Fifth in Easter (4-29): “Abiding in Love”

1 John 4:7-21; John 15:1-8

We are digging down into the multiple layers of what the resurrection means for us, and how these layers point us forward to life in the Spirit, which we celebrate at Pentecost. Last week, we dug into the first layer: we are in the first place freed for feasting, for enjoying creation. Christ’s resurrection assures us of forgiveness of sins, freeing us from anxiety about not only our past mistakes, but the infinite call of duty upon us, all the things we become aware of that we could be doing—and nothing brings that home like the enormous scope of our environmental problems. The first meaning of resurrection, then, is recognizable as freedom, the freedom to enjoy the goods made available to us, without self-deception or guilt, by the grace of creation.

But today we go another layer deeper into the good news of the Resurrection: abiding in love. And this next layer is also freedom, but calling it that might confuse us. Because especially we Americans think freedom is purely an individual thing. I am freed from all my responsibilities, all the expectations laid on me, all the roles I have to play; free to be me, to do my own thing. One of our favorite images for freedom, often seen in moves, is zooming down an open stretch of highway, all alone, no cops in sight. And that can be a genuine good of our created being.

But let’s consider the greatest joy I’ve ever known: being a parent. I entered into this freely, I suppose, although it doesn’t always work out that way—and I bet some of you know what I’m talking about. But more than a free choice, becoming a parent grew out of my love for Jessica, and that’s how it should be (again, doesn’t always work out that way). So becoming a father wasn’t at the start really about my individual freedom; I didn’t do it for me. And now that I’m a father, I’m not free to stop being one. Some fathers have tried to stop being fathers; it never works. You just become a lousy father. But the un-freedom of parenthood is bound up closely with the joy of parenthood. My life is now indelibly bound with this other life, and it always will be. I live no longer for myself; I live for another. And in his way, he lives for me, though that mutual love always comes to me like an unexpected bonus (like every time I get an “I love you, Daddy” card). / Parenthood teaches us that the very best joys of life are never had by me doing my own thing. I’ll take being a father or husband over the freedom to go skiing or skydiving or roaring down the highway (on my dinky scooter), any day. Or, putting it differently, real freedom is found only in love. Real freedom is to be freed from loneliness, and to be united with another, with someone beyond yourself. Ultimately, of course, real freedom is found in loving union with God and with all things in God.

But today we’re focusing on abiding in love with one another. We get the message loud and clear from the First Letter of John: Beloved, let us love one another, because love is from God; everyone who loves is born of God and knows God.” And later: “God is love, and those who abide [or remain] in love abide in God, and God abides in them.” This is the strongest and clearest connection made in the whole Bible between the very nature of God as love and what we do as a loving community. We the church, when we are true, have the same essence as God does: love. John’s not saying just that God feels love, but God is love. God’s very being is love. God is not like some Grampa in the sky who is a big softie, spoiling us with goodies and neglecting to correct us. Our triune God’s very life is revealed to be like a loving relationship and mutual giving between the Father or Mother, the source of all, and the loving and obedient child, best displayed in Jesus the Christ, and the loving effects of that mutual giving on the circle of witnesses and followers which includes us—that’s the Spirit. These are three forms of love: the source of love from deep within and beyond all things; the perfection by which Christ displays and mirrors that love from within creation; and the inspiration and growth of love within Godly community. God is all of that; God is love.

God is in the love we share as a community. Really. When you say the word “God,” just throw out that image of the old man in the sky. Throw out the idea of the Wizard of Oz behind the scene of your life, pulling strings. Instead, look around you. God is not only here in this room. But if there’s love in this room, God is in this room. Consider what is perhaps the key sentence, one easily overlooked: “As he is [as God is], so we are in this world.” By our love for one another, we are God’s existence in the world.

That much is clear, although still very mysterious and hard to grasp. It is simple, but we keep wanting to stick God up there in some beyond, or sometimes in me, secluded in my private heart. Even if we grasp what John is saying, we have an even harder time really living up to the love that God is, right here among us. And in an odd way, John’s letter mirrors the evasiveness of this simple truth, that God is love abiding in us, and mirrors our confusion about it. That at least is my attempt to put a positive spin on the fact that I find John’s writing baffling and a little annoying. Every sentence reads like a gnomic utterance, something a robed wise one might say from the top of a mountain. And then another, and another. And the gnomic utterances pile up and seem to jut into each other, leaving you to say, “Wha?” We’d much prefer something like: “Ten (or better, five) easy steps to being a more loving you.” Instead, each of John’s sentences starts from a different beginning; there’s nothing step-by-step about it. He says all of this: You know God by loving. You only know God because God loved us. You only know God (and thus know love) because of Christ Jesus. God only sent Jesus because God loved us. God only lives in us because of the Spirit. God only lives in us because we testify that Jesus is God’s son. Which is it?

Maybe it’s all of them. Maybe John is trying to blow our minds with all the multiple dimensions of the love we have in community. It does seem to make sense for him, because after the jumble of sentences, he comes back to the simple and lucid truth of it in verse 16: “God is love, and those who abide in love abide in God, and God abides in them,”—in us plural, notice, not in us individually. I think John is brilliantly grasping the profound truth of the Trinity. So whether we are talking about God above, or Jesus Christ revealed in the fullness of time 2000 years ago, or the Spirit which is the power of God among us today, or even if we are talking about us as a loving community—all of this is God, and it all goes together. And if you try to remove any of the pieces, the fullness of the whole thing is lost. You don’t have the God who is love without Jesus Christ; you don’t have God’s love in Christ without the Spirit reaching out to us; but even if you know all about Jesus and the Spirit, you don’t really have or understand the God of love if your community is not practicing love.

It might not boil down to “The five easy steps,” but there is a right order to this Trinitarian display of love. It begins with a proclamation about God first loving us; indeed, John says that: “We love because God first loved us.” God loved first, God chose to be love, we might say. Second, but equal with God’s first loving, Jesus Christ revealed that love long before we were born. This is the message of Easter, when we simply proclaim what God has done.

And indeed, John even seems to say that wherever there is love, there is God. Knowing that the same Jesus who showed us love is one with the creator, we can even proclaim that God is everywhere that love is found. And this would hold for people of other religions, or of no religion. It is not false to say, anyone who loves knows God. (But to be sure, John wants to affirm that the fullness of knowing God as love is to be found in knowing Jesus.)

The order continues: from God’s love first and above us, to Christ’s love beside us but before us, to the love presently found among us. But we can’t proclaim ourselves, if we are honest. God is with us and in us but we are not God. So when it comes to us, what began as an Easter proclamation leads to a solemn charge: “We also ought to love one another.” And even warnings: “Whoever does not love, does not know God.” “Those who do not love a brother or sister whom they have seen, cannot love God whom they have not seen.” Our Easter proclamation finds its completion in a Pentecost-directed summons: We must complete the love of God in ourselves. We are called to live up to John’s assertion: “Love has been perfected in us.” When we can affirm that, we shall also be full of God’s Spirit, and we shall have no fear.

