Sermon for the Sunday after Ascension Day
St. John’s Church – Moultrie, GA
June 5, 2011
Earlier this week I came across an article on the Internet that intrigued me simply by its title. The title of the article was “Five Words That Could Save the Church.” I was looking forward to reading it, but as I started reading I began to get quickly frustrated with what the author put forward. It was written by Ian Morgan Cron who was the founding pastor Trinity Church in Greenwich, CT, which according to the tagline is a community committed to “social justice as well as communicating the Christian story through the arts.” Since it is short I will read it in its entirety, and I think you will begin to see where I began to disagree with Mr. Cron’s arguments.
Five words could prevent the public brawls between Christians who differ in their opinions on social and theological issues.
“…but I might be wrong.”
Pepper an impassioned debate with those five words with someone you’ve previously denounced as a heretic or traitor to the cause and an amazing thing happens.
It tells your “opponent” on the other side of the issue that you care more about the mutual pursuit of truth rather than in placing another check in your camp’s win column. It communicates that maintaining Christian unity despite your differences is more important to you than scoring points and dancing in your “opponent’s” end-zone.
Who knows, if spoken with a true spirit of humility, something close to civility might break out and confused onlookers might believe Christian leaders are different than the shrill ideologues they see on cable news every night.
“…but I might be wrong.”
It would be disingenuous if we attached these words to the end of every sentence. We all have spiritual and moral convictions we believe are non-negotiable, but can’t the humility associated with those five words define the tone of our dialog?
My friend Jim Wallis of Sojourners is an exemplar of someone who practices this gracious approach to public discourse. He brings together Christians who lean both left and right to work together on poverty and caring for creation. In areas of agreement, he builds on common ground. In areas of disagreement, both he and his colleagues offer grace in the spirit of… “but I might be wrong.”
Today I’m following St. Paul’s advice “If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone.”
It’s hard to argue against that position unless you’re certain that my decision to use the NIV translation of this passage proves I’m a heretic and that I should be publicly disgraced for it.
Certainly there are points of disagreement amongst Christians regarding some of the particulars surrounding baptism, the Eucharist, spiritual gifts such as healing and speaking in tongues, forms of church governance, even which translation of Scripture to be used in church. If we didn’t have differences regarding these issues and others, there would still be one unified catholic church, and not the appalling number of different denominations that we have today. This is definitely not what our Lord had in mind when he prayed that we might be one as He and the Father were one. I feel fairly secure in saying that many of our denominational differences grieve God’s heart and schism is a grievous sin against charity.
If this is what Mr. Cron is talking about, then perhaps he has a point. However, I believe he’s approaching things from a different perspective and one that is permeating the church from all directions. I believe that he’s coming at things through a hermeneutic of suspicion that is insidious at its core. It’s a belief system that has no real firm foundation on which to stand and everything is up for grabs. We are told in Scripture to let our yea be yea and our nay be nay. If you remember from our Lenten study of the Book of Revelation that the Laodicean church’s problem was that they were neither cold nor hot, but lukewarm and for that reason they were spewed out of God’s mouth.
When I think of the persecution of the church that has taken place since its inception, I could never ever imagine St. Peter, or St. Paul, or St. Andrew, or Justin Martyr, or Thomas Cranmer, or the martyrs of this century saying to their tormenters that they might be wrong. A statement such as that one seems to fly in the face of the blood that has been spilled for the sake of the Gospel.
I recognize that the article quoted above is not referring to attacks from outside the church, but the turmoil and strife from within. I think though if I were going to offer five words that could save the church, and that will help us all strive for that most excellent virtue of charity it would be these five words, “I apologize, please forgive me.” Those words practiced more often would go a long way in the manner in which we interact with our spouse, our children, our parents, our co-workers, our fellow parishioners. Those five words will begin to foster within us humility that will allow us to begin defeating the sin of pride that is perhaps one of our fiercest enemies.
Even though I think that learning to say, “I apologize, please forgive me,” is a better alternative than, “but I might be wrong,” there are four words that the church needs to learn more than either of those or we will continue to fight a losing battle and those four words are “JESUS CHRIST IS LORD!” Those are the only four words that will ultimately save the church. Until we can proclaim with the utmost conviction and without hesitation or wavering that first Creed we are truly lost with no hope.
Those first martyrs of the early church took a great risk when they no longer said the words Kaesar kurios and began to say Iesou Christou kurios. They could no longer say that Caesar was Lord but that Jesus Christ was Lord, and they did so to their peril. Still, those who proclaimed that Jesus was Lord departed this life praying that God might forgive their tormenters and persecutors. History records that many even in the throes of death were singing hymns and praising God as their very life was being exacted of them. Others like St. Stephen as they were taking their final breath on earth saw the heavens opened and the Son of Man sitting at the right hand of the power of Almighty God awaiting their arrival to welcome them home.
These don’t sound like the stories of those who would have couched their words with a concluding epithet, “but I might be wrong.” No, these were the stories of those within the church, bold enough to proclaim with the utmost conviction and unwavering belief in the saving power of the Gospel. May we too have the same power and boldness to proclaim that Jesus Christ is Lord, and as often as necessary those five words of humility, “I apologize, please forgive me.” If we can hold on to those two phrases we will go a long way in not just saving, but helping grow God’s kingdom here on earth – His precious Body, the church.