31 October 2010

Tearing Down the Walls: IV. Seeing Visions and Dreaming Dreams

Acts 2:17 & Ephesians 4: 1-6

Reformation/ All Saints Sunday/ 31st October 2010

“There is one body [of Christ], there is one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all, who is above all and through all and in all” (Ephesians 4: 4-6).  These two verses are remnants of creedal statements from the early church.  Paul uses them here to remind the Ephesians as they struggle with divisions, that one-ness abounds.  The struggle, the division as we’ve seen these last three weeks in this series is the Jewish-Gentile question.  Do Gentiles have to become Jewish before they can worship Jesus?  Do Jews have to follow every sentence of the Law when they follow Jesus?  As we have seen, Paul knows that the wall of hostility between these two groups is no longer justified in the church, indeed, the love of Christ has torn down the walls of separation, leaving in a new humanity, a new community of people “rooted and grounded in love,” the church of Jesus Christ.  Christ is forming a people, building a “spiritual house,” a safe space for the dwelling place of all God’s children, a space where God’s saints are being equipped with every gift, every resource, everything needed to enable us to serve Christ in the world.

            Paul wants unity in the church – Paul wants “oneness.”  But we must never forget that for Paul oneness does not mean sameness and unity does not mean uniformity.  Actually, the oneness of God confessed by the church is oneness that includes diversity (think of the Trinity).  Because the God who is one is above all and through all and in all and since we exist in God’s oneness, that means God’s oneness permits diversity in unity and maintains unity in diversity.  Because the oneness of God comprehends both Jew and Gentile, the church now has the capacity to comprehend many people, many ministries, many gifts, many perspectives in its service to Christ.  Doesn’t Paul say in 1 Corinthians 12, “there are a variety of gifts but the same Spirit who gives them”?  In his commentary on Ephesians, Markus Barth makes clear, that, “The church cannot be one except when it attests to its God-given oneness by proving unity in diversity, and when it ventures to respect diversity in unity.”[1] Uniformity is, of course, a possibility, but the New Testament never calls us to uniformity.   However, Barth writes, uniformity would be “a form of death which is recommended neither by 1 Corinthians 12 or Ephesians 4, nor by any other of the ecclesiastical passages of the New Testament.”[2]   

            The one who pulls the plurality, the multiplicity of people together is God, the comprehensive love of God known in Jesus Christ.  This speaks to the miracle that is the church that such a divergent group of people can come together around Jesus Christ and learn to love each other.  “A multiplicity of persons as persons could never truly share in God’s oneness, be committed by it, confess it – if God had not proven to be the One even in [God’s] Plurality, the unity that permits diversity, the power that holds together, brings together, and guarantees community. Without being bound by the Father, Son, and Spirit, the church could never proclaim that God’s own unity is the basis, the source, the energy, …of her own unity and that of her many members and ministries.”[3]

            As we have seen, the unity of the church is a heavy concern for Paul.   However, it’s not his ultimate concern.  The church doesn’t exist just to exist; its unity is not an end in itself, but a means to an end.  The church exists to serve a larger purpose, to serve a larger story, a larger message, a larger mission – and it’s most effective in telling the story and being committed to the mission when it’s grounded in its unity.  The church matters a lot to Paul. Don’t get me wrong.  He wouldn’t have wandered all over Turkey and Greece setting up churches, getting persecuted, beaten, mocked, and ridiculed if he didn’t value the church.  However, the church matters because the church was formed to extend the mission of God that was revealed in a new way in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ.  The mission of God is the kingdom of God, God’s good news of salvation, forgiveness, and hope, God’s justice for a world oppressed and enslaved to the forces of death and destruction that hinder the welfare of God’s children.    This is God’s concern for the world, who is above all and through all and in all.  Indeed, these verses affirm that God’s love, power, and mission transcend the confines of the church and calls the church forward beyond its own horizons.  Indeed, Markus Barth believes, “this epistle looks beyond the church and does not suffocate in ecclesiology; it proclaims that God’s kingdom is greater than the church.”[4]

