Third Sunday after Pentecost
Proper 8, Year C
June 30, 2019
The Rev’d Charles Everson
St. Mary’s Episcopal Church
The audio recording of this sermon can be found here.
When I lived in France working as a missionary, my boss and his wife were an American couple named Scott and Mentanna. In one of our many discussions about the faith, the topic of “freedom” came up. “For Freedom, Christ has set us free,” St. Paul said to the Galatians in our epistle lesson. What does this Christian freedom mean? Doesn’t freedom mean that I get to do whatever I want to do? How can we be free and still have rules to follow? Mentanna had a small dog named Gidget, and being Parisians who lived in a sixth-floor apartment, they had to walk Gidget around four times per day. She liked to use Gidget as an analogy about Christian freedom. “When we lived in Texas,” she said, “we had a back yard with a fence. Gidget wanted badly to get beyond the fence, but clearly, we didn’t think that was best for her. Was she truly free in the backyard being able to run and play and bark at dogs that pass by, or was the fence preventing her from being truly free? The fact of the matter is this: she may have thought that removing the fence would make her truly free, but she would have run out into the street and been hit by a car in no time. God’s freedom always involves boundaries for our own protection.”
My concept of Christian freedom was shaken a bit when we got our little 30 pound rescue dog named Jake. We already had a doggy door into the back yard, but quickly became concerned when we’d heard Jake barking at passersby…from the front porch. It turns out that Jake has absolutely no problem climbing metal fences.
We’ve had him for 6 years, and still can’t trust him in the back yard by himself. I was reminded of the story of Gidget and the fence, and wondered if Jake’s jail-breaking activities made him any more free than Gidget was.
“For Freedom, Christ has set us free.” What is Christian freedom? Is it permission to do whatever we like? From what is it that we are freed?
St. Paul tells the Galatians to “Live by the Spirit, and do not gratify the desires of the flesh.” He’s not using the term “flesh” throughout this passage in a negative way, as if the human body is inherently sinful or evil. Rather, “flesh” is often Paul’s shorthand for self-centered living as opposed to God-centered living. He seems to be asking the impossible of us: to resist “fornication, impurity, licentiousness, enmities, strife, jealousy, anger, quarrels, dissensions, factions, envy, drunkenness, and carousing”…and if that didn’t cover it, “and things like these.” Works of the flesh aren’t just material things, they’re spiritual too: “idolatry and sorcery.”
How in the world are we supposed to resist these and all the other self-centered behaviors? How are we to instead bear the fruit of the Spirit which is love, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control? Not by trying really hard, not by pulling ourselves up by our boot straps…but instead by relying on the Holy Spirit.
“Live by the Spirit,” Paul says, “and do not gratify the desires of the flesh.” Living by the spirit means recognizing that I’ve committed to a new way of life, living for the other rather than for myself. Living by the Spirit means recognizing that I’ve committed to living a life of spiritual discipline that includes daily prayer, contemplation, serving others, receiving the Sacraments, and so on. This life of spiritual discipline is somewhat like training for a marathon. You start out by running perhaps a mile each day, then two, then six, and then ultimately all 26 miles. The more and more we spiritually train, the more and more spiritual habits we form that ultimately change not only our behaviors, but our desires.
The desires of the flesh lead us to self-centered action. Wanting sexual intimacy, we pursue fornication; wanting contact with God, we pursue idols; wanting joy, we party too hard. The freedom we have in Christ should lead us to rely on the Holy Spirit who can help us train for the spiritual marathon that has been set before us.
So, to circle back, yes, in a sense, Christian freedom means we get to do whatever we want. But by choosing to follow Christ and submitting to the Holy Spirit, what we want…changes. Training for the spiritual marathon transforms our desires and we want something different. It is as if God’s grace changes our taste buds. The spiritual cravings we have are no longer for the selfish things on the Paul’s naughty list, but instead, we crave to love God and our neighbor.
