We Start with Service, Then. . . .

I recently spoke before my presbytery in Pittsburgh on the topic of church unity. Afterward, one of my colleagues, when he saw me, shared an insight he had in the midst of the discussion that followed my speech. “Christ is our unity!,” he exclaimed to me excitedly,

Amen to that.

And yet this insight is also coupled with one of the great challenges we face today: how Christ as our unity becomes tangibly real among us, especially in the face of our disagreements. I have a suggestion for how to address this challenge that I’d like to share with you here. As always, I covet your thoughts.

I believe that one way Christ as our unity becomes real in this world is through our service to the needy. It’s something I’ve heard often from our young people in the church, with their passionate desire for us all to move beyond our disagreements and simply get to work helping others.

I think we all do well to heed Jesus’ parable of the Sheep and the Goats in Matthew 25. I remember, when I was young, the moment my mind was opened to the fact that Jesus was speaking of communities there (He called them “nations”), not individuals. He was teaching us that the most important thing is for us to do His work: to feed the hungry and thirsty, to welcome the stranger, to clothe the naked, to care for the sick and to visit the prisoner; in other words, the kind of things Jesus did.

Wherever we are, there is ample opportunity for the church to be Christ through service together. And that service also acts as a humbling foundation – a common ground – upon which we can build a unified church.

So how do we build from that foundation?

Well, for the longest time in my presbytery there has been a custom of including a recommendation for how to engage in gracious debate in the notice of our coming presbytery meeting. One thing it encourages in our debates on a motion is for us to highlight the places of agreement we share with folks who speak for positions opposite to our own.

One of the best examples I have experienced of these two pieces coming together – service and engaging in gracious debate – was in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina. I went to New Orleans for a week to work under the supervision of the Presbyterian Disaster Assistance. I was with a group from the Rainbow Corps, an annual effort in service of More Light Presbyterians. We were assigned to work on a house in the Ninth Ward with Presbyterians from a pretty conservative congregation in Burlingame, California. We worked hard together to clear and prepare the house for later rehab by contractors. We also shared our lunches with one another, enjoyed one another, and treasured one another. We eventually got to talking about some flash points in the church.

Our shared effort in service gave us good ground for being together. From there, space opened for us where we could trust having a conversation about our concerns and what we felt was troubling the church at that time. There were opposing positions and opinions for sure, yet it was a civil and loving conversation. Through it we forged a friendship—a unity in Christ—that continues to give me joy to this day.

This is how I see us building and strengthening our unity in Christ. If we start with service, surely one common purpose in Christ, then we have a good chance to grow into trusting and treasuring each other. And this gives the Holy Spirit the opportunity to knit us together in the bonds of love, even as we share our differences with one another.

What are your thoughts?

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