Monday, August 3, 2015

No Christ Without Community

When I was ordained, both as a deacon and as a priest, my vestments weren’t the only significant pieces of clothing I donned that day.  Beneath my chasuble, alb, and clerical shirt was perhaps the most significant thing I wore that day.  It was a black t-shirt, and emblazoned on the front of the shirt was a symbol second in importance only to the Cross: the famous “S” shield of Superman.  It was a small way in which I could somehow combine my love of comic books with my calling as a priest in the Church.  It was also a way of embodying a deeply held truth of mine: I am no mild, mannered priest...please note the sarcasm.  What’s funny about my wearing that Superman shirt under my clericals is that I know all too well the struggle against seeing myself as a “super-priest”, as someone possessing all of the skills and knowledge needed to complete any and every task at hand.  Now, I think I do a pretty good job of managing this impulse, but I do know all too well the struggle.  Perhaps you’ve met other people like this, or perhaps you can sense something of this struggle in yourself.  The need to be right.  The need to be recognized.  The need to exert, through sheer force of will, a certain type of mastery of a skill set or a situation.  To be fair, we live in an era where a kind of fierce, rugged individualism is prevalent in our culture.  Where, to quote the action masterpiece ‘Terminator 2’: There is no fate but what we make ourselves.  As an aside, I told you I’d show you my cards.  I wear my nerd badge very proudly.

There is no fate but what we make ourselves. God must be an Arnold Schwarzenegger fan because that line rang in my ears as I was reading and writing.  But, like the syndrome I have dubbed ‘super-priest’, this line, this ethos stands in such sharp contrast to the vision of Christian community St. Paul  gives us throughout his epistles, and in our lesson from Ephesians in particular: I, the prisoner in the Lord, beg you to lead a life worthy of the calling to which you have been called, with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love, making every effort to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace. There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called to the one hope of your calling, one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all, who is above all and through all and in all. Living in community is a constant theme in Paul’s writings.  And for good reason.  Many of the early Christian communities were living with the cultural and ethnic tension between Jews and Gentiles.  Many of these early Christians were converts from ways of life that were incompatible with living together as believers in Jesus.  With these communities, St. Paul had his work cut out for him…attempting to instill within them a sense of what it meant to live out this new life in Christ alongside other brothers and sisters in the faith.  And like any letters, written now or in the ancient past, his teaching emerged from a particular context.  So it is safe to assume that the early church at Ephesus had some sort of conflict within their walls.  We may not know exactly what it was, but it was intense enough for Paul to dedicate this section of his letter to laying out an alternative vision of Christian community. And this vision is centered on living at peace with one another, yet at the same time recognizing and celebrating the diversity of gifts within the community.

Paul is very clear: to live a life worthy of the calling of Christ necessarily entails setting aside any sense of pride of place, or even pride of position.  This life begins by humbly, gently, and patiently bearing each other in love.  Unity in Christ as a community, then, is a vital part of individuals themselves becoming more full and true bearers of Christ within themselves. In short, there is not a chance in the world that we can go this Christian journey alone.  Without each other, without those even with whom we may greatly disagree, we will never be fully who Christ intends for us to be or to become.  I’m fond of saying there is a great risk in believing in God and living as a disciple of Jesus, because we are entrusting ourselves, sight unseen through faith, to a God beyond our wildest imaginations.  There’s also great risk in being part of a community.  We are tethered to each other, connected in a way that suggests my ability to know Christ, to make him known, and to become more and more like him is directly related to my relationship to fellow believers. There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called to the one hope of your calling, one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all, who is above all and through all and in all.

This is a daunting, yet beautiful vision.  And still, I wish I could say I see this in every church.  In my years of ministry, I’m much more familiar with churches stuck in theological or spiritual sparring matches.  I’ve even seen churches torn apart because of petty personality conflicts that explode into a kind of toxicity.  But I’m noticing something different here.  In conversation, in moments of quiet observation, I’m sensing that this is a parish where Paul’s vision of Christian community is being lived out.  This isn’t to say that there aren’t deep differences of opinion or personality here.  This isn’t to say that this parish has perfectly realized Paul’s understanding of community.  No parish, and no individual person, will ever fully grasp the mystery that is living in relationship with Jesus Christ.  But I find myself extremely excited and hopeful by what I see when I look at Trinity on the Hill.  And the good work that this parish has done throughout moments of controversy and conflict is something worth remembering and celebrating as we together enter this new phase of our common life.  On my first Sunday, I spoke of how I think this vision, and this commitment to unity amidst diversity, is something that can attract people to our community.  The truth is that what people might be attracted to has less to do with us, but more to do with the God we serve as we live out a commitment to unity amidst diversity.  We come together as a family to feast not on the bread made by our hardworking hands, but by something more rich and dynamic:  this is a place where Jesus Christ, the living bread, is both feasted upon and shared within our walls and outside of our community.  My sense is that this parish is a place that knows how to respond to the request made of Jesus: Sir, give us this bread always.  Without missing a beat, without stumbling through our words, without having to redirect mouths too busy with backbiting and name-calling, we can say: “Jesus is the bread of life. Whoever comes to him will never be hungry, and whoever believes in him will never be thirsty.” This parish seems to know that everything else pales in comparison to the One who satisfies our deepest cravings and hungers.

And knowing that there are still those in our city who hunger and thirst for something more than a lonely life of isolation and competition, we have an opportunity before us, both as a parish and as individuals, to recommit to living in harmony with one another as we seek to share the Bread of life with those around us.  How might God be calling you to serve this church and the world?  How might God be calling you into something new, something fresh…a ministry that you might have felt called to before, an opportunity to serve within these walls, a new venture of sharing the Bread of life outside of these walls.  Owning and celebrating our unity amidst diversity, centered on Jesus, now is the time to grab the bull by the horns, and share our wonderful common life and our even more wonderful Lord with this city.  Who knows what God might do through us?  My money would be on it being something extraordinary.

*A sermon preached at Trinity on the Hill Episcopal Church in Los Alamos, NM on August 2, 2015.  The texts were Exodus 16:2-4, 9-15, Ephesians 4:1-16, and John 6:24-35.

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