            The reformers knew this.  That’s what I think it was like for the reformers of the sixteenth century.  On this Reformation Sunday, the very day Martin Luther (1483-1536)  nailed his 95-reasons why the church’s sale of indulgences was a really loopy idea, we are reminded of our heritage as Protestants and as heirs of John Calvin (1509-1564) and John Knox 1510-1572).  While it’s true the intent of these truly courageous and brilliant reformers was the reform of the church, we must never forget it was the reform of the church so that church could be about the work of God.  When I read the history of the reformers I am struck and stunned by their level of commitment.  Walk through the streets of St. Andrews, Scotland, and you’ll see in the cobbles the initials of the reformers burned at the stake for their convictions; walk through Calvin’s church, St. Pierre’s, in Geneva or sit in a pew at St. Giles Cathedral in Edinburgh and think of their commitment, not to the church, per se, but their commitment and trust in the faithfulness of God.  What Luther (re)discovered in his reading of Romans thus igniting the Reformation was that God is faithful.  Because God is faithful the sale of indulgences is unnecessary.  That’s what Calvin knew too.  God is faithful.  It was their love for Christ that fired their imaginations, fed their determination to follow the Holy Spirit who is forever reforming the world with justice and hope.  While their battle cry was “back to the sources,” back to the Bible, that movement back, as it were, propelled them forward into a new future, into forming a new church, with a new vision for the church and the world. Although they were calling the church back to the way they thought it once was, the result was not the same-old church, but a dynamic, forward-looking church that reflected the dynamic, forward-looking movement of God’s Spirit!  This was a movement that required enormous allegiance and commitment, devotion, dedication—yes, to the church, but more importantly, devotion for Christ, dedication to God, commitment to the vision – not unlike the vision Peter received on Pentecost:  your old ones shall see visions and your young ones will dream dreams” (Acts 2:17). 

            Of course, you can hear in my words the language of our pledge campaign for this year: …seeing visions, dreaming dreams.  The Stewardship Committee was very intentional this year in tying our pledge campaign to the vision statement and as we have heard in the very moving testimonies over the last couple of weeks, not moments for stewardship, but moments for commitment.  We heard how our financial gifts allow us to live into the vision God has given us.  We’re hoping this year that we view our pledge card next week as less about money to the church and more about pledging our commitment to God, to what God is dreaming about doing through us; that our financial pledge might be seen as part of our pledge to God’s work among us.  God has a vision for this church that is infinitely larger than we can wrap our heads around.  God is dreaming dreams about Catonsville Presbyterian, because God knows what can be accomplished when people are devoted, dedicated, committed – not to the church, but to God and the calling of Jesus Christ.  When we place our pledge in the offering plate next week, I’m hoping that we can view it as a renewed commitment to God and that our financial pledge might honor the value of that commitment.  If you cannot make a financial pledge – or in addition to your pledge – we invite you to consider other ways you can offer a commitment of self to God’s mission among us.  If you haven’t seen the “Seeing Visions,” bulletin board in fellowship, put up by Barbara Rice, be sure to take a look.  It beautiful captures the spirit of this campaign.

            God has a vision for our lives; God has a vision for this church and calls us forward toward it.  God is dreaming dreams through us, imagining what can be accomplished and realized through this church.  The potential, the reach, the possibilities of this church and every church are expansive and God has every confidence in us – more confidence than we might feel at times.  There is more power and potential and possibility within each of us and all of us together than we often care to confess.  But it’s there.  This is not pop-psychology, but taking seriously the claim that the Spirit and power of the Risen Christ is among us and within us.    Sure, it’s so easy to get down on ourselves in the church, feel like we don’t have enough, don’t have the resources, the energy, the whatever.  It’s why on a day like Reformation Sunday we can look back with thanks, and yet also know that we are surrounded by a great cloud of witnesses (Hebrews 12:1), the saints above, who cheer us on every step of the way.  Every Sunday when we gather here for worship, we can remember that we are surrounded by all the saints who cheer us on.  We don’t do this work alone.  We’re not alone.  When we gather at the Lord’s Table in a few minutes, we will celebrate the Lord’s presence with us and in us, the unity of all God’s people:  saints above whose perfect sight sees the visions fulfilled, who with the saints below dream dreams through us, forever encouraging us on in the great high calling of Jesus Christ, urging us on with ever greater commitment to him.

[2] Barth, 466.
[3] Barth, 467.
[4] Barth, 472.

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