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What Tears Us Apart
January 21, 1990


If you listened carefully to the lesson read this morning, you could feel Paul's pain. He wrote the letter to the Corinthian Church because of its problems. It was deviating from the gospel which he taught them. We saw last week how Paul began the letter by establishing his credibility, by affirming his call from Jesus Christ. "Listen to me," he was saying, "because I have been called by Jesus Christ."

The passage read this morning deals with what Paul perceives is the basic problem of the Corinthian Church, and it breaks his heart. He had such high hopes for the church. The churches of Jesus Christ which were springing up all over the Roman Empire were to be microcosms of what God intends for all of humanity. Paul gave his life to the church, and now his life work was falling apart.

Can you feel his pain? 1:10, "I appeal to you, by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that all of you agree and that there be no dissensions among you, but that you be united in the same mind and the same judgment." The church is to be the leaven that in the end will bring the entire world to live as God intended, the entire world united as God's people. The Christian churches were to be centers of unity scattered throughout all the world until the whole of humankind is brought into the unity of the faith. How exciting! We are about the task of unity. But, even in Paul's day, the Corinthian Church was divided, torn apart.

"I hear there is quarreling among you," Paul wrote. Evidently the church was splitting into factions. Some were saying, "I belong to Paul." Some were saying, "I belong to Apollos," Others said, "I belong to Peter." Still others felt they had the truth and proudly proclaimed, "I belong to Christ." They were dividing into factions and aligning themselves with different spokespersons for the gospel. Denominations are not new in the church. Today, we have different allegiances. A Roman Catholic says, "According to the Pope..." A Lutheran says, "According to Martin Luther..." A Christian Science reader says, "According to Mary Baker Eddy..." A Methodist says, "Well, as I see it!"

Paul was troubled about the bad spirit that was tearing his church apart. What tears the church of Jesus Christ apart? What destroys the very body of Christ? The opening prayer this morning, a Chinese prayer, asked that the Head of the church never have to say to us, "This is my body, broken by you!" What breaks Christ's body? Carl Sandburg identified it as the ugliest word in the English language: exclusive. Paul called it "party spirit." Factionalism, narrow visions, narrow loyalties. Narrowly defining one's theology, parameters, and identity in such a way that keeps others out. Exclusiveness is what tears us apart.

When people are excluded by the haves, God then raises up movements for the have-nots, which usually then become denominations. The Methodist movement is an example. Over 200 years ago, John Wesley, an Anglican priest, had a religious experience of God's grace and forgiveness. He wanted to share his good news. He wanted to renew the Church of England and open it to all people. He wanted the established church to broaden its scope, open its doors, extend its embrace, and do God's work. The Church of England at that time was narrow, exclusive, closed to many, open to a few who just happened to be rich.

Wesley preached the gospel, proclaimed God's grace for all people, and opened the doors. He was barred from preaching inside church buildings, so literally the open countryside was his open doorway. People responded. The poor, factory workers, miners, children responded and the Methodist movement was born. Much to Wesley's horror, the Methodist movement eventually became a separate denomination. He wanted to renew the church, not start a new one. He loved the Church of England and went for daily Communion when he could, but the Church of England would not open its doors to Methodists, and the church of Jesus Christ was again torn apart.

In America, Methodists organized the Methodist Episcopal Church, and it spread across the frontier of the new United States like wildfire. Then as it grew large, it became narrow and exclusive. The Methodist Episcopal Church, like the Church of England, was torn apart again and again.

Early in American Methodist history, separate churches were started by blacks because they were excluded by a narrow white church. They were forced to sit in the balcony and were excluded from leadership. In 1787 Richard Allen started an all black congregation in Philadelphia and in 1816 the African Methodist Episcopal Church became a separate denomination. There is an AME church here in Palo Alto, on Middlefield Road. Another black denomination is known as the CME, now called the Christian Methodist Episcopal Church, originally called the Colored Methodist Episcopal Church. The Methodist Episcopal Church, founded by Wesley for the poor outcasts of England, would not open its doors to include black people, and the church of Jesus Christ was again torn apart.

In 1830 a group of Methodists, feeling excluded by the autocratic authority of bishops, organized the Methodist Protestant Church in Baltimore. In 1939, it reunited with the Methodist Episcopal Church and the Methodist Episcopal Church, South, to form The Methodist Church. The latest merger was accomplished in 1968 when historic German speaking Methodists called Evangelical United Brethren merged with The Methodist Church to become the United Methodist Church.

