26 October 2014

A People Reformed

John Knox statue, New College, Edinburgh, Scotland
Psalm 100 & Isaiah 55

Reformation Sunday, 26th October 2014

On the 15th December 1423, a Sicilian historian, manuscript dealer and collector, named Giovanni Aurispa (1376-1459), arrived in Venice, after an extended stay in Constantinople.   He brought with him a treasure trove of ancient Greek manuscripts, 238 to be precise, thus introducing Western Europeans to major texts of drama, including seven plays by Sophocles and six plays by Aeschylus, along with philosophical works, including all the works of Plato and Plotinus—texts of Plato that were unknown in the west.  Ancient Greek texts were pouring into Europe from Constantinople and points east.  The Ottoman conquests, pushing toward Europe, terrorized Christian communities throughout Asia Minor.  As a result, Christian scholars put their manuscripts into their bags, they emptied their libraries, and moved west, first to Constantinople and then eventually into the heart of Europe.  For some, like Aurispa, there was money to be made in the discovery and sale of manuscripts.  In 1453, Constantinople finally fell to the Ottoman Turks.

Aurispa wasn’t the only one interested in ancient texts.  It had become an obsession in Europe, fueled by the emergence of humanism and the Renaissance.  Christian humanism, it must be said, driven by the idea that there was something valuable buried under the artifacts of the Middle Ages.  Antiquity was buried there –literally.  Scholars started to rummage through cathedral basements and monastery libraries searching for some connection to the past.  Most of the texts they discovered were written in Latin.  In time, Greek manuscripts also reemerged.  In his magisterial history of the Reformation, Diarmaid MacCulloch, who teaches church history at Oxford, makes this startling claim—it was startling at least for me this week working on the sermon—“Medieval western Europe had access to little Greek literature; the text of such central works of literature as Homer’s epics, for instance, was hardly known until the fifteenth century.  In fact, until then, very few scholars had any more than the vaguest knowledge of the Greek language.  If they knew a learned language other than Latin, it was likely to be Hebrew, ….”[1] 

As the Ottomans advanced toward Europe they unintentionally pushed Greek culture and learning west, which would, in time, have enormous consequences for the Church.  There was a “flood of new and strange material from the ancient world,” the philosophy of Plato, as well as the writings of Gnostic Christians and Jewish mystics.[2]  During the Middle Ages, especially in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, theology was shaped primarily by the writings of Aristotle, “the philosopher whose work was characterized by lists, syntheses, systems.”[3]  But with the discovery of Plato, particularly Plato’s “sense that the greatest reality lay beyond visible and quantifiable reality,” scholars came to see how much of Christianity was influenced Plato, less so by Aristotle.[4]

Codex Regius, 8th century Greek manuscript of the New Testament
And so scholars in the fifteenth and early sixteenth centuries started to reexamine everything in the light of this emerging Greek world coming from the east.  It was, therefore, important to verify the authenticity of texts.  Every text had to be assessed for its “content, date, origins, motives, even its appearance.”[5]  Could a text be trusted?  Is it accurate? 

This demand for accuracy led to the shocking discovery in the fifteenth century when three different scholars came to the conclusion that the manuscript known as the “Donation of Constantine”—a manuscript that granted the pope enormous powers in the Christian world—was not written in the fourth century, as assumed for centuries, but was an eight-century forgery.  These scholars “instantly…shattered a prop of papal authority.”[6]

The motto of humanist scholarship, the battle cry of the humanists was Ad fontes! Back to the fountain!  Back to the sources!  In time, the demand for accuracy was also directed at the source:  the Bible.  It was important to read the Bible in its original languages, not through Jerome’s (347-420) Latin translation, known as the Vulgate.  Once scholars familiarized themselves with Greek they were able to read the New Testament as it was originally written. And when that happened, scholars found considerable mistranslations in the text, especially in texts that supported key components of Medieval theology. 

