Tuesday, February 2, 2010

One body, many members

"A number of blind men came to an elephant. Somebody told them that it was an elephant. The blind men asked, ‘What is the elephant like?’ and they began to touch its body. One of them said: 'It is like a pillar.' This blind man had only touched its leg. Another man said, ‘The elephant is like a husking basket.’ This person had only touched its ears. Similarly, he who touched its trunk or its belly talked of it differently. In the same way, he who has seen the Lord in a particular way limits the Lord to that alone and thinks that He is nothing else.” - (Ancient Hindu parable).

We live in an age of great divisions. Much of this comes from the political climate. We all agree that we are facing major problems and yet we can’t even have a conversation about something as simple as health care, let alone climate change or energy policy without falling into polarized and entrenched arguments. These disagreements are obvious in the public response to on-line news stories, but it truly saddens me that the same divisions exist within the spiritual community. Oddly the different viewpoints don’t seem to correlate with different religions. Conservative Muslims, Mormons, Jews and Christians all seem to have more in common than they do with the more liberal members of their own faith community. It troubles me even more that these same divisions exist in my own denomination - the Community of Christ.

The Community of Christ is a very small denomination with about 250,000 members that exists in over 50 countries. The church is headquartered in Independence, Missouri and about half of the membership live in the USA and Canada. Recently one of our church leaders posted a news item about health care reform on facebook and the passionate response from church members could have passed for a debate between Fox News and MSNBC commentators. Except for one thing, not only did people from both sides attempt to use scripture to support their position, they tried to use the same passage of Doctrine and Covenants 163 to prove their opposing viewpoints. Doctrine and Covenants 163 was counsel given to the church at the last World Conference in March 2007 and at that time the document was accepted by the entire membership as divine revelation. In spite of this, the document seems powerless to overcome the political gap.

It is easy to see that these serious political divisions are a major challenge in our time. However, it is important for Christians to realize that Jesus was born into a world that was as seriously divided as our own. Between the time of Malachi and the beginning of the New Testament, Israel had been conquered by Alexander the Great and brought under Seleucid rule for almost 200 years. During this time, Israel was dominated by the Greek language and culture. This cultural influence was so strong that the Holy books had to be translated from Hebrew into Greek so they could be more accessible to the majority of the Jewish people. A strong tension existed between the more cosmopolitan Greek speaking Jews, who mostly lived in the cities, and the more traditional Hebrew speaking Jews of the rural areas. This tension resulted in the fragmentation of the Jewish faith with Pharisees defining themselves as more traditional while the Sadducees embraced the progressive Greek influences. Conflict between these groups ultimately led to a civil war where the Seleucid King, Antiochus Epiphanes, captured Jerusalem, desecrated the temple and attempted to destroy the Jewish faith. This led to the Maccabean rebellion where a family of conservative Jewish priests led a successful guerrilla war against the Seleucids and ultimately recaptured Jerusalem and re-dedicated the temple (this is celebrated in the Hanukkah festival). The Maccabean victory resulted in an independent Jewish Kingdom that lasted 100 years; until the Roman invasion of 63 BCE when Pompey installed the Herodian dynasty to rule Israel as a client of Rome.

Jesus lived in a world of incredible religious and political division. Sadducees tended to favor Roman customs and authority. Pharisees tolerated Roman political rule but rejected Roman customs and used religious purity laws as a way to segregate Jew and Gentile and thereby maintain their influence. On the more extreme end, Zealots rejected both the political and religious authority of Rome and swore oaths to kill any Jews who collaborated with the Roman occupiers.

Nazareth of Jesus’s time was a rural backwater and a haven for the Jewish resistance. According to the Gospel of Luke, at the beginning of his ministry, Jesus stood in the synagogue at Nazareth and read from the Isaiah scroll:

“ The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to preach good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the captives and recovery of sight for the blind, to release the oppressed, and proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour.” (Luke 4)

This was a clear statement of the Mission of Jesus and it is difficult to imagine that the people of Nazareth did not understand this to be a dangerous political statement. However, when Jesus called his inner circle of twelve followers, they came from the entire spectrum of Jewish society. On one extreme, there is Simon the Zealot and on the other end you have Matthew the publican, who collected taxes for Imperial Rome. Somehow Jesus brought them all into a community that put His mission above their personal understandings and perspectives.

