Monday, Nov. 9, 2015
Opening keynote sermon by Phil Kniss
(other consultation recordings/resources available here)
Texts: John 17:20-26; Ephesians 4:1-16
AUDIO (sermon begins at minute 6:30):
Printer-friendly file: click here
I am deeply grateful for the opportunity to share my heart
with you my beloved Virginia Conference extended family.
Clyde gave me 40 minutes,
twice as long as I usually preach.
I hope I can keep you awake.
Even more, I hope I can keep myself awake.
Pray that I might communicate clearly.
There won’t time for response or discussion tonight,
but I want your feedback—
questions, other insights, objections.
From anyone, but especially from my pastoral colleagues here.
We are on this journey together,
and I have much to learn from you.
At least some of my content is new thinking for me,
that deserves to be tested,
subject to critique, questions, refining.
So please talk to me afterward, email me,
or better yet, make an appointment for coffee.
So here we go . . .
Unity in the church is a miracle.
That’s not a metaphor.
Unity in the body of Christ is literally,
a divine act that supercedes natural laws.
It’s a gift of God’s grace,
made possible only in Christ,
as we open ourselves to the Holy Spirit’s power.
If you don’t think church unity is a miracle,
you probably have a low view of the church.
I have a high view.
I think the church shares some characteristics
with other social organizations,
but it is much more.
I believe that the church is uniquely called into being by God,
who conceived of it, created it, and now trusts it,
to be the agent of God’s saving activity in the world.
The church is, by God’s design and will,
the representative of Christ, the Messiah, in the world today.
The church is, in fact, the body of Christ,
the real, continuing presence of Christ in the world.
The church is the closest this world will get to God.
Now if that doesn’t scare the . . . whatever out of you,
I don’t know what will.
Because if you look around at the church,
and still have the nerve to say
the church is the closest this world will get to God,
you might think God’s in some deep trouble.
There should be no question in our minds
about the pervasive and persistent and tragic brokenness
of the body of Christ in this world.
Read just a smidgen of church history, and you’ll see it.
It could make you give up on the church
and walk away from it. And many do.
But if you dare to hold a high view of the church, and I do,
then you don’t walk away, you fall to your knees . . . in prayer.
You pray in thanksgiving and praise to the God
who specializes in transforming brokenness,
who took Jesus’ broken body and raised it from the dead,
who breathed the Holy Spirit into Jesus’ paralyzed disciples,
and filled them with the same resurrection power,
and said, “It ain’t over yet!
I’m with you to the end of the age!”
And you also pray for mercy and healing.
You pray for our own continuing conversion as a church.
You pray for our humility and receptivity
and attentiveness to God’s agenda.
And you pray for the miracle of unity.
If Christian unity wasn’t a miracle of God,
but we could enact it by adopting the right strategy,
or right attitudes,
then the words of Jesus we heard in John 17
would not have been a prayer for unity,
they would have been a teaching on unity.
Jesus would not have passionately prayed to his Father,
to make his disciples one,
he would have given his disciples
ten practical pointers to achieve unity.
Jesus knew, unity would only come about,
if God intervened.
But, I hasten to say,
unity won’t happen without our involvement.
We must participate for God to create unity.
We must deliberately engage each other
in sacrificial love and action.
We see that in the other text we heard tonight, Ephesians 4,
where the apostle pleaded with the church
to work, and to act, toward unity.
“I therefore, the prisoner in the Lord,
beg you to lead a life worthy of the calling
to which you have been called,
with all humility and gentleness,
with patience, forbearing one another in love,
making every effort to maintain the unity of the Spirit
in the bond of peace.”
It’s still the “unity of the Spirit”—still the Spirit’s work,
but he begs us to live it out
in a manner worthy of our high calling.
We are to actively embrace and take on attitudes and behavior
that befit God’s work in us.
We are called to patience, forbearance
(yes, that’s a Bible word),
and humility and gentleness.
It’s not in our own power.
Verse 7, “each of us was given grace
according to the measure of Christ’s gift.”
Our capacity to be the church God needs,
comes as pure gift and grace,
which we may receive and release for God’s purposes.
These gifts—apostle, prophet, evangelist, shepherd, teacher—
each one bringing a unique dynamic to church life,
all have the same underlying divine purpose—
“to equip the saints for the work of ministry,
for building up the body of Christ,
until all of us come to the unity of the faith
and of the knowledge of the Son of God,
to maturity, to the measure of the full stature of Christ.”
The spiritual gifts are ours to exercise
to enhance the unity of the church.
