The Very Rev. Nathan D. Baxter
O Lord, let the words of my mouth and the meditations of our hearts be acceptable in thy sight, our Strength and Redeemer. Amen.
“Follow me,” Jesus instructs those who would follow him as he did with the first disciples, “and I will make you fishers for people.”
St. Paul and all of the organized Christian community succeeding him know how difficult it is to follow Jesus. How difficult it is to invite others to follow him, because of the scandalous divisions that exist within the Christian community. Paul realized this in the church in Corinth, as well as in Galatia and other places, how the church was divided, in this instance, around the issue of should one be ashamed as they joined the Christian community that they were Jewish? Should they somehow try to hide their circumcision or the seal of their belonging to that community?
There were some communities that felt as though all who became Christian must be Jewish first and, therefore, must enter the rituals of initiation into the Jewish community. Paul said to them, it does not matter whether one has a particular initiation. What matters is that they seek to follow Christ and to make Christ known by the life they live.
“Let each of you lead the life the Lord has assigned to you,” Paul begs them, “to which God has called you.” And this is the rule, he says, in all the churches. There were some who came into the Christian community as slaves. It would be more equivalent to what we would understand in modern times as servants, indentured servants, rather than the character of slavery we have known early in our country’s history. But it was still a status of classism. Paul said, “It does not matter whether you have entered as a slave or whether you have entered as a free person.” In the life of the church, classism should not exist. Classism, because of one’s political posture–can a conservative sit next to a liberal? Can someone who represents a different working class sit next to one who has all of the goods of this world? Can one share in the Christian community if his or her sexual orientation is different from the dominant culture? Can we all be the people of God?
To the church in Galatia Paul said, “Remember this. In Christ there is no racism, no Jew, no Gentile. In Christ there is no classism, no free, no slave. In Christ there is no sexism–no women, no men, by order of class. But in Christ we are all one.” That is the power of our witness.
But it is also the lack of that witness that is the scandal of the church! And it matters not how well one congregation is doing, or one denomination is doing, or one tradition is doing. If the face of our faith is one of division, of exclusivism, of arrogance one to another, the lack of love and of respect, then we will never have the power to be the church of Christ.
I have a friend who gets very, very bothered by all the divisions and the attitudes within the Christian community, about who’s in and who’s out, about which denomination is just a little bit better than the other, what tradition has a more appropriate rite of initiation than the other. He sent me this little story.
He says a man is walking along. He comes to a bridge and sees a man standing on the edge about to leap. So he rushes up and he says, “Stop! Don’t do it!” But the man with great dismay asked, “Why shouldn’t I?” He said, “Well, are you a religious person?” The man said, “Well, yes.” “Are you Buddhist, or Jewish, or Christian?” The man said, “I’m Christian.” “Are you Protestant or are you Catholic?” The man said, “I’m Protestant.” He continued, “Protestant? Well, so am I. Tell me, would you be the Church of God or the Church of Our Lord Jesus?” The man said, “The Church of the Lord Jesus,” gathering curiosity. “Oh,” he said, “so am I! Are you the original Church of the Lord Jesus or the Reformed Church of the Lord Jesus?” The man replied with greater interest, “Reformed.” “Oh, my dear brother!” he exclaimed. “Are you Reformed 1895 or Reformed 1925?” The man, now filled with enthusiasm said, “1954!” The man replied in shock and disgust, “Then jump, you heretic!”
In the content of our laughter is also the shame of our faith. For our obsessions with purity, with legalism, exclusivism–these all have the tendency to contradict the true mission of our faith. And that is to seek Christ in one another. By experiencing and seeking Christ in one another within the faith community, we learn to respect the dignity of every human being, whether they are within the church or without.
Jesus said in the Gospel of St. John, “By this shall the world identify you. By this shall the world know you are my disciples. Not because of your ritual. Not because of the label on the door of your building. But by this shall the world know that you are my disciples: Because you have love one for another” (John 13:34, paraphrased). That’s the sign.
So as we gather this day, seeking together the nurture and the affirmation of our faith, may we leave this day with a new vitality, a deeper commitment, that we will live as Christians, respecting our differences, but also respecting the love of Christ, the seal of Christ, that is in each of us. And that upon that strength, we will reach out into the world around us, the world of our families, the world of our neighborhoods and communities, the world of our spheres of influence in our professions and our vocations. To live out a faith of love and respect for the dignity of every human being.
That is not easy to do. But it can be done by the Spirit of God.
So let us leave with our hearts more deeply open to repentance, the change that comes about as we open ourselves to God. For another word for repentance is “growth.” Let us grow that we may fully be reflections of the love of Christ and his witness in the world of God’s love for all people.