"Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross. Therefore God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father." Paul to the persecuted at Philippi (2:5-11)

29 July 2009

On Christian Unity, a sermon (moved)

Paul is writing to the church at Ephesus while he is being held prisoner in Rome. He opens this section of his letter with an appeal for unity in the church, and in making his appeal he penned those words that we have just declared to be true: “There is one body and one spirit—Just as you were called to the one hope that belongs to your call—one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all.” (Ephesians 4: 4-5) This is the source for the opening words of our liturgy for baptisms because of the importance which the words lay on the unity of the household of the church.

There’s been a lot of talk lately about the unity of the church, especially as some of us have decided that we can no longer remain in union with the Episcopal Church, our former ecclesiastical home. We’ve been called divisive and we’ve been accused of this command to unity and even to creating schism within the body of Christ. Certainly no one among this congregation would want to create divisions within Christ’s household or to skirt the commands of the Apostle Paul, so how do we handle those accusations?

The first question this should lead us to ask is how on earth unity is brought about? Jesus himself didn’t always keep his little band of twelve from disagreeing. If even a few disciples who lived together voluntarily for three years with Jesus right in their midst couldn’t refrain from petty squabbling, attempt to upstage one another, and self-focused interests, how can we expect the broader church to “walk in a manner worthy” of our calling? (Eph. 4:1)

You will be pleased to know the church was not simply expected to achieve unity on our own merits. This is not like keeping the peace at the family dinner table with all the rare and unusual specimens of extended family life are gathered about for a holiday meal. It’s not about smiling politely through gritted teeth or putting up with abrasive personalities. The unity to which we are called is not something we create, but a response to who God has created us to be. Our unity comes from our common history, our fellowship with one another in Christ Jesus, and our shared calling to continue to tell and retell the story and the work of Christ for the sake of future generations. In short, it’s about who we are, our identity.

Our common identity is shaped by our common history. Just as your family shares the common stories and your friends may all snicker at the same inside joke, the church is made up of people who share a history. Like small children who ask over and over for their parents to tell them again of when they were babies, the times that have slipped just beyond their conscious memories, we should be an eager people to hear and retell our own story in our churches and homes and especially with our children and grand children. In my reading this week, one commentator described Psalm 114 as “an invitation for each new generation to participate in [the exodus,] this world transforming memory, to be identified with the tradition and to be given life by it."

You know this story. Like all the best family stories it is familiar to you. You know how the people of Israel were slaves in Egypt. The bible tells us that they were forced to make bricks for Pharaoh’s building project and that Pharaoh was a cruel and totalitarian taskmaster who was unwilling to let go of a people who had had neither been captured in war nor held as a debtor. Is this not the ultimate injustice? But the Scriptures are clear that the rulers of this world are not interested in justice. At what point, it was that the people fell from being guests in his land to slaves is never told us, but we know they were indeed slaves in Egypt, with no hope and no future before them. But the Bible tells us that God had heard their cries and had sent Moses to lead them out of Egypt, to free them from slavery and bring them into a good land. No longer would they be strangers and slaves in the land, they would be settled in a good home and free from oppression.

But God’s way is to heap promises upon promises, mercy upon mercy. When Israel went out from Egypt, they were not merely turned free to wander about as they pleased. Instead, when Israel went out from Egypt, the Lord himself took up residence among them and ruled them as their king. He did not just remove the oppressing ruler, he replaced that dominion with his own kingship. They were not to wander in a desert, he was with them. In Exodus we learn that God called the people to be his treasured possession, that he was their light by night and their shade by day. God was present with the whole of the people, providing for them even when they were in rebellion against him, so that in forty years not even the shoes they wore through the wilderness would wear out.

These are God’s covenant people, and God’s covenant and faithfulness are the source of their unity and identity. God had made a promise with Abraham that this Abraham’s children would live in the rich land that God had shown Abraham. The time would come when they would no longer be strangers and slaves. Instead they would be God’s holy people, his treasured possession.

When all these things came to pass, as the children of Israel came out of Egypt, the sea, says the Psalmist, looked and fled. I love how the Psalm here uses human language to describe the waters and the hills. The way the Psalmist tells the story, when the Israelites crossed the Red Sea, the water saw what Pharaoh had not seen in all the plagues and miracles that had come before: the might and power of God. Pharaoh the harsh taskmaster runs headlong into what even the waters seem to run from, and we know that this is what would become Pharaoh’s destruction. At God’s word the waters were separated, and Israel crossed the sea on dry land. But also at God’s command the waters returned to their places and the harsh taskmaster was destroyed.