But they are still gifts that come to us only by the grace of God.
So Christian unity is a polarity.
It is a both a miraculous gift of God’s grace,
and a duty on our part to live into,
with all the intentionality and discipline
required for any gift we have to steward.
So, can two affirmations that tug against each other—
unity as miracle and unity as discipline—
both be true, simultaneously?
Yes! like many other biblical polarities—
grace and works
mercy and justice
purity and hospitality.
These are truths in tension,
and if they are both true, we hold on to them both, vigorously,
if we want to discover their deepest truth.
But there are other reasons unity in the church is complicated.
When we talk about unity,
we’re often fuzzy in our definitions.
We use the same word to mean different things,
and don’t always specify which meaning.
Furthermore, in any human relationship, churches included,
unity is not an either/or—
we are never entirely in unity, or not in unity.
There’s always a blend of unity and disunity we must navigate,
to be in healthy relationship.
Let me use my marriage as an example.
Irene is here, and I didn’t run this by her, but ask her later.
She’ll vouch for it.
Our marriage is the most crucial relationship in our lives.
We care deeply about keeping it healthy.
We took vows before God and others,
and declared we would be one, for life.
So unity, in our marriage, is of utmost importance.
But we don’t experience complete unity.
We have unity in many things.
And we have disunity in many things.
Our relationship consists of acknowledging that,
and learning how to navigate that
in a way that brings out the best in both of us.
We are united in our commitment to practice fidelity,
to be loyal to the other,
to make personal sacrifices, each one for the other,
to be attentive and compassionate toward each other.
We are one in our devotion to our children and grandchildren.
We are one in keeping Christ and the church top priority.
We are one in our love of baseball,
and our support of the Harrisonburg Turks
and the Washington Nationals.
But we have disunity in how we feel about the White Sox,
and the Reds.
Now of course, like any couple,
it’s easy to laugh about disunity that’s trivial,
like which baseball team to root for,
or how the toilet paper rolls.
But we have some dis-unity on some matters
that come from a deeper place,
from certain convictions or feelings
that one of us have, but not the other.
Like how we think and feel about money.
Like how we communicate with others.
Like our comfort level with order and chaos,
spontaneity and predictability,
or how open our home should be.
Working out our differences, even after 35 wonderful years,
is a continuing journey.
It’s not always easy to know if we get the balance right,
if the unity/disunity line is in the right place.
Now, in a 35-year marriage that feels rock-solid,
undergirded by public vows and the law,
where nobody’s even thinking about walking away,
if we find unity challenging sometimes,
how much more challenging is it in the church,
a so-called “voluntary organization”
where people move in and out, at will,
and where churches actually market themselves
to church-shopping Christians.
Every single human social arrangement—including the church—
is by definition a mix of unity and disunity.
Now I said I have a high view of the church.
There are some ways in which our project
is entirely different than other human social projects.
And I’ll come back to that.
But for now,
let’s talk about the multiple layers of unity in the church.
In our present, perplexing conflict over sexuality—
especially same-gender attraction and relationships—
unity is often a point of discussion.
The argument comes up repeatedly, in various forms.
One side of the argument is:
“Divisions in the church are a sin against God.
They undermine Jesus’ prayer in John 17.
They destroy our witness to a watching world.
Diversity is a gift. Let’s stay together.”
On the face of it,
it’s kind of hard to argue with that statement.
But usually, there’s a comeback that goes like this:
“It’s natural for people to seek others of like mind,
to divide into affinity groups for more effective witness.
We can’t make a god out of unity!
Isn’t faithfulness to God’s will an even higher good?”
And on the face of it,
it’s kind of hard to argue with that statement.
But do we mean the same thing when we use the word unity?
I see at least four distinct, but overlapping, kinds of unity.
I think it would serve us well
to be more clear and more specific,
when we use the word unity in church conversation.
First, there’s what we might call kingdom unity,
the title of the topic Clyde gave me.
We might also call it spiritual unity.
This is basically what I had in mind at the start of my message,
when I spoke of unity as a miracle.
As the body of Christ—local and global—
we together confess the rule of Christ in the world,
we declare our common loyalty to the Kingdom of God in Christ,
we recognize the Holy Spirit’s presence
and unifying work among us.
This unity lets us partake of the Lord’s Supper together,
because of that common confession
of faith and trust in our Lord, Jesus Christ.
Most Christian traditions
share communion across congregational lines,
and even across denominational lines.
This is the unity we experienced, for instance,
at Mennonite World Conference in Harrisburg this summer.
