This summer I’ve been taking a tutorial with my advisor - I'm currently working on my PhD at Drew Theological School, studying Christianity and Ecology with a focus on Animal ethics. In my tutorial, we’re spending a lot of time thinking about Christians who are concerned about the environment and climate change and what motivates them, and conversely, what motivates Christians who are distinctly not concerned about the environment and deny that climate change is happening. I’ve learned that studies show a couple of things that I find kind of disconcerting and discouraging. First, Christians are actually less likely to care about the environment than the population as a whole, and more likely to deny that climate change is happening or that climate change has human causes. But second - and this is the one I’ve really been chewing on - the biggest predictor of whether or not someone prioritizes care for the environment is not faith or religious affiliation, rather, it’s our political identification. (2) This is actually true for our beliefs on social issues broadly, not just the environment. Whether we are Republican or Democrat or whatever on the political spectrum is more likely to tell us something about what folks believe than a person's religious affiliation. I wonder: what does it say, that our faith isn’t the thing that most seems to shape us and our beliefs? Why have we become so invested in our political identities? Why is our political identity more likely to predict what we’re like, what we believe, what we’re committed to than is our identity as Christians, proclaimed followers of Jesus Christ?
Don’t get me wrong: I’m glad, truly, that there’s a wide range within Christianity, that there’s a spectrum of expressions of Christianity. Christianity isn’t monolithic - we don’t all believe exactly the same things or worship in the same way, we’re not structured in the same way - I think that’s good. Our goal as Christ-followers, even as part of the one body of Christ, isn’t sameness - as the apostle Paul says in 1 Corinthians, if the whole body were made up of eyes, where would the hearing be? And so I don’t think sameness is a goal of Christianity. But what about unity? Is unity a goal? What does Christian unity mean? Our scripture text today from Ephesians talks about unity in some of what I find to be the most poetic language in the New Testament - the author, possibly Paul, or possibly a later disciple of Paul, writes to beg readers to “make every effort to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace” because there is “one body and one Spirit … one hope of your calling, one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God.” So - we can have a wide range of expressions of Christianity, and yet still be united under one body, one Spirit, one God, right?
Except that doesn’t seem to be so simple either. As I was thinking about “unity,” a couple of things popped into my mind. First, I thought of a meme I’d seen going around, with a lot of variations, but that basically said some version of the same thing: “‘We can disagree and still be friends’ does not apply to racism, sexism, homophobia, or transphobia.” In other words, it’s ok if we have different ideas about what makes good church music, for example, but we can’t have different ideas about the basic wrongness of racism and still be friends. I think of the struggles of our denomination, and our march toward a probable denominational divide at General Conference next year. I read the statement you just recently adopted, “We celebrate God’s gift of diversity and value the wholeness made possible in community equally shared and shepherded by all. We welcome and affirm people of every gender identity, gender expression, and sexual orientation, who are also of every age, race, ethnicity, physical and mental ability, level of education and family structure and of every economic, immigration, marital, and social status, and so much more. We acknowledge that we live in a world of profound social, economic and political inequalities. As followers of Jesus, we commit ourselves to the pursuit of justice and pledge to stand in solidarity with all who are marginalized and oppressed.” It’s a beautiful statement, and a statement that takes a stand. And I think of my friends who are in the LGBTQ community who have decried calls for church unity over these last decades that have felt very trite - unity at the expense of their full inclusion in the church. What does it mean to find unity, they’ve asked, with people who don’t want the LGBTQ community to be allowed to get married, or be pastors, or be full members with full rights within the church? How can they be unified with folks who see them this way? There is no unity if it comes at the expense of others.
So, here we are in this conundrum - finding that an identity as Christ-followers doesn’t seem to shape us or predict what we’ll value as much as our identity as Republican or Democrat does, and yet feeling we can’t compromise for the sake of some false, trite unity if it means prioritizing unity over justice, unity over eliminating oppression. What do we do?
