This past Sunday, many Christian (and Mennonite) churches observed World Communion Sunday, a day set aside each year at the beginning of October to promote Christian unity and ecumenical cooperation. Congregations are urged to participate by celebrating communion/observing the Eucharist. In essence, the day calls on Christians to celebrate the unity they find as followers of Jesus Christ, in spite of the many differences that exist in the ways that faith gets lived out on a day-to-day basis.
This push for Christian unity should sound familiar to many Mennonites. In fact, a cursory search of articles from this year on The Mennonite, Inc.’s website yields at least 10 articles with unity in the title. In the midst of denomination-wide disagreements about scriptural interpretation, congregational autonomy and inclusion of LGBTQ church members in leadership roles, there has been a strong push to focus on our unity in Christ and to let the particulars fall by the wayside.
This idea of our oneness in Christ, beyond differences, is a familiar and popular idea in Christianity. In Galatians 3:28, the Apostle Paul writes, “There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.”
And this was an idea that I wrestled with when I moved to Los Angeles County, Calif., several years ago. When my husband, Justin, and I moved, I felt I had a good idea about what being Mennonite meant. But moving to an area as cosmopolitan and diverse as Los Angeles County meant that my ideas about what mission meant had to change. I couldn’t make the same assumptions about what church looked like, how theology impacted mission, and what language we worship in. Some of the assumptions I brought with me, as a European, middle-class, English-speaking Mennonite from Indiana, were called into question simply by virtue of the place I was living.
Sometimes it was little things that made me aware of these assumptions. The Mennonite Central Committee Relief Sale, one of the Mennonite church’s largest regional fundraising events for international relief and development, in southern California features Nigerian puff-puff and kimchi instead of Swiss-German apple fritters and funnel cakes. “International mission” doesn’t feel very far away. In fact, many Mennonite church leaders in Los Angeles are actively involved in mission in their hometowns in Nigeria, Belize and Indonesia and in the local neighborhoods where they live. Four-part harmony is not an assumed skill and worship services are often conducted in two or three languages. Building space, which is highly expensive and limited in crowded Los Angeles County, is hard to come by, and many congregations share space and/or meet in homes or parks. And although Mennonite Church USA does have a confession of faith written in 1995 that offers guidelines for denominational beliefs, it was clear that these churches fell at different points along a broad theological continuum.
I quickly realized that I would need to sit at the feet of new teachers and people who had been involved in ministry in Los Angeles for many years before engaging in any major initiatives or projects. I would need to be willing to stay still, listen and learn, instead of being in the middle of the action. And I would need to get comfortable with what I came to understand as “complex unity.”
Yes, we were all one in Christ: that was and is true. But it didn’t mean the particulars or things that made each congregation and believer distinct disappeared. In fact, it meant we needed to work harder to understand and appreciate the ways particular cultures, understandings of Scripture, socioeconomic status and geographic location impacted people’s expressions of faithfulness.
When we talk about church unity, it can be tempting to distill things down to a simple, uniform model, but how can we do this when even our understandings of the meaning of Jesus’ life and witness are so different?
Simple carbohydrates—sugary foods like fruit, candy, cookies—go down easily. They are tasty and easy to eat in large quantities. However, if all we eat is simple carbohydrates, we may enjoy the initial eating, but we’ll likely find ourselves hungry an hour later.
Alternatively, complex carbohydrates—foods like whole grains, vegetables and beans—are made up of complex chains of molecules and are full of different kinds of vitamins, minerals and fiber that the body needs. Because they contain such a diversity of elements, complex carbohydrates are heartier and leave us feeling more satisfied later in the day than their simple counterparts.
It may be tempting to long for simple unity—unity that celebrates sameness as its end goal—but my guess is that this form of unity will leave us feeling hollow not too far down the road. Better to celebrate our lives as communities and followers of Jesus, strung together in complex, sometimes messy configurations and enriched by the diverse expressions and experiences we bring with us.
I’m grateful to join the team here at The Mennonite, Inc., as we strive to offer a forum for the many voices that make up Mennonite Church USA.
And I want to hear from you. If you have an idea for a story, reflection, Bible study or news article, send me an email: HannahH@TheMennonite.org.