After Jesus was put to death, his followers were scattered. After His resurrection, they were gathered together but told to wait in Jerusalem until they received the gift of the Spirit. During the feast of Shavuot, 50 days after passover, Jews from all over the Roman world were gathered in Jerusalem. While the apostles sat in a closed room, the Spirit came upon them and they went out declaring the Good News to Jews from all nations - and each in their own language. As the Spirit fell upon this diverse group of Jews, they transcended their national and political identities and were brought into a vibrant community -

“All the believers were one in heart and mind. No one claimed that any of his possessions was his own, but they shared everything they had. With great power the apostles continued to testify to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus, and much grace was upon them all. There were no poor among them. (Acts 4)”

As the apostles took the message of God’s Good News from Jerusalem to the Gentile world they saw that same Spirit unify Jews and Gentiles of many nations and bring them into a movement that lived the Mission of Jesus. Jewish Purity laws, traditions and rituals were put aside in favour of a fellowship that was based on compassion and unconditional love for God and humanity. The Spirit of Christ had risen in the body of the Church. This truly was a second resurrection.

The Apostle Paul quickly observed that long-held prejudice and class distinctions were not easily put aside. His letters frequently admonished Christians to put aside their earlier divisions and embrace the Unity of the Spirit. That way each person, with their own God-given talents and abilities could achieve their divine potential in building the Kingdom of Heaven on the earth. From 1st Corinthians:

“The body is a unit, though it is made up of many parts; and though all its parts are many, they form one body. So it is with Christ. For we were all baptized by one Spirit into one body—whether Jews or Greeks, slave or free—and we were all given the one Spirit to drink.

Now the body is not made up of one part but of many. If the foot should say, "Because I am not a hand, I do not belong to the body," it would not for that reason cease to be part of the body. And if the ear should say, "Because I am not an eye, I do not belong to the body," it would not for that reason cease to be part of the body..... If one part suffers, every part suffers with it; if one part is honored, every part rejoices with it. “

The intent of this passage is to remind believers that every person has a unique and important contribution and this contribution must be recognized and accepted. Unfortunately, the analogy of the body and many members was not a new one. From the time of the ancient Greeks onward, the same analogy has been used to convince people that they are born to a specific station in life and it violates the divine order if they attempt to rise above their station. From the time of Constantine, christianity has been used as a means to control populations and keep them subservient to political tyrants. If God put the King at the head, who are you to question your role or the actions of the state? From Constantine to Henry the VIII and from Thomas Hobbs to George Bush, this idea has been used to claim imperialism and tyranny as a Divine Right. What right does the foot have to question the authority of the head? And if you were faithful to your place on earth, then God would surely give you a better place in Heaven. This is how our definition of Peace (civil order preserved by the threat of violence ) has overtaken the true meaning of God’s Shalom (“Peace” that comes with Justice, Love and Joy that appears when everything exists in a state that is faithful to the true order of its divine creation).

In 1830 the restoration movement - of which the Community of Christ is a part - was born with a vision to restore God’s earthly Kingdom. Not through violence, but through a realization that God’s infinite love transcends barriers of race, gender, culture and social class. The movement gathered thousands of European peasants and helped them make their way to America where they were given a chance to live according to their true natures. Unfortunately, even this movement has been affected by almost two centuries of North American culture and much of the contemporary political ideology has infected this church.

We were clearly reminded of this on January 17, when Community of Christ prophet/president Steve Veazey brought forward his latest counsel for the church . It starts with a quote from one of Paul’s letters:

As many of you as were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus. And if you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham’s offspring, heirs according to the promise. (Galatians 3).

From this starting point, the counsel addresses:
- Issues of baptism and ecclesiastical authority:

Instruction given previously about baptism was proper to ensure the rise and cohesiveness of the church during its early development and in following years. However, as a growing number have come to understand, the redemptive action of God in Christ—while uniquely and authoritatively expressed through the church—is not confined solely to the church.

