Last week in preparation for next Sunday ‘s sermon, I looked back at what I had said on the appointed epistle reading for the day the last time it formed the basis for my sermon. I found a sermon I preached nine years ago and thought it made interesting if sobering reading nearly a decade later.
The following sermon obviously did not have much success. Even in my own small community, the past nine years has seen division, separation, and departure. Certainly, on the global scale in the worldwide Anglican Communion, recent years have witnessed significant and tragic tearing of the fabric of our life together.
SUNDAY SERMON August 10, 2003
A COMMUNITY THAT GROWS TOGETHER
Some of you here this morning may be aware that there is a measure of turmoil astir in the life of the worldwide Anglican Church.
In the Anglican Church we are part of a large community of faith. And, inevitably, the larger the community, the greater the potential for differences of opinion on even extremely important issues.
The important thing when we see conflict, unrest and turmoil in the church, is to avoid thinking that somehow this is unusual or strange. The truth is there has never been a time in the history of the Christian faith when the church has not been deeply troubled by disagreements over major issues. The church is made up of fallen human beings and, whenever flawed human beings are involved, there is always an opportunity for disagreement and deep conflict.
We must avoid the temptation to look back to some imagined romantic past when everyone in the church was in blissful harmony and agreement about everything. You only need to read any of the letters written to the earliest Christian church, in the New Testament, to know that tension, unrest, turmoil, and conflict have always been part of the church’s experience.
You clearly do not write a letter, for example, like Ephesians to a community where everything is going absolutely smoothly. If you read through the letter you will find many signs that the writer is trying to smooth over certain tensions between members of the community. Listen to some of the advice contained in this letter.
Think about the kind of people you would likely be writing to if you felt the need to say these kinds of things to them:
I ask you not to lose heart
I pray that God may grant you to be strengthened with power through his spirit in your inner being.
I urge you to walk in a manner worthy of the calling to which you have been called with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love, eager to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace.
There is one body and one Spirit – just as you were called to the one hope that belongs to your call – one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all.
having put away falsehood, let each one of you speak the truth with his neighbour, for we are members one of another.
Be angry and do not sin; do not let the sun go down on your anger.
Let no corrupting talk come out of your mouths, but only such as is good for building up.
Let all bitterness and wrath and anger and clamor and slander be put away from you along with all malice.
Be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ forgave you.
These are not words you need to write to a community in which there are no problems. The picture in Ephesians is of a community that is having difficulty holding together. It is a community at risk, a community in which things are being said that are hurtful and in which members are failing to recognize the bond that unites them in Christ.
In this context the writer has a pretty clear bias in favour of hanging in there and working things out together. He says, “having put away falsehood, let each one of you speak the truth with his neighbor, for we are members one of another.”
It is interesting how quickly we often rush to the part about speaking the truth. We assume that we are being instructed to set our neighbour straight. We are being told that we know the right thing and our responsibility is to correct the other person.
But, before we hurry to proclaiming the truth, we need to hear the whole verse. First we are told to “put away falsehood.” This means, before we ever dare speak a word to anyone, we need to search our own hearts deeply and honestly. We need to start by examining our own lives. We need to ask ourselves – is there any hypocrisy, any compromise, any deception in my life? Are there any places in my life where I am not fully living up to the demand of Jesus that I should “be perfect as my Father in heaven is perfect”?
Only after I have taken a serious moral inventory of my own life and made sure that I detect no falsehood, do I even begin to be free to assume that I may “speak the truth” to my neighbour. Truth speaking always begins with deep self-honesty. It is far too easy to focus on the sins of others that are so serious and so wicked, while ignoring the little deceptions and dishonesties in my own life.
It is important to remember that there is no gradation of sin in the Christian understanding. Paul says in Romans, “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.” Perhaps if I was more concerned with my own falling short, I would be slower to judge the sins of others.
The second warning this verse includes is that, in any word of truth I might speak, I must recognize that I am one with the person to whom I am speaking. The writer says categorically, “we are members one of another.”
Notice, as we have seen throughout the letter, there are obvious disagreements in this community. The writer is not saying that we all agree. He has recognized that there are problems. But, in spite of the problems, in spite of serious disagreements and tensions, he still affirms that “we are members of one another.” And therefore we are called to “Be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ forgave you.”
How did God in Christ forgive me?
The Christian model of forgiveness is the cross. Jesus looked down from that cross upon his tormentors and prayed, “Father; forgive them, for they know not what they do.” This is the only basis for Christian community. Christian community is not based upon agreement. It is not based upon being right. Christian community is based upon the costly, sacrificial act of forgiveness.
In Christian community, it is the one who is right, the one who is innocent, who extends unconditional acceptance to the one who is wrong and deluded. Jesus knew the truth. Jesus was the innocent victim. Yet it was Jesus who looked upon those who were wrong and did not cut them off, but prayed that God might welcome them with openness and forgiveness.
It is easy to be church when everyone gets along, when we all agree and share the same understandings and insights. It is harder to be church when we see others crucifying Jesus. But these are the ones God calls us to love. We are called to lay down our lives for those who seem to us to hate God, as Jesus laid down his life for those who nailed him to the cross.
Being right and hanging out with people who agree with me all the time is easy. Staying part of a community in which I am challenged every day to be gentle, forgiving and forbearing is a lot more difficult. But being part of such a struggling, wrestling messy community as the Christian church, is the only recipe I know for spiritual growth and maturity.