Five years ago, on the morning of January 10, 1998, I stood in this pulpit. It was a Saturday, and the day before we observed — as we do this morning — the Baptism of our Lord. The occasion was my investiture as the 25th Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church.
I vividly remember standing outside the West Door prepared to knock three times with the base of my crozier on a spot that had been carefully marked with black tape lest I damage the bronze. Had the door not been opened I guess I would not be with you today.
On that day I told of an experience I had several months earlier in Italy, in Assisi, which had occurred not long after my election. In a very unexpected way, words addressed to St. Francis by the crucified Christ became words addressed to me: Francesco, va ripara la mia chiesa,“ — Francis, go rebuild my church.” These words felt like a personal word as I looked ahead to the new ministry I had been called to exercise on behalf of the church here in the United States and beyond. Francis, go rebuild my church.
What I said from this pulpit five years ago I say again today. The work of repair, rebuilding, and renewing is a work that involves us all — all who have been baptized into the death and resurrection of Christ. It involves us all, and it is never complete. Because the church exists in the world, and because those of us who are limbs and members of Christ’s risen body through baptism are all too human, constant scrutiny and repentance are needed. Repentance is needed if the church is to be built up into an agent and manifestation of all that God desires for the full flourishing of the world and the whole creation God not only brought into being but deeply loves.
God sent his only Son among us to embody that love, even to the point of extending his arms on the “hard word of the cross that everyone might come within the reach of [his] saving embrace.” Christ’s saving embrace endures, and through the resurrection and the perpetual motion of the Holy Spirit, extends to every age. God’s saving embrace enfolds all history and can contain all the complexities, struggles, distortions and divisions which challenge and afflict us.
“And I, when I am lifted up from the earth will draw all people — all things — to myself.” These words of Jesus from the Gospel of John are used on the 14th of September, the Feast of the Holy Cross. They struck me with particular force when, three days after the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, I found myself at what came to be called “Ground Zero.” On that day, riding in the back of a pick-up truck, I distributed food and dry clothing to the exhausted rescue workers who were seeking to cope with the overwhelming devastation that lay before them.
The oldest Episcopal Church in Manhattan is only a block from Ground Zero: St. Paul’s Chapel of Trinity Church. In the church yard trees had been uprooted and bits of paper littered the ground. The front door stood open, and I entered the church, which was empty and still. Except for the fine gray dust that lay everywhere, there was no sign of the horror that had occurred just a block away.
Behind the altar hung a small brass crucifix, its tiny arms extended in the direction of the site I had just visited. Suddenly the words of the Gospel reading for the day broke into my consciousness: “And I when I am lifted up from the earth will draw all people — all things — to myself.” In that moment, though numb from all I had witnessed, and caught in a sea of conflicting emotions, it became absolutely clear that the tiny brass arms of the figure on the cross could contain and enfold all the horror, rage, pain and grief that lay so close at hand in an uncompromising and enduring saving embrace of unwavering and death-defying love.
At the same time I began to understand the mission of the church in a new and deeper way: as our participation in God’s work, God’s project which is the reconciliation of all things to God in Christ. “In Christ,” Paul tells us in 2 Corinthians, “God was reconciling the world to himself — and entrusting the message of reconciliation to us.”
Paul makes the point that reconciliation has been accomplished; it has been done. “[God] reconciled us to himself through Christ.“ Reconciliation is not something for us to achieve because it has already been achieved on the hard wood of the cross. But, it is for us to inhabit reconciliation, to enter personally and corporately into what God has done in Christ, and then to give expression to what God has accomplished in the various patterns of relationship which constitute our life in the world: relationships between persons, within our communities — including our church community — between nations, and which extend to the very creation of which we are a part.
Not only has God reconciled us to himself in Christ, but God has given us what Paul calls “the ministry of reconciliation.” In other words, we are co-workers with God in Christ in making human life and the structures of society revelatory of the reconciliation of all things and all people achieved by Christ on the cross.
“Francis, go rebuild my church.” This is not about institutional survival, but about the vocation of the church and each member of Christ’s body to participate in God’s own work, God’s project of making all things transparent to God’s reconciling, transforming, transfiguring and liberating love.
In other words, because reconciliation is God’s work, and because we are called to participate in God’s work, reconciliation is the church’s mission. This is made clear in the Book of Common Prayer. In the Outline of the Faith, the question is asked: “What is the mission of the Church?” The answer: “The mission of the Church is to restore all people to unity with God and each other in Christ.”
God’s work, God’s project of reconciling all things, which cost Jesus his life, is radically subversive: it overturns and runs counter to most of the patterns and structures of power and control, assertion, and self-interest which characterize life as we know it and live it.
The whole notion of self-giving love as the animating spirit of all one’s relationships, or the role of servant as a national posture toward the world, strikes us as naï ve and even dangerous. Yet, such stances are clearly of the gospel, and fundamental if reconciliation is to lay claim to us and become our work.