It’s not surprising that Ad fontes—back to the sources—became the rallying cry for the Protestant movement of the Church. At Princeton Seminary, the professor who taught me Calvin, was fond of saying that Ad fontes, back to the sources, should be embroidered on our pillows or framed and put on the walls of our homes as a constant reminder of this essential idea of Protestantism.  When Martin Luther (1483-1546) read the book of Romans, for example, in Greek, he discovered, as the theologian Karl Barth (1886-1968) would later say, “a strange new world in the Bible.”[7] Luther rediscovered the gospel, the importance of grace and faith and the meaning of words such as “righteousness;” and this reading of the biblical text brought into sharp relief, at least from his perspective and others, the distortions of dogma and the abuses of power within the Church.  Reform was needed.  It was a reform led and guided by a trust in the power of scripture, accurately translated from the original language—again, back to the sources—and read simply, which, then, had the ability to reform the Church, reform the people of God.

One of the mottos of the Reformed branch of Protestantism, the so-called Calvinists, of which we Presbyterians are theological heirs, was this marvelous saying: ecclesia reformata semper reformanda secundum verbum Dei, meaning “The Church reformed and always being reformed according to the Word of God.”  This is the quote I would have embroidered.  Ad fontes is great, but this one—semper reformanda secundum verbum Dei—is even better!  (Perhaps the Tuesday morning quilting group could take this on as a project.)

Reformation Wall, Geneva, Switzerland
Reformed and always being reformed—how?—according the Word of God.  This quote doesn’t justify reform just for the sake of reform.  It’s not supporting reform for reform’s sake. Instead, it emphasizes the power of God’s Word—when it’s read and preached and heard and practiced—to bring about the needed and necessary ongoing reform of the Church and God’s people.

It’s the divine Word that forms and reforms us. But, what do we mean by “Word”?  Say “Word of God” and the first thing that comes to mind is probably the Bible. It’s true that the reading of the Bible has the capacity to reform us.  Translating the Bible in one’s own language and giving one the opportunity to read it for oneself is one of the greatest gifts of the Reformation, both to the Church and to the world.  But it’s also risky. 

If the Bible is the Word of God, if it has that kind of authority, then we better make sure we have a good translation of the text.  And we better make sure we know how to interpret the text. This means we better make sure that we’re accessing the absolute best scholarship available to help us read it, verse by verse by verse.  Because the Bible, like any text, has been and can be used for destructive ends, it can be used as a weapon; it can cause great damage in the wrong hands.  Most of the divisions in the Church over the last 500 years after the Reformation, right up to present day, can find their origins in differing views of what the Bible actually says.  As a result, it’s easy to see why people have turned away from the Bible—either because it’s too demanding to read or because it’s become too divisive.

But there’s another way to say what we mean by “Word of God.”  Word of God—not as the Bible, per se—but as the active, dynamic, divine Word of God that’s heard behind the words of scripture or comes to us through the words of the Bible. 

Have you ever notice that when Dorothy and I introduce the scripture reading during worship we never say, “Listen to the Word of God.”  Instead, we say, “Listen for the Word of God as it comes to us from….”  It’s a subtle difference, but what a difference. 

The Reformers believed that the Divine Voice was heard in and through scripture in the plain meaning of a text.  That is, the words of the Bible, when the power of the Holy Spirit is working through the reading and hearing of the text, become God’s Word, God’s message to us.  Similarly, the words of a sermon, when the power of the Holy Spirit is at work in the preaching and the hearing of the sermon, become God’s Word, God’s message to us.  The Word of God found in sermons also has the power to reform us, reform the Church.  That’s why the Reformers elevated the importance of the sermon in worship.  The Word is heard in both scripture and sermon.

But how did the Reformers arrive at such an understanding?  From the Bible.  It’s found in many places.  One of the best examples is right here in Isaiah 55: “For as the rain and the snow come down from heaven, and do not return there until they have watered the earth, making it bring forth and sprout, giving seed to the sower and bread to the eater,”—here it comes!—“so shall my word be that goes forth from my mouth; it shall not return to me empty, but it shall accomplish that which I purpose, and succeed in the thing for which I sent it” (55:10-11).   So shall my word be that goes forth from my mouth…. 