Let’s talk about Paul’s naughty list. There isn’t anything particularly special or serious about this list of sins, rather it’s a list representing the various sorts of selfish actions human beings are prone to do. I’ve heard sermons that try to analyze this list of sinful activity and make arguments about what each one means, but that really isn’t a helpful exercise because it’s missing Paul’s point entirely. This isn’t an exhaustive list of things to avoid, it’s simply a small portion of the self-centered things that human beings often do.
It is tempting to use our freedom in Christ as an excuse to self-indulge. Paul reminds the Galatians not to use their freedom as an opportunity for self-indulgence, but through love become slaves to one another.
This is what it means to “live by the Spirit.” Either you say yes to the desires of the flesh and exhibit selfish unrighteous behavior, or, by God’s grace, you say yes to the Holy Spirit and display loving, self-sacrificial righteous behavior. This is a choice we have to make over and over again in our lives. It’s a choice that we won’t escape, no matter how hard we try, until we die. It’s the way of life we committed to at our baptism. And despite our desires being changed over time as we form healthy spiritual habits, despite the fact that we desperately want to live by the Spirit…we will sometimes listen to that old menace, our Old Self, the one who had the selfish desires. When we are hungry and presented with two pieces of fruit: one, a selfish desire of the flesh, and the other, a fruit of the Spirit, we will remember how good the first piece of fruit used to taste. And we’ll eat it, despite knowing that it will make us sick, for the memory of the delicious taste sometimes seems overpowering. When we do, until the day we die, there is always the opportunity to choose to live by the Spirit in the next moment, even if in the previous moment we’ve gratified the desires of the flesh. For in the Lord there is mercy and forgiveness, and and despite the bump in the road in our spiritual training, we continue with perseverance running the race set before us, looking to Jesus, the author and perfecter of our faith.
Friends, no matter what we’ve done in life, no matter how ashamed we are, no matter how tempting the first piece of fruit is, let us strive to live by the Spirit. For we who belong to Jesus have “crucified the flesh with its passions and desires.” Let us exercise self-control and put the needs of others ahead of our own needs. Let us do the training needed to run the spiritual marathon, spending time in prayer daily, reading the Scripture, serving those around us in need, and regularly receiving God’s grace in the Sacraments of the Church. As St. Paul says, let us, through love, become slaves to one another. For in so doing, we find the greatest freedom we will ever know. Amen.
 David Lyon Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, eds., Feasting on the Word. Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary. (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2008), 187.
 Hebrews 12:1-2.
The Rev’d Charles Everson
St. Mary’s Episcopal Church
June 23, 2019
Those of you who were raised in a Protestant tradition can relate to me when I say that I was intrigued by all of the ritual and peculiar practices in the Episcopal Church. And so many of the strange things are made even more peculiar by being referred to by a Latin name.
For example, I remember the first time I learned about the existence of the piscina. The piscina is a special sink that drains into the earth instead of the sewer. In some of the older churches in Europe, it’s a niche in a stone wall close to the altar, but in modern places like ours, it’s a metal sink that looks like every other sink, connected by a pipe called a sacrarium in Latin that leads directly to the ground. A piscina is primarily used for washing the communion vessels after Mass. Why do we need a special sink with a special drain with Latin names? For two reasons: first, the communion vessels have been consecrated (formally set apart) by a bishop for holy use, but more importantly, because there are remaining particles of consecrated bread and wine left on the vessels.
While theologians have been fighting about precisely what happens to the bread and wine at Holy Communion – and how it happens – the bottom line is that we believe in the “real presence of Jesus Christ in the Eucharist”, a doctrine that leads us to reverently consume the leftovers after Mass, and that further leads us to treat even the most minute particles of the consecrated elements with utmost reverence.
In the upper room so many years ago when Jesus said, “This is my body”, he didn’t say “This has or will become my body” nor “This symbolizes my body.” He says, “This is my body.”
And in today’s gospel lesson from John, Jesus says, “I am the bread of life…I am the living bread that came down from heaven. Whoever eats of this bread will live forever; and the bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh.” Those listening to him got confused and asked, “How can this man give us his flesh to eat?” To which Jesus responds, “Unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you. Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood have eternal life…for my flesh is true food and my blood is true drink.” It is hard not to hear Eucharistic overtones in this passage.