God’s grace, revealed in Jesus Christ, freely moves throughout creation, often beyond human perception, to achieve divine purposes in people’s lives. In harmony with God’s will, the Holy Spirit leads some people already committed to Jesus Christ through Christian baptism to further focus their response through church membership.

Individuals previously baptized of water in an attitude of humility and repentance and as an expression of faith in Jesus Christ may become church members through the sacrament of confirmation of the Holy Spirit.

and issues of sexuality and relationships:

It is imperative to understand that when you are truly baptized into Christ you become part of a new creation. By taking on the life and mind of Christ, you increasingly view yourselves and others from a changed perspective. Former ways of defining people by economic status, social class, sex, gender, or ethnicity no longer are primary. Through the gospel of Christ a new community of tolerance, reconciliation, unity in diversity, and love is being born as a visible sign of the coming reign of God.

As revealed in Christ, God, the Creator of all, ultimately is concerned about behaviors and relationships that uphold the worth and giftedness of all people and that protect the most vulnerable. Such relationships are to be rooted in the principles of Christ-like love, mutual respect, responsibility, justice, covenant, and faithfulness, against which there is no law.

If the church more fully will understand and consistently apply these principles, questions arising about responsible human sexuality, gender identities, roles, and relationships; marriage; and other issues may be resolved according to God’s divine purposes. Be assured, nothing within these principles condones selfish, irresponsible, promiscuous, degrading, or abusive relationships.

The membership of the Community of Christ are distributed across the entire USA, as well as the developing world. American members are passionately divided on issues as simple as universal health care - you can easily imagine how their opinions might differ on same-sex marriage. Then you must include the African and Latin American churches, where members come from countries where being a homosexual is a crime that can be punished by death. How can anyone hope to see agreement on these issues?

From my personal point of view, it is difficult to understand why people are so passionate in their disagreement on these issues. In both cases, it seems apparent that the specific choices are truly between the individual and God. It does not seem to affect other people. However, there certainly are bigger issues that affect each of us in a very direct way. For example, How do we balance the economy and the environment- and what do we do about global warming? What is the correct role of the military? How do we adapt to a world with increasing population and decreasing resources? How do we bring the concept of justice into our global trade agreements?

If a community of Christ - people who have experienced God’s Spirit and have committed themselves to the restoration of God’s Kingdom - can’t agree on issues that don’t even affect us personally, how can we hope to make progress on issues that require serious changes in our personal life-style?

To these questions, I place my meager hope in these closing words from Steve’s counsel:

When your willingness to live in sacred community as Christ’s new creation exceeds your natural fear of spiritual and relational transformation, you will become who you are called to be. The rise of Zion the beautiful, the peaceful reign of Christ, awaits your wholehearted response to the call to make and steadfastly hold to God’s covenant of peace in Jesus Christ.

This covenant entails sacramental living that respects and reveals God’s presence and reconciling activity in creation. It requires whole-life stewardship dedicated to expanding the church’s restoring ministries, especially those devoted to asserting the worth of persons, protecting the sacredness of creation, and relieving physical and spiritual suffering.

If you truly would be Community of Christ, then embody and live the concerns and passion of Christ.

The challenges and opportunities are momentous. Will you remain hesitant in the shadows of your fears, insecurities, and competing loyalties? Or will you move forward in the light of your divinely instilled call and vision?

This is truly a pivotal time for the Community of Christ. Like the early Christian fellowship, we are drawn from all nations, cultures and traditions into a body that is committed to the mission of Jesus Christ in the world. In April we will meet at the temple in Independence Missouri as delegates representing the entire church - and by extension our cultures, countries and traditions of origin. Will we be able to put Christ’s vision of compassion and unconditional love above our deeply held perspectives? In my opinion, it will take a miracle for the community of Christ to pass through this conference as a united body. However, I am hopeful that the Spirit will lead - if we will only follow. And on the brighter side, if this small denomination that is so representative of the world’s diverse population can find peace and unity on these divisive issues, perhaps we will have truly learned that:

The mission of Jesus Christ is what matters most for the journey ahead.”

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