Walking together in the tragic gap
Ephesians is a different book. Its structure is different from Paul’s other letters. It contains extensive references, in some cases direct quotes, from Paul’s other letters. In fact, about a third of Colossians appears in Ephesians in some form. References to the church are not to individual congregations or groups of congregations but to the whole church. (See Ephesians: Believers Church Bible Commentary by Tom Yoder Neufeld.)
Scholars have long puzzled over this book. To whom was it written? When was it written? Who wrote it?
Some scholarship would say that Ephesians was written after Paul’s death. If this is true, it is likely it was written by one of Paul’s students. It was not unusual in that day for students to follow the style of their master and use their master’s name. This does not diminish Ephesians’ value or importance. It simply points to the tremendous influence of Paul’s life and work. Paul was able to stand in the middle of fledgling, struggling, disagreeing Christians and continue to pull the church together toward its center, which is Jesus Christ. That effort continued, even after his death by those who came after him. That effort goes on today. Thanks be to God.
Ephesians 4 calls us to unity. That is our calling as believers. The author begs us to lead a life worthy of our calling. With humility and gentleness, patience, bearing with one another in love, making every effort to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace, we are called to remember that there is one body … one Spirit … one Lord, one faith, one baptism … one God (verses 1-4).
In Jesus Christ we have been given apostles, prophets, evangelists, pastors and teachers so that all the saints may be equipped for ministry, to build up the body of Christ (verses 11-12). Our leaders are called truly to be leaders. We are invited to come to a place where we speak the truth in love, such that we grow together into Christ. When we work properly, the body builds itself up in love (verses 15-16). This is a profound call to unity, perhaps the most profound in all of Scripture.
The author does not deny differences; rather they are addressed directly. He addresses concerns about a congregation to that specific congregation, and more than once if need be. He speaks firmly but lovingly. We can learn from Paul. A unity that comes because people are afraid to address concerns or disagreements is not a true unity. A unity that comes because some people are marginalized or pushed out of the church is not a true unity. A unity that comes because people talk about person A to person B is not a true unity. That is true in local congregations and the larger Mennonite church as well.
Alas, we struggle. We do not want to experience the discomfort of conflict. Do Mennonites avoid conflict more than other folks? I don’t know. I doubt it. But I do know that most of us don’t like conflict. And when faced with conflict, all too often we revert to some primitive reflex that causes us either to fight or flee.
In Weavings (March-April 2009), Parker Palmer wrote an article called “The Broken-Open Heart: Living with Faith and Hope in the Tragic Gap.” He calls us to acknowledge places of tension in our lives, places of conflict and disagreement. Palmer calls the separation between what is and what can be the tragic gaps in our lives. He invites us to live with the uneasiness of the tragic gap rather than avoiding the gap or closing the gap prematurely.
The church, at macro and micro levels, is rightly a place for us to learn to hold tension in our hearts, to live in the tragic gap between what is and what can be. Leaders in the church must model this and encourage the spiritual practices that will allow all the church to grow in this way.
In 1986 and 1987, resolutions on homosexuality were adopted at Saskatoon and Purdue by the General Conference Mennonite Church and the Mennonite Church, respectively. These resolutions included statements that sexual activity is to be reserved for men and women in the context of marriage. They also include calls for continued biblical study and dialogue.
Attempts at dialogue resulted in tension. Eventually, church publications declared a moratorium on letters and articles on the teaching position of the church on homosexuality. Seminars or workshops at national conventions were restricted or not allowed. Perhaps this was necessary for a time. The Mennonite Church and General Conference Mennonite Church were in the midst of the process of integration. Trust and relationships needed to be developed.
However, we all knew that the elephant was in the living room. In the last few months, people began to ask again that we begin to discuss the elephant. An “Open Letter” was circulated. Convention 2009 included the presence of folks wearing pink T-shirts. Others felt the Open Letter was too confrontive. The pink T-shirts were seen as confrontational. People felt tension and discomfort.
The question for all of us is whether we dare enter the tragic gap, the place of our disagreement and separation—between what is and what might be. This is what it means to agree and disagree in love. Are we willing to stay in this gap, to dialogue when we do not agree? My fervent prayer is that the answer is yes. I pray for our leadership. I pray for all our Mennonite Church USA congregations. I pray that we will dare call on the spirit of our loving Lord and live together for a time in this tragic gap. I pray that you will join my prayer, and join me as I try to stay in the gap.
Palmer calls us to stand in the tragic gap. In The Message, Eugene Peterson, invites us to walk together. “You are to walk, better yet to run, on the road God called you to travel … you were all called to travel on the same road and in the same direction. You have one master, one faith, one baptism” (from verses 1-4). This image of movement may be helpful.
I have an image of the tragic gap. It is a huge circle. We are in this circle, moving around and bumping into each other. In this image, the bumps are not meant to push someone out of the circle or hurt someone. In this image, nobody bolts from the circle. Instead we stay and bump for a while, and as we do that, no matter how uncomfortable or painful it is, we get continued clarity about God’s will for us as a people. We continue to grow up into Christ, our head.
It is a hard calling, a high calling. Can it be reached? Yes, it can.
John Woolman and the Society of Friends show us what is possible. Woolman was born in 1720 to a Quaker family. He grew up to be a clerk and a tailor. As such, he often wrote legal documents for people. At the time, Quakers had no common understanding related to slavery, and many in the Society of Friends were slaveowners.
Woolman experienced a growing awareness that slavery was wrong. At the age of 23 he refused to write a bill of sale for a slave. He steadfastly refused to draw up wills transferring slaves. In a nonconfrontational way, he encouraged slaveowners to free their slaves. When he received hospitality from a slaveowner, he personally paid the slaves who had served him in some way.
He traveled extensively from Meeting to Meeting, state to state, sharing his conviction. His own Meeting did not agree with him. Despite their resistance and disagreement, his own Meeting did nothing to marginalize him or quiet him or exclude him. Indeed, his Meeting helped support his family while he traveled to other places, thus making it possible for him to continue this work. He was a lone voice, dissenting from the status quo.
Neither did he despair and leave to form a new church. For almost 30 years, until his death in 1772, he continued his lonely work. While he saw some change in his lifetime, he never saw the full fruits of his labor. Years after his death, the Society of Friends petitioned the U.S. Congress for the abolition of slavery. (See www.qis.net/~daruma/woolman/.htd and “John Woolman: Reflections on a Life Faithfully Lived,” Weavings, March-April 2009.)
We are called to such a unity.
We are called to walk in the tragic gap, however long, until God’s unifying Spirit is clear to us, and the gap is no more.
Susan Ortman Goering is co-pastor at Columbus (Ohio) Mennonite Church. This article is adapted from a sermon she gave there on July 19, 2009.
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