The Sacrament of Unity

Sunday by Sunday I visit parishes, usually to confirm and receive into our Church. These liturgies by their very nature have an ‘Episcopal specific’ nature, which is in fact explicit in the formula for reception: ‘we receive you into the fellowship of this Communion.’ For this reason, it is important to recall how the service begins, with a quotation for Ephesians 4: ‘one Lord, one faith, one baptism…one God and Father of all.’  Baptism as our ecumenical sacrament is the launch-pad for everything else we have to say and pray (one might push back by observing that the baptism of infants remains a stumbling block to reunion, but at least the fact that we do not re-baptize adults is still a point of theological weight.) The great Anglo-Catholic hymn sang of the Eucharist as the ‘sacrament of unity,’ but it is baptism which is the primary symbol thereof for us. And it is good to think about this in the week between the Confession of St. Peter and the Conversion of St. Paul, a time traditionally to focus on ecumenism.

But of course we are divided, by theology and Church tradition, sometimes by social issues and teaching, not to mention cultural acquiescence to sociology and consumer choice.  Yet in the face of this, the witness for unity of baptism remains, for we indeed have ‘one Lord, one faith, one baptism.’ So my question is this: in what senses are we to understand this unity? I want to offer three brief answers (which track, I might add, the three uses of the Law, coincidentally).  First our unity is grounded in the death and resurrection of Jesus, and not of our doing, or undoing. It is a gift. At a practical sense, when you are cheek to jowl with a fellow Christian you can’t abide, recall that Christ in giving you His grace has also given grace to your neighbor, this neighbor!

Secondly, we Anglicans have understood ourselves to have the charism of lack, of incompleteness, of yearning that we ‘all might be one.’ The theologian Archbishop of Canterbury Michael Ramsey spoke of our provisionality. To his mind, we as a Church exist for reunion, however distant it may now seem.  Perhaps this is the blessed side of the unresolved division of the Reformation, this impulse toward reunion. However all this also needs an enacted, feet on the ground expression.  We have sacrament of unity, alongside which we need a practice of unity. As a diocese we seek to live out this call to collegiality in a variety of ways, in consultation with our Roman Catholic brothers and sisters and by involvement with the Greater Dallas Coalition, for example. I know that many parishes have ties, formal and informal, with Churches nearby. By these acts of solidarity in Christ we seek to live out Paul’s and our words, rooted in grace: ‘one Lord, one faith, one baptism.’

Peace

+GRS

The God Who Runs into the Burning Building

What are the dates in history about which we all recall where we were we heard the news? For sure, the assassination of President Kennedy- I was on the playground at recess in third grade at Norway Street School in Longmeadow, Massachusetts. Another, for sure, was the first step taken on the moon, in the evening of July 20, 1969.  Alas 9-11. Then there are local add-ons: for me game four of the Series in 2004 as the Red Sox team that called themselves ‘the idiots’ run onto the field.  I would venture to guess some of you Ranger fans would say November 1, of this year!  And with the memory of where we were often goes a vivid word or picture-for the moon landing, ‘one small for man’...  in the case of 9-11 there was the sight of the second plane flying into the tower, and shortly thereafter its collapse- with it collapsed an era of our history.  But this evening I want you to focus with me on a different picture from that terrible morning in lower Manhattan.  It too is emblazoned in our minds.  Firefighters, in full regalia, helmets, tanks, bunker gear, running not from, but into the burning building. They knew what they were running into. We humans are wired for self-preservation, but in spite of that, they ran into their doom. Why? Because they wanted to help the captives, save whom they could. But the other reason is that they were firemen. That is what they do, and in doing it they affirm that is who they really are. 

Brothers and Sisters, you can see where I am headed. The Christmas story is the God of heaven and earth running into the burning building. I want you to hold that image aside the story, or even as an interpretive overlay on it. The majestic God of heaven and earth runs into the building! You and I suppose such a God belongs high in heaven, and so He is. But He also runs into the burning building, and though we have heard this evening’s story a thousand times, to hear it, saying what it is really saying, is to be pulled up short, surprised. 

And not only us. Think for a moment with me about those angels. They surround him, and contemplate his utter beauty and holiness. But that He should bow down to earth, and furthermore run into that building, they too are amazed. They is what they are singing about as they behold it. 