“Word” here doesn’t mean scripture or the Bible.  It refers to the divine word – dabar in Hebrew—dabar is the active, dynamic, creative voice of God that causes something to happen.  When God speaks—“Let there be,” for example—new worlds come into existence.  Creation in Genesis is essentially a “speech-event,” a word-event.  When God speaks, something happens, something always happens.  God’s Word  forms us, moves us, sends us, convicts us, loves us, holds us, creates and recreates us. God’s Word brings new worlds into being, new possibilities, new people, new relationships, and new communities.  God’s Word brings life to God’s people, to the world.  This understanding culminates in the New Testament when John says, “The Word became flesh and lived among us.” (John 1:14).  Jesus is the embodiment of God’s voice, a walking sermon, for all to see, in the flesh. He’s a living Word.

That’s why we’re invited to “Listen for God’s Word.”  Be attentive.  Hear.  Really hear. Strain your ear, lean in and listen for what God might be trying to say through the text, through the sermon.  These words are alive!  They’re active!  Pay attention!  And then look for it, for that moment of grace when ordinary words—whether read on a page of the Bible or floating through the air from the pulpitsuddenly become Word, a Word that strikes us and pierces our hearts (for the way to the heart is through the ear), a Word that completely enthralls us, a Word that we need to hear. 

Word that change our lives, forever. 
Word that send us out from the safety of our pews 
into a world of need.
Word that compels us to struggle and fight against injustice and violence and suffering.  
Word that overwhelms us in its beauty and holiness. 
Word that leaves us shaking in fear and trembling. 
Word that unsettles us and disturbs us. 
Word that might even make us angry or confused. 
Word that scandalizes our middle-class sensibilities. 
Word that offers us grace and hope and healing and love and joy. 
Word that causes us to well-up with tears of joy or sorrow—maybe at the same time. 
Word that causes us to dance.

For in hearing of this Word we are changed.  And when the Word is really heard—here in our hearts, not in our heads, in our hearts, as Calvin knew, and here in our guts—we will find that we are being reformed. We will know that we are formed, reformed, and always being reformed by the Word that will never rest until there’s nothing left to be said, a Word that will continue to speak until there’s nothing left that needs to be heard.






[1] Diarmaid MacCulloch, The Reformation: A History (New York: Viking, 2003), 75.
[2] MacColloch, 76-77, including works that make up the Corpus Hermeticum, Egyptian-Greek wisdom texts attributed to Hermes Trismegistus, which date from the first to third centuries C.E.
[3] MacCulloch, 76.
[4] MacCulloch, 76.
[5] MacCulloch, 78.
[6] MacCulloch, 78.  The German cardinal Nicholas of Cusa in 1433-33, the Italian Lorenazo Valla in 1440, and the English bishop Reingald Pecock in 1450. Valla was, curiously, a student of Aurispa.

12 October 2014

Loving Gift

1 Corinthians 12:12-13 27-31; 13

Eighteenth Sunday after Pentecost/ 12th October 2014

Sacrament of Baptism

There is a direct connection between baptism and vocation.  There is a direct connection between one’s baptism and being called.  Vocation, from the Latin vocare, means “to be called out,” it means to be summoned.  The Protestant reformers, especially Martin Luther (1483-1546) and John Calvin (1509-1564), intentionally linked baptism with vocation because they insisted that everyone baptized has a vocation, everyone baptized is called.  Everyone is called and therefore gifted by God to a particular task, a particular job, a particular ministry in the Church and in the world beyond the Church. 

By vocation they didn’t mean a calling to the office of priest or minister.  Priests are not the only one with a vocation.  Ministers are not the only ones called.  Unfortunately, this misunderstanding continues to linger in the Church because we generally associate a call as a call to parish ministry or to preach.  Two weeks ago I shared part of my call story.  But that was my story and in my case it was a call to preach.  I could have been called to do something else— an accountant or an engineer or something else.  But I wasn’t.   In fact, I’m grateful that I wasn’t called to be an accountant, since I was never very good at math, but I’m grateful for those who are.  And I’m glad that I wasn’t called to be an engineer because you wouldn’t want me designing bridges.  However,  I’m enormously grateful for those who are engineers, who love to design and build bridges, who use their talents with joy. 

I’m grateful for the gifts God has given me. And I’m grateful for the opportunity to share them with you.

It is truly a blessed thing to know that you’ve been gifted by God.  And it’s a blessed thing indeed to be able to use those gifts.  This is not an arrogant or boastful statement.  It’s just true.