Our communion service there was, in my experience,
one of the most powerful in recent memory.
That communion declared our unity in Christ
as a global Mennonite family—
7,000 gathered, representing a million, scattered,
at one Lord’s table,
as fellow citizens of the kingdom of Christ.
That unity superceded many other ways
in which we do NOT have unity among us.
Kingdom unity is what I experience when I gather
with my clergy friends in Harrisonburg,
on an almost weekly basis,
to study the lectionary texts of the week.
We are Presbyterian and Episcopal and Lutheran and Catholic
and Baptist and Methodist and Brethren and Mennonite.
And we bring all that we are to the table, to study scripture.
We talk honestly about our particular angle on the text,
shaped by our different and distinct traditions.
We listen and learn from each other.
And we have become friends.
And we would all, every last one of us,
call each other brothers and sisters in Christ.
Our spiritual unity, our kingdom unity,
trumps our theological and ecclesiological dis-unity.
There is a second kind of unity I would call missional unity.
It’s where we are united in our core purpose as a church:
we agree to join together
in God’s saving, redeeming, and reconciling mission.
We are able to join hands (that is, be in unity)
around a common cause for the common good,
even if our motivations differ,
even if our theological affirmations differ.
We witness this kind of unity every first weekend in October,
as we gather to raise money at the Relief Sale.
We witness it in our own congregations,
as church members who might be at odds
on certain key convictions,
can nevertheless work side-by-side in Christian service.
We certainly have done that many times at Park View.
The most striking example is when we decided to rebuild
a church building in New Orleans’ Ninth Ward,
that was destroyed by Hurricane Katrina.
It took six weeks of hard labor,
five different work teams,
dozens of people on overnight road trips in vans,
sleeping in a bunk house,
swinging a hammer and paint brush side-by-side.
Dozens more contributed funds, prepared food,
donated supplies, you name it.
We were absolutely one in our mission.
And we let anyone join us who shared that mission.
Now, I know our congregation well.
I knew all those workers.
If our task hadn’t been to build a church-house,
but to build a comprehensive theological statement
we could all agree with,
we’d have failed miserably.
If our task required that we had the same understandings
about God and the church,
as our brothers and sisters in that black Baptist church,
we’d have failed miserably.
At least in this case, theological unity was not required
in order to have missional unity.
And now we have a community of
very dear sisters and brothers in Christ in New Orleans,
who don’t really get us, theologically,
and to be honest, whom we don’t really get . . . yet.
And I have a dear friend and colleague in ministry there,
Pastor Walter Jones.
He grew up poor in the Lower Ninth,
and has only basic ministry training, no degree.
We’ve talked theology.
We’ve talked ecclesiology.
We are miles apart, in almost every way.
But we have missional unity.
We support each other by praying for each other,
in our very different missional contexts.
We call each other every now and then, by phone,
to nurture that unity.
Third, there is something I might call functional unity.
It’s agreeing how we will function together as a social body,
how we understand our rights and responsibilities,
our participation in decision-making.
I struggled with what to call this.
I might have called it structural unity,
since it defines how our relationship is structured.
But “structure” is often associated with complexity.
And this can be very simple and informal.
I meet with another pastor every week,
for prayer and spiritual companioning.
We have functional unity;
we agree on how we function in that relationship.
We have nothing in writing,
but we kind of know what to expect when we meet,
and we know if one of us is running late,
or we need to cancel,
we’ll send a text to inform the other.
We are united in our mutual expectations of how we function.
At the other end of the spectrum, complexity-wise,
functional unity may need clear structures and due process.
In our present church-wide conflict over sexuality,
finding unity in how to function together
is front-burner agenda.
That’s what we’re working on in the denomination,
in conferences and districts,
and sometimes, in the congregation.
We all agree forbearance is a biblical divine mandate.
We agree forbearance is needed in any human relationship.
But we still need to figure out
if we can agree how it functions in a given context.
We have a new landscape in the church today.
So naturally, we need a new kind of functional unity.
We can’t expect old ways of functioning
to carry us through any new landscape we encounter.
I’m an amateur hiker.
I know my way of walking has to adjust
when I enter new terrain.
I have adjustable hiking poles.
I need to make them shorter when I climb a mountain,
and longer when I descend.
I have to take off or put on layers, as weather changes.
So part of the work we have to do,
is to come to a shared understanding
of how to function in a new environment.
How much disunity in other areas can we absorb,
and still maintain a healthy, functional system?
Where does decision-making authority lie?
Who is responsible for whom?