Everyone else, here on earth, seemed to be playing their parts. The Roman overlords maintaining control, the poor of the earth going to be counted, the shepherds about their cold and lonely work. Others display grace, Mary in saying yes to God in her fear, Joseph in his misgiving, eventually the wise men, trusting the light they are given. But behind and in all this, what makes the angels break into the heavenly song, here in earth, is the sight of God running into the burning building. Foretold in the prophet Isaiah seven centuries before yes, but breathtaking to angels in its accomplishment nonetheless.

But what does it mean, that we should be confronted with the news that, contrary to our presumption, we have to do with such a God as this?  In typical preacher fashion, I have three answers this evening for you. First of all, we can already catch a sense of where the story is going. The story’s beginning and its end are connected. My high school motto was ‘finis origine pendet,’ ‘the end depends on the beginning,’ and so it is here.  The entry of God in his mercy enrages and threatens the earthly powers, who go so far as to slaughter innocent children. The apostle Matthew in particular traces all this out, how the holy family then flees as refugees to Egypt. God runs into the building, and in His Son that act goes to the limit of love, to the cross, to the death of the Son of God. Such a phrase as ‘the death of the Son of God’ should draw us up short, in the very same way that the sprint into the burning building does. But they are His children in the building, the endangered dwelling in His own land, and so he can and will do no less.  The manger leads straight to the cross, on to the tomb, and seeing how they are bound together is one thing we come here week by week to hear, contemplate, worship.

The story of the birth leads ahead, but it also leads our thinking upward, you might say.  Running into burning buildings out of love is who he is, just as much as with those firefighters, who serve in this case as saintly examples.  God was just this kind of a God from eternity. We humans, with our faded sense of something-more, knew there was some sort of deity, but that he is this God, whose self-sacrifice is his eternal heart, that we had to be told, to our surprise and to our repentance.  The apostle who lays this out most clearly for us is John. He takes the Christmas story and rewinds it, not just to the creation, but back to eternity. ‘in the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God and was God.’  If Christmas heads first on to the cross, it also heads upward to the deep and joyful mystery of God as Trinity.

Christmas is the news that the true God is the one who runs into the burning building, where His children are found, and in so doing shows us who he really and eternally is.  So what is the third thing that needs saying? We need to say what difference this icon of God the fireman means for us, personally, in the real lives we lead as we leave this building this evening. Here we do well to look ahead, to the end of this the second chapter of Luke, to what happens next. The child Jesus is presented in the Temple, where old Simeon, along with the prophetess Anna, had been awaiting this day.  (We will be celebrating this event in a little over a month, in the feast of the Presentation, to which you are all warmly invited!). There Simeon says that the birth of this child is not only the glory of God’s own chosen people, but also a light to all the nations, as Isaiah again had foretold long before.  But then Simeon brings the import and impact home to Mary in the following words:  “This child is destined to cause the falling and rising of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be spoken against, 35 so that the thoughts of many hearts will be revealed. And a sword will pierce your own soul too.” 

Here Mary is the first follower of her son, our first fellow Christian. God who runs into the building is wonderful news for us sinners, but news that will be unevenly received, to say the least.  It will prove to be a sign that that has the stench of death for some, says Paul, but is for others the perfume of life. And to convey this news, and to endure how it will pierce our hearts too- you and I are called just as much as was Mary.  Though our human hearts are hard, we are nonetheless summoned, to do what we were made to do, and so to be who we really are, differently, but no less, than those firemen. And for all this resistance, in others, in us, nevertheless, the tidings this evening are mind-bogglingly good, that such a God would run into such a building, for such as you and me. Amen.

 

 

 

  

    

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Complete the Race (II Timothy 4:17)

At the end of our vacation we find ourselves in Chicago for its Marathon weekend (the fastest, I have read this morning, perhaps because it is cool and relatively level). Marathons offer many good things. You can see world-class athletes from places like Ethiopia and Kenya. There is a feel of fiesta with signs by family members, getups by some for-fun runners, and food for sale.

But as I looked out my hotel window at 7:30 a.m., I watched the race of competitors who have lost legs or their use. Wheeling vehicles by arm for 26 miles means serious fitness and determination.

Those competitors were to me, this morning, a symbol of the Church too. For each is wounded. The larger family cheers them on. Each by grace has risen up to run the race. Ahead is the goal, the prize, the welcome home. We find the companionship of Jesus the Lord, there, and along the route too.

Amen.

GRS