Questioning Advent: Day 12 – Ecumenical Peace

IMG_0886This Advent my congregation, a typical New England Congregational parish, is holding joint mid-week services with the local Episcopal parish. Last week we worshiped in the Episcopal sanctuary where I preached and their priest celebrated communion. This week my church hosted, their priest preached, and I celebrated communion.

Some clergy friends wanted to know more about how this arrangement worked. “What about the different theologies?” “But you don’t have the same understandings of Communion!” “Were your people really okay using the Book of Common Prayer?” There seemed to be disproportionate amazement that two different Christian traditions could worship together.

I can report that nothing, not even the suspect pairing of a Congregationalist and a prayer book, was capable of keeping us from successfully worshipping Christ together.

In the second week of Advent we focus on peace. We explore what it means to be people of peace on every level: non-violence, inner peace, and more. But this week I’ve been thinking about another kind of peace: the peace that we Christians can extend to one another across denominational lines, and the potential that peace brings for reconciliation.

In the old mainline Protestant churches (Presbyterian, Episcopal, Lutheran, Methodist, UCC, and more) there are deeply entrenched denominational identities. Often if you ask a member of one church what they believe, you’ll hear more about what they don’t believe. A member of the UCC might say, “Well, we don’t believe in having bishops to tell us what to do”. Or a Lutheran might tell you they don’t believe in waiting until you’re an adult to be baptized. Or a Methodist will tell you they don’t believe in predestination.

But the landscape of the American church is changing dramatically. In twenty years denominations won’t look anything like they do now. We simply are not going to be able to sustain so many large denominational headquarters and hierarchies. And, for many of us, that is rather terrifying. But it doesn’t have to be that way.

The reality is that many of the historical Protestant churches are clinging onto identities forged in theological conflicts from the 1500’s and 1600’s. Others are still defined by regional differences from centuries past. And despite the fact that we have much more in common than we realize, we remain separated centuries later.

We don’t have to stay that way, though. I’ve never been one to believe that the church is dying. The church is the body of Christ, and if we are truly people who believe in the resurrection of Christ, that means that the church cannot die. But we are changing. And it could be that the situation American mainline churches find themselves in is just radical enough that it will give us the “gift of desperation” that shakes us out of our comfortable places and into a place of new cooperation.

Last night as we passed the peace of Christ, I wondered what it would take for that peace to find its way into every denominational meeting, and what it would mean for that peace to reshape everything. What would it mean to really believe that the peace of Christ is so great that our theological differences, while real, don’t matter enough to keep us apart? What would it mean to put our first faith not in our prayer books or polity documents or faith statements, but in Christ himself?

In Advent, we who are the church can look for new starts. We can look for ways that Christ’s peace is creeping into our life together. And we can reach out across the aisle in that peace, and find that together we can do far more than we ever can apart. That’s what Advent is all about: preparing us for God being with us, and us being with one another.

Question: What are the small things keeping our churches from extending peace and reconciliation to one another?

Prayer: God, you have reconciled us to you through Christ, help us to reconcile ourselves to one another. Save us from the false idolatries of what matters little, and grant us a peace that can overcome all, until all your body is one. Amen.

Journey Through Lent: Day 32

Many Christians are preparing for Easter, which is coming up in just a few days on March 31st. It’s one of the few things that Christians churches agree on and celebrate in common, and on Easter Sunday every church in this valley will be celebrating the good news of new life.

But as universally true as that might sound not all Christian churches will be celebrating on the 31st. Orthodox Christians, the second largest Christian denominational group after Roman Catholics, won’t be celebrating Easter until May 5th. Orthodox Christians follow a different calendar from Roman Catholic and Protestant Christians, which means often times we celebrate Easter (and Christmas) on other days.

So, who’s right? I mean, there can’t really be two Easter’s right? Doesn’t someone have to be wrong?

When I was growing up in the South, I often heard people who attended certain Christian churches in town tell me that Catholics “weren’t really Christians”. That always struck me as odd. My own immediate family wasn’t Catholic, but most of my extended family was, and I knew them to be good Christian people.

Later on I heard others say the same thing about my own religious tradition for a variety of reasons. Some were old arguments like the fact we baptize babies instead of adults. Others were newer, like the fact we allow women to preach and gays and lesbians to marry. And because of that, despite the fact I’ve given my life to serving Christ, I’ve been told repeatedly I’m not a “real Christian”.

And this is what I’ve learned along the way: “real Christians” don’t all look, think, talk, or worship the same way. And if anyone tells me they have the market on Christian truth cornered, that’s enough to make me wary. The truth of the matter is that good Christians disagree on any number of thing, but that doesn’t mean they aren’t Christians.

Nearly 400 years ago, the people who would later form my own Congregational tradition landed in Plymouth, Massachusetts. The Pilgrims were escaping a place that told them that there was only one way to be Christian. But the church they started here in New England at first repeated the mistakes of those who had forced them out of England. They persecuted other Christians who didn’t agree with their own version of Christianity, and they said they weren’t “real Christians”.

We now understand that they were very wrong. That’s one reason why the church that is now descended from them, the United Church of Christ, is wary about judging the validity of the Christian faith of others. We understand that with each new generation there are new challenges, and new understandings of what it means to be Christian. We are open to the Holy Spirit’s guidance, and to the presence of Christ in other churches.

For that reason, I’ve found Christ while attending Mass at the Catholic parish in Brattleboro. I’ve seen him while worshipping at Martin Luther King’s Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta. I’ve felt him while visiting Orthodox cathedrals. And I’ve known he was close while worshipping at my own UCC parish. I’ve found that if you open your heart up to Christ’s love, you can find him all over the place.

Come March 31st, like churches in many places, my church will celebrate the holiest day of our year. But I’ll keep in mind those other Christians who are still waiting for their Easter. And I’ll also keep in mind those Christians whose understandings of what it means to be faithful are so different from my own.

My only hope is that they might do the same for me, and for other Christians whose faith might look different than their own. I’ve always believed that a desire to see Christ in others is a true mark of a Christian. Perhaps the same is true for seeing Christ in the churches of others as well.