Journey Towards Reconciliation: Ecumenical Confessions

pentecost

Can I confess that there was a time, many years ago, that if you had told me that I was going to become a pastor, and that as a pastor I was going to be speaking at an ecumenical breakfast with so many traditions here, I don’t think I would have believed you?

For me, I neglected to realize just how my story was intertwined with so many other traditions of Christianity. To date, before taking up my position at First Baptist, my wife and I have attended Alliance, Mennonite Brethren, and Pentecostal churches. I went to a Christian Reformed private school till grade 6, I attended a Catholic High School, I did my seminary at Baptist and Anglican colleges, and now, because God loves a good joke, I am a Baptist pastor and, oddly, somehow, a chaplain at and Anglican University, Thorneloe College, where I help lead services, and where I also teach Theology, Christian ethics, and the Gospel of Mark.

God’s Spirit is doing something beautiful in this age. God is causing us to dwell together, to realize we have a shared story and identity in our diversity. Our lives intersect now more than ever, and we can now see our commonality and build a common life together.

This week, First Baptist and the other churches of Garson, will be doing a unity service our communities have been doing for 14 years. I think the people at First Baptist first began doing the ecumenical service as a secret mission to convert Catholics, Anglicans, and people in the UCC. “If we get to know them and they get to know us, then we can show them what is actually in the Bible, then they will come to our church!” Some of you may have started your ecumenical journeys for the same reason.

After 14 years, the reality is something better happened: we have culminated a common life together.  A member of Trinity United leads our Day Care. My son goes to St. John’s school in Garson. The ladies at St. John’s even got Rev. Erin and I Christmas gifts this year. We see each other at the grocery store, and we talk like bumping into old friends. We are learning the truths of what the Scripture this year is: 2 Cor. 5:

 18 All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ and gave us the ministry of reconciliation: 19 that God was reconciling the world to himself in Christ, not counting people’s sins against them. And he has committed to us the message of reconciliation. 20 We are therefore Christ’s ambassadors, as though God were making his appeal through us.

When I look at my life, my convictions about what the church is and ought to be, I had to come to grips with Christ’s reconciliation in myself and in the diversity of his body. So, let me unpack insights to reconciliation between us that I have learned in my walk in Christ’s church.

1.    Reconciled in Christ

What is familiar to us can be a gift: I am so glad I grew up going to Sunday school, Bible camp and youth group. But it can also become a temptation if we refuse to see Christ in other churches other than our own. I grew up in Hamilton, Ontario. My Dad was a truck driver for Dofasco steel mill. Sudbury feels a lot like home because they are both steel towns (nickel, actually, in Sudbury). One mines it; the other makes it. My grandfather was a Baptist pastor. I grew up in the church. I said the sinner’s prayer when I was very little. I said it, actually because my older brother had the night before, and I wanted what he had. Typical younger brother, eh? That is when Jesus began his reconciling work in my heart.

I had a simple childhood until grade six. Then things got messy. My parents got divorced. It ended in infidelity. We switched schools. I had friends at my old school but as a young, confused, shy kid in grade six, I was picked on severely.

My mom decided to send me to the different high school from the public system. I went to a Catholic High School. Cardinal Newman CSS. My son goes to St. John’s. Why? Because I found that my faith grew in a Catholic school environment. The other day my son came home and told me that today in school they learned that Jesus is in his heart.
It was at Catholic High School that I grew in my faith. A former nun got me to read the Bible. Up until that time, me as a child raised with Sunday School and VBS, I assumed I knew what was in the Bible. But it was a former nun, Ms. Tessier, who encouraged me to read my Bible for myself. I remember opening the Bible one night in grade eleven, turning to the book of Romans, and being enthralled at its words of grace. As I reported all this back to her, she helped me form a small Bible study at Cardinal Newman, and she encouraged me to look into going into ministry. A Catholic nun helped raise up a Baptist pastor. Isn’t that funny? I wanted to be an architect up until that point. My mother wanted me to become a doctor (what parent doesn’t?). That February, I decided to practice Lent for the first time. I decided to give up video games and watching TV…and I played a lot of video games and TV, over 5 hours a day; it was an idol in my life for sure. With all the time I now had, and read Rick Warren’s Purpose Driven Life. I realized my purpose was to serve God.