My friend Allan, a United Methodist pastor serving in Ohio, is more theologically conservative than I am, but I’ve appreciated his writing, his words of wisdom, especially during election seasons, calling the church to remember its identity and purpose. In the leadup to the 2016 election he wrote, “The problem is that we Christians in America have aimed our message too low because the church has become just one more special interest group in the wrangling of [national and state] politics - mainliners have become an extension of the Democratic Party, while evangelicals have become an extension of the Republican Party. We have less of a hearing in the city because what we offer is really nothing other than what everyone else is offering; and people have discovered that one can be a progressive or a conservative just fine without Jesus and the church. Both Christian progressives and conservatives keep fighting to revive a declining Christendom (in their own image) refusing to admit that it is a losing proposition … If and when the church understands itself once again as its own nation, its own politic with its own integrity and that it has no stake in anything other than the mission of Christ in the world, who is also the missioning Christ, it will then truly be able to seek the welfare of the city because it will by its very existence offer to the city only what Jesus can provide.” (2)
Do we understand that we - the church, and the members of the body of Christ that make the church - have no stake in anything other than the mission of Christ? I don’t know about you, but I feel called to account. And I feel like Allan’s words help me understand our epistle lesson better. The letter to the Ephesians calls us to conform our lives to Christ. If we’re members of the body of Christ, Christ is the head, the core to which we’re all joined, and what we’re meant to be part of, who we’re meant to be modeling ourselves after. I think, then, that the unity the author describes isn’t about sameness of belief - it’s about clarity of purpose, and commitment to prioritizing our lives with following Jesus as our number one purpose, and everything else falling in a way that supports and doesn’t detract from that purpose. One body, one Spirit, one hope of our calling, one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God - not because we all understand God in the same way or because we have the same baptismal practices across traditions or because we agree to disagree even when it means silencing those who are oppressed. No, rather, the author is calling us to be united, as Christians, in our one purpose, leading a life worthy of our calling as disciples of Christ, giving God our whole hearts, loving God with all our heart, soul, mind and strength, and loving our neighbors with the same God-centered, God-driven devotion. In that - our God-centered lives - is our primary purpose, our identity-shaping purpose, in that purpose, we’re meant to be one, and as much as we forget and fail to let Christ be our first purpose, we’re on the wrong track.
But when we are grounded in the hope of our calling, and when we seek with all our hearts, with our first purpose, to live lives worthy of God’s call to discipleship, then we glean from this letter a direction for how to live in community. We use our gifts to build up. In the writings of Paul and his disciples, that’s a message that’s repeated throughout. How do we live as the body of Christ? By building up, not tearing down. Just like we build up our own bodies by developing muscles, giving good nutrition to our bodies, tending to our bodies’ needs, we build each other up through figuring out what practices, what actions, what acts of care and love and devotion will nurture each other’s flourishing. We figure out how we can use our gifts to serve others. We seek to build up those who have been torn down through oppression and injustice. And as we build each other up, our author says we grow up, maturing in our faith, and measuring up to the stature of Christ.
I started by telling you about being discouraged in my tutorial, realizing that studies show that being a Christian, a follower of Jesus, doesn’t have as much impact on what we believe and what we do as I would have thought, as I wanted. But there’s hope. I also read about some studies that show that seasons of reawakening, revitalization, and revival happen in seasons when people realize that there’s a big disconnect between our values and what we see happening in the world around us, or when we realize that there’s a disconnect between our beliefs and reality, our beliefs and what we’re doing. Sometimes, the discomfort of that disconnect can spur transformation - in ourselves, and in whole cultures. (3) I think the early church emerged from an awakening, led by Jesus and then his followers, inviting people to transform their lives. The invitation is extended to us today. Can we live lives worthy of the calling to which we have been called? Indeed, we are called to one body, one Spirit, one hope, one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God, one priority to shape the whole of our existence. Let’s claim a unity of purpose, and build each other up into Christ, as we endeavor to be his hands and feet, his body in the world. Amen.
(1) Taylor, B., Van Wieren, G., and Zaleha, B., (2016), “The Greening of Religion Hypothesis (Part Two): Assessing the Data from Lynn White, Jr., to Pope Francis” (with Gretel Van Wieren and Bernard Zaleha), Journal for the Study of Religion, Nature and Culture 10(3), 306-378.
(2) Emphasis mine, https://www.facebook.com/allan.bevere/posts/10209247941669131)
(3) Kearns, L. (1997). “Noah's ark goes to Washington: A profile of evangelical environmentalism.” Social compass, 44(3), 349-366.