We are not yet at Pentecost. We are not yet full of the Spirit. Yet I’m not going to dwell on our shortcomings; that belongs in Lent. Easter is the time to deepen our understanding of just what the resurrection means for us. Beyond receiving back the simple joy of being alive, the resurrection also redeems us, delivers us, saves us from bondage to ourselves and frees us for love. It brings us forgiveness of sins, yes, but also fills us with the tremendous opportunity and gift of a new way of life, life of under the reign of love that we would otherwise have no knowledge of. And this life of love is a mighty summons, not to cringe in fear or guilt, but to aspire to perfection. Perfection is possible, because perfect love casts out all fear, and for the reason that we can love because God first loved us.

How perfect is the love among us will be tested. Tested especially whenever we have crises in our community. There will be eruptions of chaos; breeches in the smooth sailing. Marriages will fail. Friendships will falter. Parents will fall short. Children will go astray. People will make mistakes. We will all at one time or another be found in a potentially embarrassing or shameful situation. And our character as a community of love will be revealed not by whether we share a friendly hello in the parking lot; not by our ability to make pleasant small talk at fellowship hour—though these are something like the regular heartbeat of loving one another. But our love will be proven in the moments of trial and how each of us responds to the chaos erupting in another’s life. When that happens, the only safe and loving response is: “I’m so sorry. What can I do to help?” The safe response is to say something directly to the person or people affected, reaffirming our indelible love for one another, just when that person is wondering, will that love still be there for me now? And beyond direct words of love, we should hold silence. As soon as we say to a third party, “Did you hear what happened to…,” we are in dangerous territory. We might say that out of love, out of concern, but information also becomes currency in the market called gossip. And I catch myself thinking, “Wait ‘til so and so hears about this one.” Believe me, Ginette and I are tempted to gossip about all of you in the office. But that’s not loving. That’s just giving ourselves a rush by divulging third-person secrets.

This church has done that, like just about any other community. And each little act of it seems relatively harmless: I’m just going to tell so and so. But as a result, there are people who no longer want to entrust the chaos of their lives to us for compassion and healing. There are those who no longer believe that God’s love can reliably be found among us, pure and true. And the loss of that trust means the difference between someone finding God’s own being here in our loving midst, and finding disappointment, the same old disappointing humanity that we encounter just about everywhere.

Thanks to Christ we have this tremendous gift, the gift of establishing a community of real love and absolute trust in one another. Where else are people even trying to do that? But as First John reminds us, this gift is also a momentous responsibility. We can lose the divine presence among us, every time we speak and act falsely in a time of each other’s need. We can dispel the Spirit of God, the love of God in us, with a mere thoughtless word. There are times in the church when everything, God’s own being, is riding on the smallest word.

The life we share in Christian community is no free ride, knowing God will forgive us anyway. But neither do I mean to say that we should be paralyzed with guilty and fearful consciences; perfect love drives out fear. Life in Christian community is neither easier nor harder than ordinary life, it’s just way more intense: the goods are higher, the bads are lower, because we are living in the presence of the eternal and perfect God. Let us honor this life, not in fear but in joy, celebrating the many times that we have brought the love of God to each other with just the right word, gesture, or feeling, and anticipating that at any or maybe every moment, that opportunity will present itself to us again. And when you hear that temptation poking you, saying: “Ooh! Can’t you hardly wait to tell so and so about this?” Say “Be gone, Satan! I’m going to let love and compassion and mercy and justice rule in my heart and my word and my deed, to the glory of Christ and the Holy Spirit in us.”


Second in Ordinary/Baptism of Christ (January 14). First in Love of God series: “Jesus the Beloved”


Gen 1:1-5 ; Mark 1:4-11

I promised a series on the Love of God during Advent. Nothing so encapsulates who we are and what we are about as a church as the Love of God. So the Love of God gives us a point to rally around and in which to find our unity; this is just what we need as we approach our annual meeting. And yet the mystery that underlies the love of God is bottomless. (So I haven’t figured out how long this series will go!)

Most of us agree that love is central to who God is, and also that Jesus has something important to do with God’s love. But we might not be sure or agree about what that is. So I want to take this sermon series to rethink God’s love through Jesus. Today I want to explore how Jesus holds together God’s love with God’s justice.

That point is important to make, for when we hear the “Love of God,” many of us will hear in that phrase a contrast to the justice of God. Love and justice are opposite, we might think. Love forgives, justice punishes. There’s some truth to that. But then we end up with a God who is two-faced. As if sometimes God is loving, other times God judges and punishes. How then can we sing, “Great is Thy Faithfulness” with its line, “There is no shadow of turning in thee?” I think we’ve made a mistake. I think that the deeper into God’s love you penetrate, the more you find it united to God’s judgment; and vice versa.

Now, part of the reason we think love and justice are different is that we assume love means affirming someone as she is. (We believe this: “Wherever you are…” We are open and affirming.) Well that’s good; giving affirmation to others is for us a vital and important component of love. Now, we also happen to live in an era in which many believe self-affirmation and high self-esteem are the surest ticket to human goodness. “Learning to love yourself is the greatest love of all.” (No, that’s not in the Bible. That’s secular wisdom, and we should be wary of it.)

On the other hand, we assume judgment means disapproving of someone as he is. And we try to avoid judging people; we associate judging with being judgmental, and truly that is a bad quality, in part because being judgmental means we are assuming the authority to sum up everything someone is and pronounce approval or disapproval. To do so is to put ourselves in God’s place. But God reminds us: vengeance is mine. So for us, we rightly love and affirm a lot, but judge and disapprove a little or never (I hope). Love and judging are very different.

But are they so different in God? Are love and judgment in God mutually exclusive like this? Or have we taken our human idea of love and justice and projected them onto God; God who said, “My ways are not your ways.” Have we said, well, if loving for me means affirming people as they are, then when God loves us, God must affirm us as we are? And God wouldn’t judge us, right? After all, the least God can do is to live up to our standards of good behavior.

Well, we should ask ourselves whether God’s love must have this same quality of affirmation and self-esteem building that has become popular in the last 40 years. Perhaps we’ve concluded that God must love us by making us feel good about who we are. And then we’ve concluded that since God loves like that, like a good parent who never says anything negative, then God can’t possibly be a judging God. And so we’ve ended up with the idea that love and judgment are simply opposed, and God can’t both be loving and just, in the sense of condemning what is wrong in us, or even just showing us that our glory lies still in our future.

And then we become very puzzled by Scripture. The Bible just doesn’t say that God loves us by affirming who we are. So we resort to dividing the Bible up between the good parts and the bad parts. (Now I am the first to admit that there are some bad parts of the Bible, at least parts that are very troubling and don’t seem useful.) And so doesn’t just about everyone say, The God of the Old Testament is a judging God, but the God of the NT is loving. I hear that all the time. It’s a little dangerous because it can go in an anti-Jewish direction, recalling my sermons from last August, as if the Jewish God is the bad, judging God. But it’s also just patently false. God is loving in both testaments; and God justly judges in both testaments. Even a quick reading of the Gospels will show you a Jesus who is very critical of his society’s religious leaders, even of “this whole generation;” and he is also quick to rebuke his disciples.  Our idea of a meek and mild Jesus who just wants to make everyone feel good is a myth—an idol.