God has gifted you.  If you’re baptized, then you are being called by God, right now; summoned to use the very gifts that God has entrusted to you. That’s why it’s a blessed thing to know what those gifts are and why to use them is a blessing.

God has gifted you.  Do you know how and where?  How do we discover or discern these gifts?  Do you know God’s will for your life, God’s will for this particular season in your life?  Do you know your calling?  Do you know where you’re being summoned?  These are enormous questions; questions for a lifetime—but the very asking of them, again and again and again, make for a mature and joyful and adventurous faith.  One of the ways we grow up into mature Christians is through honest wrestling with these questions, particularly in community.  We will never grow up into Christ until we ask these questions.

Paul is very clear with the Corinthians as he was with other congregations: God is in the gifting business, endowing us with diverse gifts and talents and interests, to enhance and build up the welfare of the Church and the welfare of society, the common good. That’s why it’s incumbent upon each of us to know what these gifts are.

Paul calls them “spiritual gifts,” but this designation isn’t really helpful.  They are gifts given by the Holy Spirit, but this doesn’t mean that they are what we might consider “spiritual” or “religious.”  Your gift might be a facility with finances.  On the surface, that doesn’t seem very “spiritual,” but just imagine what can be done in the world when this essential gift is used for the sake of God’s people, when such knowledge is used to glorify God instead of using it just to make lot of money for the sake of having money.  

One of the reasons the Reformers could push so hard for a link between baptism and vocation is because they didn’t divide up the world between spiritual and material, holy and profane, sacred and secular.  These are false dichotomies.  Illusions, really.  It’s not the worldview of the Bible.  The psalmist, for example, is very clear when he writes, “The earth and all it contains belongs to the Lord” (Psalm 24:1).   All—not just a part of it or some of it, not just the so-called “spiritual” part, not just the so-called “religious” part, but all of it belongs to God.  This is why from a Reformed theological perspective there’s no such thing as a religious or non-religious profession.   Indeed, every profession, every career, every job, including ones with the most menial tasks, has the capacity to be a divine calling when it’s being done to the glory of God.  In addition to ministers, God is calling people to be elementary school teachers and scholars and astrophysicists and engineers and nurses and musicians and gardeners and journalists and activists and artists and caretakers and financial analysts and, yes, even politicians to serve the common good.  God is at work in all of these roles—and countless more—working through the Church and through the Church for the sake of the world.

This is true:  God has gifted you for the sake of the world.  Indeed, the world is blessed every time individuals tap into their God-given gifts and really use them, not for selfish ends, but for the sake of the common good.  It all happens through one individual at a time being faithful to one’s life.  

Before his death in 1801, Rabbi Zusya (1718-1801) said, “In the coming world, they will not ask me: ‘Why were you not Moses?’ They will ask me: ‘Why were you not Zusya?’”[1] 

You are not called to be Moses.  You are not called to be Abraham or Sarah.  In many ways—and this will sound heretical to some, but it’s not—you’re not even called to be like Jesus—unless being like Jesus means knowing who you really are and why you were born and what unique work God has given you to do.[2]  Your calling is not theirs.  Your calling is not mine, nor is mine yours.   But, trust me:  if you’re baptized, you’re called.

One of the saddest things to see is a person who never discovered his or his gifts and used them.  This is why, as the Quakers love to say, we really need to listen to our lives.  It’s obligatory.  Your life matters.  Therefore, let your life speak.  In other words, discover the gifts that God has already planted within your spirit, within your heart, within your psyche.  Discern who you are, created in God’s image, the distinctive person that you are, with your unique history and life experience, and in the midst of that life—gifted by God—listen to what your life is trying to say to you.  Parker J. Palmer is so wise when he says, “Before you tell you life what you intend to do with it, listen for what it intends to do with you.”[3]  Not what you want it to say.  Not what you think it ought to say.  Not what your ego insists that it must say.  Listen to that part of you that’s deeper than your ego, the still small voice down in the depths of your soul, in your “heart of hearts,” as the psalmist liked to say. That’s the part of you called in your baptism. 

