The great comedian Emo Philips told a story over twenty years ago, which bears repeating today. He was walking across a bridge, and he tells the story like this.
I saw this guy on a bridge about to jump. I said, "Don't do it! Don't do it!" He said, "Why not? Nobody loves me."
I said, "Well, God loves you. Do you believe in God?"
He said, "Yes." I said, "I do, too. ...Are you a Christian or a Jew?"
He said, "I'm a Christian." I said, "Me, too! ...Protestant; or Catholic?"
He said, "Protestant." I said, "Me, too! ...What franchise?"
He said, "Baptist." I said, "Me, too! ...Northern Baptist; or Southern Baptist?"
He said, "Northern Baptist." I said, "Me, too! ...Northern Conservative Baptist, or Northern Liberal Baptist?"
He said, "Northern Conservative Baptist." I said, "Me, too! ...Northern Conservative Baptist, Great Lakes Region; or Northern Conservative Baptist, Eastern Region?"
He said, "Northern Conservative Baptist, Great Lakes Region." I said, "Me, too! ...Northern Conservative Baptist, Great Lakes Region, Council of 1879; or Northern Conservative Baptist, Great Lakes Region, Council of 1912?"
He said, "Northern Conservative Baptist, Great Lakes Region, Council of 1912."
I said, "Die, heretic!" And I pushed him over.
That's a great joke. A few years ago, that joke was rated as the greatest religious joke in history. It's great because it captures the sad truth of religious division, denominational antagonism, and ultimately silly religious controversy.
That spirit, unfortunately, is not new. It was what Saint Paul wrote against in his First Letter to the Corinthians back in the first century. He said, "I appeal to you that all of you be in agreement and that there be no divisions among you." It seems that Christians even then were claiming allegiances and identities that set them against each other. Some said they belonged to Paul, and others said they belonged to Apollo, and still others said they belonged to Cephas. This part of the Bible is rather easy to understand. Why so much antagonism?
Well, maybe this sort of restless controversy is part of the human condition. Maybe the tendency to leave one alliance and to form another is built, inevitably, into our humanity.
Have you heard about the man they discovered all by himself on a desert island a few years ago? Apparently, he had been living there successfully for years, all by himself. No one else there.
When they found him, they also discovered three buildings on the island, right behind him. So they asked, "What's this building?"
"Why," he said, "that's my home, my house. That's where I live."
"Oh, that's good," they said, "and what's this second structure?"
"Well," the man replied, "that's my church. That's where I go to church."
"Excellent," the crowd said. "How beautiful!"
"And what's this third building on the island?"
"Oh," the man said, "that's where I used to go to church."
No matter where we are, it seems, we can find a reason to leave one church and to form another one. I belong here, someone says. But I belong over here, someone else says.
Are you looking for the perfect church?
I certainly am. I think I found it. It is down in South Atlanta, and I drive by it every time I go to an Atlanta Braves baseball game. I have never been inside. I don't know who goes to church there. I don't know who the senior pastor is. But I know it is the perfect church, because it says so.
Yes, the sign over the front door spells it out very clearly. The only words on the sign spell out "The Perfect Church." And it is perfect. It is my ideal of a perfect church for one major reason: because I have never been inside it!
If I were to actually experience it, if I knew who went to church there, if I knew who was the senior pastor, if I knew its ministries and its victories and its failures, it would not be perfect at all. In fact, the very instant I were to become involved there, it would not be perfect. Not only would I see, firsthand, its imperfections--but more seriously, I would bring my own imperfections into it!
It seems perfect only as long as it is a sign, a kind of illusion of perfection, which I pass every time I drive by on to the baseball game.
It is an illusion to believe that one church or one community or one leader is absolutely perfect. Yet, we labor under that tyranny generation after generation: the tyranny of absolutism.
The hindrance to full life today is the tyranny of absolutism. We are tempted to think of political parties as either absolutely right or absolutely wrong. We are tempted to think of political leaders as either absolutely right or absolutely wrong. We are tempted to think of countries as either absolutely right or absolutely wrong. We are tempted to think of different religions as either absolutely right or absolutely wrong. We are tempted to think of our neighbor as either absolutely good or absolutely evil.
Such all-or-nothing absolutism is dangerous. Exclusivist absolutism divides the world according to narrow human terms and not according to God's wide kingdom. Oh, I know there are absolutes in this world, but they will never be fully defined according to our human distinctions. There are absolutes in this world, but only according to God's standards--not ours.
Let not our religion, then, become simply another player in our dangerous world of competing absolutes. The most serious dangers facing our world today are those resulting from all-or-nothing polarities, presented by everyone from politicians to preachers. Let not our Christianity be a player in that game.
Exclusivist faith is dangerous, whether that faith is conservative or liberal. After all, we have our share of fundamentalist liberals as well as fundamentalist conservatives. The more exclusivity we claim, the smaller we get.
Rather, let our faith be in Jesus the Christ. Jesus came to give us life--life above these absolutist polarities. Jesus came to give us truth--truth above these divisions. Jesus came to be the way--the way of saving grace that expands beyond our understanding. Jesus the Christ is the way and the truth and the life.
"Is Christ divided?" That was Paul's question to the Corinthians back in the first century, AD. By that time, Saint Paul himself had experienced some sort of division in his ministry. By that time, he had actually already divided himself from his former partner, Barnabas; Paul was now traveling with Silas. In fact, there may have been a sharp disagreement in that decision to minister separately rather than together. Certainly, there were other associates of Paul who came and went.
Maybe, in the church our divisions are endless. But I prefer to see the action differently. What if disagreement serves as an occasion to do something different without being antagonistic? What if, instead of division, we see the process as multiplication? Multiplication, of course, is the inverse of division. But in the kingdom of God, the result may be similar. Consider this. One entity can become ten entities, by either dividing it by ten, OR multiplying it by ten!
"Is Christ divided?" Yes, it seems so, sometimes. But in the greater kingdom of God, Christ is actually multiplied. The best divisions, even the best disagreements, in our ministries, are those that actually result in multiplying the Church!
Yes, divisions can be endless. BUT, so can multiplications be endless! So my answer to Paul is, "No." No, Christ is not divided. Christ is multiplied! Christ is multiplied just like the cells in the human body divide and multiply in our early growth. When our human cells divide, they each carry the same code, the same DNA, which represents our distinct identity. What a miracle!
I believe the Church does that too. We are dividing, and we are multiplying!
The key is being able to share the same code; the key is being able to still be united in the same mind and the same purpose, as Paul asks of us. Paul prays that we be united in the same mind and the same purpose. We may disagree about the smaller pieces of that purpose, but the greater unity is this: our churches represent the fullness of Christ in the world, the Body of Christ in the world.
Let us pray. O God, of unchangeable power and eternal life, look favorably on your whole church, that wonderful and sacred mystery. By the effectual working of your providence, let the whole world see and know that things which were cast down are being raised up, and things which have grown old are being made new and that all things are being brought to their perfection by him through whom all things were made, your Son, Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.