So it seems we have placed our limited and faulty idea of /what love is/ upon God; we’ve remade God in our image. And that is how God’s people from the very first have so easily found themselves worshipping an idol instead of the true God. The true God is not divided; God is never forced to choose between being loving and just. God is one, even if God looks one way rather than another to our fallen little minds. But the more we immerse ourselves in God’s wholeness, or the more we ascend into God’s infinite and eternal being, the more we can perceive the oneness of God, the sameness of God’s love and justice.   Of course, none of us ever rises to perfectly see God in this way.

So thank God we have Jesus our Christ to guide our weak powers of perception, and to protect us from our tendency toward recasting God into our limited image of God. As I said last week, by the incarnation in Jesus the Christ, God showed God’s own infinite being to us in a way we could grasp and live with. If God hadn’t shrunk himself to our size in a way that still contained God’s whole and infinite being, then we would inevitably do so for ourselves, shrinking God into a idol that we can handle, thereby losing the God who is truly our Lord, and never the other way around.

It is Jesus the Christ who holds together all that God is, including both love and justice, in a way that brings us life. In Christ we are loved and forgiven by God, yes; but also in him we are truly judged and our flaws and sin are made known and purged away.

I want try to be very clear on this difficult point about Jesus. He is not just a delivery person for the good gifts of God. He doesn’t show up at our door and drop off good things from God, certainly not things like wealth and success, as some Christians persist in believing, but not even the gifts that are unquestionably good, like our Advent virtues of hope, love, joy, and peace. Jesus doesn’t present these to us like a passage which then becomes our property, receiving our thanks and perhaps a tip, and then we add these goods to our other valued items like family, prosperity, meaningful careers, and so on. Neither is baptism a conveyer of gifts which we then own, whether we think of the gifts as salvation, forgiveness, or even meaningful ‘spiritual experiences.’ Of course we do experience tangible benefits from faith in Christ, although if we lived in a different time or place we might just as easily experience persecution and suffering for our faith. If Jesus just delivered the goods to us as our property, and if baptism in his name just magically conveyed some powers or benefits to us, we wouldn’t need to read and ponder so much about his life, about the things he did and said. We could just talk about our own experiences of God’s benefits, with a nod to Jesus our delivery man.

Here’s the way it really is: the blessings we have from Jesus all come second to, and indeed grow out of, the blessing we have in Jesus. That is, the greatest blessing we receive, and the principle blessing of baptism, is that we die to ourselves and now live our life in Jesus the Christ. Now, this is where you might say to yourself, “there goes the pastor again, being obscure, sounding like an academic, instead of preaching about things that are meaningful to my life.” Now, I have been known to do that, fair enough. But not this time. I am simply preaching the great mystery of the gospel, the great mystery of baptism, and maybe you have a hard time understanding it because you’d rather focus on the blessings that you get to call your own. I like those things too. But those blessings might just be good luck, or our vain wishes. So we need to listen to the mystery of baptism as Paul describes it (and I’m just explaining what he says in Romans):

“Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? Therefore we have been buried with him by baptism into death, so that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, so we too might walk in newness of life.”

Let me try to make this clear: the greatest blessing and gift we get from Christ and from baptism is to have my ego taken away, my ME, my entrapment within my own cares, my own way of seeing things, and especially my own hang-ups and problems; but also the ME that people have put down, and all my insecurities that come from that. Jesus doesn’t give you a whole bunch of good things, so much as he takes away your life. We like to say, we’re saved! But it is truer to say that you lose your life. And if you are really attached to your ego, to having things my way, to the world revolving around me, or if you accept that you are low as your harassers have been saying you are, baptism is going to feel like you are drowning. But once you realize how wonderful it is to be freed from the prison of Me and Mine, and to be raised into being Christ’s and God’s, you will really feel the gift of salvation; then you will know peace and joy and love and hope like you never have; then shall suffering becoming bearable and all your fears will be conquered. This is the love of God that is also justice; the love that slays our old self in a way that might feel like a punishing fire, until we realize it is really the warmth and light of love.

Jesus holds together God’s love and justice. We see this in his baptism. Jesus wasn’t baptized so he could receive gifts from God. He did not need to be saved from sin. Instead, his baptism was first of all a submission of himself to God and to humanity. It is already a laying down of his life to God, and it is a perfect human act of humility to accept baptism, an act of repentance, not for himself but for all humanity. Jesus’ baptism is the fulfillment of righteousness; it is exactly the right self-giving act that the messiah of God should do. And then by doing this act, Jesus sees the heavens open up to earth, and the voice of God saying, “You are my son, the beloved, with you I am well pleased.” No one else has ever heard those words, so far as we know. Jesus alone receives them, but for us all, so that when we are baptized in the name of Jesus, we also hear those words of love as our own; and then we begin to share in that same Holy Spirit, in the power to participate in God’s justice on earth.

God knows we will not unite love and justice as Jesus did. We do not easily give up our egos; we want to hold on to our lives as at least a little bit our own. That’s ok. We are not called to literally lay down our lives for God. God in goodness and mercy gives us the grace of creation with its pleasures and delights, while also opening us up to the grace of the Holy Spirit, as much as we are called to do. The waters of baptism are the perfect symbol here. They signify to us the death to ourselves and rebirth into God’s life; but because those waters carry the echo from creation in Genesis, baptism also conveys the continuing blessing upon the creation in distinction from God. God also says it is good that we continue as created beings doing our own thing, living our own life. God loves us also like that, even in our sinfulness. But in Jesus we find the love of God that unites us also to God’s justice. And so we will watch and listen as Jesus’ life of loving justice unfolds, showing us a godly humanity that we also can participate in. That story will continue all the way until Holy Week, when we shall see the union of God’s love and justice is all its mystery and splendor.

Second in Advent (12/10): “Putting Love Back Together”

A sparse crowd on Sunday, so I’m glad to be able to post the sermon, which wasn’t a bad one–and it stayed within my new shorter format.  

Isaiah 64:1-9 ; Mark 13:24-37

Words of Assurance: 1 Corinthians 1:3-9

Our lives are so complicated, and even incomprehensible. Each one of us is a puzzle made of almost infinite pieces. In my house, the holidays were always a time to put together jigsaw puzzles—we always said “fixing a puzzle” in our local dialect; I have never liked jigsaw puzzles, but Jessica and now Silas are getting sucked into this family tradition. No thanks. Each of you, and me too, is enough of a puzzle for me. And so we try to ‘fix’ ourselves. We put together stories about ourselves that explain where we came from, where we are going, and why we are the way we are. Our stories about ourselves are insightful and mostly true, but incomplete. They pick out a few pieces of us that make a fairly clear picture. But there are still so many loose pieces that we can’t fit in or can’t even perceive. What is your story about yourself? First, do you have one? You should: writing your own story is a really good exercise for discerning your spiritual life.

But say you’ve got a story about who you are. What else would God see that you don’t? Plenty, I suspect, at least for myself (and I’m almost obsessively self-reflective). God alone sees the whole puzzle, how all the pieces of us fit together. We get glimpses of the loose pieces in our lives that only God sees, whenever we come up against things we do but don’t know why. Why does it annoy me so much when he clears his throat like that? Why do I like what that one commentator has to say, but I dislike the other one even though she seems equally smart and well informed? Why did I let my child become so distant? Why do I just sit here when I know what I should be doing? We could bring in a whole team of pyschologists and therapists to evaluate each one of you; and you would learn something about yourself, although you would feel very exposed, having lost control of your story. In their flawed way, they would tell a different but insightful story about who you are, and they would add some of the puzzle pieces that you had left out, too. That would give us some hint of what else God sees in us.