What Paul is getting at here in Corinthians and in so many other places in his writings is this notion that the Spirit of God is speaking to us through our lives, not apart from our lives, but through our lives.  It’s in this context that Paul talks about “gifts,” charisms, gifts of the Holy Spirit, given to each of us so that we’ll do something creative and beneficial with them.  For, God is trying to incarnate something new in you and me.  God is trying to bring something into being through our flesh, through our lives, something that never existed before.  And God is doing all of this in love, which is, as Paul so eloquently put, the greater gift (1 Cor. 12:31). This is the calling.

So how do we know what God is calling you to do?  How do we listen to our lives?  Perhaps we should, first, stop asking the question: What ought I to do with my life?   And then refrain from asking:  What is God calling me to do?  What if, instead, we alter the question ever so slightly and ask:  What is the Spirit trying to live through me?  What is God trying to bring to life through me?  What is trying to come into being through my life, what is trying to come into existence through me, what it trying to be born through me?  What is God bringing to life through me?   The answer to these questions will be found when we truly listen to our lives, when we let our lives speak, when we heed the voice – the vocatus—of our lives.

And my hunch is that if we go down deep enough to the source of everything and listen to what emerges there, the answer to each of these questions will have something to do with love.  What is Love trying live through you?  Love is trying to live through you.  Love is trying to bring something into being through you.  Love is trying to birth something new through you.

And because it’s all about love we can risk asking these questions of our lives and trust the listening process because there’s nothing to fear, we are God’s children.  God’s Spirit is already present within us; we’ve already been gifted in love.  God is trying to enter the world through our gifts.  And that’s why it’s really important to listen to our lives and discern our gifts because the Church needs them, and, perhaps more importantly, the world needs them.

This morning during adult education class we explored our God-given gifts.  It’s a process often done best in community, when people can identify what they see God doing through our lives.  Sometimes we can’t see what is being lived through us.  It’s possible to possess gifts of which we’re not even cognizant.  We each have blind-spots.   We need a community around us.  And this morning, after worship in fellowship hall, at the Ministry Fair, you’ll see a glimpse of what the Spirit is trying to bring to life through us.  There will be opportunities for you learn about just about every ministry area.  Perhaps there are committees or groups or boards that you’re feeling called to join.  What gifts are you feeling called to share and use?  Maybe there are gifts you’re feeling called to test.  Perhaps you’ve always wanted to work with youth or teach church school.  Perhaps you’re feeling summoned to join the choir, but your not sure because you’ve never been part of a choir and can’t really read music.  What’s tugging on your heart?  Where are you feeling pulled, stretched, drawn?  What’s moving through you?       

The Spirit moving through you at this moment—and every moment of your life— is the same Spirt who claimed you and called you in the waters of your baptism.  The Spirit of God who gifted you in love is loving you through and through, to the depths of your being, loving you for the sake of the world.  It’s Love calling your name.  Love’s never stopped calling your name.











[1] Parker J. Palmer, Let Your Life Speak: Listening tothe Voice of Vocation (San Francisco:  Jossey-Bass, 1999), 3.
[2] C. G. Jung makes a similar claim, particularly when he talks about the imitatio Christi ( imitation of Christ) within the Christian tradition.  He writes, “The demand made by the imitatio Christi—that we should follow the ideal and seek to become like it—ought logically to have the result of developing and exalting the inner man.  In actual fact, however, the ideal has been turned by superficial and formalistically-minded believers into an external object of worship, and it is precisely this veneration for the object [that is, Jesus] that prevents it from reaching down into the depths of the psyche and givng the latter a wholeness in keeping with the ideal.  Accordingly the divine mediator stands outside as an image, while man remains fragmentary and untouched in the deepest part of hism.  Christ can indeed be imitated even to the point of stigmatization without the imitator coming anywhere near the ideal or its meaning.”  From Psychology and Alchemy, cited in Anthony Storr, ed, The Essential Jung (Princeton:  Princeton University Press, 1983), 257.
[3] As told by Martin Buber (1878-1965) in Tales of the Hasidim: The Early Masters, cited in Palmer, 11.

05 October 2014

He Came and Proclaimed Peace

Ephesians 2: 11-22

World Communion Sunday/ 5th October 2014

World Communion Sunday is one of my favorite Sundays of the year.  As a child, I assumed that “World” really meant world and that on this particular day Christians everywhere celebrate the Lord’s Supper. It used be to called Worldwide Communion Sunday, which probably formed this impression. I had this vision of billions of Christians sharing this meal, an event that powerfully binds every Christian together. 

