Redeeming Disunity: A Sermon for the Confession of Peter

We are meeting on the first day of what is widely observed as a Week of Prayer for Christian Unity, sponsored by both the World Council of Churches, which includes very many Protestant and Orthodox groups, and by the Pontifical Council for Christian Unity of the Roman Catholic Church. If that doesn't already include you, please consider yourself incorporated into this exercise. It's an opportunity for us to ponder both the challenge of Christian disunity and the promise of Christ that we may be one. 

One of the consequences of Christian disunity however is that we don't agree on what unity is. Broadly speaking there are two versions of unity, one that starts with the institutional and visible, and one that starts with the immaterial and affective. Each has characteristic strengths and weaknesses. 

The idea that unity means the institutional visible Church has the virtue of foregrounding the material and practical, as incarnational faith should - yet often institutions proves brittle or at least inflexible, mistakenly descend into self-importance, and are unable to include innovation or reform. Yet the alternative immaterial Church, the idea of an invisible community of true believers, has proven as inadequate in practice; for we see it again and again appear in the form of exclusive huddles of the like-minded, whose immaterial definition of Church allows them to ignore whom they choose. The result can sometimes just be an exasperating echo chamber, but also a damaging and unaccountable misrepresentation of what it means to follow Christ without accountability to the wider reality and community; consider Christian nationalism. 

Our divisions are also more than just the accidental outcomes of obscure theological arguments that few of us want to obsess about any longer; they are often the products of the same social and economic forces that have rent human society in other ways too. Our Churches are not neutrally constructed relative to race or class, most obviously.

Dr Martin Luther King Jr has the apostle Paul bring this home in his imaginary letter of Paul to the Americans:

You have allowed segregation to creep into the doors of the church. How can such a division exist in the true body of Christ? You must face the tragic fact that when you stand at eleven o'clock on Sunday morning to sing “In Christ There Is No East or West,” you stand in the most segregated hour of Christian America. They tell me that there is more integration in the entertaining world, in sports arenas, in other secular agencies, than there is in the Christian church. How appalling that is.

The week of Prayer for Christian Unity is actually eight days (ask me later about theological mathematics...), stretching between two ancient feasts linking Paul and Peter - today was once known as the Chair of St Peter, and next Wednesday the 25th is the Feast of the Conversion of that same Paul. These two might seem archetypes of our approaches to Church: Peter corresponds with the first model; the rock, the pillar of the early community, remembered as founder of Churches in Antioch and Rome; and then on the other hand we have itinerant Paul,  touching down lightly in each place before taking the Gospel and its call to freedom with him, who seems to inspire the idea of a Church unconstrained by the institutional.

Peter and Paul actually had considerably more trouble with one another in life than the Church has had associating them in death. The fragments of their uneasy relationship are scattered in the pages of the New Testament itself. Paul himself is characteristically blunt about Peter in the letter to the Galatians, chapter 2:

“But when [Peter] came to Antioch, [Paul says], I opposed him to his face, because he stood self-condemned; for until people came from James, he ate with the Gentiles. But after they came, he drew back and kept himself apart for fear of the circumcision group. And the other[s]..joined him in this hypocrisy...”

The Second Letter of Peter, written in the fisherman’s name, goes for the more passive-aggressive option. "...count the patience of our Lord as salvation, just as our beloved brother Paul also wrote to you according to the wisdom given him, as he does in all his letters when he speaks in them of these matters. There are some things in them that are hard to understand, which the ignorant and unstable twist to their own destruction..." 

Despite the throwing of shade, it is important that neither of these two imagines that the Church can do without the other. It's Paul who theorizes this, in 1 Corinthians 12:

"The eye cannot say to the hand, “I have no need of you,” nor again the head to the feet, “I have no need of you.” On the contrary, the parts of the body that seem to be weaker are indispensable..."

Here in this place we may think we can avoid much of the challenge of theological and political difference in the wider Church, because we have filtered it out. And while we (yes, I) are often relieved we don't have to deal with some of what is said and done under the name of Christianity, we have to ask whether retreating into a clear dissociation even from those who clearly have it wrong is actually any solution.

I do not imagine that we are about to overcome these divisions easily or quickly this week or any other week soon - let me suggest today though that a realistic task would be to look with utmost seriousness, rather than to ignore it. We are gathered fragments of a broken reality, ecclesially as well as socially and politically; let us at least acknowledge our brokenness and offer it to one another. Being broken is not necessarily so bad; but to be broken and pretend we are not is a recipe for disaster and mutual damage. When we think we can do without each other - when our rituals or our styles or our theologies are somehow not just  superior, but self-sufficient - we deceive ourselves, and we bless the forms of oppression and alienation that gave rise to them.

Just as for Peter and Paul, our profound differences are neither to be ignored nor even always overcome, but they can be redeemed. Unity is not created by indifference to our inadequate ecclesial structures, but by negotiating how to exist in a mutual dependence that Paul suggests already exists, whether or not we recognize it.  Let us then do all that makes for unity; knowing that we are working not for uniformity or conformity, but for a transformed sense of our diversity as a gift to us all. Let the differences between us, welcome or unwelcome, be opportunities to serve each other and the world, to witness to the vision of unity that Peter and Paul's uneasy friendship manifests; and may peace be with us all.

Sermon given in Marquand Chapel, Yale Divinity School, January 18 2023 (Confession of Peter, Apostle).


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