The Episcopal Church’s catechism says that the Eucharist is the inward and spiritual grace of the Body and Blood of Christ given to us in the outward and visible signs of bread and wine. This is the doctrine of the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist. And despite what my former Baptist friends and colleagues may think, the doctrine of the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist has been believed by Christians since the very beginning. Even a cursory review of the early Church Fathers reveals a deep and universal belief that the that the bread and wine become the body and blood of Christ, with many of the Fathers referring to the consecrated elements as the same flesh and blood that suffered and died on the cross.
It was not until the early Middle Ages that the Church felt the need to further define how the change occurred. Like many dogmatic statements throughout the centuries, the formal doctrine of transubstantiation was formulated in response to a French theologian who, in short, denied the doctrine of the Real Presence. This notion of transubstantiation restated the doctrine of the Real Presence, which is fine, but it but went further in trying to explain how the change happens by superimposing Greek philosophical terms like “substance” and “accident” onto Christian theology. There had never been a need to even talk about how the change happened, and this overreaction on the part of the Church helped contribute to the schism that happened a few hundred years later. Since then, theologians have been fighting about precisely how it happens, but in my view, they’ve continued a discussion that continues to be unnecessary and unhelpful. In the opening hymn, we sang these words, speaking about the Jesus in the Eucharist: “Thou art here, we ask not how.”
Around the same time that the doctrine of transubstantiation was defined, today’s feast of Corpus Christi – the body and blood of Christ – became widespread. It grew out of Maundy Thursday which we celebrated nine weeks ago. On that day, the Church celebrates the institution of the Holy Eucharist in that upper room so long ago. But Maundy Thursday also commemorates the institution of the priesthood, and Jesus’s washing of his disciples’ feet, making it quite the busy liturgy. Because the Eucharist can easily get lost in all of the hustle and bustle of the Maundy Thursday, and in conjunction with an increasing number of the faithful being devoted to the Eucharist in a special way, there began to be calls for a special feast solely focused on the Eucharist, and the feast of Corpus Christi was instituted throughout the whole Western church in 1264 A.D.
Fast forward to the Protestant Reformation a few hundred years later. Corpus Christi was abolished in England. Why? Because Corpus Christi had come to represent all of the excesses of medieval Catholicism that disgusted folks like Martin Luther and Thomas Cramner. Many churches celebrated a procession after Mass on this day in which the Blessed Sacrament is placed in a monstrance and carried by the priest under a tent throughout the neighborhood. To give you a feel for the Reformers’ view on Eucharistic exposition, all I have to do is quote Article XXV from 39 Articles of Religion, the original doctrinal statement of the Reformed English Church: “The Sacraments were not ordained of Christ to be gazed upon, or to be carried about, but that we should duly use them.” Or how about this from Article XXVIII: “Transubstantiation (or the change of the substance of Bread and Wine) in the Supper of the Lord, cannot be proved by Holy Writ; but is repugnant to the plain words of Scripture, overthroweth the nature of a Sacrament, and hath given occasion to many superstitions.”
Remember that the Articles of Religion were formulated in a time when yes, there were Eucharistic processions, but practically speaking, lay people weren’t allowed to receive communion except for a few times a year. The average Christian’s Eucharistic piety was not about receiving the body and blood of Christ for his or her redemption, it was all about gazing upon it – when the priest elevated the host and the chalice during the Eucharistic prayer, and at moments when the sacrament was exposed in a monstrance. The Reformers responded by saying, no, the primary purpose of communion is to eat it, as Christ commanded us to do, but they may have overreacted a bit in response to the Roman excesses of the day. And despite claiming that they never change their minds on matters of doctrine, sometimes Rome comes around to our position on things. In 1971, the Anglican-Roman Catholic International Commission reached agreement on Eucharistic doctrine, relegating the term “transubstantiation” to a footnote, in which it is said to affirm the fact of the ‘mysterious and radical change’ rather than to explain how the change takes place.
