One in Christ
I have been thinking about unity because St. Paul wrote about oneness in his letter to the Galatians. His logic said that when we are baptized into Christ, walls of divisions among people come falling down. There is no Jew or Greek. There is no slave or free. There is no male or female. But all the baptized are one with unity in Christ.
Sizing Up People
Now that may be difficult for us to understand oneness or unity because we are always classifying people. Are you a northerner or a southerner? Are you a Protestant or a Catholic? Are you a Republican or a Democrat? Do you live in the city or in an outlying suburb? Are you African American, Latino, Asian or have European ancestry? Are you a blue collar or a white collar worker? Are you gay or are you straight? Are you a Vols fan or a fan of the Crimson Tide? Do you watch CNN or Fox News? We use these kinds of categories to size up people we meet and maybe even make preconceived judgements about them.
A City – County Divide
Recently in my hometown of St. Louis there was a movement entitled “Better Together” which tried to unify St. Louis city with St. Louis country with one government to make the metropolitan area grow its economy and services to its citizens. Those two entities have been divided for nearly 150 years. But this “Better Together’s movement failed for a number of reason including corrupt government officials and the fear of small municipalities losing political identity and power.
United by the Blues
But hey, sports came to the rescue of unity so to speak. After 52 years the St. Louis Blues Hockey Team finally won the Stanley Cup. They are champions. They beat the heavily favored Boston Bruins. Literally hundreds of thousands of Blues fans in the metropolitan area gathered downtown for the parade and ceremonies at the foot of the Arch on the banks of the Mississippi River. It’s amazing how sports can unify people as they cheer on their favorite team.
Division in the Church
As we look at own church body it pains us to think about issues which divide us. Not too long ago our church denomination (ELCA) was divided over its “human sexuality” study and decisions about same gender issues. The ELCA lost congregations over disagreements on these issues. But we are not alone. Methodists, Episcopalians, and Presbyterians have also had their church battles on the topic of human sexuality. And with the reports of clergy sexual abuse of minors in the Catholic Church, that church body is hurting and its unity becomes fractured over such a tragedy.
But what is it that creates oneness? What is it that unifies people? I have already mentioned rooting for your favorite team in sports can bring people together. But can unions for workers? I see where workers at the VW manufacturing facility in Chattanooga can unify for better wages and working conditions if they vote in favor of a union. But that issue or vote may also bring division as opinions on the effectiveness of unions vary.
In the neighborhood in which I grew up most people were either Catholic or Lutheran. And back in the 1950’s, 1960’s and so on, Catholics would not set foot in a Lutheran church nor a Lutheran in Catholic church – except when it came to marriage or funeral services. But even then if you were not a member of that church you felt like an outsider.
Unity in Communion
But I am happy to say that in recent decades Catholics and Lutherans worldwide have reached agreements to draw them closer together in the Christian faith. They are not letting the Reformation with all the good that it did be a barrier to closer ecumenical relationships. Thank God for that. I recall some twenty years ago that when my wife and I, and several other Lutheran clergy and their wives attended a Catholic mass in Birmingham, Alabama for the celebration of that parishes’ tenth anniversary, the priest in that parish communed us – communed Lutherans.
Now that was a first. We Lutherans were welcomed at God’s table of grace. We were welcomed to communed. We were welcomed to receive the real presence of Christ for forgiveness, life, and salvation. We felt one with Christ in that sacrament that day and one with all the other Catholic worshippers who were also celebrating the anniversary of their ten year old parish. (Thank you, Father Frank Muscolino for welcoming us that day in the mass!)
Baptism Unites Us
Listen carefully to what St. Paul wrote in Galatians chapter 3 about what unites us as fellow Christians: “For as many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ. There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no male or female, for you are all one on Christ Jesus.” (vs. 27-28)
In Holy Baptism we are clothed with Christ. We put on Christ so to speak. We are covered from head to toe with the love of Christ. And putting on Christ in baptism unites us with brothers and sisters in Christ so that the classifications and barriers to unity which easily divide us are dissolved, broken, done away with. We can look each other in the eye with genuine Christian love and know that we are all members of the body of Christ, each with spiritual gifts, each loved and forgiven, each renewed and refreshed by the Spirit, and each sent out into the world as witnesses to the crucified and risen Jesus Christ. Now if that isn’t unity, I don’t know what is.
No longer do we let politics divide us. No longer do we let race divide us. No longer do we let region divide us. No longer do we let denomination divide us. Putting on Christ in baptism frees us to look beyond conventional thinking and hold onto a real unity in the one, holy, catholic, and apostolic Church by virtue of our Lord Jesus Christ.
But Even More
St. Paul’s theological logic takes one more step. He wrote, “And if you are Christ’s, then you are Abraham’s offspring, heirs according to the promise.” (v. 29) So what is this all about? Are we really one with Abraham (and Sarah) of long ago Hebrew fame? Can we as baptized Christians be considered in Abraham’s family? St. Paul’s believed so. He believed so because God chose Abraham to be the earthly father of God’s first-chosen people, Israel. And since we Christians (Gentiles) have been grafted into God’s family by virtue of Jesus and his suffering, death, and resurrection for us and all people including the Jews, we are forever connected to Abraham (and Sarah). We are Abraham’s (and Sarah’s) offspring. We are “heirs” of the promise of eternal life through the Messiah, Jesus Christ our Lord.
Grace, Unity, and Heirs
We inherit grace and abundant life from God. The grace of God that was given as a gift to that ninety year old couple, Abraham and Sara; that grace given to Moses and the Israelites in the wilderness; that grace given to the prophets and Israelites in Babylonian bondage; that grace given to the Jews who suffered under Hellenization for centuries before Christ was born; is the same kind of grace given to us from the Lord Jesus Christ as the Holy Spirit daily forgives our sins and raises us up to new life and hope.
As heirs connected with Abraham and Sarah of long ago, we are united with Christ and God’s chosen people of every time and place.
Thanks be to God!