(1 Corinthians 1: 10-18)
On June 16, 1858, at what was then the Illinois State Capitol in Springfield, after he had accepted the Illinois Republican Party’s nomination as that state’s US senator, Abraham Lincoln gave a speech that became the launching point for his unsuccessful campaign for the seat held by Stephen A. Douglas. The best-known passage of the speech is as follows: A house divided against itself, cannot stand. I believe this government cannot endure, permanently, half slave and half free. I do not expect the Union to be dissolved, I do not expect the house to fall, but I do expect it will cease to be divided. It will become all one thing or all the other. Either the opponents of slavery will arrest the further spread of it, and place it where the public mind shall rest in the belief that it is in the course of ultimate extinction; or its advocates will push it forward, till it shall become lawful in all the State, old as well as new, North as well as South.
“A house divided against itself, cannot stand.” What a great line, but Lincoln can’t claim the credit for it. He likely got it from Matthew 12: 25, or Mark 3: 25, or Luke 11: 17. That’s right, the credit goes to Jesus. In the Gospel of Matthew, chapter 12, Jesus is responding to some very hostile accusations. A demon possessed man was brought to Jesus who could neither speak or see, so Jesus healed him. The people were astonished and said; Could this be the Son of David? But when the Pharisees heard this, they said; It is only by Beelzebub, the prince of demons, that this fellow drives out demons. Jesus knew their thoughts and said to them; Every kingdom divided against itself will be ruined, and every city or household divided against itself will not stand. Jesus saw what the Pharisees were trying to do. They were trying to drive a wedge between the people and Jesus. They were trying to divide up the kingdom he was trying to establish so they could keep their piece to themselves. Jesus and his teachings were a threat to their way of life, their way of worshipping God that supported their beliefs or their lifestyle. Everyone was trying to put their own personal spin on the word of God to suit their closely held beliefs supporting the way they think things should be. They were reacting and not acting. Not acting in the best interests of God’s people losing sight of the mission.
And this is what I think Paul was addressing in our scripture reading for this morning. The Apostle Paul founded the church in Corinth on his second missionary journey. Eighteen months after he left, arguments and divisions arose, so he had to write this letter to get them back on the right course. He starts out by saying; Now I appeal to you, brothers and sisters, by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that all of you be in agreement and that there be no divisions among you, but that you be united in the same mind and the same purpose. When Paul says united in the “same mind and the same purpose” he’s talking about having the mind of Christ and doing he work of God in establishing the kingdom for everyone. He continues; For it has been reported to me by Chloe’s people that there are quarrels among you, my brothers and sisters. What I mean is that each of you says, “I belong to Paul,” or “I belong to Apollos,” or “I belong to Cephas,” or “I belong to Christ.” Has Christ been divided? Was Paul crucified for you? Or were you baptized in the name of Paul? Jesus is the answer.
To me, this is almost a precursor to the beginning of denominations. You can almost see it. You have the word of God through Jesus Christ, which is the basis of what all of them ascribe to, but it appears that certain leaders are putting their own twist on it developing their own following. Paul, like Lincoln, wanted to avert a split. He didn’t want to see the kingdom become divided against itself. But split it would. In the ensuing centuries Christ’s holy church would suffer from infighting that gave us such memorable events as The Inquisition, The Crusades, The Reformation, The Holy Wars and so on. All pretty much examples of unChrist-like behavior.
And now, one of Christ’s denominations finds itself on the precipice of another split. When I say another, I am referring to the split that occurred as a result of the Civil War that Abraham Lincoln saw coming in his 1858 House Divided Speech. The Methodist Church split over slavery forming a Methodist Church that supported slavery and a Methodist Church that opposed slavery. So when the slaves were emancipated by President Lincoln they became our equals in all things and were fully integrated into an inclusive church. Or were they? This is where the legal geek comes out in me. I love to research history and enjoy going to our Book of Discipline to see what the official policy of the Methodist Church is on any particular topic. Research is also a lesson in history where you get to look at the issue through the prism of the time. What were they thinking and why were they thinking it?