On Maundy Thursday, the joy of commemorating the institution of the Eucharist is overshadowed by what we all know will happen the next day: the Lord’s awful death on that tree at Calvary. It is meet and right for us to rediscover the baby that the Reformers threw out with the bathwater when they abolished this great feast of Corpus Christi. And as much fun as a Eucharistic procession around downtown Kansas City sounds, we’ll have to wait until next year, for the canopy or tent we have is in ill-repair and is a bit too somber. Next year’s procession will be grand!
In the meantime, let us rejoice in the great gift God has given us in the Holy Eucharist in which the inward and spiritual grace of the Body and Blood of Christ is given to us in the outward and visible signs of bread and wine. Let us sing hymns of gladness, and wear the finest vestments, and use the gold communion vessels. Let us revel in the mystery of what we’re about to behold at this altar – that God would use ordinary creatures of bread and wine to join us with all the saints in heaven and on earth in the eternal banquet of love which began on the hill at Calvary and continues each time we obey Christ’s commandment to “do this in remembrance of me.” Let us give thanks to God that while we may struggle with the mysteriousness nature of the change that happens, in the bread and the wine we are made one body with Christ, that he may dwell in us, and we in him. And as we gaze upon the elements at the elevations in a moment, let us join with St. Thomas Aquinas in proclaiming these words which the schola will sing at the offertory: “Hail, true Body, born of the Virgin Mary, having truly suffered, sacrificed on the cross for mankind, from whose pierced side water and blood flowed: be for us a foretaste in the trial of death! O sweet Jesus, O holy Jesus, O Jesus, son of Mary, have mercy on me.” And let our pious gazing upon our Lord in the bread and the wine make us yearn to receive Him just as the deer yearns for streams of water. Amen.
 F.. L. Cross and E.. A. Livingstone, eds., The Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1997), 1637.
St. Mary’s Episcopal Church
The Rev’d Charles Everson
Isaiah 6:1-13, 1 Corinthians 15:1-11
June 9, 2019
The audio recording of this sermon can be found here.
When I think of Pentecost Day, I immediately think of the scene as Luke describes it in the book of Acts with the tongues of fire and the and the early Christians being given the ability to speak in other languages.
The apostle John’s version of Pentecost is quite different. Instead of large crowds and what appeared to be drunken behavior, we get the intimacy of Jesus’s final moments with his disciples. These are the same disciples who followed him during his ministry on earth only to be devastated by his execution at Calvary. While they were overjoyed to discover that he rose from the dead three days later, his post-resurrection appearances were confusing to them, and ultimately, when Jesus ascended into heaven 40 days after Easter, they were faced with this question: What happens when Jesus is no longer around? Will we ever get to experience his presence again, or will we be left all alone?
The opening line in this scene is Philip prompting Jesus to “show us the Father, and we will be satisfied.” Just before this passage, Jesus tells the disciples that he’s going to the Father and about his desire to take them with him. Thomas interrupts Jesus to ask him how they can “know the way” to where he is going, and Jesus responds, “I am the way, and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me. If you know me, you will know my Father also. From now on you do know him and have seen him.”
So, we shouldn’t be surprised at Jesus’ rebuke of Philip’s somewhat silly request. I mean, Jesus had just explained all of this. But he uses Philip’s prompting to go deeper by describing his relationship with God the Father. This relationship might be described as a “mutual indwelling.” “I am in the Father and the Father is in me.” John uses this mutual indwelling between Jesus and the Father as a window – an icon – into how God will relate to the community of faith we call the church.
We could spend a lot of time getting into the nuance of Trinitarian theology, but let’s just cut to the chase about the nature of this relationship: Jesus promises his fledgling church that he will not leave them orphaned. In the King James translation, which you will hear the choir sing in a moment, he says, “I will not leave you comfortless,” one of the most beautiful promises in all of Scripture. This term “comfortless” or “orphaned” signifies the lack of parents and the unconditional love that good parents exhibit toward their children. Jesus says, “I will give you another Comforter, the Holy Spirit…you know him, because he abides with you, and he will be in you.”
