Greater Than What Divides

June 23, 2019/ Second Sunday after Pentecost /Richard E. Holmer

First Lesson: Isaiah 65:1-9/ Second Reading: Galatians 3:23-29/ Gospel: Luke 8:26-39

Greater Than What Divides

In my last congregation we had an adult retreat ministry called Kingdom Weekend. A group of about thirty adults would leave on a Friday and come back on a Sunday afternoon – having spent the weekend hearing talks on a number of spiritual topics, sharing in small groups, worshiping and eating and laughing and praying and sometimes crying together. Back at church on Sunday afternoon, the participants were invited to share their impressions and reflections on the experience. I will always remember what Steve Tometich had to say after his weekend. Steve was a hale and hearty guy, plain spoken, not real sophisticated – but full of common sense wisdom. He summarized the experience in the sentence: “We arrived as many, we have come home as one.” He captured the essence of the weekend in ten words.

Today our 8th graders depart for a week of CAMPFIRMATION. If past years are a good indication, many of them will have an experience similar to that of Steve Tometich. Upon arriving, they will look around and see a bunch of other 8th graders and pastors they don’t know. They will be aware of many differences – they’ll feel a bit awkward and uncomfortable, perhaps wishing they were at home instead. But by next Friday when it is time to return home, many will not want to leave, having made new friends and discovered the bond we share in Christ.

There are two kinds of belonging. One way we try to belong is by fitting in. We pay attention to the style and dynamics of a group, and we calculate what we need to do in order to be included. We adjust our words and our behavior in order to conform to the norms of that particular association. We try to be like them so that they will like us. This is a very common process of belonging.

The other kind of belonging happens when we are welcomed just as we are. There are no expectations about conforming. Instead, we are encouraged to be genuinely who we are. This second kind of belonging is what God has in mind for the Church. In holy baptism, you and I are welcomed by Christ, just as we are. There is no entrance exam, no minimum qualifications, no quotas, no exclusions. In his letter the Galatians, Paul puts it this way: “…in Christ Jesus you are all children of God through faith. As many of you as were baptized into Christ have clothed yourself with Christ.” We all belong together, we are one, because of what Christ has done for us. This is not just a possibility – it is reality. We are joined together not by our decision or action – but by Christ. You are clothed with Christ – I am clothed with Christ (How we can and should see one another) This is our new and permanent IDENTITY: We are children of God, brother and sisters in Christ. As Paul explains in another letter: “We regard no one from a human point of view, if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation.” You and I are to be known not by how others see us, but by how Christ sees us. Once we realize this, things begin to get very interesting. Our new identity as children of God, clothed with Christ, has major consequences – as Paul explains: “There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.”

The many differences by which you and I are able to distinguish and discriminate are subsumed by our identity and our unity in Jesus Christ. There is no longer Jew or Geek – distinctions of race/ethnicity/nationality no longer matter. There is no longer slave or free. Distinctions based on status no longer apply: Rich and poor, employer and employee, famous and unknown, educated or ignorant. There is no longer male and female – Hierarchies and privileges based on gender do not obtain God’s Kingdom. We can extrapolate further. There is no distinction between: Abled and Disabled, Young and Old, Citizen and Refugee, Liberal and Conservative, Republican and Democrat, Gay and Straight…You get the idea.

It’s not that all these individual characteristics suddenly disappear. They remain, but they become secondary, insignificant compared to what matters so much more – Our primary identity as children of God. This is how Christ sees all of us. It’s like when God looks on earth, God does not see all the borders and boundaries that people and nations have drawn. God sees the whole earth as he created it: one world.

Jesus sees us the same way – not distinguishing between us by all our human categories. You and I need to keep learning to see and behave this way. It’s not about any kind of political correctness. It’s not even a matter of civil rights. It’s not a matter of LAW – it’s a change of heart. The Gospel is not a new law – it’s a new way of life, a new way of seeing. A rabbi was once asked by his students this question: How can you recognize when night is finally over, and the new day has begun? One asked: “Is it when from a great distance you can tell a dog from a sheep?” “No”, said the rabbi “Is it when from a distance you can tell a date palm from a fig tree?” asked another student. “ No”, he said again. “Then when is it?”, they all demanded. “it is when you look into the face of any human being and you see your brother or sister there. Until then night is still with us”.

This way of seeing begins with how you and I relate to one another as children of God. The church, this congregation, can be a contrast community – where all are welcome. The church is meant to be radical family, with great diversity, united by Christ’s gracious love for us, and our love for one another. This requires the hard and holy work of reconciliation, as Paul understood so well: Paul wrote to the Christians at Corinth, who were prone to factions and divisions: “All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ, and has given us the ministry of reconciliation; that is, in Christ, God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting the message of reconciliation to us. So we are ambassadors for Christ, since God is making his appeal through us; we entreat you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God (and to one another).” 2 Corinthians 5:18-20

It is no easy thing to accept and welcome one another as Christ welcomes us. And so theologian Henri Nouwen reminds us of this: “Forgiveness is the name of love practiced among people who love poorly and inconsistently.” I say to you: We can and we do demonstrate a new and better way to live together. I have seen it here at St. James. Many have expressed their appreciation for the warm welcome they have experienced in this congregation. Of course we can improve – yet good things happen here among us – we have reason to be encouraged. In a time when society is divided in many ways into factions and tribes, we can be a sign of a better way. Instead of suspicion and antagonism and distrust, we can model mutual love and respect. We can show that God’s love and mercy are for real – and for everyone, that all are welcome to abide in God’s grace. We begin and continue by seeing ourselves and one another as who we truly are: Children of God – clothed with the love of Christ.

Thanks Be to God

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