All of this was shattered twenty-four years ago this weekend. It occurred on the first Sunday in October.  I arrived for worship at St. Leonard’s Parish Church in St. Andrews, Scotland, where I served as an assistant minister. It was my first Sunday with the congregation. It was Harvest Sunday, a kind of Thanksgiving celebration.  The Table was full of the fruits of the harvest, but the Communion elements were no where to be found; no bread, no cup. I asked the minister, Lawson Brown, “Isn’t this World Communion Sunday?”  And he said, “What’s that? Never heard of it.”  And that’s when I discovered that World Communion Sunday is an American thing.  It had its origins at the Shadyside Presbyterian Church in Pittsburgh in 1933, later adopted by the entire denomination in 1936, and then in 1940 endorsed by the National Council of Churches for all of its members.[1]   So, no, all the Christians of the world are not sharing Communion today.  Many are, but not everyone.

I still like the image of a true World Communion Sunday. It’s the vision of a particular church sharing in the larger work of the Church.  It’s an event that lifts up the global Church and acknowledges the wide diversity of the body of Christ.  Communion celebrates real community.  We celebrate our connection with Christians around the world, united by the Holy Spirit.   North and south and east and west are here at this Table. It’s a vision of unity that we give to the world.  Think of it:  diverse people and cultures united in their worship of Christ, demonstrating to the world that it’s possible to share a meal together, to eat and pray and work and worship and serve together.  Communion implies multiplicity and difference, diversity.  Everyone is invited.  Isn’t this a word that the world desperately needs to hear?  Actually, we need more than words, we need to see words enacted, embodied, which, if you think about it, is exactly what’s occurring here when we celebrate the Lord’s Supper.  Here is God’s Word of grace enacted, embodied, real and tangible in bread and wine, for the entire world to see. 

Communion. Eucharist. Lord’s Supper. Mass.  We have different names for this essential meal.  It’s a symbol of Christ’s unity with the Church and the Church in unity with itself.  And yet we know that this meal is also a painful sign of the disunity and division within the Church.  This meal is supposed to be a symbol of peace.  But we quarrel over what occurs in the bread and wine.  Who is allowed to receive the elements?  Who can come to the table?  Is it a table or an altar?  And who is allowed to be its celebrant, who is allowed to say the words of institution? Can a woman?  What do we call those that do preside, priests or ministers?  You know the drill.  We’re so divided.

 It was Robert Frost (1874-1963) who said, “Something there is that doesn’t love a wall.”  Walls can be good.  Boundaries are good, especially healthy boundaries.  “Good fences make good neighbors.”[2]  Often, though.  Not always.   It’s tough to a have relationship through a wall.  It’s tough to be in community with your neighbor when there’s a wall going through the middle of it.  Think of the wall that divided East from West Berlin, separating German families for decades.  

The fall of the Berlin Wall, 9th November 1989.
Consider of the so-called Security Wall or Separation Barrier, whatever you want to call it, which stretches for 430 miles, cordoning off the West Bank from the rest of Israel, a wall designed to separate, divide, and split people apart, particularly Palestinian families.

The Church has never been immune to division.  One of the first flashpoints for the Church was the enormous Gentile-Jewish division. This tension is found throughout the New Testament, both explicitly and implicitly. Do Gentiles have to become Jews in order to worship Jesus?  If not, then how can Jews share a meal with Gentiles, particularly Communion?  The Gentile-Jewish tension is explicit for the Ephesians.  It’s tearing the community apart, just as it did in Corinth and Rome and elsewhere, wherever Gentile and Jewish followers of Christ tried to worship together in community.  How can there be peace in the Church when there are struggles like this?