Just as Jesus is in the Father and the Father is in him, so is the Holy Spirit in the Church and the Church in the Holy Spirit. To this fragile community of new Christians, these words were words of balm and peace. No, he would not leave them comfortless. Through the Spirit, they would have constant, eternal access to Jesus, and to the Father.
Thanks be to God, the nature of the Holy Spirit’s presence in the church isn’t left up to our imagination. Jesus says that the Holy Spirit will remind them of all that he said to them. The Spirit doesn’t teach new truths, or do things differently than Jesus did. The presence of the Comforter brings Jesus to mind, and it is Jesus who is the way, the truth, and the life. The Holy Spirit quite simply points us to Jesus.
Over the past two years, I’ve told you all many stories about my time as a Southern Baptist minister – some several times, I’m sure! – but I think this story might be new to this pulpit. The pastor at the little country church where I served as music minister in college didn’t have much theological education under his belt. His sermons were very similar week after week, but unlike most Southern Baptists, he paced back and forth and got very worked up emotionally…especially when talking about the Holy Spirit. Bro. James liked to refer to the “Holy Ghost” like we do in our liturgy, but unlike what you’re experiencing right now, mentions of the Holy Ghost were usually accompanied by fist waving…like this. One day, he and I were talking, and I brought up some area in my life where I was struggling and asked him to pray for me. During his prayer, he began to “speak in tongues.” I won’t try to imitate what he was doing, but I was awfully confused and felt uneasy…almost eerily afraid. These utterances coming out of his mouth were strange. It sounded like he was repeating himself over and over again in some sort of simple language I’d never heard, but with a repetitive cadence that was quite frankly creepy. I remember thinking, “Is this what the early Christians sounded like on the day of Pentecost when others thought they may have been drunk?” I never felt like my question was answered satisfactorily until I came to St. Mary’s Episcopal Church in Kansas City. One of our members who isn’t here today and thus can’t defend himself came out of the Charismatic Movement and demonstrated to me how he was taught to speak in tongues. I mean, it was almost exactly the same thing that I heard that day in 2001 in rural Arkansas, but this time, the person “speaking in tongues” explained the vocal and nasal inflections needed to make these particular sounds. We would need at least an hour to dive in to the merits of the theology behind speaking in tongues, but I want to point out what St. Paul said to the Corinthians at the end of his discourse on speaking in tongues: “God is not the author of confusion, but of peace.”
After announcing the coming of the Holy Spirit to his disciples, Jesus says, “Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled, and do not let them be afraid.”
The peace that Jesus is talking about isn’t the opposite of war. He’s not talking about a peaceful moment in the mountains, or the peace that one might feel after drinking a few glasses of wine. Jesus is talking about a deeply rooted peace that comes when you humble yourself before God and say, “I’m a sinner in need of redemption. I can’t do this alone. I need to be in community with other people who feel this way too.” Jesus is talking about a peace that only comes when you allow yourself to recognize that despite all of your flaws, despite your desire to sin and your repeated decisions to commit sins, despite the fact that you’ve failed to love God and keep his commandments…despite all of that, you allow yourself to recognize that you’ve been unconditionally forgiven. That you are loved. This is the peace that comes when you view yourself the way God views you – as the Beloved.
The catechism in our prayer book poses the question, “How do we recognize the presence of the Holy Spirit in our lives?” “We recognize the presence of the Holy Spirit when we confess Jesus Christ as Lord and are brought into love and harmony with God, with ourselves, with our neighbors, and with all creation.” This is the peace that Jesus left with his disciples. He promised that he would not leave them comfortless. And he fulfilled that promise by giving them the Holy Spirit, the Comforter. God longs for each of us to see ourselves like he sees us: sinners in need of redemption, but ultimately, completely and totally loved by God despite all of our faults. He longs for us to be in love and harmony with Him, with other people, and even with all of creation. And he longs to give us that peace that the world cannot give by pouring out his grace on his Church – even here at 13th and Holmes in the year 2019.
In a moment, God’s grace – God’s unearned and undeserved favor toward us – will be poured out by the power of the Holy Spirit on this altar in the bread and wine of Holy Communion. As a community of believers, we will offer and present ourselves, our souls and bodies, to be a living sacrifice to God. And of his great mercy, God will fill us with his grace and make us one body with him, that he may dwell in us, and we in him.