And God sees that our puzzles are both individual, but also all connected. We are also one big puzzle (now my sisters would be getting really excited—imagine a 7.6 billion piece puzzle!). None of us can see how the whole thing fits together, nor how to fix it. And so we find ourselves asking questions about the larger reality in which we are immersed: why is the world so out of control? Why can’t we come together and solve our problems? How did we get stuck in these collective ruts? Well, we could also invite in the historians, the sociologists, the gender theorists, the economists, the religion scholars, and let’s not forget the literature scholars; and they would first bicker amongst themselves a whole lot, because I know these folks and that’s what they do; but then they would start to show how each of our personal puzzles connects with those of others, and with scattered puzzles all over the world and back through time. And in their own flawed way, they would bring us a little closer to seeing us as God sees us: the whole world, in its naked truth, like an infinitely large and infinitely detailed puzzle.

God sees the good in this puzzle, and God sees the bad. And much that just is what it is. And were we to see what God sees, we would feel humbled, because we thought we knew who we were, but we don’t. And were we to turn our focus on the bad in this great puzzle, we would feel horrified and ashamed, for ourselves and for the whole world. That’s why our faith is so important, because when our eyes catch a glimpse of the bad—even when it’s ‘out there,’ because we deep down know that what’s out there is a part of me too—when we see the bad for what it is, as God sees it, we need to believe that God is merciful and loving, or else we will be undone. “We have all become like one who is unclean, and all our righteous deeds are like a filthy cloth. We all fade like a leaf, and our iniquities, like the wind, take us away.”

We are all one, infinitely complex puzzle which we barely can make out and hardly understand, even the little section of the puzzle that is framed by my body. We throw ourselves on God’s mercy, for God created us, as Isaiah says: “Yet, O LORD, you are our Father; we are the clay, and you are our potter; we are all the work of your hand.” We remember and confess that our origin and our future are in God’s hands. We are clay.

But by the light of Christ, Paul, in our Words of Assurance, sees something greater in us than just clay. God in Christ has called us to a much higher confidence:

I give thanks to my God always for you because of the grace of God that has been given you in Christ Jesus, for in every way you have been enriched in him, in speech and knowledge of every kind–just as the testimony of Christ has been strengthened among you–so that you are not lacking in any spiritual gift as you wait for the revealing of our Lord Jesus Christ. He will also strengthen you to the end, so that you may be blameless on the day of our Lord Jesus Christ. God is faithful; by him you were called into the fellowship of his Son, Jesus Christ our Lord.

We might not always feel like we have been enriched in Christ Jesus, with speech and knowledge of every kind.   We may not feel so strengthened in Christ “that we may be blameless.” We might instead feel like a bunch of scattered puzzle pieces, out of which I have forced a few ill-fitting pieces together to make sense of myself, at least. How do we get to the cheery gratitude that Paul expresses for us, so that we really feel like those “called into the fellowship of God’s son, Jesus Christ our Lord?” That’s what we want to be feeling come Christmas Eve.

Well, I don’t think we just pretend everything is dandy. We can’t ignore this massive, broken puzzle that God sees. We know God sees with love and mercy, but we can’t imagine how God does it, when absolutely everything in the world is laid bare before God’s infinite vision. How do we deal with the infinite complexity that is the puzzle of our world and ourselves?

Here’s where we need a variety of seasons in the church year to help us deal with our own complexity. We need Lent to celebrate Easter truly. We all need Christmas and Epiphany, certainly, to reassure us that God has seen our world for what it is and has nonetheless entered it and joined with it by being born in Bethlehem. But we need another season, set apart, to deal with that “nonetheless.” It is no small thing for God to enter the world, to become in God’s very being one piece of our puzzle, but just so, the one piece in this puzzle that makes sense, and that promises to make sense of the whole thing and to reassemble it into the beautiful picture of the realm of God that was intended all along, before it all got so scattered. It’s easy for us to appreciate the beauty of this one piece which re-centers and re-orients the whole puzzle, placed just so, as when we place the baby Jesus figurine in the manger on Christmas Eve. But we only truly appreciate the beauty of that night when we take a hard look in these four weeks at this mess of a puzzle without Jesus in it. Otherwise Christmas becomes just a Kodak moment, a lovely season of make-believe which is like a dream (or nowadays, a shopping and logistical nightmare) from which we wake up on December 26 and go back to our hopeless world. Advent helps us connect our workaday world, the world of fleeting delights and repetitious drudgery, to the extraordinary time of God, the day of the Lord. It may be helpful to emphasize the contrast. And Advent is indeed a good time to confess that we and our world are not yet full of God; we are still awaiting our salvation. But that’s also the hope—we know what God has in store for us, and we can see signs of hope all around us, even amid the fleeting delights and repetitious drudgery.

So let us keep the fast of Advent. We don’t have to literally fast. But it is a season to keep watch, as our strange reading from the Gospel of Mark has it. Our lectionary brings us this weird reading in Advent, which is echoed by the longing in Isaiah –“O that you would tear open the heavens and come down, so that the mountains would quake at your presence.” I think I get it. Remember there is the first coming of Jesus in Bethlehem, but also a second coming, the return of Christ to judge the world and bring the Kingdom in its completeness. (We don’t talk about it much but it’s in Scripture.) Our lectionary connects the time of waiting to celebrate Christmas with the waiting for that Second Coming.

This is meant to disorient us a little. We are used to thinking about the star over Bethlehem, not “the stars will be falling from heaven, ” as Mark puts it. We think about that dark, silent, Holy Night, but not because “the powers in the heavens will be shaken,” and so the stars, sun, and moon will all fail to give their light. It’s all kind of ominous and unsettling. And we are used to watching for Santa on Christmas Eve, but Jesus is talking about watching for this mysterious Son of Man to come, who seems to be the Jesus we know, but we’re not sure. We know exactly when Christmas comes, but about this the hour when this Son of Man will return, no one knows—neither the angels, nor the son, but only the Father, who apparently is a God of secrets.

All of this is meant to be disorienting, so that we will open ourselves, amid all the dear old sentimental, child-centered traditions of Christmas, to receiving Jesus anew, as a stranger, as if for the first time. So we keep alert, and watch. This is part of the Advent fast—fasting from the easy familiarity that Christmas can breed. We fast by confessing our need, confessing that our salvation is not yet complete, our knowledge of God is still only fragmentary, that we still don’t know what Jesus means for us.

Our particular focus during Advent and then after will be on love. Jesus reveals the love of God, we all know that. What could be more obvious? We’ve heard so often that God loves us, that it passes right over us. We don’t have to think twice about it. Now’s the time to think twice. And then we can rediscover what the love of God is.

When we learn to watch for Jesus’ coming as if for the first time, Advent can both open us to the need of our world for Jesus and his love, and also prepare us for a new disclosure of what God’s love is by this Emmanuel. We learn a little more about this jigsaw puzzle that is us, about the holes in the puzzle where love should be, and so Jesus begins to put it all back together again. And then, after Epiphany, Jesus will call us as his disciples, and we will be ready to follow him and put ourselves and our world back together again.

