11 March 2012
The Third Sunday in Lent
I appreciate your invitation to share with you this morning. For me it has the feeling of coming home. And I bring love and greetings from 8th Day Church. We acknowledge you for the extraordinary contribution people from this congregation have made to the work of Church of the Saviour ecumenical council and the extended community. No community has given more to sustain our connectedness as scattered churches. For example, Peter Bankson …. Kate Cudlipp …. Keith Seat …. Marjorie Bankson …. And others.
This morning I want to speak about what I think it means for us scattered churches of the Church of the Saviour tradition to belong together and to support each other as outposts along a front line of witness to the Gospel.
Some may think that this would be a step to becoming a denomination and who needs another denomination? What I have in mind, however, is in the nature of a movement – more along the lines of the Civil Rights movement or even Alcoholics Anonymous.
The fact is that the early Christians were identified as a movement long before they were identified as a religion or an institution. They were Jesus followers or people of the way. They had two things in common. They had a common identity, and they had a common vision. Their identity and vision also generated tension and controversy. Are we ready for stretching ourselves?
Some years ago there was an interfaith conference of Christians and Buddhists. At the conference the Christians went out of their way to avoid controversy which meant avoiding talking about differences and instead insisted in talking about what Christians and Buddhists have in common. The Buddhist response was that talking about our common beliefs doesn’t get us anywhere. They were more interested in the differences – “in what makes you Christians who you are and what makes us Buddhists who we are. When we put that on the table we can really begin to talk.”
I love that spirit. In this country other religions are not a threat to us as Christians. The real threat, the real competitor, to serious Christian faith is the dominant American culture – the culture of consumerism, militarism, winner take all politics, a stacked deck economic system, the belief in human dominance over nature, etc., etc. The more we can distinguish ourselves from this culture, the more authentically we can relate to other faiths.
The dominant American culture teaches, “to get along, go along.” This makes some people insiders and others outliers. Insiders learn to “make nice” with each other. The Jesus movement had something else in mind. It is about solidarity – solidarity with God, with Jesus, with one another and with the neighbor in real time, and it was that solidarity that sometimes generates tension with the culture.
The Gospel text for today is John’s version of the story of Jesus cleansing the temple and the conversation that followed with his critics. Our attention usually stops with Jesus’ assertive action. Equally important is the conversation that followed. While the story is told as happening in the time of Jesus around 30 C.E., a careful reader hears John retelling this story for the benefit of his community a half century later. The Judeans confront Jesus, “Who gives you the authority to take this kind of action? What sign can you show us?” Jesus answers indirectly, “Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up.”
By the time John is writing, the temple in Jerusalem had been destroyed over a decade. This is really a conversation about the identity and the vision of the Christian community. That identity starts with God and God’s solidarity with Jesus. In John’s way of thinking God was in such solidarity with Jesus that, in effect, God was living in Jesus’ body during his life on this earth. The church later turned this into a dogma called the doctrine of the incarnation. The problem with doctrine is that it tends to turn concrete meanings into abstractions. Solidarity is no abstraction. For John the storyteller, after his death and resurrection, the risen Jesus now lives in community called ecclesia, the Greek word for “assembly” which we today call church. As God was living in Jesus’ body up to and including his dying on the cross, after his death and resurrection, as John sees it, Jesus now lives in Christian community; hence we call ourselves the Body of Christ because we believe Jesus lives here.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer, in his doctoral dissertation The Communion of Saints, began a lifelong journey of exploring God’s relationship with people and communities in terms of human sociality. His starting point was that one’s existence can only be understood socially. Individual life is so interwoven into relationships with others and with social communities that any interpretation of how God makes the divine self known in the world must take into account the connection between God and human sociality.
Bonhoeffer says, “God’s revelation in Christ reaches people only in their … communal concreteness.” In Christ, God has not only entered human history but in a striking way shapes that history. This suggests that God’s life has become inescapably bound up into human life. [Therefore] God’s otherness is not that of an eternal being aloof in heaven. Rather, God has become in Jesus a God for people in the context of our social existence. …
Christian communities become, in turn, the stories of how God has entered into solidarity with his people.
That’s a lot to take in and we can imagine a Buddhist hearing this also saying, “I don’t get what you are saying, but I respect your belief. What I really want to know is what difference it makes to you?”
To get at that difference let’s now turn to Paul. Once he becomes an apostle, Paul’s life revolves around a clear and compelling call. His call is to gather and build, from regions bordering the Mediterranean Sea, communities of Jesus disciples like the one in this room. This suggests that his call is not first and foremost to get as many individuals as possible to convert from no religion or from another religion to the Christian religion. Paul knew that without active belonging to a Jesus community conversion to disciple of Jesus would wash out.
In Paul’s mind the Christian community is not only the recipient of the gospel but part of the gospel. In a fundamental sense the faith community is a place where salvation happens. Therefore Paul saw conversion as a community thing even more than an individual thing. That is why he put so much of himself into gathering and building Christian communities. It takes the solidarity of life in community to make sense of the foolishness of the message of the cross.
In a study of I Cor. 9:19-23, Barbara Hall who taught for several years at the Virginia Episcopal Seminary makes the striking point that when Paul writes to the Christian house churches he thinks of them as “eschatological communities”.
The term “eschatological” has gotten a bum rap. It is usually taken to refer to a catastrophic end of time, to death, judgment, heaven and hell. What the term “eschatological community” really means, however, is a community that is grounded in a particular future – that is, the future when and where God has his way. Jesus prayed, “Thy kingdom come, thy will be done.”
· An eschatological community is where the power and intent of Jesus’ prayer is manifesting.