Of course, there’s a rich irony in the contrast between the outpouring of the Spirit in the craziness of that first Pentecost Day, and the orderliness of the Spirit’s outpouring at a Solemn High Mass in a Gothic church with exquisite music and liturgy. This irony highlights the fact that while we are sure that Holy Spirit works through the Sacraments of the Church, she is not constrained by them.
Friends, this Pentecost Day, let us pray for a fresh outpouring of the Holy Spirit on this community – St. Mary’s Episcopal Church. By the power of the Spirit, let us confess Jesus Christ as Lord and be brought into love and harmony with God, with ourselves, with our neighbors, and with all creation. Let us recommit ourselves to coming together as a community to faithfully receive God’s love outpoured for us in the Sacraments of the Church day in and day out, and let us open our hearts and minds to how the Holy Spirit may be at work around us in unexpected ways. In the words of our closing hymn, let us pray that the Spirit’s flame may break out within us, fire our hearts and clear our sight, till white-hot in God’s possession, we, too, set the world alight. Amen.
 John 14:1-7.
 David Lyon Bartlett, and Barbara Brown Taylor. Feasting on the Word. Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary. Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2009, 29.
 This paragraph is largely from Bartlett 22, Theological Perspective.
 1 Cor 14:33, KJV.
 BCP 852.
 BCP 336.
 Michael Hewett, Praise the Spirit in Creation. The Hymnal 1982 #506.
The audio recording of today's sermon can be found here.
Today’s Gospel reading from John recounts the final words of Jesus before his arrest, trial, and crucifixion. In anticipation of his separation from his disciples, Jesus gathers them for their last meal together, preaches his final message to them, and concludes with a parting prayer – his farewell. In the prayer, Jesus asks God to unite his disciples and followers and make them all be one: “For you, Father, are in me and I am in you, may they also be in us…The glory that you have given me I have given them, so that they may be one, as we are one, I in them and you in me that they may become completely one…” (John 17:21-22). In his prayer for unity, Jesus envisions the relationship of the Father and the Son as the model and foundation for the relationship of his followers to one another. Just as the Father and the Son form a perfect and harmonious union, we, too, are called to be united with one another.
But if we look at the historical experience of the Church over the past two thousand years, we have fallen far short of this goal of unity for which Jesus prayed. Christian history is filled with strife and division. From the letters of the Apostle Paul in the New Testament, we read about the various theological disputes in the early church, such as whether to keep Jewish customs like circumcision and dietary laws. Then, there are the many heresies and schisms that plagued the first centuries of the church: Gnosticism, Arianism, Pelagianism, and so on. About a thousand years after the founding of the Church, the Christian world in the eleventh century suffered its first major division, when the churches on the eastern side of the Mediterranean and those on the western side mutually condemned each other. The eastern wing of the Church became the Orthodox, and the western, the Roman Catholic. Then, about a half century later came the Protestant Reformation, when the unity of the Church in the West was forever shattered, and countless different churches proliferated. You probably didn’t realize you were going to get a lecture on church history today, but that’s what you get when you hire a historian as your priest. I will restrain myself, though, and stop there – at least for now.
One of the most common questions that both Christians and non-Christians ask about Christianity – and it is often a stumbling block to faith – is why there are so many churches: Episcopal, Baptist, Presbyterian, Methodist, Roman Catholic, Orthodox. The fact of the matter is we Christians have not done such a good job fulfilling Jesus’ prayer for unity. Even in our own denomination, the Episcopal Church, we have recently suffered tragic divisions over issues of gender and sexuality.