The author of Ephesians, probably Paul (or least someone heavily influenced by him), being a consummate pastor-theologian, knows that Christ’s death and resurrection has created something new in the world.  Where before there was alienation between God and humanity, now there is peace through Christ.  The first eleven verses in Ephesians 2 speak to this vertical relationship, of peace between God and humanity, of an end to enmity.  The next eleven verses speak to the horizontal relationship.  Because the vertical relationship is true, the horizontal relationship changes accordingly.  Because we know peace with God, peace with our neighbor, can follow, must follow.  There was a time when Israel was alienated from God.  There was a time when Gentiles were alienated from God.  There was a time when Jews and Gentiles were alienated from each another.  “But now”—but now!—“in Christ Jesus you who once were far off have been brought near in the blood of Christ.”  Why?  How?  “For [Christ] is our peace, who has made us both one (Jew and Gentile), and has broken down the dividing wall of hostility…that he might create in himself one new humanity in place of the two, thus making peace, and might reconcile us both to God in one body through the cross, thereby bringing the hostility to an end.  And he came and preached peace to you who were far off and peace to those who were near; …” (Eph 2:14-18).

Reconciliation between God and humanity, when it’s fully understood—that is, personally, psychologically, existentially—will inevitably yield reconciliation between Jew and Gentile, indeed reconciliation between any disparate groups.   Peace is a sign of the presence of God.  Peace is holy.  It’s what God desires for God’s children.  Making peace is therefore holy.  Peace is a sign of God’s goodness and blessing (Matthew 5:9).  Peacemaking is a divine act.[3]  Jesus calls us to be peacemakers because he is, himself, a peacemaker, and because he knows that God is the ultimate peacemaker and therefore the peace-giver.

“So then,” Paul writes, “you are no longer strangers and sojourners to one another, you are fellow citizens with the saints and members of the household of God” (Eph 2:19).

When Christ is at the center of a community, there is space for everyone Christ calls into that community.  We’re free to make space for everyone.  And this is crucial, because the Spirit is continually drawing people into the Church, all kinds of people. People who think like us and look like us and smell like us—and plenty who don’t!  Because the Spirit is drawing people toward Christ, the Church will always have a wide and wild diversity.  It’s supposed to be this way.  And the Church is always healthier and stronger and more effective in the world when it’s diverse.  If you have investments and work with a financial planner, you know that portfolios are healthiest when they’re diverse.  We need bio-diversity in order to survive.[4] The same is true for the Church.  Our love for Christ, Christ’s love at work within us allows us to embrace difference, such love yields diversity.  When we worship Christ, when we know of his love for us, we’re free to really see and then love and then welcome everyone else—without fear. Christ loves diversity.

Christ might love diversity, but that doesn't mean his Church always does.  The Church might have long-ago solved the Jewish-Gentile question, for which, as a Gentile, I am grateful.  But there are plenty of other divisions and factions ripping the Church apart these days.  Writing back in 1935, the American theologian H. Richard Niebuhr (1894-1962) said, “The crisis of the church…is not the crisis of the church in the world but of the world in the church.”[5] Niebuhr wasn’t saying that the Church should become a monastic community and retreat from the world.  We need to be in the world, Jesus said (John 17:14-15). But as William Wordsworth (1770-1850) lamented, sometimes, “The world is too much with us.”  He wasn’t talking about the Church here, but it works.

Divisions in society have always made their way into the Church.  Just look at how the Church split over slavery.  But these days the increasing polarization of American society, spurred on by the political divides in the country, broadly defined as conservative or liberal, is wrecking having upon this country, and the world suffers as a result; it’s also tearing the Church apart.  But we’ve been here before.

The Jewish-Gentile division within the early church is eerily similar to the conservative-liberal divide in the contemporary Church.  The Jews are the voice of tradition and are therefore, by nature more conservative; the Gentiles, well they’re just being Gentiles, but from a Jewish perspective, they are the liberals, ignoring the traditions of the Jews, ignoring the dietary regulations, for example. Paul was originally on the side of tradition; after his encounter with Christ, he changed. He became something new. In many ways, Paul is a liberal Jew who loves the Gentiles. As a result, people don’t know what to do with him—both Jew and Gentile alike. The Jews are furious with him and the Gentiles don’t trust him. So, is Paul a Jew or a Gentile? 

Is he conservative or liberal? 

Yes.

From Paul’s perspective, being either a Jew or Gentile is always secondary to being found in Christ.  To be in Christ means the dividing wall between Jew and Gentile has crumbled away because Christ has come to make peace. 

When we are in Christ, therefore, all labels and categories and factions—all of which have their origins in the world!—can dissolve away.  When we are in Christ, conservative and liberal become meaningless.  They were never biblical categories in the first place—you’ll never find these words in the Bible. If conservative or liberal remains one’s primary self-designation, then that means Christ is secondary. 

