August 2, 2015
It feels like it’s been ages since I’ve worshipped with you. I hope that you’ve encountered God in new ways, as God’s words and actions have been interpreted through different eyes in my absence. I know that my time in Bangkok and Hong Kong–as well as my time in Minnesota this past week with teenagers at The Naming Project camp–has opened my eyes to how God is at work in our world in fresh, new ways. I assure those of you who might worry about the future of the Church, as many of our older, beloved members die that you need not be afraid. Though we grieve the deaths of Shirley Gunderson and Judy Baker, still the Church around the world is a vibrant, living thing. Jesus is as active, alive, and imaginative as ever.
Though you’ve heard from a variety of messengers lately, the lectionary has kindly offered some consistent themes from Scripture during this time. You may have noticed that we’ve departed from Mark’s action-packed Gospel to enter a meditation on Jesus as the Bread of Life from John’s Gospel. This metaphor will continue to rise and bless us with its aroma for the next two weeks.
At the same time, we’ve begun a sequential reading of the epistle to the church in Ephesus, a theological exploration of the church’s eternal unity in Christ–“one Lord, one faith, one baptism.” The first three chapters of the letter to the Christians in Ephesus have shown the writer’s earnest attempt to reconcile into one community the Jewish believers in Jesus and the Gentile believers in Jesus.
That may not sound like a big deal, but it was. For as long as there has been church–and even as far back as the people of God wandering in the desert we heard about in today’s OT reading–there have been divisions within it. Fresh from the culture shock of visiting Asia and that equally-baffling world of adolescence, I can say that sometimes it feels like other human beings are aliens. I don’t always comprehend the way they think and act and process. All of us who have tried to negotiate across a cultural divide, whether it took the form of a language barrier, or a racial/economic disparity, a sexual difference or — or any other chasm–know that it is not easy to communicate, even when everyone is sincerely trying. And let’s admit it, sometimes we are not sincerely trying.
How do Western Europeans and Asians, the Hatfields and the McCoys, the Crips and the Bloods, the Packer fans and the Viking fans combine into one family of God? As we who live in WI know full well, distrust and dislike of folks from other political persuasions, faith traditions, skin colors, and cultures is real. This was not just a problem for the ancient Ephesians.
The struggle to smooth cultural differences–“making every effort to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace”– is what the first three chapters of Ephesians expressed. Now, starting with Chapter 4, the letter tries to flesh out for us what the Church will be like when we live into and out of what we claim to believe–like the conviction that all are welcome, and that all our gifts are important, though they are different from one another. The letter doesn’t really address personal one-on-one relationships with God so much as it describes what that faith looks like when lived out in community.
Perhaps the most significant guideline for us is that we “speak the truth in love” to one another. This is hugely significant in our individual relationships, and it’s even more critical in our communal relationships. Mother Theresa once said, “If we do not have peace it is because we have forgotten that we belong to one another.” Or, as today’s reading puts it, we are “members of one another.” Every person is a part of God’s dream, and it is only when all the pieces are joined together that Christ’s body is whole. Diversity is not an obstacle. It is a vital part of unity and maturity in the Church.
The Church needs to have people who steer us toward financial prudence and stability. We need people who encourage us to take risks and to stretch out of our comfort zones. We need people who will urge us to play like children, as well as those who will promote in-depth serious study. We need those whose piety is quiet and reserved and those who like to worship exuberantly. We need each other’s differences to complete the picture.
I thought about this a lot as I spent this past week with teenagers who identify along the spectrum of gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender or questioning. They are not always sure whether they consider themselves as strictly male or female or something else. Like most teenagers, they are exploring who they are and how they relate to others. They are not always supported or encouraged in their self-discovery by their biological families or (it pains me to say) their faith communities. One of the reasons I believe that The Naming Project is a gift to the world is that, for one week, there is a safe space in which everyone tries really, really hard to speak the truth as they’ve come to understand it. Those who speak and those who listen try to honor one another as children of God, made in the image of God, no matter how different we are from one another.
Both at camp and home, however, in the practical nitty-gritty of living together, it is hard to speak the truth to one another in love. It’s so much easier to ignore or belittle the people we don’t understand or that we have trouble with. Often it is easier not to confront those with whom we have a problem, preferring to tell someone else about it or to stuff away our displeasure in order to be “nice.” Maybe as Midwesterners, we’re more susceptible to the unhealthy “be nice above all else” instinct than most. But it doesn’t work when it covers up the truth. If we keep anger pent up inside of us, it festers and turns poisonous. It doesn’t help to pretend. We are called to speak the truth to one another, to hold each other accountable, to give voice to our genuine feelings, and to confess our own role in misunderstanding or wrong-doing.
The key here is love. If love is the framework for our truth-telling, then–regardless of how painful the truth is to tell or to hear–healing can occur. Speak the truth, but speak it in such a way that whatever you say is for building up the community, and gives grace to those around who hear it. Believers are encouraged to be kind, tender-hearted, compassionate, generous, and forgiving of one another. Ultimately, our call is to imitate Christ, whose ministry of reconciliation should be formative in the life of the Church.
The Church, however, is made up of human beings like you and me, and human beings are frail, fallible creatures. We are not able to live in perfect imitation of Christ. Even when we don’t want to, we mess up, for “we live in bondage to sin and cannot free ourselves.” I wonder if the writer of the letter to the church in Ephesus was thinking about this as he directed the Christians toward holy living, knowing that the people in Ephesus (and I’d add, Madison) would get it wrong as often as they got it right?
When we do manage to get it right, it’s not like we earn merit badges in heaven. Every good and perfect gift, including our own capacity to be gracious, is given to us by God. Maybe the goal here is not to get it all right all the time, but to consciously practice living a truthful and loving life. When we strive to get better at living in community, we might find ourselves adopting more and more spiritual traits. What’s the AA line? “Fake it till you make it”? Maybe by attempting to live in imitation of Christ, we will find ourselves taking on more of his attributes than we imagined we could. Martin Luther once said, “This life is not being but becoming; not health, but healing.”
It is pivotal to remember that as we practice living lives that are worthy of our calling as God’s family, God is striving toward that same goal alongside us. God is at work in us and among us, renewing our hearts and minds, feeding us with God’s very self. Jesus says in today’s Gospel reading, “No one can come to me unless drawn by the Father who sent me. And I will raise that person up on the last day.” It is Jesus who draws us to himself, not we who draw near to Jesus. As we pray and sing and commune together, Jesus is faithfully creating new creations out of old, new life out of death, and holy people out of fractured community. We are wholly God’s, and God is always nudging us together toward the kingdom, a time when all of creation reconciles, living truly with “one Lord, one faith, one baptism.” Thanks be to God!
~Pastor Sue Schneider