Impressed with myself I grew increasingly perfectionistic in my faith. Now, I know that it takes years for Christ to slowly work in our character sometimes, but then, I wanted to be perfect all at once (This was probably some of the Holiness Movement influencing me at the time). I figured if you have faith you can do anything, and if you mess up, that shows you don’t have enough faith. Then I kept messing up. So, I began to doubt: Do I have enough faith? If I am saved by faith, and I don’t have enough faith, am I really saved at all? Frustration built up and I began to beat myself up about everything.

I remember getting myself all upset about this. I remember beginning to cry in my room, wondering if I was saved. I didn’t think I had enough faith. At that moment, I looked up and saw myself in a cell of sorts, the door to the cell flung open, revealing a staircase going up into where I could not see. A blue cloud of light came over me and rested on me. For some reason, I could tell this was God’s smile on me, a sinner. I remember the vision fading before my eyes back to the walls of my room. I looked around to find I was on the other side of the room, on the floor.

Now, that sounds fantastic, but its truth is plainly found in Scripture: God loves sinners in their sincerity. We are not saved by our beliefs. We, thankfully are not saved because of our own righteousness. We trust that we are saved by God’s grace. That was something I misunderstood.

“For I am persuaded that neither death nor life, nor angels nor principalities nor powers, nor things present nor things to come, 39 nor height nor depth, nor any other created thing, shall be able to separate us from the love of God which is in Christ Jesus our Lord.” – Romans 8:38-39

This is the God that has reconciled himself to us.

God loved us so much that he came in our human form in Jesus Christ.

God loved us so much that he died for our sins at that cross.

…while we murdered him, he prayed for our forgiveness.

…while we abandoned him, he bore our forsakenness.

…while we caused him despair, he gave us hope.

God loved us so much that he died our death so that we could have his life.

This is the God that unites us, who has made us brothers and sisters. This is what we all have in common here: God who loves us even to the point of death on a cross.

The challenge now is that if we worship a God that would love us that way, we, as the Scriptures say, are called to love each other a similar way.

If God loves us, this has profound implications for relating to other Christians. If God is real and directing our lives, we are free: We can be free to think, to ask hard questions, to be curious and listen, to be vulnerable and be open-hearted towards others. We don’t have to be afraid. If God has promised to be with us, although we might wander, might not what to think some days, he will not let us go.

2.    Encountering and Reconciling Our Differences

It took me a while to realize that… Along the way in our Christian walk we encounter Christians who don’t think that same as us. These are the differences we are to reconcile with.

I had the gift of a Christian upbringing. But what we were raised with can be a gift and a temptation. It is a gift because of the faith it instills. It can be a temptation because if you are familiar with one version of faith, another version is going to feel foreign. And just because it feels foreign, you are tempted to think it is wrong, absurd, even evil.

We are the most judgmental with how we worship, because if you go to that church, the way they worship is probably the most immediate thing you notice. We do that also because the ways we worship are some of the most intense ways of connecting with God and therefore the most likely place where we will feel sensitive, proud, or critical. This is why worship divides so many churches. My wife and I attended a Pentecostal church in New Market for several years. At Bible study I accidentally confessed that I was not much of a “singing person.” Three songs and a sermon, and I’d be good. I think the leader thought I uttered blasphemy.

Now, other side of the coin: The first time I attended an Anglican service, they passed around the BCP. I had no idea what to do with this. Are they giving out Gideon Bibles? Where is the Power Point? Where is the worship band? They said, “Turn to page three hundred and so and so…now to page one hundred and so and so for the Eucharist…” I remember thinking, “Where are we? I lost my page! Why are you all making weird hang gestures!” I remember being so confused that for a while I wrote off liturgical worship as archaic and inhospitable. Now, funny enough, I lead chapels with the BAS and BCP at Thorneloe. I think the BAS’s prayer of confession for the Eucharist is one of the most well worded prayers out there. Every time I say it I think: “This is exactly what my heart is feeling right now” – and the words were not even written by Chris Tomlin!

As I mentioned, I went to Catholic High School. These were the first Christians that I recognized that different from me. My father hated Catholics. He told me they were not saved, because they did not actually believe the Bible or actually have faith. I had a book I read in high school about how Catholics were the Babylon of Revelation. At the time, I believed that.

Part of that was many of my fellow students were nominal Catholics. I saw so many calling themselves Catholics, but completely uninterested in following Jesus.