Last Sunday in Ordinary/Reign of Christ: “Reigning as the Least”

Ephesians 1:15-23

Matthew 25:31-46

Today we celebrate the Reign of Christ. Christ the King of the Universe Sunday is the final Sunday in our liturgical year. This is our New Year’s Eve, liturgically speaking. Next Sunday our new liturgical year begins with Advent, and our whole sanctuary will be transformed into a festive scene of expectation and hope for the coming One, Jesus the Christ born in Bethlehem. /So how is it that we go from celebrating Christ as our king one Sunday, to waiting for him to arrive the next?

Well, we should note that celebrating the Reign of Christ on the final Sunday of the liturgical year is not an ancient tradition at all; the festival began in 1925 and only later was moved to the current Sunday. But it makes sense to me. Recall that we’ve been in ordinary time since June 4, Pentecost. For these five months we’ve been trying to be the living presence of Christ and Christ’s kingdom here and now, by the power of the Holy Spirit. Like the three slaves from last week’s parable, we have been entrusted with the possessions of the master. And we have been working hard to benefit God’s estate until the master returns. We are not laboring in vain. Our work as a church is not a pointless gesture, a Quixotic effort that we know will never succeed (“To Dream the Impossible Dream”). The world may think that our efforts are dreamy at best, pointless at worst. Reality is cold and brutal, they say; goodness shall never reign in human hearts. People are selfish. The reality is, is things will never change (That’s what people say, with their double ises). You Christians are just living a pipe dream.

Today we respond with a resounding: No! Our work is real work that we expect with real hope is going somewhere. Our work is based on God and God’s own power will complete and perfect our work. Capping off our efforts, including our recent commitment to another year of good stewardship, by lifting high the Reign of Christ is our way of saying: Christ will be King of all! Peace and justice shall reign on the earth. Indeed, today we recognize that already this is so. Christ reigns here and now!

Our reading from Ephesians speaks this truth beautifully. As always, Paul begins his letter by being thankful for the church at Ephesus. We also should begin by being thankful for the church at Granby. “I have heard of your faith in the Lord Jesus and your love toward all the saints, and for this reason I do not cease to give thanks for you…”   But Paul’s being thankful doesn’t at all mean the Ephesians were perfect and complete Christians (nor are we). He goes on to pray for God to give them a spirit of “wisdom and revelation as you come to know him, so that…you may know what is the hope to which he has called you, what are the riches of his glorious inheritance among the saints, and what is the immeasurable greatness of [God’s] power for us who believe.” You see, they don’t know all of that yet. They have faith in Jesus and love for the saints, but there is still a lot for these Ephesians to learn.

Paul points that out so positively and without a trace of shaming them or taking back his great thankfulness for them. And likewise, you know what I love so much about this place is our ability to admit freely our puzzlement over and disagreement with some beliefs in the Christian faith. We don’t feel the need to piously pretend to be all orthodox. I was talking recently with two people here that I have always admired for the way they live such spiritually centered lives—indeed, models that I strive to follow. And they were both agreeing that they had come a long way in their spiritual journeys and were thankful for that, despite challenges that remain. And then one said: “But this Jesus, I don’t get what the big deal is.” And the other said, “Yeah, me neither.” I love it. A more uptight church and pastor would be scandalized. But obviously, like with the Ephesians, faith and love have become vessels of God’s power for us, even if some details remain hazy.

What shocked me (for real) was when I told this story to a friend who is an expert in Christianity and he said, Yeah, “I guess Jesus had to die for our sins, but I don’t really get it.” <Palm to forehead> Do you see what terrible straits the Christian faith is in? But I especially have to sigh a sigh of world weariness. <sigh> Because I really see, now—it took me a long time—and I appreciate (at least I’m beginning to) the glorious treasure we have in our faith in Jesus the Christ. With Paul I can say, “Blessed be the God and Father (or Mother) of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us in Christ with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places…” (Ephesians 1:3).  I can’t claim with confidence that I’m a better person in any way for it, sadly, but I get what having faith in Jesus the Christ is all about. You won’t hear me say this often, but I have been given something precious. I did nothing to earn this gift, but it inspired the work I have done. And I give thanks. / It is perfectly understandable that most people struggle and fail to grasp the meaning of the reign of Christ. The Bible is far from easy to read; the church has done a pretty poor job grasping and passing on this faith, and we’ve often been distracted from, and maybe a little slothful about, pursuing it. But I get it. And I thought you should know, because I would love to be a resource for you. (Maybe you’ll think about that adult confirmation class.)

What faith in Christ is all about is simple in essence, but like a ray of light it can refract through the crystal of life into the most complex and multicolored patterns. Still the essence is still there. With all due respect to my friend to so many of our old hymns, forgiveness of sins is only one of those refracted colors and beams, it is not the essence. And you might say “love” but I don’t think that’s the essence either; love doesn’t require a king. The essence is this: Christ is the reality of God’s union with humanity. Simple. That’s what the whole Bible is about. That’s what everything we do here is about, most simply at Christmas. Christ is the reality of God’s union with humanity. Simple, and yet humanity is both so near and so far from that union that we need the crystal of Jesus to illuminate the messy complexity of our many paths and challenges to that union with God.

Christ contains many facets. He is said to be a prophet; he is said to be a priest, and even our spouse. But another facet concerns the power of God which we have access to as human beings, and for this Christ is our king. Paul prays that the Ephesians will understand “the immeasurable greatness of his power for us who believe…God put this power to work in Christ when God raised him from the dead and seated him at his right hand in the heavenly places, far above all rule and authority and power and dominion.” Now the rules of power and authority in our world are generally very clear. Be loyal to friends; hate (or at least ignore) your enemy. The one who is on top is entitled to feel high and mighty; the one on the bottom is expected to feel small and resentful. If you are powerful you might be able to get away with stealing or trickery, but the closest we expect you to come to goodness is a square deal: You scratch my back and I’ll scratch yours. All of that is what usually passes for power and its trappings—for reigning.

Jesus upended all of that. Our king turned kingship on its head. And because of that, the (powers that be) lifted him in mockery on a cross and called him “King of the Jews.” But God raised him from the dead, for our sakes, so we could know that his way was the true way of power. Paul continues: “And God made him the head over all things for the church, which is his body, the fullness of him who fills all in all.” We the church are his body, the fullness of Christthat word in Greek does not mean the way you felt after Thanksgiving, but “completeness.” We are the completeness of Christ, which might sound odd, as if Christ weren’t complete by himself. But Christ exists for others. He exists for his body, for his way of turning power on its head to become the way of life for a people, even for all people, for “all in all.” And so we as fullness of the Christ reign do not hate our enemies. We still love our friends, but we don’t affirm them when they do wrong; we desire for them what we desire for ourselves: to be transformed into the likeness of Christ. People among us who are powerful are to be servants to others; the one being served loves in turn and serves others. We would never think of trickery or selfish gain, but nor would we intone: You scratch my back and I’ll scratch yours. No, we look out for the good of each other, rather than me thinking about your good only as a way to get mine.

