After the Sermon: Unity is not uniformity

Paul employs “armor of God” imagery in both Colossians and Ephesians. It has been a staple of Christianity since the inception of the faith. This Sunday in worship, after we heard Ephesians 6:10-20, I brought an easel with a pad of flip-paper into the aisle running between the pews. I then asked the following two questions in turn: who has a positive reaction to this terminology, and who has a negative reaction?

The congregation was split, interestingly along gender lines, at least as represented through those who spoke openly. I imagine if I could read minds, that division might not have held. But if you go by crude gender stereotypes and assumptions, you know who fell where on the spectrum. I’d be one to defy said exceptions: I generally do not like the armor of God imagery and do not find it beneficial to my own spiritual walk. I’ve had to frame it up differently.

This is largely because I understand the historical milieu in which Paul operated. He believed that the Parousia–the second coming–was imminent. He eschewed the very religious laws he once helped enforce as a Pharisee because he felt that time was short and grace was all-sufficient. Paul really only had one message; it was fairly nuanced and systematic but had Saul of Tarsus been in the Beatles instead of Paul of Liverpool, the famous would song something like, “All you need is Christ, doop-dadooby-doop.”

This is not insignificant. Paul wrote to a people who were living under a powerful and capricious empire. Persecutions depended upon who was in power, and Paul had to contend with Nero, perhaps one of the most batshit crazy emperors in history. There are compelling reasons to regard Nero as the antichrist mentioned in Paul’s writings. Paul was clear that he meant a spiritual armor for a spiritual war, but that has not been the prevailing understanding throughout history. In fact, the image is one used by white nationalists. Paul believed that demonic forces were behind the brutality of Rome and that these were unleashing themselves upon the bodies and spirits of Jews and Jesus believers. Paul was waiting for a celestial clock to run out.

Paul was wrong.

I can’t throw away Paul completely, as he is vital to Christian theology. He’s in the canon whether I like it or not. So, here’s how I frame it up: We don armor when we feel the need for protection from an expected assault. Our cultures have largely regarded those wearing armor as brave, but I submit to you that armor is used primarily when one feels fear. War is always the result of fear, and some fears are good. We should fear white nationalists, but they only exist because of fear. They fear that others might do to them what white people have been doing to the rest of the world for centuries. This doesn’t mean other nations and races have not committed atrocities; such objections are simply obfuscations to distract from facts. We wear armor because we are afraid. I think to deny this is to deny something basic about the purpose of armor.

In this week’s worship, I asked the congregation to be honest about their fears regarding our future. Some voices shook, some contrary opinions were offered, but everyone was engaged. After the Spirit had moved us on that question, I asked the bigger one: what are your hopes?

Because that is how I ultimately frame up the armor of God: it is, as my fellow United Theological Seminary alumnus Rev. Dr. Jeremiah Wright has written, the audacity of hope. I choose not to give in to fear. That doesn’t mean that I ignore it. Not at all. I am well aware of that which frightens me, but the armor of hope is what helps me remain at the proverbial table. The armor of God can help protect us from the allures of greed, avarice, envy, covetousness, and other myriad sins. But it is up to us as individuals to get to the point in which we no longer need the armor because those weapons can no longer hurt us. I’m hoping to get down to a light chain mail, myself; this bastard sword is getting too big to carry around, too.

This Sunday’s worship, as on each first Sunday, we shared the Lord’s Supper. All are invited, none are compelled. We share a common cup, all receive the same amount of bread. We dwell in unity, even if we have different fears and different hopes. We stay committed to one another because that is what we believe God calls us to do. The failures of white nationalist “theology,” along with myriad other reasons, is that it holds that purity is racial and that everyone must look the same, act the same, think the same, be the same. That is not Christianity, even for Paul. His entire ministry was literally race-mixing.

Unity doesn’t mean we all think the same thing, it means that we don’t walk away from the table when we don’t get our way. Unity means the courage to speak your heart, but also to listen to others, as well. It doesn’t mean, though, that things like racism, sexism, homophobia, transphobia, xenophobia, Islamaphobia, or any other accidents-based phobia should be respected in-and-of themselves. Christians have a primary call to seek out those on the periphery and then to ask them what being at the center might look like; it means listening and then acting appropriately. It means hearing how we have been complicit, knowingly and unknowingly, in structures that keep others oppressed.