The other day I got a call from a person. They wanted to know how much it would cost if I baptized their child. Awkward. First off, who are you? A few things: It does not cost anything, BUT Baptists don’t practice infant baptism, we merely dedicate if the parents are committed to being disciples of Jesus Christ and committed to raising their child to be a follower of Jesus. Is this something you want to pursue with our faith community? “Oh no,” he said, “I’m Catholic…[it gets better]…My wife is an atheist. We don’t want our child to become religious or anything.” Ya, thanks pal. To which I had to say, “Oh, you’re Catholic. You wall should talk to Father Jim. Here is his number. Tell him Spencer sent you!”

Look, the Catholics in the room are seething. So you are just as upset about nominal Catholics as we are, eh? Seeing nominal Catholics out there caused me to have an unfair stereotype of Catholics that took years to overcome.

Seeing nominal Catholics, I did something terrible. I used the worst in one Christian tradition to represent all of them and I lifted up the best in my own as examples. That is called a double standard by the way. But the thing is, I know a lot of Baptist Christians, evangelicals Christians, that don’t know Jesus, that aren’t interested in following Jesus, and yet they call themselves Christians. We have that problem too. We are no better.

In seminary I took a class where we read through the Catechism of the Catholic Church. I was amazed at how much we have in common. I think I agreed with 99% of what was in there. Can I confess another thing? I stopped reading it for educational value about what Catholics believed, and just start reading it simply because it helped me be a better Christian. It’s true.

Now, I have said a lot about Catholics, but we Protestants are not very kind to each other too. We have all done damage to Christ’s body.

I became aware of the division in Christ’ body at a Bible Camp. The Bible camp we went to was put on by church, which I attended many years. The people were wonderful, warm, salt of the earth kinds of people, but were incredibly dogmatic on several particular, parochial doctrines, that made them feel that they had recovered the “true church.”

The preacher made a call for baptism one afternoon: “If you believe in Jesus Christ, come forward and be baptized.” Excited, I came forward. I think I was in grade 10 at the time. The preacher stopped me, “Spencer, don’t you go to Stoney Creek Alliance?” I said, “Ya.” “Well,” he said, “I’m sorry, but I can only baptize someone who promises to go to a church that follows the entire Bible.” In a word, theirs.

It is funny, because our church said that we followed the entire Bible and everyone else didn’t. I remember as a young person feeling a bit hurt and confused: “He said that if you believe in Jesus you can be baptized? Why isn’t it that simple? Aren’t we all Christians here?”

How many of you in your lives have been told you were not true Christians because you did not share the distinctive another Christian held to be important? It hurts doesn’t it? You feel condescended and demeaned. You see, perhaps that lead you to being here this morning. We all have our wounds.

I had a Pentecostal roommate for a few years in college. We became good friends. However, he turned to me one night, “Spencer, you seen so unemotional. I am worried you don’t have the Holy Spirit.” I turned, “I think I have the Holy Spirit. I am just a very calm person.” I have, as my mother used to say, a “stoic personality.” He was unconvinced, and as he made his case, I indulged him. He proceeded to pray over me for perhaps the most awkward 20 minutes of my life, praying that I would receive the Holy Spirit, feel his joy, and I don’t know, have a good happy cry. At the end, he turned to me, “How do you feel? Do you feel any different?” I responded: “No not really.” And we played video games and never spoke of that again.

For some reason my friend thought that all Christians had to conform to one pattern, and if you didn’t you were not a Christian. How did we get to here? I think Christians for much of the modern era assumed that if you just looked at the Bible, the Holy Spirit would zap one clear answer into your head, (which effectively makes education and discipleship seem pointless – this is why we have such terrible Bible illiteracy even in evangelical churches). The Bible is simply plain and clear on everything (I think it is clear on Jesus, not everything, by the way). When some Christians found that other people claimed to be Christians too yet held a different view on an important issue, their response was to think: since I have what I know from the Holy Spirit, either this person is ignorant and needs to listen to me or they are evil, they refuse to listen to the Truth, and I need to shun them or worse, kill them. We remember the 500th anniversary of the Reformation this year at the same time as realizing we are now at some 33 ooo denominations of our faith. After all the terrible wars of religion that rocked Europe, it is no wonder why we live in a secular world today. We can complain about it, or we can take responsibility for it.