Now, we’re not really that church yet, that fullness of Christ—right? The sinful marks of fallen and corrupt power are still to be found within us. But what I’ve described is what we are called to be, every time we invoke the one who is above every name that is named, the one who is the reality of God’s union with humanity. And we become the fullness of this one whenever we, in our way of life and our practice as a community, truly love one another.

But even then, would we really be the fullness of Christ? Or would we then just become a kind of self-enclosed love fest?   Our parable from Matthew reminds us that faithfulness to Christ our King means than just loving one another. Perhaps the most amazing beam of color and light to come out of this gem we know as Jesus is his particular identification with the downtrodden, the poor, the suffering, and the neglected. In this way, Jesus is God’s justice, God’s setting right of the most egregious inhumanity that people commit on one another—often by naively innocent neglect.   So Jesus, at the coming of his kingdom in fullness, mounts the throne of his glory, as the parable has it. And he, Christ the King of the Universe, judges all the nations of the world. This is the perfect image of absolute power. But what no one is able to see, even the righteous, is that this one seated on the throne in absolute power is really to be found in the face of lowliest need: I was hungry, I was thirsty, I was a stranger, I was naked, I was sick, I was in prison. And in this parable, each of us is judged according not to whether I did harm or not, it’s whether I went out of my way to help these poor ones, or ignored them. So if we’re saying and singing and praying: Jesus, Jesus, Jesus I love my Jesus, and we think we’ve got it all covered, we are going to surprised like the goats in this parable. Because Jesus went to the cross not just so our sins could be forgiven and we can go to heaven despite being sinners—if that is even true—he went to the cross to be truly united with human beings who suffer, who are cast out, who are oppressed. And if we are going to come to know Jesus, as Paul wants us to, in the immeasurable greatness of his power (to be all those who suffer), then we’d better do more than make a joyful noise. We’d better go feed the hungry, and welcome the stranger, and clothe the naked, and take care of the sick, and visit the prisoner. We’d better do some serious, hands-dirty, face to face mission work. We’d better get to know the reality of suffering in those most afflicted, and also in ourselves, for all of us know suffering. Otherwise we might find we don’t recognize this Jesus at all.

And perhaps that is why we go from acknowledging Christ as our King today, to waiting for him to come again next week. Because measured by our actions, maybe we’re not yet living up to the proclamation of Christ as our king. We do fine greeting Christ on the throne here in church, but are we more often neglecting the Christ in the lowly and the least, rather than coming to their aid? If so, then Paul’s desire that we come to know Christ better is still in our future, and perhaps it is time for us to once again admit that this Christ is a stranger to us. Or that we are strangers to him; and we shudder to imagine hearing those words: “Just as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me.” Or we shudder to imagine hearing Christ’s answer to the foolish bridesmaids knocking at the door: “Truly I tell you, I do not know you.” To that shudder, the fast of Advent, by which we take the humble posture of waiting for Christ to come, is the appropriate response. May Christ reign among you, and may he come.


Oct. 29: “The Reformation—500 Years and Counting”

Romans 3:21-26 ; Matthew 22:34-46

500 years ago this week, Martin Luther began to attain clarity about what was wrong with his whole world. By reading our Romans passage for today in light of his own personal spiritual struggles, he was able to see that the church of his day was woefully misguided, dominated by a kind of spiritual economy in which you earn your salvation by works. Luther saw in Paul’s phrase “justification by grace” the opposite economy: salvation is a gift. It is about giving and receiving, not earning and deserving. With this clarity, Luther was able to reinterpret the Christian faith in a way that completely changed everything—not just religion. Though he didn’t set out to do this, his ideas also reshaped the politics and economics of his day. Not since Jesus and Paul had any Christian so reshaped his world through a religious principle.

It gives me hope. Today, reasonable, non-authoritarian faith like ours is shrinking. What is growing is, on one hand, those who have dropped out of religion. And on the other hand, those who insist people of other faiths are wrong, sometimes so wrong that they no longer deserve to live. Now, if these are the options, I have no doubt that we are on the true path. And Luther’s example gives me hope that just on the power of the truth alone, religious faith can reshape our world. Wouldn’t it be good to obtain a clarity like Luther’s? That’s what I’m looking for today. I started to write a complicated evaluation of the church today; I abandoned that in order to look for the power of clarity, in imitation of Luther.

Today, Lutherans and Catholics largely agree on this issue of justification by faith (book). The fact that Protestants and Catholics are today much closer on the issue that divided them suggests that maybe Luther wasn’t fair to Catholicism. But neither were the bishops fair to him. All Luther wanted was a debate, and instead they silenced and threatened him, forcing him into a tragically dogged position. So we won’t exactly celebrate Luther today. His clarity got complicated by the bad ideas and powers of his day. But I think what Luther really sought was as clear as the words of Jesus from our Matthew reading: Love of God, and love of neighbor.

1500 years before Luther, Jesus’ message was essentially just this simple, but Jesus also had his complex side. In today’s gospel reading, we get both sides of Jesus, simple and subtle, as he skillfully disarms his opponents, who were, we should recall, seeking his life. First, the Pharisees send an expert in Torah or Law to test Jesus. And Jesus confounds his tester with a wisdom that was utterly simple and unoriginal: Love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul and mind; and love your neighbor as yourself. Jesus doesn’t mention himself at all or claim any special authority here. He goes back to the living root of Judaism.

In the next passage, Jesus goes on the offensive, now asking the Pharisees a question about the Messiah. It would be complicated to explain. His throws them a crafty and subtle riddle about scriptural interpretation that stumps the Pharisees. Jesus wasn’t only a teacher of simple truths. Because humans are not simple, life isn’t simple; sin especially is murky. Why Jesus was sent to be the messiah, why he had to die, how he proclaimed and fulfilled the ancient hope for the kingdom of God—all these questions are deliciously complex. Jesus left plenty of questions for us theologians to work on and ponder, from within our own complexities and perplexities.

But what God wants is essentially very simple, even today. Let’s leave out love of God for the moment, although Jesus called it the “greatest commandment,” because while it was simple for Jesus, loving God gets intellectually complicated for us. (Even Silas has repeatedly ask me to talk in my children’s sermon about what is God and what does God look like.) But what is most prominent in Jesus’ ministry is not his worship of God, but fulfilling the second commandment, which he said is “like the first”—meaning perhaps it is also the greatest?  Jesus loved his neighbors by teaching, healing, listening to, forgiving, and touching them, and sometimes he had to oppose their falsehoods about God. (Again, that’s where things get complicated.)

We believe in loving our neighbor as ourselves, do we not? On that we certainly can have clarity. When we do that and do it right, as we do here in so many ways through our fellowship and our work in mission, we live the Kingdom of God. As theologian Michael Welker puts it, the Kingdom of God is about “the correlative nexus of self-withdrawal with others.” [shrug] He’s a German intellectual. And you thought I make things complicated!) What he means is that the Kingdom of God, that which we seek in our faith, is about freely giving to one another, and freely receiving from one another. This is why, Welker suggests, Jesus made his home among the poor, and counseled his disciples to sell their possessions. The poor are not more “moral” but they are often more comfortable sharing what little they have, and they certainly are more willing to receive from others, as compared with the rich and proud. Accepting help is not a weakness; it’s part of living the Kingdom in neighbor love. We’ve seen wonderful caring in this congregation just recently for Jeannie and for Eleanor.

