This weekend, my church is celebrating the 500th anniversary of the Reformation. In the sermon, Martin Luther was the main focus; Jesus was mentioned once. (I have no idea whether that's typical of other pastors in my denomination. I actually suspect it's not typical, but that it might be accepted just this once ...) The risk that the early church warned about -- "I follow Peter, I follow Paul" -- is well in evidence today. Once we are not focused on Christ, where is our unity? I know that church divisions began long before the Reformation, but they've definitely accelerated since then.
Last week I focused on a specific way in which Christ undertook to bless us when he gave us each other, and sent out the apostles in pairs. There are blessings when we are united in his name: his presence, each others' love and fellowship, an ever-widening band of community that encircles the earth. All of those things are damaged or compromised now. Each and every day, we are affected in ways we hardly notice, at depths we hardly reckon with, that our nation is not unified, our neighborhood is not unified, our family is not unified, our international allies are not unified, our voice in the public square is not unified and we are easily played against each other. There is hardly a voice anywhere in the public square which people trust. We spend much of our energy against each other instead of towards our goal. How did we get here?
To read Luther's original 95 Theses, his main focuses were purgatory and indulgences. He wanted to abolish the fundraising abuses, curtail the embarrassingly-questionable theology that he was no longer willing to defend from his teaching post, and return to a Scriptural foundation for church teachings. Luther did not accomplish what he set out to do. "Speak the truth with love." Luther was an incendiary. We'll never know if Luther would have accomplished more if he had approached the problem in a more Christ-like way, or if his opponents had approached his criticisms in a more Christ-like way. For our own part, we have glorified an incendiary, made a role model of an incendiary. What is the fruit of that? Many more have followed in his footsteps. We live in an age in which incendiary people are seen as heroes. We are almost to the one-year anniversary of an election in which the political rhetoric was full of hatred and contempt, where it was a struggle for many people to figure out which was the lesser of two evils (or lesser of four, if you include the minor parties). We can expect that the same crew that organized riots last year after the election will probably be unconcerned (last year, I believe the right adjective was "satisfied") if their planned anniversary "demonstrations" again become violent riots; "rage" is encouraged.
That kind of satisfaction comes from a contempt towards peace, and an indifference towards whether we ever reconcile with the other side, that we have spent half a millenium rehearsing. That includes those who are just sure that "the other guys" are at fault and "the other guys" won't listen. Whether we recognize it or not -- whether those who hate us recognize it or not -- we have set the tone and the pace here by accepting divisions, promoting firebrands, encouraging indifference towards reconciling with each other. We justify our inaction by rehearsing the problems with the other side, while they do the same. It's an ironic thing we have in common, across the divides.
To heal divisions of this long-standing, at this depth, will take saints and miracles. In the early days, the theologians and saints of the church were
often the same people: they lived the life of Christ's people and
servants in this world. These days, the theologians are often arguers or
hair-splitters rather than those who love Christ and his people; they
are not at risk of becoming saints, and that means their theology will
never be truly great. There is a greatness in Scripture that they
believe is beneath them, when I wonder if it is over their heads.
For today, I think the best I can do is recognize that Jesus sent us out together, and to treat all of his people as my people, regardless of whether the various firebrands and their apologists ever call a cease-fire. We are in great need, I believe urgent need, to have the blessings of unity that Christ gave us. Wherever we are gathered together in his name, he is with us.