By the Rev. Dr. Lynn D. Sinnott
One of my seminary professors told our class that the great scandal of Christianity was the ongoing disagreeing among us that repeatedly fragments the Christian body. He believed that it’s difficult to persuade anyone of the worth of our faith when we seem more concerned about our “rightness” than the Gospel. So why are there such differences — and sometimes such angst about those differences?
I suspect it’s because we all interpret our religious faith differently — and that leads to different ways of living it out. Some of us believe that primary to our faith are the two great laws that Jesus said were the foundation for all other law: Love God; love your neighbor as yourself. God’s law in the Hebrew Testament (the Ten Commandments) is part of the bedrock of faith, and cannot be separated from the two great laws. That’s a strong foundation we have, and there are countless passages in the Scriptures that reflect back on this foundation while they address common human issues.
We hear about welcoming strangers: “When a stranger sojourns with you in your land, you shall not do him wrong. You shall treat the stranger who sojourns with you as the native among you, and you shall love him as yourself, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt: I am the LORD your God. Leviticus 19:33–34
“… Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers for by doing that some have entertained angels without knowing it.” Hebrews 13:1
And we have quite a lot about how we care for our sisters and brothers … “For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.” “Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink? When did we see you a stranger and invite you in, or needing clothes and clothe you? When did we see you sick or in prison and go to visit you?’ The King will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.’ ” Matthew 25:35-40
About evangelism: “Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.” Matthew 28:19
And of course, one known and loved by all. …
“Do not judge, and you will not be judged. Do not condemn, and you will not be condemned. Forgive, and you will be forgiven. Give, and it will be given to you. A good measure, pressed down, shaken together and running over, will be poured into your lap. For with the measure you use, it will be measured to you.” Luke 6:37-42
So — we all have our favorite Bible passages. We all like to believe that, if we are living according to those scriptures, we’re doing a pretty good job. And unfortunately, we sometimes tend to be fairly annoyed with those who don’t agree with the way we’ve prioritized scripture. It’s a shame. Really — it is a shame.
Obviously, when we look at the passages quoted above, we can see that none of us has it all together. Most of us do some of those things really well. They are usually the things we are passionate about, while we may not be as successful with those things about which we feel less passionate. Few, if any of us, get it all together and live our lives as lovingly, compassionately, and fully as Jesus did. For instance, many Episcopalians tend to turn a little green in the gills when they hear the word “evangelism.” Some of our brothers and sisters of other persuasions get that same green shade when they think about housing homeless in their churches or sheltering immigrants. Getting the entire thing right is not easy. G. K. Chesterton once said, “The Christian ideal has not been tried and found wanting. It has been found difficult; and left untried.”
I have to confess: I’m beginning to think that the differences among us aren’t the problem. I suspect that God, who is the master of diversity (look at the world around us) may not be as troubled as we are by our differences. It’s the way we qualify the differences that becomes a problem. Instead of rejoicing that some of us are doing some things well, which ultimately leads to many things being done well, we tend to judge each other. Instead of acknowledging that we need to pick up the slack in some areas, we find it easier to insist that those other areas aren’t really important — regardless of what Jesus said or did. A little compassion and a bit of humility might not be amiss for most of us.
Ideally we’d all be shining examples of everything that God calls us to live. But humanly speaking, that’s especially difficult to achieve in the middle of actually living. It’s hard to be welcoming and loving and giving when we’re angry or fearful or frustrated or feeling powerless. And those times, when we struggle most to trust God’s word, are the times that the Gospel has the most to offer us. In 2 Corinthians, Paul shares that he prayed for God to meet a particular need, and God responded, “My grace is all you need, for my power is greatest when you are weak.” God clearly understands our human need to rely on ourselves and feel in control … our favorite illusion of safety. And God’s response is simple: I can do more for you when you let go.
I am trying to let go and not to be afraid in the midst of our crazy political situation — and trying not to make decisions out of fear or a sense of powerlessness or frustration. I am trying not to feel frustrated and upset about the homeless and the hungry in our midst. I am trying not to be annoyed with family situations that are — well, annoying. I’m trying to live the Gospel and even trying to open my Episcopal self to the graces of evangelism, and I’m finding it all challenging to do. But I know that God expects me to live the Gospel, to value my brothers and sisters and all they do, and to refrain from judging (that is God’s prerogative).
I’m glad no one ever said this would be easy.
There will be differences of thought and opinion and belief as long as there are different people. I wonder what would happen if we could decide to simply trust that we’re all doing our best to love and serve God, even when we disagree sometimes on how to do that. So — to all my sisters and brothers of whatever shade of green — peace, and a multitude of blessings on all you do. I pray we find joy in each other’s gifts, and in the variety that exists among us. I pray that we come to genuinely rejoice in the work each of us does, knowing that, as Paul said, “There are different kinds of gifts, but the same Spirit.” 1 Corinthians 12:4
The same Spirit. Thanks be to God.
The Rev. Dr. Lynn D. Sinnott is a pastor at Christ Episcopal Church and a guest columnist.