We all know the simple beauty of sharing, of loving our neighbor as ourselves. We shouldn’t need a divine revelation for this. Some will scoff: O! life is cruel, and people are selfish. Not so fast. Where did you learn this great cynical truth about human nature? On your mother’s knee? Or did you model selfishness to your own child? With a few tragic exceptions, we learn and practice the beauty of mutual love very well in our families. Being a father has restored my faith in human love, and in my own capacity to love. There’s just nothing more wonderful, more mutually pleasurable, nothing money can buy that is better than cuddling your child. Can you deny it? Isn’t that why the Christians say God from all eternity is like the love between a parent and child? The Trinity is like one unending family cuddle.

Christianity is just about enlarging our scope of family love. It’s that simple. And you can’t argue that love like that, the love of a neighbor like family, is only possible within ‘blood ties.’ Adopted parents feel exactly the same love, our “selfish genes” be damned. Welker points out that we experience the warm feelings of neighbor love when we care for any child, or anyone who is sick. And this ideal of care for others is at the heart of some of our central public institutions: education, health care, public service. Anyone with integrity who works in these institutions knows that at the heart of each, surrounded by a whole lot of corrupting influences, is an act of love and service to a neighbor: love for the student, loving care for the sick, and love for the public.

The church doesn’t need to claim a monopoly on neighbor love. It only makes sense to share the ideal of sharing, to share it with other religions and walks of life. We are one body among many that are simply trying to create a big family, one that opens out and embraces more and more people in this one family. Or as Penny says, so rightly, we should just be nice to one another, including strangers. Simple. Beautiful. Compelling. Why is it so difficult? Why does this love for neighbor keep failing and ending up on the cross, rejected by the world, betrayed even by the church? Why are we, the Church of Christ, with this as our ideal, so easily ignored or dismissed? We deserve a clear answer.

Mostly I think it’s because of all the other ideas out there that we are so steeped in and the forces that empower these ideas. Think about this: the most basic idea in our society and most every society is the difference between me and my neighbor. There’s what is mine, and what is yours. My property, your property. My opinion, your opinion. My faith, your religion. Consider this: Most of our legal code is dedicated not to fostering love of neighbor, with the exception of a few deductions in our tax code, but to protecting the difference between mine and yours. Now “mine” includes my family and so having a family earns you a tax deduction. But we have managed to segment and isolate most families into a single unit of housing, surrounded by a safe barrier of lawn and hedge, within suburban neighborhoods with no common space except the roads. It’s not even efficient, is it? I have to buy my own expensive equipment: lawnmower, snow blower, power tools—even if I use them only a few times a year. (Poor me, I know. My point isn’t that you should come snowblow my driveway.) We’ve made sure there is a clear difference and separation between my family, and your family; we have to go out of our way to share something; there’s no place for love to happen except awkwardly, through or around a hedge. And once you get accustomed to that life, it is very difficult, very complicated, to go back to sharing and loving; although many of you find ways in your neighborhoods.

Right now, Silas’ kindergarten education is still sweetly concerned with how to be friends, how to share and be caring; his teacher is like a cross between a big brother and a surrogate father. But inevitably just about all of that will drop out, and his education will center on competing with his peers and distinguishing himself from them. Ultimately his education will come down to a GPA and a class ranking, to building his resume and making a name for himself. At the center is competition: in school, in sports, and on the job. Teaching and nurturing a love for one another has even less of a role in professional education. My training as a professor included absolutely nothing, formally, about loving my students. Are doctors trained to love their patients? No, because professional boundaries and the value they secure are more important than loving your neighbor. It’s almost a stretch for ministers to be trained to love their congregations.

Capitalism didn’t start all this emphasis on me versus you; selfishness is an ancient impulse founded perhaps on our very body. But can I just say it? Capitalism presents the church with a very clear challenge. It is very bent on private property, on competition, on pitting me against someone else, on securing my own value. Everything in life starts to look like an opportunity for profit; even the church and God becomes something you invest in to make a profit—and are we now back to earning our salvation? Do we still understand it is a gift? Is there still a place for service out of love?

I say this with great respect for capitalism. Please don’t accuse me of being political here. I’m not advocating overthrowing capitalism. Capitalism is doing fine; even North Korea and Cuba are getting out from the death grip of state controlled economies. The achievements of capitalism are undeniable: growth, production, technology. I’m not even arguing for more regulation. I’m just looking for clarity and insight into the big-picture challenges all churches, including ours, face today. Capitalism is not able to foster a real love of neighbor, nor love of God, from within its own resources. Being aware of the drawbacks of capitalism will bring clarity to our church’s vision. Capitalism is good at me and mine; but it seems to be making a world that is on the verge of losing any sense of shared neighborhoods, shared peoplehoods, and a shared humanity. Like Luther, I’m just offering a thesis and looking for a conversation. If in my quest for clarity you think I’m not being fair, tell me why.

Capitalism is in one sense nothing like Medieval Christendom, which tried to stamp out Luther. There is no religious authoritarianism like that in a capitalist world. Thankfully, we are free to worship; although we are just as freely ignored. But what justification by grace was for Luther in his day, so can love of neighbor be for us in our very capitalist world. What is so urgently needed in this world is the particular command Jesus gives his disciples still today, the same particular command Moses and the prophets gave the people Israel: To love our neighbor as ourselves. In one simple command, Jesus dissolves the fundamental distinction on which our whole system is based: the difference between me and my neighbor. We need this church to be the place, the public space (because our neighborhoods are no longer designed for this) where neighbor love can be preserved, practiced, and extended. Today, our reformation is that simple.


Spiritual Inventory #8: Is God in Your Friendships?

Wow, this series is running long.  It’s been good and all, but it just feels like time to move on.  But this was well received.   

Heads up!  The 500th anniversary of the start of the Protestant Reformation is next week!

Leviticus 19:1-2, 15-18; Matt 18: 15-22

You try to take care of your body, right? Sure, we all could do better. We care for our bodies so that we can accomplish our purposes, live our life. Our body makes possible our spirit, small “s,” our vibrant interaction with the world. For that reason we care for our bodies; but we wouldn’t want to spend so much time focusing on diet and exercise that we forget to live.

We are a social body. Our muscles and ligaments and circulatory system are our relationships with one another. We follow some rules, but mostly it is our personal relationships, our fellowship, that hold us together as a body, that make us move and act as one. We have to take care of this body. It can atrophy from lack of use; our muscles, our relationships, can become flabby when our fellowship is underused. This body can also become diseased; wounds of hurt relationships and anger can fester when not cleansed and allowed to heal. I’ll say more on that later. We need to tend to the health and wellbeing of this body, especially if we intend to grow, to get bigger and stronger.

But if that’s all we were—a social body, a collection of people in fellowship—we would be just a club. We would spend all our time just meeting and talking, and our talk would mostly be gossip. We would do nothing but fundraise to enable our social club to continue. If we were just a social club, we would attend to nothing else as much as our building, because we need a place to fellowship in, as well as our staff, because they coordinate our club meetings. That isn’t us, is it?