Other dissidents, groaning under the rigid, organizational, exclusive structure of the Methodist Episcopal Church, and disappointed with its compromising over slavery, separated and formed the Free Methodist Church in 1860. The word "free" stood for free seats as some churches charged a pew tax, freedom from clergy domination, freedom from sin, and freedom in worship. The Methodist Episcopal Church would not relax its polity to include dissidents, and the church of Jesus Christ was again torn apart.

Perhaps the most glaring example of the church being unable and unwilling to include all of God's people is the holiness and pentecostal movement. After the Civil War, a protest movement arose within Methodism accusing the church of falling away from the teachings of John Wesley, especially regarding the Holy Spirit. William Warren Sweet, in his book, "The Story of Religion in America, presents this analysis: (p. 352)

As the great denominations came more and more to be controlled by business methods, and dominated by men of wealth, as the services tended to become more formal and as ministers and choirs donned their robes, and cushions were placed in the pews, people of limited means began to feel more and more out of place and complaints began to be raised that "heart religion" was disappearing. Beginning about 1880 and continuing until the close of the century the so-called "holiness" question agitated the several churches of the Methodist family particularly. Wesley's doctrine of Christian perfection had become little more than a creedal matter among the main bodies of American Methodists.

The Methodist Episcopal Church, originally a church for all of God's people, a church whose founder preached a gospel of conversion and sanctification for all people, would not open its doors and embrace the holiness folks, and the church of Jesus Christ was again torn apart.

An example close to home occurred at the end of the last century in Pasadena. The pastor of First Methodist Church in Pasadena, a large, influential, wealthy, elite church, preached the Holy Spirit. He believed that people could experience the presence and power of the Holy Spirit in their lives. He believed in spiritual healing. Many of the congregation, especially the influential and powerful, objected. The Presiding Elder (we call them District Superintendents today) and the bishop objected and put pressure on him. Finally, he and his followers left the Pasadena Church, and the Methodist denomination, and in 1895 organized the Church of the Nazarene, one of which we also have in Palo Alto today. The church would not open its doors to include Nazarenes, perhaps also excluding the Holy Spirit, and the church of Jesus Christ was again torn apart.

Have we learned the lesson of history? The question to us who are worshiping today, gathered as the First United Methodist Church of Palo Alto, is: how wide is our embrace? How open is our door? Issues of exclusiveness constantly face the church of Jesus Christ. Is our embrace wide enough, are we open enough, are we inclusive enough to include alcoholics? God raised up Alcoholics Anonymous because alcoholics were excluded by churches. What about homosexuals, emotionally ill, homeless, poor people? What about conservatives and fundamentalists? What about those who disagree with you? What about blacks, Hispanics, Asians, Tongans? I was told recently by a visitor to our church, "I like the diversity and inclusiveness of your congregation."

Some United Methodist congregations are not as inclusive as our church, and have not welcomed Tongans, Samoans, Koreans, etc. There are some horror stories told of how ethnic congregations have been treated by their "landlords". One Korean congregation arrived to hold their Sunday worship only to find the lock on the church door had been changed so their key no longer fit, and the church of Jesus Christ was again torn apart.

We here in California are in a unique position to help fulfill Paul's dream of an inclusive church, where the church of Jesus Christ is united as a prototype for all the world to see how all of God's people can dwell in unity. The Midwest, for example, does not have this unique opportunity. Last October when our family returned to Minnesota for my mother's memorial service, we decided to go to the Metrodome in Minneapolis and watch the A's beat the Twins in memory of my mother. My mother loved baseball. By the time we had finished the question, "Mother, would you like to go to a baseball game?" she would be in the car anxious to go.

So we went to a baseball game in Minneapolis in her memory. It was the first time any of us had been inside a dome so it was an interesting experience. As I sat there, I realized I was uncomfortable. Something was not right. Finally I realized what was missing, and said to the kids, "Notice anything different about this crowd?" They were all white. The entire stadium was filled with white people, mostly Scandinavians! There were only a few people of color, and I felt uncomfortable. I missed California. I missed the rich diversity of California. I missed our church where we are becoming a rainbow congregation.

What tears us apart and destroys God's vision for all people are narrow doors, closed minds, and exclusive memberships. Can you open your door just a little wider? Can you widen your embrace to include people who are different from you, people who are of a different color, different language, different origin? You will be the richer, the wiser, the more complete for it. You will stretch, and grow in love. You will be blessed by God, and you will help the church of Jesus Christ be a model for the world on how all of God's people can live together in unity.

© 1990 Douglas I. Norris