Unity is nigh impossible if we do not prioritize the pain and needs within our immediate communities. Unity is not saying that all fears and experiences are equal. They are not. It is binary thinking that gets us into trouble, though; if someone else’s pain is deemed more profound or immediate, too many of us respond as if the claim is that our pain does not matter. Emergency rooms prioritize people by the severity of their injuries and needs. Churches should do that as well instead of setting up triage for people who aren’t bleeding.

I do not accept the notion that somehow it is inhospitable to take a stand against prejudice. The idea that the feelings of the oppressors are more important than the pain of the oppression is perhaps one of the most dangerous circulating today. Racism is not a matter of opinion upon which we can agree to disagree. At least it isn’t for me. It does not mean that I will automatically walk away from a racist, but it does mean that as a spiritual leader I am clearly going to say, “if you want to work through your prejudices and start developing healthy relationships with those you claim to hate, I can help. This church can help. But if you want to dominate the space and conversation, accusing others of intolerance because they call racism what it is, then I think there are some churches in the surrounding towns that are more your speed.”

When I first heard Queen Latifah–we so close I just call her Queen now–and the song “Unity,” my already inbred racism and misogyny kicked it. It was still so unusual to see and hear a black woman speaking out and not backing down. Luckily, I had several female mentors who lovingly, but forcefully helped me guide through it. A few years later I had to do the same thing with Arab men and Islam. I don’t point fingers at anyone I don’t point first and most emphatically at myself.

But I can say that it is better on the other side of those prejudices. I have many powerful female friends and colleagues, specifically women of color. I have learned and continue to learn from them, but more importantly, we share our lives. Same with Muslims and Arab men. Unity means that we bring the whole self to the table and are honest about our fears because we believe there is hope. That’s the only armor I need.

 

After the Sermon: This Little Piggy Had None

Ephesians 4:1-16

piggy.jpg

Sticky Wickets 

Imagine if you will that your life is going to end in six months. You’re not sick or suffering, but for whatever reason, you are convinced the end will come on January 1. What sort of decisions would you make? What perspective do you imagine you might have, believing that existence will change in a flash? It might be death, it might be a transformation, it might be many things you don’t know, but you have zero doubt that it will end. And then imagine that you are wrong. Would the world you saw during those six months be the same as that you see on the other side of the error?

And then imagine that you are spectacularly wrong. Would the world you saw during those six months be the same as that you see on the other side of the error?

That’s what we have with Paul.

The Apostle Paul was confident that Jesus was going to come back within a generation. The problems with such eschatology have been covered myriad times on the blog, so I shan’t rehearse it here. But Paul wrote to communities he was seeking to usher through the interim period from Jesus’ death to his return. The fact that Paul was wrong is not insignificant, but does it mean that we must dismiss everything he wrote?

I don’t ask this rhetorically. I struggle with Paul, but I keep coming back. My faith in Jesus is much different than Paul’s faith in Christ. I follow Jesus because I believe he displayed definitively how to live; if others agree, great. If not, that’s cool, too. Paul puts so many dollars into the “Christ-is-gonna-return-really-I-swear” jar that I wrestle with how to understand Paul’s writings without turning them into something they are not, but also readily admitting that they are riddled with error. At least, if we insist that every word in the Bible must be literally true.

Again why biblical literalism is deadly to an intelligent faith.

Ephesians 4:1-16 is an important passage because it illustrates the challenges that come with reading Paul. Some scholars* argue that the epistle was not written by the Apostle or to the Ephesians. Even within the Bible itself, there are details difficult to reconcile. Acts 16-20 relate exciting details about Paul’s time in Ephesus, culminating in a demonstration against him by Demetrius and his fellow silversmiths who have seen a decrease in orders of icons for the Temple of Artemis. Christians were bad for the bottom line. When Paul tried to speak to the angry assembly at the theater in Ephesus, he was shouted down and escaped before being killed. His final address to the Ephesians is basically, “I taught y’all everything you need to know and if you don’t get it right, that ain’t my fault. P.S., I’m out.”  However, none of this “history” is reflected in the epistle. There’s more in common between Ephesians and Colossians than there is between Acts and the letter under consideration. That’s not surprising, as Acts essentially presents the trials and tribulations of the early Church to be near facsimiles of Jesus life and death.

