|Annie Watson ARCWP at St. Stanislaus Polish Catholic Church, St. Louis|
“In All Things Charity”
1 Corinthians 1:10-18
January 22, 2017
Rev. Annie Watson
A ship cruising far off the shipping lanes in the South Pacific notices a signal fire on an uncharted island. The captain puts a boat over the side and the crew goes to investigate. They find a shipwreck survivor alone on the tropic island. He is shaggy, unshaven, and nearly naked except for a scrap of cloth around his waist.
The survivor is overjoyed at seeing his rescuers. “I’ve prayed and prayed that someone would come but no one ever saw my signal fire before. I’ve been stranded alone on this island for seven years.” The captain asked, “How have you survived”?
The shipwrecked man told about eating berries and bananas and coconuts, about catching crabs in the lagoon, about rubbing sticks together to make fire. As the man showed the ship crew around his primitive camp, the Captain noticed three huts made of sticks woven together and thatched with palm fronds. “What are these?” he asked.
The shipwrecked man pointed to the larger grass hut and said, “I built this one to live in so I could be warm and dry during the tropical rains every afternoon.” “What about that one?” the captain asked. “O, I wanted a special place to worship and pray; that’s my church.”
“What’s the third hut for?” “Well, a couple of years ago there was a squabble and the church split.”
Today is Ecumenical Sunday. This is the Sunday in which Christians of different church traditions make an effort to develop closer relationships and better understandings of one another. Perhaps allowing a Catholic Woman Priest to speak to you today is going a little overboard, but I am thankful for this opportunity.
I don’t need to remind you all of the history of the ecumenical movement, yet I will say that it really has its roots in the words of the New Testament. One of the best ecumenical statements ever written came from the Apostle Paul in his first letter to the Corinthians.
He wrote, “Now I appeal to you, brothers and sisters, by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that all of you be in agreement and that there be no divisions among you, but that you be united in the same mind and the same purpose.
Fat chance of that happening, right? One would have to be a real Pollyanna to think that people who even claim the same religion will always agree about everything and be totally united. But you have to give the United Church of Christ an A for effort.
Historically, the UCC is the flagship denomination of the ecumenical movement. Its first and greatest motto is based on Jesus’ overly optimistic prayer for his disciples in John 17:21—“That they may all be one.”
As a denominational brochure states: “This motto reflects the spirit of unity on which the church is based and points toward future efforts to heal the divisions in the body of Christ. We are a uniting church as well as a united church.”
Is the UCC a uniting and united denomination? From where I stand (married to a UCC minister) the United Church of Christ might have more integrity if they called themselves “the Un-tied Church of Christ.” And yet in truth the UCC isn’t any more un-tied than anyone else. The church as a whole has never been united.
There are many reasons why this is so, but I simply chalk it up to human nature. As Ralph Waldo Emerson said, “The reason why the world lacks unity, and lies broken and in heaps, is because man is disunited with himself.”
If we observe almost any aspect of human life, we see disunity. We are divided politically, culturally, socially, economically, ethnically, etc. Religiously, we are divided beyond hope it seems. We are Protestant, Catholic, Evangelical, Pentecostal, Anglican, Orthodox, Mormon, Unitarian, Adventist, Baptist, Congregational, Lutheran, Methodist, Moravian, Presbyterian, Reformed . . . the list goes on and on, not to mention our divisions between Christian, Jewish, Muslim, Hindu, Buddhist, and other major traditions.
There is literally no way for all of humanity to unite under a single religious umbrella. If we tried to do that the umbrella would be in tatters before we could blink an eye. So in terms of how we should co-exist with one another, we really only have one valid choice.
This choice was first articulated by an obscure German Lutheran theologian of the early seventeenth century named Rupertus Meldenius. He said something that is often attributed to Augustine. It is, in my opinion, one of the most profound things ever uttered. He said, “In essentials unity, in nonessentials diversity, in all things charity.”
Let’s break that down. First of all, we should have some degree of unity in terms of what is “essential.” But what is essential? Obviously, it is easier to determine what is essential in the context of a particular religion, although the spirit of the saying can be used to apply to the relationships between wholly different religious traditions.
Many observers would argue that compassion is the one essential teaching or practice that we find among all the major world religions. Variations of the Golden Rule are also something that unites all faiths.
When it comes to our own particular religion, what are the essentials? Here, people of sincerity and good faith often disagree. Almost everyone agrees that there are essentials, and yet when people ask us to define them we often have a bit of trouble. There is a wide variety of interpretations and applications of our beliefs and practices.
For example, is belief in God essential? Most would say yes, and others would say, “Define what you mean by ‘God’”. Is the doctrine of the Trinity essential? How does one define the Trinity? If one is a Protestant, is justification through faith essential? If one is a Catholic, is the doctrine of transubstantiation essential?
While it may be true that there are essentials in the Christian faith, a close look at Christian history suggests that we are far from united on such things. We are much more likely to be open to diversity in nonessentials.
“Nonessentials” is a big category in Christianity. It ranges from the “not important” to “pure speculations.” Nonessentials include such things as the date of Christ’s birth, what kind of music to play at church, whether to use real wine or grape juice at communion, and whether to hold Saturday night services.
Nonessential questions include:
- Did Adam have a belly-button? (yes, he did. It would look funny otherwise)
- Do our pets go to heaven? (only those that are house trained)
Here’s our real problem: There are things that some Christians would say are essential and others would say are nonessential. We can’t even agree on what is essential, so the Apostle Paul’s wish that we all be in agreement, that there be no divisions among us, and that we be united in the same mind and the same purpose, is more like wishful thinking.
If Rupertus Meldenius had just said, “In essentials unity, in nonessentials diversity,” we would continue to feel justified in hating one another over our disagreements. But luckily he added a third point, one that supersedes the first two points: “in all things charity.”
This is why his saying can apply not just to Christians—it can apply to people of all religious faiths. We will never agree on what is essential, and to a lesser extent we may never agree on what is nonessential. And yet we can always—always—show charity toward those who agree and disagree with us.
This is where the ecumenical spirit begins. Not with councils that meet to determine what everyone should believe. The ecumenical spirit begins with charity, with love, and with compassion. There should never be a religious conversation that ends in any other outcome.
At the end of the day, there is never a good reason to build that “third hut.” Amen.