth centuries, you could not go for a haircut on the streets of ancient cities like Rome, Corinth, Alexandria or Jerusalem with getting into a heated discussion with your barber whether Christ was fully human, fully divine or both.  Christianity in its first four centuries was as diverse and divided as it is today.  Each geographical region had its own understanding of the nature of Christ, who Jesus was, why he was crucified, what the crucifixion/resurrection meant and so on.  There were never any outright wars because the occupying army of the Roman Empire kept a firm grip even on local flare ups.  But there were heated disagreements about the nature of Christ and his relationship to God the Father.

Christianity became the official state religion of the Roman Empire with Constantine’s Edict of Milan in 313.  Although the Council of Nicaea was convened twelve years later, paganism was legal and flourished throughout the empire.  Four years before Nicaea, Sunday was declared the Empire-wide day of rest in honor of the Roman sun-god, Sol Invictus we maintain that pagan tradition even today although the Christian god has replaced Sol Invictus, the unconquerable sun.

Constantine did not want religious unrest to become civil unrest in his Empire so the Council of Nicaea was called with over 300 bishops attending from all over the Empire.  Constantine paid for the travel expenses and two months of lodging for the hundreds of bishops and their delegations.  He arranged the meeting hall and called the meeting to order saying “Let all contentious disputation be discarded; and let us seek in the divinely-inspired word the solution of the questions at issue.”  He then exhorted the bishops to “unanimity and concord.”

Eventually 315 of the 318 bishops all agreed to the wording of the Creed.  The move was as brilliant politically as it was theologically.  Not everyone was happy with every detail, but the Empire was at least united behind a single doctrinal statement.  Interestingly that ecumenical council took up a number of other topics such as:  separating the date of Easter from the Jewish Passover date, the ordination of eunuchs, the prohibition of kneeling on Sundays, the validity of baptism by heretics and the re acceptance of lapsed Christians.

Why do we take time today to mention this?  Because when the church makes a correction in doctrine, not everyone agrees.  Many of the bishops who originally opposed but later voted for the Creed did so “for the sake of unity.”

Twelve hundred years later, Elizabeth the first will come to the throne and preside over a contentious church in England.  Half the clergy had very Protestant sympathies while the other half leaned in a Roman Catholic direction.  “What will be the church of the realm?” they asked their new queen.  “Catholic or Protestant?”  The queen blinked and said “Both.  We will all worship in one house with one Book of Common Prayer and you will all agree to get along.”  Like Constantine’s creed, the Elizabethan via media  or “middle way” was brilliant politically and theologically.  It served a greater good; for the sake of unity.

When it comes to marriage, weddings and blessings we are bewildered with a confusion of terms.  ONLY the state can marry a couple.  A marriage is a legal contract that bestows certain legal rights on the couple.  When a couple comes to the church for a wedding, the first half of the service involves vows the couple make to one another.  Once the vows are completed, they have done everything the state requires for them to be legally married.  They could leave the church at that point and sign contracts.  A priest or minister acts on behalf of the state up to this point to ensure that they are legally married.  After a wedding, I complete the marriage certificate and mail it to the County Recorder of Deeds.

The ONLY thing a church does sacramentally is to bless the couple.  It is a blessing of their life together and it is an implicit recognition that their love for each other reflects Christ’s love for the church.  When I was interviewing in 2010 with the vestry at Grace for this position as rector someone asked me what I thought about same-gender marriage.  I explained the important distinction between the state marriage and the church’s blessing.  I was tired.  It had been a long two days and I replied, “Let’s put this in perspective.  I have been to Groton Connecticut and seen Episcopal Navy chaplains break a champagne bottle over the bow of a nuclear submarine.  In that commissioning, an Episcopal priest blesses a piece of military hardware that could incinerate a continent.  Most people seem to not have any moral difficulty with that blessing but some do when it comes to blessing two people who love each other!  Which one of those would you be willing to bless?”

In the next two months we will begin discussions around the issue of blessing same-gender couples.  Please leave the issue of marriage out of the discussion because that has been decided by the civil courts of our land.  Please leave the term “wedding” out of the discussion because that is just a term we use for a particular kind of church service.  We are only going to talk about whether this church supports blessing any two people who love each other and who will vow to continue that.

We will also take up the issue of diversity in this church and how people of all social classes are welcome into the full life, ministry and leadership of the church.  Yes, we hold leaders to higher standards, but we also know that none of us are saints and we are never called to judge.  We are called by the Bible to welcome, to accept, to encourage, to teach and to love our leaders and members just like Jesus did.

These two issues of same gender blessings and diversity are little more than speed bumps on our journey.  We have a mountain to climb in front of us that is the very survival of this church.  When we can get past the speed bumps for the sake of unity, then we can begin to encourage, support, accept, teach and love each other like the disciples did.  And when we do that, we will haul in an amazing catch of fish.