We have so often forgotten the simplicity of faith. “If you declare with your mouth, ‘Jesus is Lord,’ and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved.” (Rom. 10:9). Jesus comes first. If we don’t put him first, we start putting him second. Do you really thing Jesus would want us to take ideas about who he is, even if they are right, and use them to hurt members of his family?

I would like to tell you that I learned my lesson in high school but I was young and immature. I continued to exclude and dismiss other Christians.

I often feel like I went to seminary to learn how to hate people better. It was not the professors but the culture. Seminary is an isolated place if it is full of only members of the same religious tradition. Bashing others who aren’t there was essay. (I say that as now someone who teaches theology, and would want all of you to check out the courses this summer at Thorneloe University!).

Good education confronts closed-mindedness, and sadly, sometimes I did not get that. In some of my classes, I was taught to hate liberals. Now, to be honest, I did not even really understand what that term meant, but I used it to label people and dismiss them. For others in other cycles it is the word, “fundamentalist.” Make no mistake: there are educated conservatives and there are ignorant liberals. It is not as simple as our stereotypes make it out.

We do something terrible in our faith. We exclude and then we scapegoat. We label then be demonize. Who is that for you? It is easy. Ask yourself, “Christianity would be so much better off if x people saw the error of their ways. If only those people became more like me, we would be doing so much better.” There is your scapegoat. I’ll admit that before Jesus convicted me of my hatred towards others, sermon prep was a lot easier. If I needed a sermon illustration, all I needed was to start bashing all those wrong Christians I did not like.

Then it struck me. I didn’t even try to know them or love them. Often I wouldn’t even listen to them. I would not read what they wrote. I would just turn by ears off and tell them their wrong. I remember thinking about that one day. I remember feeling uneasy in my conscience about the hate I obviously had against people that at times I really did not even bother to know. Then the thought struck me: Spencer, isn’t a part of the greatest command to love your neighbor as yourself? If you love these people, don’t you think you should hear them out the same way you would hope they listen to you?

It was unthinkable that there could be biblically minded, passionate Christ followers that held to liberal notions of the faith. I say that realizing that we just celebrated Martin Luther King Day, a Baptist minister by the way (one point for our team), who if you have read his sermons was a Social Gospel liberal. It did not compute for me, but he knew his Bible; he loved Jesus; he lived for Jesus; and when it came down to it, he died following Jesus.

Like I said, who is it that you often dismiss. That is the person or group that Jesus might be call you to reconcile with.

Let me give you a few pointers. (1) Many of us take journeys from one church tradition to another through our lives. If you were raised a Catholic and converted to Protestantism, you probably have some unfair views of Catholics. If you got frustrated with Evangelicalism and became a Catholic, you probably have a prejudice against Evangelicals. We tend to feel shame towards what we used to be, where we used to be. If you grew up in one tradition and came to another, admit that there are good people there and that while you had a bad experience there, there was probably a lot of good things too.

(2) When we realize we all family in Christ, when we see another Christian who is different, can we give them the benefit of the doubt? Can we hear them out? Can we ask ourselves: what is it like for them? What if I am the one who is wrong and they are right, and God has placed them in my life not for me to tell them the truth, but for me to help realize it though them?

(3) Can we learn to protect each other and fight stereo types about each other in our churches? You might say, Spencer, that’s hard. There are some people in my church and they think some really ignorant stuff about other Christians, but they are good tithers, they are prominent leaders, we could lose members!

Let us remember the cost of our own reconciliation. While we were God’s enemies, set against him in our sin, God himself died for us, reconciled himself to us at the cost of his own life. We are brothers and sisters because Jesus bled on a cross for us. What is Jesus’ reconciling blood worth to you?

18 All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ and gave us the ministry of reconciliation: 19 that God was reconciling the world to himself in Christ, not counting people’s sins against them. And he has committed to us the message of reconciliation. 20 We are therefore Christ’s ambassadors, as though God were making his appeal through us.

Father,

We come before as your children.

We want to confess that we have not always treated each other as a family.

We also confess that there is only one way to change that, and that is to take up the love of Jesus Christ.

Help us to love each other, to listen, to speak honestly, to protect, and forgive one another.

Give us the opportunities to dwell with one another so that we can experience the gift of the many members of Christ’s body.

Bind us together in love, so that this love may be a witness to our broken world.

These things we pray in your name,

Amen

 

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One comment

  1. Pingback: The Shack (Part Two): The Ironic Move from Calvinism to Orthodoxy | Spencer Boersma

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