What kind of behavioral contract do we have, so to speak?
What rules of operation have we agreed on?
Functional unity is certainly not all-important,
but it is not un-important.
And I suggest, it becomes more important,
when other kinds of unity get challenged.
That’s why we must tend carefully to process.
Sometimes people who push for good process,
get criticized for just trying to delay things,
or to avoid the real issue.
Maybe that’s true sometimes,
but I think most of the time,
we just realize that when we lack unity in other key areas,
we need something solid to stand on while we find our way.
Functional unity can help create that healthy space,
for us to do the deeper work of being church,
and can make space, hopefully,
for the Spirit to move among us,
and bring about what we cannot do on our own.
Finally, there is a more intentional and explicit
and far more challenging kind of unity to work at.
I’ll call it covenantal unity.
It’s when we are united
because we have articulated a particular covenant,
we have made explicit promises, before God, to each other.
Remember my example of marriage?
Well, in the church, in a relationship of covenantal unity,
we declare before God, to others in our particular body,
our confessional and behavioral commitments.
We agree how we will support one another in that covenant.
We agree how we will give account to one another.
We will want to establish a common understanding
of what constitutes the breaking of covenant,
and how we walk with each other when covenant is broken.
Covenantal unity goes to a deeper place, than functional unity.
And I think we get the two confused sometimes.
Covenant is more than agreeing
how to function in an organizational context.
Covenant is more than establishing a social contract.
Covenant, at least in biblical usage,
is deeply relational,
and it is God-centered.
God is always the key partner in covenant.
This is what I meant when I said our project, the church,
is different from other human social projects.
So keeping in mind this biblical, relational, God-centered
nature of covenant,
I wonder—are we being a little too loose
when we so quickly and easily apply the word “covenant”
to the large institutional church?
Is the biblical concept of “covenant” really what we’re dealing with,
when navigating complex institutional relationships,
defined by constitutions and bylaws and guidelines?
It’s not settled in my mind,
but I at least raise the question here for us to consider.
Is not the biblical notion of unity in Christ,
enacted by the Spirit, governed by covenant,
better suited for our primary local, relational,
worshiping, missional, and mutually accountable
expressions of the body of Christ?
and less suited for the large institutions of church,
with their necessarily complex structures,
governed by statements and resolutions,
and constitutions and bylaws,
voted on according to Roberts’ Rules?
If we say, as we do,
that the primary unit of the church is the local body,
where we can more truly and deeply know each other,
and speak into each others’ lives with more integrity and clarity,
and where we are called to discern God’s activity in our context,
and be obedient to the Spirit of God and scripture
as we discern them together,
and where our covenant with each other as sisters and brothers
is immediate and tangible,
and where loving honest mutual accountability is possible,
then maybe that’s where we should invest our energy
in maintaining “covenantal unity.”
Maybe I’m nitpicking,
but is it really the best choice of words
to speak of conferences or agencies or other constitutional bodies
as being in “covenant with” other constitutional bodies?
or when they vote to take a somewhat different course,
to say they have “broken covenant?”
Wouldn’t it be more accurate, and more useful,
to speak in terms of a particular body acting in ways
that stretch our functional unity,
and work at restoring a common understanding
of how we will function?
Please hear me.
I’m not suggesting there isn’t a place for institutions and by-laws
in the larger organized church.
By all means, we need them.
I’m certainly not suggesting we shouldn’t be concerned about
the agreements we have together as a larger church
about how we function as institutions,
and how we work and do mission and even worship together.
It’s altogether good and appropriate to establish understandings,
rules of the road, so to speak,
so that the communities and individuals
who make up the larger church
have a way to connect, to belong, to fully participate.
But when we adopt “covenantal” language for constitutional bodies,
I wonder if we give
more theological importance to the institution
than what scripture warrants.
And I wonder if we unintentionally diminish the importance
of the locally gathered people of God,
who are in a true covenantal relationship with each other,
gathered around the Word and the Spirit
to discern what God is saying in their midst,
and move out in mission together.
Yes, of course, local bodies must do that discerning work
in conversation with other bodies, and with the larger body.
Bring on the accountability!
Bring on the opportunities to give account to the larger church,
to tell the story about what God seems to be saying.
The more we broaden the conversation,
the more likely we are to uncover our own blind spots.
That’s all an essential part of the picture.
We need the larger church.
But I guess I’m just wondering out loud
whether part of the reason we have this much anxiety
about our apparent “lack of unity” in the broader church,
is that we’ve gotten our unities confused.
