Striving to Be What We Are
Posted in Trust/Patience
Scripture: “Remember for my good, O my God, all that I have done for this people.” – Nehemiah 5:19
“Unity is God’s gift to the Church in Jesus Christ. Just as God is one God and Jesus Christ is our one Savior, so the Church is one because it belongs to its one Lord, Jesus Christ.” How is it that the Church, in this or any generation, could make such an audacious claim on its own behalf? Ride down the streets and avenues of Columbia and ask yourself, “Has there ever been an institution, a movement, a cause of any sort that less embodies unity than the disciples of Jesus Christ?” The multiplicity of denominations, sub-divisions within denominations, and divided congregations proliferate around us (two members of our pastoral staff are currently serving on Presbytery Commissions charged with mediating and transforming conflicted congregations in our Presbytery). How then can we, riven with divisions, distinctions, peculiarities, and conflicts, claim to be One?
According to our Book of Order, where that audacious claim is made, how we look and how we live doesn’t change who we are. We are One, like it or not, because God has made us one. One in Christ; one in Baptism; one in everlasting communion and community. So, our Church Constitution goes on to say: “Because in Christ the Church is one, it strives to be one. To be one with Christ is to be joined with all those whom Christ calls into relationship with Him.” Which is to say, since God has formed us as one body, it is our task and call to strive to demonstrate and perform that unity in how we live and relate to the world. How we express solidarity with one another is a measure of our faithfulness to God’s claim on our lives, on our hearts, minds, and souls. Unity is not easy, but the hard work of forming one, united witness to the love of Jesus Christ for the world out of the disparate parts that make up our disciple community, is an act of devotion to the God who created us for that unity.
Why am I thinking about the elusiveness of unity this week? Perhaps because it seems so elusive at present. Or perhaps because it seems like God’s greatest gift to his people (it is, after all, the first thing the Nicene Creed says about the Church). If the world is going to know anything at all about unity, it is going to learn it from followers of Jesus who are determined to strive for it as a spiritual discipline and act of devotion.
On top of that, I have come to believe that striving for unity, more than wall building, is Nehemiah’s greatest accomplishment and most lasting contribution to the life of faith.
During our study of Nehemiah this fall, we have repeatedly returned to the impossibly complex social fabric of the Jerusalem that Nehemiah was commissioned by Persia to govern. That complexity is in full view in the story of the famine in chapter five that interrupts Nehemiah’s recollections of the building of the wall. Nehemiah was governor of Judah “from the twentieth year to the thirty-second year of King Artaxerxes.” Unless Nehemiah is confused about which King of Persia installed him in that office, that means he arrived in Jerusalem in the year 445 BCE – 94 years after Cyrus declared Jerusalem available for Babylonian returnees; 71 years after Zerubbabel completed and dedicated the Temple and worship was restored. For 94 years, Jews have been coming back to Jerusalem from the places they had been scattered by the exile. These would be the grandchildren and great-grandchildren of those who were first deported by Nebuchadnezzar. They were raised elsewhere by parents who were raised elsewhere. They were as much Babylonian, Mesopotamian, or Egyptian as they were Judean. And they had returned in waves – first with Zerubbabel, then more with Ezra, and finally still more with Nehemiah. Each time Persia crushed an uprising in Babylon, more Jews decamped for Palestine. So by the year 445, Jerusalem was a salad bowl of competing constituencies, each with its own claim to the land, the traditions, the opportunities, and privileges of life in the City of David. It was, by all evidence, ungovernable.
And yet, Nehemiah refused to believe that unity was impossible. He refused to accept that their divisions defined them. He refused to allow those who returned with accumulated foreign wealth to oppress the people of the land who had survived Babylonian occupation. He refused to let how they looked and how they chose to live define who they were.
It was not easy. It was always fragile, but it was Nehemiah’s consuming vision and vocation to gather all these disparate interests and allegiances into the one people of God.
If it was worth trying in Jerusalem in the 5th century BCE, it’s worth not giving up now. It’s worth striving for. It’s worth sacrificing for. It’s worth surrendering some measure of pride and privilege to explore.
Because God is one, we are one. Thanks be to God.
Prayer: Amid the fragmentation and frustration of this present moment, Lord, inspire us with a vision of life lived in unity; of walls broken down, divisions healed, rivalries cooled, grievances settled, sins forgiven. Form us into the people you have created us to be, one people, in service to our one Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Amen.
Submitted by Rev. Dr. Douglass Key