There is often a tendency, in the ecumenical movement, to romantize the earliest days of the Church’s life as some kind of “golden age.” We sometimes speak of the “undivided Church” of the first 1,000 years before the Great Schism between the East and West (when what we call today Orthodox and Catholic Christianity broke apart).
So we say things like, “Well, we were one Church for over 1,000 years, and then the Eastern and Western Churches parted ways, so there were two great expressions of Christianity. Then nearly 500 years later the Reformation happened, and Lutherans and Calvinists and Anglicans began to have their separate expressions…and we’ve been dividing, as Christians ever since!”
And, obviously, there is a certain amount of truth (however simplistic) in such observations. But, if we want to be honest about the matter, the Church has never been “completely one” or completely in agreement, and you don’t have to look much further than the pages of the New Testament to see that!
Less than 30 years after our Lord’s death and Resurrection, we have the chief missionary of the Church (St. Paul) writing to the Christians in Galatia and saying this about the chief apostle of the Church (St. Peter): “…when Cephas came to Antioch, I opposed him to his face, because he stood self-condemned; for until certain people came from James, he used to eat with the Gentiles. But after they came, he drew back and kept himself separate for fear of the circumcision faction. And the other(s)…joined him in this hypocrisy, so that even Barnabas was led astray…” (Galatians 2:11-13)
The issue here, of course, was whether or not to accept Gentiles as Christian converts directly or whether they had to become, in some sense, Jews first. Paul was clear practically from his own conversion that Gentiles should be accepted and included. Peter apparently took some time to come to that position and he, as well as other Christians in the Jerusalem church, found themselves in conflict with Paul and his colleagues about this. It got resolved, of course, over time, and it’s hard for us today to see what all the fuss was about, but it was a “church dividing” or at least a “church challenging” conflict at the time.
It would be wonderful, I suppose, if Christians always got along and always agreed with each other, but we’re human beings and we don’t have all the answers and we sometimes come to different conclusions about important issues. Christians have disagreed about church order (how we are organized), about modes of worship, about slavery, about women’s place in the Church, and about marriage and the family, and about moral and ethical issues ranging from abortion to homosexuality!
Being Christians together does not always mean being of “one mind” together on any particular issue. What we need to be able to do, though, even when we disagree, is to “keep the main thing…the main thing!”
And what is that main thing? What are we really supposed to be all about as Christian people? Well, the Catechism in the back of our Prayer Book says that the essential mission of the Church is “to restore all people to unity with God and each other in Christ.” (BCP 853) That means, I think, that many people are estranged from God and estranged from one another, and our job is to help them end that estrangement — to become one with God and one with one another. Indeed, to love God and to love our neighbors as ourselves!
Like the woman in Luke 7 (verses 36-50) and like the debtor in Jesus’ story, some of us have learned that God is a forgiving God! We’ve learned that God, not only exists, but that God’s very nature is love and that there is nothing we could ever do or think which would make God stop loving us, or being willing to forgive us! We call that “the Good News” and it is news that many people out there desperately want and need to hear!
They need to hear from us, as the woman in the story heard from Jesus, “Your sins are forgiven!” That’s really the main message Christians have for this world and it’s what you and I promise to proclaim every time we renew our Baptismal Covenant: “Will you proclaim by word and example the Good News of God in Christ?” I will. “Will you seek and serve Christ in all persons, loving your neighbor as yourself?” I will.
“Will you strive for justice and peace among all people, and respect the dignity of every human being?” I will. That’s our mission…the mission of the Church!
I wish I could promise that the Church is a perfect place…that we all “just get along”…and that you will never find yourself in the middle of a church fight – whether it’s in a parish, a diocese, the national church, or a worldwide Communion. But I can’t promise you that – because the Church is a human, as well as divine, institution and certainly it is made up of very fallible human beings – like you and me!
What I can promise you is that the mission of the Church is the most important thing you can commit your life to – whether as a young person or an older person, whether clergy or lay, no matter where you spend most of your time on a day-by-day basis. Because everywhere you will find people who need to be reconciled to God or to another person, and your job is to help that happen.
It’s “the main thing” we do as Christians. And, if we spent more time and energy doing that, and less time and energy “un-churching” one another because we disagree about some things in today’s world, we would be carrying out the mission of the Church and would be a lot more pleasing to our God than we must sometimes be today.
So I encourage you to re-commit yourself to Christ and the mission of his Church. And to hear again the heartfelt prayer we offered to God in our Collect last Sunday: “Keep, O Lord, your household the Church in your steadfast faith and love, that through your grace we may proclaim your truth with boldness, and minister your justice with compassion; for the sake of our Savior Jesus Christ, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.”