We are striving for “covenantal unity”
among institutions better suited for “functional unity.”
our local congregations, our real covenantal communities,
are struggling to find the tools to be who they are called to be,
as contrast communities in a broken world.
As a church, we ought to concerned about
our theological and spiritual and moral formation,
in all areas of life, including our sexuality.
And on that score, we are definitely rowing upstream.
We’re going against the flow of our dominant culture.
So we ought to be struggling with these matters.
But I submit, it is in the context of local, face-to-face relationships
where “covenantal unity” is operative,
where we will always be able to do our best teaching,
our best spiritual formation,
our best relational evangelism,
our best counter-cultural and prophetic witness to the world,
and our best resistance to a society that is losing it way sexually.
I guess my bottom line is this.
We must re-invest in the primacy
of the local, covenantal, formational,
and mutually-accountable community of Christ, on mission.
Yes, let’s treasure our bonds with each other in the larger body,
because we need them.
But we might hold more lightly to
particular institutional expressions of that body
and particular agencies and structures that serve
our primary worshiping and discerning communities.
So let me leave us with a few concrete proposals,
1. Pray, and pray again.
If Jesus made the unity of his followers
a priority in his prayers,
why shouldn’t we who are concerned about unity,
also fall to our knees regularly for the church,
to seek God’s favor for the grace and gift of unity?
We can aim low, of course, and make prayer unnecessary.
We don’t need fervent prayer
if our goal is to agree to disagree,
or to tolerate each other,
or even to practice forbearance.
With a little bit of effort,
and a slight attitude adjustment,
we can achieve that.
But if our aim is high,
to become a church of many peoples and many viewpoints,
who come together in unity of mind and spirit,
to worship one Lord,
to love each other sacrificially,
to engage together in God’s mission,
that will be a miracle,
that will be the work of a mighty God,
and we better keep praying.
2. Stay, and stay longer.
We will not be in a position
to experience God’s miraculous gift of unity,
unless we remain in relationships
that are challenging.
We don’t get to unity
by removing those of us who think differently.
That path leads to churches with a membership of 1.
There is no path to lasting unity
apart from continuous hard, and sometimes painful, work.
It’s what I tell young couples wanting a happy marriage.
It’s what I tell a church wanting a long fulfilling life together.
3. Lean, and lean harder.
We must lean in hard toward each other,
to listen more carefully,
and speak more honestly.
This is a corollary to my last point.
We don’t stay, just to stay.
We stay to struggle together for the deepest truth possible.
This is the opposite of “agreeing to disagree,”
which I think is the enemy of unity.
On the really important matters,
we must engage in the struggle,
granting dignity and respect to the other, of course,
being honest and transparent with the other, of course,
but always leaning in to listen harder, and speak more clearly.
And see where the good, righteous struggle takes us.
Doing so is not in our traditional, Mennonite, comfort zone.
But we better practice it, and get better at it.
Because our church is changing, rapidly.
It’s a skill we need to develop.
4. Go, and go where God is.
The church is much more than a body unto itself.
It is a movement, sent by God to go into the world,
to serve God’s purposes.
The moment we lose sight of that reality,
and start investing all our energy
in analyzing and preserving ourselves and our institutions,
is the moment we stop being the church God needs.
It’s when unity is no longer worth the struggle.
But when we embrace our sent-ness,
unity finds its proper place and purpose.
5. Come to Jesus’ table to eat and drink.
The Lord’s Supper, communion,
is the central practice of a church living in unity.
And it ought to be the central practice of any church
struggling with dis-unity,
and looking for healing.
Jesus’ Table is where we are reminded
of the source of our unity,
the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus’ Christ.
It is where the healing power of God is tangibly demonstrated,
in the life-giving symbol of the bread and cup.
We should flee to the table often for nourishment,
then extend our welcome to
any who are prepared to declare Jesus Lord,
and join us in the journey of mutual transformation,
and continuing conversion,
and continued healing.
Although we are not celebrating the Lord’s Supper tonight,
I invite into a prayer for unity,
where the Lord’s Table is at the center of the prayer.
Turn to Hymn 475
Become to us the living bread by which the Christian life is fed,
renewed, and greatly comforted. Alleluia! Alleluia! Alleluia!
Become the never-failing wine, the spring of joy that shall incline
our hearts to bear the covenant sign. Alleluia! Alleluia! Alleluia!
May Christians all with one accord unite around the sacred board
to praise your holy name, O Lord. Alleluia! Alleluia! Alleluia!
—Phil Kniss, November 9, 2015
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