· An eschatological community is one that is being shaped by that future toward which God is working, the future that expresses God’s heart.
· An eschatological community is being empowered to give visible expression to Jesus’ message that the Kingdom of God is at hand; that we can repent and believe this good news.
· An eschatological community demonstrates that the good news of the Kingdom of God is breaking in – now in ordinary existence and among ordinary people.
When I first became exposed to the Church of the Saviour I had a sense of touching an eschatological community without having heard that term. In its preaching, teaching, affectionate, healing relationships, laughing and having fun together, and seriousness about things that really matter, being on mission together, I who had grown up in the institutional church experienced something special. As we came together as a community I felt the same thing in Seekers.
I also discovered that it was not all sweetness and light, and the deeper I got into community the more pain and brokenness I saw in the community and recognized in myself.
At the same time I saw and felt contagious joy. Christian community is conscious of being grounded in a reality bigger than itself. I wanted that.
Christian community to the extent that it is grounded in Christ is counter cultural. Secular culture which persistently seeps into Christian community invites, tolerates and reinforces social division– division by wealth, by achievement, by race, religion, politics, ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, even by piety. The culture calls this freedom. Christian community is grounded in another freedom, the freedom to be in solidarity.
In the faith communities gathered by Paul there was a common baptismal formula which was explained in depth to every new person entering the community and recited at their baptism. It is found in Gal. 3:27-28 “As many of you as were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. 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.” In sum, no dividing walls, no insiders and outliers.
This even applied, amazingly, to theological differences. For example, there were some in the Corinthian house churches who didn’t believe in the resurrection. Read I Corinthians 15 carefully. Paul disagrees passionately with those who deny the resurrection and at the same time addresses the dissenters as part of the body. He addresses their differences by telling his story.
For Paul, the eschatological community is more than a collection of individuals. It is a living, breathing body shaped by Christ where each individual has a God given uniqueness. People are safe in an environment grounded in Christ and by experiencing safety they are free to go deeper, down into the bowels of what the Bible means by salvation for themselves and the world.
Paul taught solidarity, the solidarity of God with Jesus, of Jesus with the community, members of the community with one another and solidarity with neighbor. One example was the weekly gathering for worship of the house churches which featured a pot luck meal. People who got there on time wanted to eat while their food was hot. If they did this the slaves who had to finish chores in the homes of their masters before leaving would get the leftovers. Paul said that was unacceptable. That was not solidarity.
Let me close with a brief discussion of an example of getting off the track of solidarity. It can happen without anyone recognizing it. The example I have in mind involves Seekers at the time when the New Lands era was unfolding.
Recently my friend David Hilfiker helped me find a word to express some painful memories. David Hilfiker and his family attended Seekers for a time when the Church of the Saviour was dividing into small scattered communities because we had a strong Sunday school. He noted that soon thereafter he heard conversations around the Potter’s House that portrayed Seekers as an “outlier” faith community – that is at a distance from the center. He heard in the comments a touch of disdain.
I felt this at the time. Sonya did too, as did many of you. It was more of a feeling than anything I could describe in words. I wondered what was at the bottom of it. Was it because most of the emerging faith communities formed around a specific mission or the support of missions already in existence while we in Seekers defined our call simply as to be church? We believed in call and mission too. Or did it have something to do with requesting use of the headquarters building at 2025 for worship and educational space? Could there have been feelings about that? Whatever it was, there developed a subtle undercurrent almost like a dividing wall.
Paul knew the feeling. He knew that some people in the mother church in Jerusalem saw him as an outlier, questioning “Who is this new guy who makes no distinction between Jew and Gentile?” Paul took the tension head-on. He requested and got a meeting with the leaders of the mother church in Jerusalem, put his cards on the table and asked for their response. When they heard him out they were compelled to acknowledge that his outreach to Gentiles and his inclusion of them without requiring that they first become Jews was the leading of the Holy Spirit. They affirmed his call after agreeing upon mutually acceptable guidelines. .
I wish back then that I had had the clarity and confidence in Christ of Paul and along with Sonya and some of you called a meeting of representatives of the scattered churches, Gordon, Mary, Elizabeth and Bill Branner and put our call on the table and asked does this put us at the center or make us an outlier? What does it mean to fully belong to the Church of the Saviour in this era of the New Lands? There is an issue here of solidarity, and if we are missing something we need to know what it is.
I don’t pick up that feeling about Seekers as outlier today. Instead I pick up acknowledgement and appreciation for the generosity of Seekers such as Kate Cudlipp’s leadership of the ecumenical council, Peter’s work in surveying the needs and costs of preserving 2025, Marjorie’s leadership of discernment on the future of Wellspring, etc., etc.
My concern is that the dominant culture is always infiltrating Christian community and one sign of its infiltration is the subtle kind of judgment that undermines and erodes solidarity. We are keenly aware of the value of annual recommitment individually. Might the time be at hand to extend that to our belonging and our solidarity as communities?
The time has come for all of us, following Paul, to say boldly, “In Christ there are no outliers.” The time has come because our city, our country and our world are in trouble.
Our political system is broken so far as unifying us to work on the long term issues that spell hope or catastrophe. The need for eschatological communities is profound. A lot of rethinking is needed within the Church of the Saviour tradition, and we need to cultivate solidarity between the outposts of our movement. That is what the scattered churches of this tradition are – outposts of a movement – the Seekers outpost in Tacoma Park, the Dayspring outpost in Montgomery County, the New Community outpost in Shaw, the Church of Jesus Christ Right Now in prison ministry, the 8th Day outpost, and so on. The time has come for us to grapple with the metaphor of new lands in fresh ways. I challenge this blessed community to help lead the way.