Before the crossing of the Red Sea, God had made covenants with individuals like Abraham or Noah, but God had not yet made Israel into his own covenant nation. In crossing the waters, their identity changes and they are no longer a ragtag band of slaves but a nation with whom God dwells and has intimate relationship. They now have a common worship, a common identity, and a common story. These are the ones who were slaves in Egypt, who by the might and faithfulness of the Lord have been set free. This is the pivotal moment! And after they have passed from slavery to freedom through the waters of the Red Sea, they are commanded never to forget their history. It is on the basis of their redemption and new relationship to God that they are given commandments, they are told how to be pleasing to God, how to be holy. Now, through no merit of their own, but through the faithful nature of God, the Israelites are freed from slavery, so far from the grasp of Egypt that the people of Israel may as well be dead as far as Egypt is concerned. And they are given new life so that they can live as covenant people to a covenant God. They can never be the same again.

Like Israel, you too, are a covenant people. Paul’s letter to the church at Ephesus can insist on the unity of the Church because we are one people, one family who share one common history. We also were slaves to a harsh taskmaster who was unwilling to let us go, who would pursue us to the very edge of the waters and beyond. Our pharaoh was death, the result of our sinful nature, which would likewise pursue us into the waters of baptism. As we go into the water, we are dying with Christ, and as we are raised on the other side, we find the sea has placed itself between us and the old land in which we dwelt as slaves, drowning our pursuers in the process.

God knew, from the foundations of the earth, that we would sell ourselves into slavery and require a savior. For this reason Jesus voluntarily descended from heaven to deliver us, to be our Moses. He walked among us as intimately as God went before the people of Israel in the desert. He gave us his law as the Father did at Sinai, teaching us how to be pleasing to him and to walk in his ways. He who knew no sin took our sin upon him and died on a cross. And so that we might emerge from the waters of death, he also emerged from the tomb and appeared to his disciples.

This is why Paul tells us that “When [Jesus] ascended on high he led a host of captives.” We are among those captives being led out of the land of Pharaoh and into a good land. He has called us to be his covenant people. Our identity is therefore forever changed. We are no longer slaves; we have been freed. We are no longer common people but a holy nation. We no longer live for our selves, we are a new creation. Death no longer can pursue us, for it has chased us far enough already and is drowned in the waters from which we emerge. This is our history, and it is what has transformed us from a ragtag group of slaves and sinners into a holy people, the one body of Christ. .

Our common story is why Paul can call us to a radical sense of unity. Because God has first acted on our behalf, redeemed us from slavery and offered us the covenant promises of salvation and mercy, we are asked on the basis of our relationship with our God to respond, to “walk in a manner worthy of the calling to which [we] have been called.” (Eph 4: 1) Like the Israelites at Sinai, who are told how to be pleasing to God, we should desire to do as God commands, “with all humility and gentleness, with patience,” and bearing one another in love.

Can we do this? Well, not by our own volition. But remember, your identity has been changed in the waters of baptism. Just like the ancient Israelites, before our very eyes, the unjust ruler of this world is being removed from lordship over us and a new Lord replaces him. Now our Lord is no longer an oppressor but it is very Spirit of God himself who dwells with us to guide us. No longer do you have to rely only on what seems like a good idea at the time, your own limited perspective, your own time and place and life experience. God has promised you the gift of the Holy Spirit to make you into the people he has declared you to be. Because you are a holy people, his Spirit can dwell in you, far more intimately than even the pillar of cloud and fire dwelt with the people at the Exodus. To you he has given a great cloud of witnesses, apostles and prophets, evangelists, pastors, teachers, saints and martyrs who instruct and encourage us and who lift us in prayer before the throne of God day and night.

For this reason, we no longer have to cast about in the dark for truth and unity. No longer are we to be like children who do not know how to question the ways of the world around us, tossed about by the waves and carried this way and that by every wind of doctrine that may happen to blow by. God has given us his Spirit and his church to instruct us in his truth, one truth, which is the source of our unity and our relationship to him.

I was discouraged a while back when I saw a note from an old friend who had posted on the internet that he was upset with the “schismatics” in Pittsburgh. This friend saw our faithfulness to that one truth, unchanging over generations as being the source of the disunity in the church. I was disheartened not because I disagreed with my friend, but because I was reminded of the words of my New Testament instructor who reminded his students that there is only one kind of schism, schism from the body of Christ. Either we are in Christ, who unifies us, or we set ourselves outside the faith and cannot be in unity at all. There is only one Lord who we are called to adore and obey. There is but one faith, unchanging, which we are called to follow. Just as there is but one baptism which binds us all to Christ and to one another.

Well, can we do this? Well, it is a tall order, somewhere along the lines of the command to be perfect as God is perfect. But to each of us God has given grace upon grace for the accomplishing of his will.

The book of Deuteronomy tells the people of Israel to “Take care and keep your soul diligently, lest you forget these things your eyes have seen and lest they depart from your heart all the days of your life. Make them known to your children and your children’s children.” Make them known to Simon and the children of this parish, lest the words of God’s mercy be lost in this place and depart from our hearts.

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