So I started researching race relations and homosexual inclusion in the church. I went to our library and started looking at the older Books of Discipline. Unfortunately, we’re missing quite a few but the ones we have are enlightening. In the 1960 Book of Discipline under our Constitution in paragraph 26, Article I we see a breakdown of our Jurisdictional Conferences. We have one called the Central District. Any guesses who are members of the Central Conference? The Central Conference is the Negro Annual Conference, the Negro Mission Conferences and Missions in the United States of America. Separate but surely equal in the eyes of the Methodist Church. We love you so much we’re going to give you your own conference. You will be pleased to know that in our 1964 Book of Discipline they abolished the Central Conference. What was going on back in the early sixties? The Civil Rights Movement was gaining momentum and America was on the verge of some massive civil unrest. The church responded to what was going on at the time. African American Methodists should have never been in a segregated conference but that was the norm of the time. So, a hundred years later we gave them full inclusion. The next Book of Discipline on the shelf was 1968. I didn’t find anything on homosexuality, but I did find a section entitled: Sex in Christian Life which said; We believe that sexual intercourse within holy matrimony with fidelity and love is a sacred experience and constitutes a needed expression of affection. We also believe that sexual intercourse outside the bonds of matrimony is contrary to the will of God. Sex outside the bonds of matrimony? Why was that issue all of a sudden need to be addressed? What was going on in America in 1968? The sexual revolution and free love. I guess something needed to be said about us wild and crazy baby boomers. But still nothing about the marriage of one man to one woman. Unfortunately, my next Book of Discipline was written in 1996. In this edition they did have something to say about marriage and that it was between a man and a woman. Also, ceremonies that celebrate homosexual unions shall not be conducted by our ministers and shall not be conducted in our churches. More of that Thou Shalt Not. It had a lot to say on Human Sexuality. It said; We recognize that sexuality is God’s good gift to all persons. We believe persons may be fully human only when that gift is acknowledged and affirmed by themselves, the church, and society. It then goes on to discuss other issues of sexuality and then concludes with its position on homosexuality saying; Homosexual persons no less than heterosexual persons are individuals of sacred worth. All persons need the ministry and guidance of the church in their struggles for human fulfillment, as well as the spiritual and emotional care of a fellowship that enables reconciling relationships with God, with others, and with self. Although we do not condone the practice of homosexuality and consider this practice incompatible with Christian teaching, we affirm that God’s grace is available to all. We commit ourselves to be in ministry for and with all persons. So, I thought for a moment what was going on in the world in between the two Books of Discipline I had just referenced. Perhaps it was the explosion of the AIDS and HIV epidemic that burst on the scene in the 1980s and 90s. The church had to recognize it and react.
But what to do with these gay people who grew up in the church, were Christians and wanted to come to church? What about those we brought to Christ and then came out of the closet? What about those gay Christians who now wanted to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world or have already been making disciples? Well, our current Book of Discipline says; The practice of homosexuality is incompatible with Christian teaching. Therefore self-avowed practicing homosexuals are not to be certified as candidates, ordained as ministers, or appointed to serve in The United Methodist Church. Kind of a don’t ask, don’t tell position. And if you do, there will be consequences.
And here we are. A house divided against itself that cannot stand. People strong in their faith have been working diligently on this issue in hopes that a resolution can be reached that will keep us united, but such may not be the case. This is why a diverse group of representatives from United Methodist advocacy groups with contrasting views and bishops from around the world collaborated on a proposed agreement for the separation of the United Methodist Church that has the unanimous support of all the parties involved. The protocol statement is expected to come before the United Methodist General Conference for a vote at their legislative meeting in Minneapolis, Minnesota in May of this year.
As I’ve been telling people for the past couple of years, nobody knows for sure what the final outcome will be. I am sure it will not be perfect and there will be much to find fault with for those who like to find fault and, hopefully, there will be much promise for those who want to move forward and continue to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world. In the meantime, we need to remain a church undivided and continue our efforts to meet the needs of the least, the last and the lost and not let the forces of divisiveness and ignorance drive a wedge between Jesus and his people. We must simply continue doing what Jesus would do.
Please pray with me.
O gracious God, we pray for your holy Church universal, that you would be pleased to fill it with all truth, in all peace. Where it is corrupt, purify it; where it is in error, direct it; where in any thing it is amiss, reform it; where it is right, establish it; where it is in want, provide for it; where it is divided, reunite it; for the sake of him who died and rose again, and ever lives to make intercession for us, Jesus Christ, your Son, our Lord. Amen.