Jesus’ baptism is the beginning of his active participation in God’s work. “My food is to do the will of the One who sent me and to accomplish his work,” Jesus declares at the outset of his ministry. But baptism for Jesus was not taking up an agenda. Rather, it was a giving of himself in response to being deeply loved. “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased,” the voice declares from heaven as the Spirit descends upon him — the Spirit who is the minister, the articulation of God’s profligate and sometimes wild and strange love within our hearts. Jesus emerges from the waters of the Jordan, and an enduring sense of being God’s beloved had been unleashed within him. He then passes through a time of testing and formation, and enters into his active ministry with a simple and single proclamation: “Repent, and believe the good news.”
What is the good news? The good news is that God’s loving desire for the full flourishing of all people and all things is the reality. All else is distortion. And, how do we make the good news our own reality? Through repentance, which means overcoming distortion by seeing things from God’s point of view. As William Temple, sometime Archbishop of Canterbury, stated it: “Repentance means adopting God’s point of view in place of your own.”
This, of course, is easier said than done. The interior freedom and the ability to recognize biases and prejudices that masquerade as truth is very difficult, I might say — especially so when they are the prevailing view of those whom we recognize as leaders responsible for our safety and well-being.
Adopting God’s point of view in place of our own begins with awareness: the willingness to test prevailing attitudes and opinions against the perspective of the Holy One as it is set forth in Scripture. Adopting God’s point of view seen as mercy and compassion; concern for those on the edges; the poor, the homeless, the widow and orphan and those who have no helper.
God’s justice, which is God’s way of seeing the world with the eyes of love, involves a transformation of consciousness. “Unawareness is the root of all evil,” observed one of the Desert Fathers of the 4th century. Our monumental self-interest is a form of unawareness or even worse, an unconcern with the struggles and suffering of the world around us.
What are we to make of our apparent willingness to spend untold billions on a war in Iraq, and our seeming reluctance to be in solidarity with our brothers and sisters in sub-Saharan Africa who live with the overwhelming devastation of HIV/AIDS? This pandemic is destroying a whole generation, destabilizing nations, and creating a population of orphans which numbers in the millions. One bishop told me that he has 20 orphans living in his home. Our ability to turn a somewhat blind eye to this drastic situation is indeed a manifestation of evil. It is a form of sin from which we are a nation are called to repent.
In a few minutes we will be asked to renew our baptismal promises, and thus assert our willingness to be drawn by the Spirit out of ourselves and our self-preoccupied worlds into the force field of God’s passionate desire in which reconciliation and the reordering of relationships — the rich to the poor, the strong to the weak — becomes our own passion and desire.
The terms of the baptismal covenant are quite clear. They transcend denominational identity and root us in the historic faith of the undivided church. They call us to an availability to the mystery of God, whom we name as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, and whom we encounter in Word and Sacrament, and in fellowship with others who have been made limbs of Christ’s risen body through baptism.
Together we are called to repent: to seek God’s point of view in place of our own and to allow the walls of suspicion and hostility, of judgement and self-interest, to be riven through and broken down by God’s love poured into our hearts by the Spirit who reorders our consciousness and conforms it to the mind of Christ.
It is by the renewing of our minds, to use a phrase from St. Paul, that we become embodiments of the gospel and proclaim with our whole being the good news of God’s all embracing love which can disarm the defended heart.
God’s work, God’s project, God’s mission of rebuilding, repair, and reconciliation is about the world. It is also about the church insofar as the church lives a life of reconciled difference. The church is called to be the sign — the flesh and blood sign — that God was in Christ reconciling the world to himself.
This great cathedral is a witness to that truth. And we who worship here this morning are caught up into that witness. In virtue of our baptism we have become living stones, as we are told in the first letter of Peter, living stones being built by God into a great spiritual temple: a temple of reconciliation in which all things are reordered according to God’s desire for the well being of all people and all things.
If we are truly a nation “under God,” as we say we are, then God’s perspective rather than our own self-interest will animate both our national life and our being in the world. Otherwise we had better abandon that claim altogether and admit that our power is the source of our own divinity. Baptism and the covenant we are about to renew takes us in a very different direction — one that runs opposite to how many would have us perceive ourselves, both personally and collectively as a nation.
What would happen if God’s justice and peace were our heart’s desire, and the dignity of every human being our deepest concern? There would be a revolution, which is precisely what God’s work, God’s mission, is all about.
And therefore, my friends, to renew one’s baptismal covenant and to share the eucharist, which is the enactment of God’s reconciling love accomplished in Christ, is very dangerous. We may be taken further than we intend to go — beyond security and self-interest into the strange land of God’s reconciling love — a love which obliges us, as it did Jesus, to open ourselves to a fragile and fractured world.
This morning I can say with thanksgiving that over the past five years I have seen our church become more and more caught up in mission: God’s ongoing work of repair, restoration and rebuilding. There is more that we are called to be and to do, especially in these anxious and unsettling days. But, with renewed hope and confidence, let us go forward knowing that God’s power, God’s reconciling love working within us, “can do infinitely more than we can ask or imagine.” Amen.