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Walking Together

On Sat., Jan 22, I had the privilege of preaching at one of the services we had for the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity. This followed right on the heels of returning from the conference in Atlanta. We met at the Memorial Church of the Brethren in Petersburg. The text was Romans 6:3-11. This is the message I shared:

            Some of you may not know me. I’m the vicar or intern at Grace Lutheran Church with Pr. Larry Cantu. I am Lutheran, but am a bit of a denominational mutt. I was raised Roman Catholic, became a Catholic charismatic, and then became a non-denominational charismatic, then a Southern Baptist charismatic, and finally, a Lutheran. I’ve lived in New York, Palestine, Rhode Island, and Pennsylvania, seen Christians of different persuasions work well together and not so well.
            This year, it has been a privilege to be involved in the community of faith here in Petersburg. There is a greater sense of being a part of the same family of God between the churches here than I’ve experienced elsewhere. In some places, you cannot get a group of clergy together with such diverse backgrounds. Sometimes you can’t even get churches of the same denomination to work together. This unity is a rare gift you have to offer to the larger church. How is it that this happens? Why don’t other communities get it? What is the distinctive element that keeps us in fellowship?        
We might say God’s Word unites us and that’s a part of it, yet we all have various understandings of that Word. Perhaps we think being Christians is enough to unite us, yet human beings are quick to draw lines separating the insiders from the outsiders. Perhaps we can group the liturgical churches together, yet there are differences there as well. As a Lutheran, I can tell you there’s enough division just within our own denomination. No matter how I try to look at what is so unique about the expression of faith in Petersburg, it is difficult to put my finger on what makes Petersburg so special. Why can’t churches work together so well in other communities?
            In tonight’s reading from Romans, Paul teaches about baptism. We all believe in baptism, but we believe very different things concerning its meaning, timing, and the method of baptism. In this passage however, we find so much that speaks to the heart of the faith we embrace, which conforms us into the image of Christ, from which we can gather together in true unity.
            If we are to be the body of Christ together here in Grant County, it means death. Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a 20th century German pastor and teacher who died in a German concentration camp wrote, “When Christ calls a man, he bids him come and die” (Bonhoeffer, The Cost of Discipleship, 89). When Christ calls us, he bids us come and die. What are we to die to?
            Paul writes, “Therefore we have been buried with him by baptism into death, so that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, so we too might walk in newness of life” (Rom 6:4 NRS). What does Paul mean by this “newness of life?” We’re baptized into Jesus’ death. We are united with Christ, planted together with Christ, grown together with Christ in a death like his. Burial drives home the reality of this death for us. Paul speaks of death and dying 12 times just in these few verses.
            So what does that have to do with unity? Have you ever walked alone through a cemetery? What do you hear? It’s so noisy there isn’t it? You hear the dead arguing, fighting with each other, deciding who is part of their group or who isn’t. “Mrs. Smith thinks she’s really one of us, but I have my doubts. And what about Sam over there? He certainly doesn’t belong. He isn’t as dead as I am?” It sounds a little silly doesn’t it?  A dead person can’t argue over frivolous things. United with Christ, we are dead to those things that split us apart from other members of God’s family. We are set free from them.
We all have attitudes and ways of thinking and acting that we need to die to. Some of us have to be right or be understood or need things very cut and dry. In our death, burial, and resurrection with Christ, we are expected to loosen our grasp of those petty things that divide us.
Death is essential in our Christian life, but it’s not the end of the story. 5 “For if we have been united with [Christ] in a death like his, we will certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his.” In the resurrection, Christ introduces us to a new relationship with the Father. In our identification with Christ, we are enabled to actually live with the life of Christ.
Because of this, we can walk together in newness of life. Here walk refers to how people live in relationship to each other (Lutheran Study Bible). So, what does it mean to walk together in unity? What does it look like? Is it just that we don’t fight with each other, that we come together occasionally for special times like this? Or is it more than that?
I was away most of this week at a conference in Atlanta. As part of the time there, we participated in a day of service sponsored by the Lutheran social agency in Georgia.  The project I participated in was packing rice for immigrants. Now I have to tell you that there were about 3 times the people expected for that project. It seemed to take forever to get this massive throng of humanity organized. We stood a long time. I must admit I was getting a bit grumpy…at least internally. I was wondering why THESE PEOPLE weren’t better organized. It would be so much easier if we just did it this way or that. But I had to let go, to loosen my grip on my ideas about how things should be done and on my judgments of those in charge. I had to mentally step back, relax and let go. I had to die to my judgments about this event and these people. Eventually we got going and worked together and completed the task more quickly than anticipated. In the process, we became acquainted with other members of God’s family from all over the country. It wasn’t done in the way I would have done it, but everything got done and new relationships were formed as we worked together. Our unity of purpose, of demonstrating our love of Christ bore the fruit of service.
            I see similar fruit here in Petersburg. The food pantry is but one expression which provides a valuable service. The Ministerial Association and its benevolence ministry to the needy is another. The list goes on and on of organized and spontaneous expressions of walking together in unity in Christ.
            Our work together as the united body of Christ in this community is not complete however. I recently heard that the unemployment rate in Grant County is 14% and this is the highest unemployment rate in all of WV. There will continue to be emotional, mental, physical, and spiritual repercussions as a result. Another problem is alcohol and drug abuse and the effects that they have throughout families. There is more need out there than we can address alone as a single congregation. However, when congregations work together as the body of Christ, we can have a greater impact in meeting the needs of the people here in Petersburg. God does the work, but uses our hands and our feet.
            This Week of Prayer for Christian Unity has been built around Acts 2:42; the first part of which reads, “And the people continued steadfastly in the apostles’ doctrine”. This is the very heart of that doctrine—united with Christ in his death, burial, and resurrection and united with each other because of that life in Christ, we walk together in unity.
            The distinctive element that brings and keeps us together is death to self and life to God in Christ. This is the basis for true and lasting unity, the kind of unity that shows itself in service to God and the community. It is reflected in the hymn, “In Christ There is No East or West.”

In Christ there is no East or West,
In Him no South or North;
But one great fellowship of love
Throughout the whole wide earth.
In Him shall true hearts everywhere
Their high communion find;
His service is the golden cord,
Close binding humankind.
Join hands, then, members of the faith,
Whatever your race may be!
Who serves my Father as His child
Is surely kin to me.
In Christ now meet both East and West,
In Him meet North and South;
All Christly souls are one in Him
Throughout the whole wide earth.


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