Personally, I wish we would stop using these words in the Church.  As I’ve said many times, I can’t stand these labels—all of them, liberal, conservative, progressive.  They’re insidious.  They might be useful classifications outside the Church, but they don’t have a place within the Church.  A church shouldn’t have a conservative agenda or a liberal agenda; it should worry whether or not it has Christ’s agenda, God’s agenda, the Spirit’s agenda—pick one, because they each share the same agenda.  Maybe if the Church was more obsessed with its divine agenda, there would be fewer disagreements and divisions in the Church.  Sometimes God’s agenda will appear very conservative; sometimes it will look very liberal or progressive; sometimes it will appear to be nothing less than radical, radical to both a conservative and liberal—and all of these perspectives, whether it’s conservative, liberal, or radical, are all imposed by us upon God’s agenda depending our point of view, where we’re coming from, depending upon where we were raised and when and what our family of origin considered important, depending upon our life experience, our race, how much money we have in the bank, how much suffering we have endured in life.  All of these—and more—will shape our perspective. But the only thing that really matters in the Church is that we are here to worship and to serve Christ. It’s the source of our peace.  We can be at peace because Christ is at work in us.

Labels—Jew and Gentile or conservative and liberal—become barriers between us, they separate us from one another.  There’s nothing holy about them.  In fact, it’s the opposite of what God desires for the Church.  What Paul came to know, personally, and then gave his life to, was the profound and dazzling idea that in the end, these categories are meaningless in the Church and will, in time, devastate the Church. 

It’s significant that Paul never says that Jews should become Gentiles or that Gentiles should become Jews.  Instead, Paul’s experience in Christ allows him to transcend the two groups to envision a third option, something else entirely, which contains both groups, which elevates both groups into something new, what he calls a “new humanity”—kainon anthrĊpon—a new expression of humanity now transformed to serve the greater glory of God.[6]

What Paul came to discover was this: we have been called into the Church because God in Christ is trying to build something new through the church, that something new is a new humanity—a true household of God, built upon the cornerstone that is Christ, “in whom,” Paul writes, “the whole structure is joined together and grows into a holy temple in the Lord,” (Eph 2:11). Why? So that you and I together may become a dwelling place for God. That’s the miracle of the Church.  Whole. Together.

People will come from east and west and north and south—from everywhere, every direction, every every—to sit at Table in the kingdom of God (Luke 13:29). When we gather at this Table—and every time we gather—we should have the entire world in mind.  As every false category melts away we demonstrate to the world “a still more excellent way” (1 Cor. 12:31).

Here is the Lord’s Table of peace.

A peace the world cannot understand, but desperately needs.

So, come, world, come to the Table of peace.






[1] On the origins of World Communion Sunday
[2] Robert Frost, “Mending Wall,” North of Boston (1915).
[3] Michael J. Gorman, The Death of the Messiah and the Birth of the New Covenant: A (Not So) New Model of the Atonement (Eugene, OR: Cascade Books, 2014), 65.
[4] Listen to Michel Martin, a journalist with NPR, on the generative power of diversity & faith.  Martin talks with Krista Tippett at the Chautauqua Intuition. See also Katherine W. Phillips’ article, “How Diversity Makes Us Stronger,” in Scientific American:. 
[6] I propose that Paul’s understanding of the “new humanity” is an example of what Carl Jung (1875-1961) called the “transcendent function,” which occurs at critical moments of insight and transformation. “The shuttling to and fro of arguments and affects represents the transcendent function of opposites.  The confrontation of the two positions generates a tension charged with energy and creates a living, third thing—not a logical stillbirth in accordance with the principal tertium non datur [no third is given], but a movement out of the suspension between the opposites, a living birth that leads to a new level of being, a new situation.”  “The Transcendent Function,” The Collected Works of C. G. Jung, Volume 8 (Princeton:  Princeton University Press, 1972), 67-91.  This insight emerged in the writing and preaching of the sermon.  I’m sure others have made a similar connection, but it was new for me.  This parallel has considerable implications for the way we understand Paul’s theology and for a Jungian approach to the Christian experience.