Because we are more than a fellowship, a body, for its own sake. We are not and could never be just a social club. In First Corinthians, Paul says to the church: “You are the body of Christ and individually members of it.” That means we all share a single Spirit: “For in the one Spirit we were all baptized into one body.” Elsewhere Paul puts it this way: “Christ is the head of the church, his body.” So let’s put it all together: we need to develop, heal, and nurture our fellowship life, our relationships with one another—our ‘body’—so that we can sustain Christ as our head and give God’s Spirit a place to dwell in power. We exist as a body so people will see our head, see the face of Christ over us.

And what does that mean, to recognize Christ as our head? Briefly, that Christ is our head means we represent a community that practices a godly ideal, namely, we’d rather risk our life, on a cross if necessary, practicing love toward all others, than to settle for putting myself above others, or loving and benefitting only those who I think are worthy or admirable, or only liking and honoring ‘our own kind.’ If that was how God loved us, God would have kicked us to the curb long ago. So, if we want Christ as our head and Spirit of our body, we need to be a community where compassion and forgiveness rule among us instead of ego and bearing grudges (more on that later), and we need to be constantly reaching out beyond ourselves to really welcome and embrace people we might otherwise ignore or even disdain. A healthy, Christian fellowship will do all this.

So to begin, it is vital that we have a vibrant social life. That’s what our body is made of. We should be a place where people find fun within committed and trusted friendship. Look at the first question on your inventory: What kinds of activities can we do to boost our fellowship and deepen our faith at the same time. What would you commit to? Take a moment to jot down any thoughts.

But if we just do more fellowship, more activities, even with more Spiritual upbuilding and dedication, we will not necessarily be a completely healthy body that shows forth the Spirit or the face of Christ. Now we have a lot to celebrate here, a lot to be thankful to God for, as a social body. I regularly hear people talk about what a friendly place this is, and there are strong friendships here. It’s not on the inventory, so take a moment to acknowledge and give thanks for what God has made of our body …

But: Question two. How bad a problem do we have with bearing grudges? Rate us from 1 for no problem to 10 for a serious and pervasive problem. I expect we have a wide variety of perceptions on this. Question Three: Do you bear a grudge against someone in the church? Keep in mind that if you think you are innocent but find yourself constantly blaming someone else for holding a grudge against you, I have news for you: you are holding a grudge! Whenever you see someone and think: “Fault! Blame!”—that’s a grudge.

And we have two excellent Scriptures today on grudges and how to be free of them. Because I bet you think the “Christian” answer to grudges is “Forgive, forgive, forgive!” Keep forgiving until you hit 77 times. We’ve all heard that text many times. Forgiveness is absolutely vital, but it is possible to overemphasize forgiveness. God forgives us indeed, but God also calls us into holiness and transforms us (through Word and Spirit, remember?).

Our reading from Leviticus (from next week’s lectionary) picks it up there: “You shall be holy, for I the Lord your God am holy.” And then this commandment: “You shall not hate in your heart anyone of your kin.” Yes, we know all about that: we’re supposed to love each other, think nice thoughts about each other, always assume the best. We’re supposed to be all <Smiles>. Actually, no, not really. “You shall reprove your neighbor, or you will incur guilt yourself.” Not fakey smiles. Reprove, which means correct, admonish, set right. Go to that person directly—not to others; that’s slander and it’s forbidden—and confront him or her with what you perceive, emphasis on perceive, to be the problem. You are not allowed to simply bottle up the offense you feel, thinking that’s the loving thing to do; no, then “You will incur guilt yourself.” To keep the hard feelings inside is to cut yourself off from a honest and true relationship with your sister or brother. And in the secret recesses of your heart, maybe you want to hold on to that grudge. Maybe you have grown to like the unnatural, secret, private heat that hatred brings the heart. Obviously, lots of people do in our world. If everyone knows “All you need is love,” why is hate so persistent? It holds it’s own seductive form of self-gratifying power.

Leviticus continues: “You shall not take vengeance or bear a grudge against any of your people, but you shall love your neighbor as yourself. I am the Lord.” When someone does wrong to us, especially here in the church, we either want to lash out in response or bury it inside of us and nurse it as a grudge. Fight or flight. Instead, we are commanded to do the more difficult but more loving thing: communicate our grievance directly. (And you can try this outside the church too.) This is difficult because it can so easily turn into taking vengeance. Jesus’s instructions add wisdom here. “If another member of the church sins against you, go and point out the fault when the two of you are alone.” Don’t use the occasion to humiliate the wrongdoer in front of others.   That will only make her or him defensive. (Now, by the way, the guidelines might differ if there has been an abuse of power or certainly any kind of assault or harassment. Let’s stick with ordinary wrongdoing in word and deed.)

Pointing out a fault in private takes a great deal of courage, and also spiritual discernment. You have to ask yourself: Am I doing this to make myself feel superior? Am I trying to bring this person down a peg? What is your heart set on as you go to confront one who sinned against you? If the Spirit is moving you, your heart should be set on lifting up this other one. It should be set on restoring your relationship. Love should be streaming out of you to this other, precisely while you are explaining what you think she or he did wrong. Being filled with Christ’s Spirit of love is what will guide you right and make a potentially uncomfortable occasion into a beautiful and rewarding one for you. And use that technique I talked about in the Message for All Ages.

But be prepared for things to get complicated. Be ready for the other person to see things differently. What someone said or did might have meant something to you which that person could not have anticipated. It might all be a matter of miscommunication—praise God! Or be prepared for your own faults to be a part of the problem. This honest dealing with grievances will work best if we are all prepared spiritually to have our faults pointed out to us, and if those doing so are prepared to accept that the fault was more in your perception than in the person’s act. It all begins with God’s command: “You shall be holy, for I the Lord your God am holy.”

But we are not holy, not completely. That’s why Jesus allows that dealing with a fault one on one won’t always work. So then you bring in one or two others (are you ready for this, Deacons?). And finally you bring it before the whole church, and see if the offender will listen. We welcome everyone to this church, wherever you are coming from. But if someone persists in abusive, cruel behavior and refuses to repent, we must be prepared to let that person go, for the good of the body of Christ.

But I can hardly imagine that happening. We can rest assured that our grievances will almost always resolve in clarifying a miscommunication, or in admission of wrongdoing, an apology, and a willingness to do better. That’s when you forgive, and not seven but seventy seven times. Phew!

We need to work creatively at building a more satisfying and fun social life here, for the sake of our body. And then we need appreciate and take seriously how we are called by Christians to practice justice, reconciliation, and forgiveness with each other. The everyday ins-and-outs of Christian fellowship carry an absolute purpose for us, for there is so much at stake in doing Christian fellowship right. ‘Be Holy for I the Lord am Holy.’ And as Jesus said: “Whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.” What we do and how we live are bound up with God own doing and living. We are the body of the living Christ, the Son of God. It might all sound intimidating. It’s not, because God is a merciful God.   Instead, it is glorious. Even in the seemingly small ways that we treat each other when two or three are gathered become serious occasions for living as God’s very presence and power. Let’s glory in our Christian fellowship as a friendship charged with the divine, and let’s treat it with the utmost care as the holy thing it is.

Spiritual Inventory Week Seven-Fellowship