by Barbara Rossing
Professor of New Testament
I’ve been thinking a lot about my Internship congregation these days, Faith Lutheran in Huchinson Minnesota. It was 30 years ago that I was on Internship. One of the most wonderful years of my life. I taught Sunday school, 8th grade Confirmation, spent a lot of time with the Senior fellowship, sewed quilts for Lutheran World Relief. I preached, led liturgies, went to camp with the kids, participated in funerals, weddings, baptisms. I rode my bike on pastoral calls, was welcomed into parishioners’ homes and farms; I explored the beautiful lakes of western Minnesota. I even learned to shoot a gun, when one of the families invited me over for supper and invited me to shoot trap—that is, to shoot at clay plates thrown up in the air.
At the end of the year the women in the Quilter’s group gave me this quilt—42 squares, each embroidered by a different woman, flowers of the Bible, each woman signed her name. There are at least 3 women with last names “Hanson”—some ending in “en” (the Danish or Norwegian spelling), some in “on” (Swedish). Forty-two women with whom I shared that year, many of them now deceased. And in the center is this square, “To Barbara, with sweet love from the FLC Quilters. May 1980.” 30 years ago.
Sweet love: That congregation took a risk with me, only a few years after the ALC opened up the possibility of ordained ministry to women. Many did not want a woman intern, I learned at the end of the year. But Faith Lutheran accepted me, loved me, taught me: taught me about ministry, about prayer, about the power of the love of God and the cross of Christ, in adversity and joy.
I’ve been thinking about the congregation and also about the cross of Christ since the Churchwide assembly, a month ago in Minneapolis. For Faith Lutheran in Hutchinson is one of the large congregations that has recently been most active in organizations opposing change in the ELCA sexuality policies: Lutheran CORE, Word Alone. Their pastors take positions on sexuality and the scriptures with which I disagree.
Yet when I sleep under the quilt this congregation gave me, when I touch these embroidered names and remember the people who cared for me and taught me, and then when I think about the many others who are pained by the ELCA’s decisions, I am filled with gratitude for their witness in Christ, for their ministry to me and to so many others, and I want to learn from them. I give thanks for their love for the gospel and for the church. I long for a way forward in this church that can embrace our differences, I long for a unity that transcends our disagreements.
The church in Philippi struggled with issues of unity and diversity too, some 2000 yrs ago. The church in Philippi was the apostle Paul’s favorite, the only church whose koinonia or partnership with him included financial sharing. According to Paul’s presentation of the issues in his letter, this church faced potentially divisive issues of theology, money, leadership, and more. Two women named Euodia and Syntyche apparently didn’t get along with one another, or maybe didn’t get along with Paul. Paul urges the women and the others in the church to be of “one mind,” echoing the exhortation to have the “mind” among them which is theirs in Christ that is our text today from chapter 2. He calls upon the Philippian church to find their unity not in agreement with each other but in something deeper and more profound, in the “mind” of Christ that we have in the cross.
Paul makes the case for that unity in the mind of Christ by quoting what may well be a hymn that the Philippians had first taught to him (at least that’s the hypothesis of John Reumann), a hymn about Christ Jesus, who “being in the form of God did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped but emptied himself taking the form of a servant, being found in human likeness.”
I quote from the King James version here, because the Revised Standard Version and NRSV make a move I’m starting to question-- that is the RSV and NRSV translations insert an “although”—“Although he was in the form of God.” That’s one possible translation for the Greek participle “being,” and also for another participle in 1 Cor 12:12 that I’ve been working on—“being many, we are one”--but I don’t think “although” is necessarily the best translation, in either Philippians or in First Corinthians. The problem is that the English word “although” makes our many-ness into a problem in 1 Cor 12:12—“Although we are many we are one.” (I’m working on this question for the Lutheran World Federation; I was delighted to see that Mark Hanson is now making this case for the translation “being many” rather than “although we are many” too—in a letter sent out this summer to all ELCA rostered leaders.) In Phil 2: “although” would make Christ’s divinity something set over against his willingness to become a servant, a human. But I don’t think that’s the best translation.
For maybe it’s precisely because Jesus was in the form of God that he did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped. And maybe in 1 Corinthains it’s precisely because we are many that we can be one. Diversity is not the problem, then. Rather, diversity or many-ness is the very richness that makes us able to find unity, that makes us able to find the one mind of Christ. The diverse perspectives that we each bring make up that one mind.
So Paul quotes the hymn and then he adds a line, and that’s why I’ve chosen it for our text today, on Holy Cross Day. Paul adds the line, “even death on a cross.” Even death on a cross. Death by the most painful and publicly humiliating means possible. Yet Paul proclaims that it is that death that reconciles us across all divisions, whatever they are. Christ’s death on a cross reconciles not only humankind but the whole wounded creation.
During your time at LSTC, during your ministry in the church, you will grapple with issues of diversity and unity in many forms, sometimes very painful forms. The cross teaches us that it is possible that on some issues both sides can be right. I don’t know what will happen in the ELCA. There will be fallout. The mystery of the cross is this: that the cross of Christ has the power to bring us into koinonia, into “one mind,” across our great differences. The cross does not obliterate our differences, it takes them in, in the body of Christ. The cross of Christ embodies God’s own brokenness. It also embodies the amazing power of God for healing and reconciliation in communities and congregations—whether in Philippi, in Hutchinson, in LSTC—in our whole world today.
So take the mantle of the cross of Christ upon your shoulders, like a garment, like a quilt. The cross reminds us the no one is winner or loser, but we are all broken, we are all one. The cross of Christ represents the love of God that holds us together, not by means of unanimity on ethical issues or biblical interpretation or even theology, but only through the cross of Christ. “So have this mind among yourselves which is yours in Christ Jesus, who being in the form of God did not count equality a thing to be grasped but emptied himself, taking the form of a servant”—for us. AMEN.