Agitated faith

audio for sermon ‘Agitated faith’ by Martin Malina
Impact (photo by Martin Malina at Cape Disappointment WA, August 2022)

At the end of the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity my mind turns again to that word, ‘religion’. You might say that is the reason you are reading this blog. You want some ‘religion’. The root meaning of the word, religion, is to reconnect, re-align, hold together again. Like a ligament, religion connects all the pieces. 

You could say the purpose of religion is to unite all the parts. What has been separated, is brought back together again. To do religion is to work towards mending what is been torn apart.

We pray regularly for Christian unity, and for religious unity in families, among loved ones, in communities and churches. Our Lutheran[1] church supports ecumenical initiatives. Especially locally as Faith Lutheran Church we have realized this effort in our relationship with Julian of Norwich Anglican Church and City View United Church in Ottawa, sharing worship services in the past few years.

So why do we do that? Why do we actively pursue visible, religious unity? In his sermon on the mount, Jesus says that “Blessed are the peacemakers.”[2] God’s favour rests on those who work towards building relationships of trust, love, and compassion. 

But we know the divisions persist. History shows Christians have not often represented well the meaning of religion. Our egos get in the way. Defensive, reactive postures result in sometimes violent conflict. It is not a history of which we are proud:

The antisemitism in Martin Luther’s thought and writing, Nazi Germany, the Holocaust; going back further—the European Catholic-Protestant wars, the witch-hunts, the Crusades of earlier centuries – all justified by Christians.

Even today, considering the troubled history between Canadian settlers and the Indigenous, any good-intentioned efforts towards reconciliation with First Nations, Métis and Inuit people are met with all kinds of resistance. Any call for Christian Unity, therefore, often drowns unfortunately in the sound of crickets. We, at best, hear this call with slightly jaded, skeptical and cynical hearts.

I remember in public school, vividly, a science experiment that left an impression on me. We mixed sodium bicarbonate with vinegar. Of course, the resulting agitation created a volcano of fizz. Later in my university days while enjoying some pretzels and beer with friends I learned that adding salt—lots of it—into beer encouraged carbon dioxide bubbles to cluster together and foam up. And I basically redid that third-grade science-project. 

But the erupting volcano eventually loses its fizz and settles down. The chemical reaction has run its course. In nature the elements that connect may initially become agitated in order to be true to their separate identities. But the reaction doesn’t last. And something new comes out of it.

Perhaps, our expectations and understanding of the word “Peace”—the peace of God—needs re-evaluation.

Because “God’s love is not just about playing nice and his peace is not without tensions. The Hebrew word, shalom, or ‘peace’, is not the absence of tension…”[3] Shalom introduces the need for a right relationship to be established between different parts. And that process, like a chemical reaction, often begins in an agitated state, to say the least.

M. Scott Peck used the term “pseudo-unity” or “pseudo-community” to describe a group of people who want to be loving but withhold some of the truth about themselves and their feelings in order to avoid conflict.[4] In a pseudo-community, members’ differences and grievances are minimized, even unacknowledged. On the surface they may appear to be functioning smoothly, but it is shallow. There is no real love and no real justice. Because avoidance of conflict is not a recipe for creating a healthy community in the long run.

During the season after Epiphany, Christians are called to look for signs like the Magi searched the skies of their world for a sign to lead them to the Messiah. What are the signs of God’s presence that can help point us in a direction of greater unity among different people? 

In 1989, Spanish born Jesuit priest, Fr. Ignacio Ellacuría was assassinated in El Salvador. A martyr of the Christian faith, he preached that the sign to guide us is “the one … present in every age, in whose light all the others must be discarded and interpreted. That sign is always the historically crucified people.”[5]

The sign is the Cross of Jesus. 

As much as Martin Luther had some harmful things to say, he also had much to say that was good. According to Luther, God was, and is, being revealed to us in suffering. In the vulnerability and pain of death on the cross, Jesus revealed the God who suffers alongside us wherever there is pain and suffering in the world.

The Cross was theologically vital not just to Luther but to the Apostle Paul before him. Paul, of course, is the central figure of the Acts of the Apostles and author of some of the earliest Christian writings and Epistles whose central theme is: “God’s power is shown in human weakness.”[6]

In other words, we can know God when we first identify with our own suffering and weakness and when we own up to our fault in the matter. When we embrace our vulnerability and mortality as humans, we are ushered into the divine presence made known to us in Jesus Christ.

Moreover, when we perceive the suffering in the world, when we go to places of human tragedy, pain and dying, we again are ushered into the divine presence and enabled through ‘Grace Alone’[7]. The grace comes in the trust we have in God who “by the power at work within us is able to accomplish abundantly far more than all we can ask or imagine,”[8] and whose gift of peace “surpasses all understanding.”[9]

Peace from the bible is not warm fuzzies. Peace from the bible is more like salt-and-vinegar fizzies. Peace means right relationships. And striving for right relationships will cause tension. But the result of any chemical reaction is a changed reality. Growth brings change.

That is why, in my experience, Christian unity is best expressed when we get together to work in mission for justice. When we engage together in refugee sponsorship. When we work together to bring food we have prepared for those who have very little. When we pool our resources to provide affordable and safe housing for the homeless. When we invite neighbours to care for our garden so the food it produces can be shared in the Carlington Community. This list goes on. 

Peacemaking finds success in mission and justice work. Religious unity is realized in these efforts, reflecting the God of the cross, in Jesus and his love.

Some Christians worry that they’re getting their theology wrong if they engage with others who are different from them. I’m old enough now, to say, first, that it is impossible to know the mind of God. We will always have holes in our theology, no matter your background or denomination or history. But God will have mercy and forgiveness when we get it wrong.

What concerns us in this world of religion is if we get the whole showing compassion, mercy, forgiveness, and love -thing wrong. Thankfully God never gives up on us. The experiment will happen again, and again. May we be true to our identities and bold in relating to others with open hearts, minds and loving spirits. And may we grow through the initial agitation that sometimes will happen, to see through it and into the kingdom of God.

God is faithful and God brings us together in bonds of love that can never be broken. Thanks be to God.

[1] Evangelical Lutheran Church in Canada (ELCIC)

[2] Matthew 5:9

[3] Adam Bucko, Let Your Heartbreak Be Your Guide: Lessons in Engaged Contemplation (New York: Orbis Boos, 2022), p.121-122.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Cited in Bucko, ibid., p.123.

[6] 1 Corinthians 1:18-31

[7] One of the call-signs of the Reformation, and Luther’s theology, based on Saint Paul.

[8] Ephesians 3:20

[9] Philippians 4:7

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