And I have to confess that I am no impartial observer of the divisiveness. I am symptomatic of the divisiveness. I am complicit in the divisiveness. Let me give you a very recent example. This past week, I went to my office as usual at the University of Central Missouri in Warrensburg where I teach. As I drove in, I saw all these people, mostly young teenagers, that I would ordinarily not see on campus. The boys were wearing monochromatic dress shirts with slacks, and the girls were wearing long dresses, some of them wearing head coverings. This was quite a change from seeing our students during the school year with their sweats, flip-flops, and even pajama bottoms. It turned out that the university had rented space to a fundamentalist Christian group that runs private schools and homeschooling, and they were holding their annual conference. In my initial response, my prejudices and biases immediately kicked in. I thought to myself: “They look and act strange. They hold onto values that contradict my own.” Quite frankly, I found their presence intrusive and inconvenient. Needless to say, I wasn’t thinking very positive thoughts. And I am sure that if they were to see me today in my vestments and our liturgy at St. Mary’s or if they had seen me this past Friday evening at our church booth for the Kansas City Pridefest, they wouldn’t think such positive thoughts about me.
If I could have it my way, I would prefer to avoid or ignore such people altogether. But here is the problem. They belong to the same Christian faith that I profess, and, what’s more, Jesus calls us to be one. How do we do that? How do we work for unity with people who are so different from us? For many of us, the issue of Christian unity is more than just an abstract theological problem. We have family, friends, neighbors, and work colleagues who belong to different and often conflicting branches of Christianity. In what ways can we achieve in our daily, personal interactions the kind of unity of faith envisioned by Jesus?
The technical term for working toward Christian unity is ecumenism. And I am no expert on ecumenism. But I would like to offer up some ideas and suggestions as we reflect on this challenge of Christian unity. To begin with, we can focus on what we share in common rather than what divides us. In spite of the variety of different expressions, there are certain basic, core beliefs and practices that define us as Christians. The great Anglican writer, C.S. Lewis, calls this “mere Christianity,” and it is the title of his book, which many of you may have read. The book explains the core of the Christian faith, our common ground with all Christians. This ecumenical vision is also central to the work of our current Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church, Michael Curry. He calls our church “the Episcopal wing of the Jesus Movement.” Whether you call it mere Christianity or the Jesus Movement, all Christians hold in common the core beliefs that Jesus Christ is Savior and Lord, and that the Bible is the Word of God. Moreover, central to the practice of our faith are the Sacraments of Baptism and Holy Communion; these are the core rituals that define and distinguish Christian faith. In a moment, Norah will be baptized, and in the waters of baptism, she will be uniting not only with our community of faith here at St. Mary’s but with the community of all Christians on earth and in heaven. Likewise, as we come up for the Eucharist, we will join countless other Christians around the world this day to unite with Christ through his Body and Blood. Sadly, in the midst of all our divisions and squabbling, we often lose sight of these common bonds of faith.
Another way to work for unity in our faith is to pray together. This past Thursday, we had a glorious Evensong and Benediction in celebration of the Ascension, and, following the service, several of us have accepted the invitation from the Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, to join him in the global prayer movement called Thy Kingdom Come. From Ascension to the Pentecost, which is next Sunday, we will join Anglicans around the world as well as with Christians from many other denominations in daily prayer as we seek to bring more people to come to know Jesus Christ. Through such movements of common prayer, we lay aside our differences and divisions, and unite and lift up our voices together to the throne of God.
Focusing on our common faith and praying together can promote Christian unity, but for the ultimate answer to the question of how we Christians can become one, we return to the passage from the Gospel of John that we heard earlier. It is here that Jesus himself points the way to unity. In the conclusion to his prayer, Jesus asks the Father that “the love with which you have loved me may be in them, and I in them” (Matthew 17:26). Love defines the relationship between the Father and the Son, and it is that same love that will bind together all of us. Perhaps the most eloquent and concrete definition of Christian love in Scripture is found in the words of the Apostle Paul in that famous chapter on love from I Corinthians 13:
Love is patient; love is kind; love is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth. It bears all things believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. (I Corinthians 13: 5-7)
Dear sisters and brothers in Christ, let us join together to work for the unity and oneness of faith for which Jesus prayed. Let us focus on what we share in common, let us pray together, let us love one another as Christ has loved us. In spite of our divisions, we are, in the end, one family of faith – children of God.
The sermons preached at St. Mary's Episcopal Church, Kansas City, are posted here!