To the Epistle, We Go

Verses 1-6 are an exhortation: we are to strive for unity in all things, just as God is singular in unity. For Paul, this is all related to the eschaton, the end time. He is pushing for unity because he believes that those involved in rancor and division won’t make the cut when Jesus comes back. Verses 7-16 are sort of like an instruction manual. Paul is telling believers the way that the Body of Christ should be formed.

For me, this is where we can set aside the eschatological overtones of the chapter and glean wisdom that is timeless. In v. 8, Paul applies lines about Moses ascending and descending Mt. Sinai to receive the Law to Jesus’ resurrection, intimating that Christ went to the bowels of the earth and to the reaches of the heavens. It is interesting to note that ancient cosmogony had earth as the lowest rung of the celestial ladder, so perhaps the message is that God’s presence encompasses the reaches of creation? Perhaps metaphorically Jesus went into the bowels of the earth when he visited those living in caves? Or perhaps we just recognize that Psalm 68 is not literally about Jesus?

Or perhaps we should just acknowledge that Psalm 68 is not literally about Jesus?

Verses 11-13 are often misread, in my estimation, due to the overlay of eschatology.  This extends far beyond believing that Jesus will come back in the end times. Eschatological readings of these verses turn’s Paul’s interim ethics into an instruction manual for how to run the Church 2,000 years later.

The gifts he gave were that some would be apostles, some prophets, some evangelists, some pastors and teachers, 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.” 

Too often the hermeneutic applied to these verses is: “There are different amounts of the Spirit available to others depending on their role.” This belies Paul’s central assertion. 

What Christ represents is reconciliation between Jews and Gentiles, between God and humans. Jesus, through his life and death, shatters that which separates. God’s grace, when met with our corresponding faith, forges a new body in the fires of Love: the Body of Christ. This metaphysical entity is made incarnate through prophets, evangelists, pastors, teachers, and saints. We are united through faith, yes, but not everyone is called to the same ministry. Not everyone has the same gifts. However, I reject outright the notion that there is a necessary hierarchy within the Body because Paul does not say that one role is more important than another.

And This is Relevant How? 

Lots of Christian communities are facing daunting realities. Aging congregations, shrinking money supplies, ever-increasing building maintenance demands, shrinking staff, and jackasses who call themselves Christians causing many people to run in the other direction, all conspire to make us think about what it means to exist in unity. Is the Body of Christ on life-support and should we pull the plug?

Not yet. If we can have a Body of Christ that actually follows Jesus, that appreciates and affirms the gifts of all, that does not try to replace Christ with a human being on earth. Yes, structure is important. Pastors should have extensive training and be held accountable, but pastors are no more important than teachers or evangelists. Further, seeking unity does not mean that everyone needs to get in line with what the priest says. Or what the governing body of the church declares. Unity requires that we all have a place at the table and we listen to one another. We pray, we turn to Scripture for guidance, and we follow our hearts that are in submission to God.

We must no longer be children, tossed to and fro and blown about by every wind of doctrine, by people’s trickery, by their craftiness in deceitful scheming. But speaking the truth in love, we must grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ, from whom the whole body, joined and knit together by every ligament with which it is equipped, as each part is working properly, promotes the body’s growth in building itself up in love.

Paul thought it was all going to end. Fast. That doesn’t mean, though, that he wasn’t right about some things. The Body of Christ requires toes and heart valves. You don’t want the roast beef piggy doing the work of the left ventricle. I’m a big fan of opposable thumbs and big toes, though. So instead of being concerned about who is more important or has more power, let us focus on the wonderful ways in which God has made human diversity.  Otherwise, this little piggy will have none.

*I recommend highly reading Stephen E. Fowl’s excellent commentary on Ephesians.