“Now you are the body of Christ and individually members of it,” wrote St. Paul to the Church at Corinth in the middle of the first century. One of the earliest descriptions of Paul goes like this: “a man small of stature, with a bald head and crooked legs, in a good state of body, with eyebrows meeting and nose somewhat hooked, full of friendliness….”
I love that description because it makes Paul a little more human in our minds and accounts for why he is so often depicted with a bald head- something some of us can also identify with. It was St. Paul who was the Apostle of the early Church and all of his writings in the New Testament are to Church communities about what it means to be a Christian in community.
For Paul, the resurrected Christ lived in the spirit of the communities who gathered in Christ’s name. It was out of that relationship to each other and to Christ that people became renewed and transformed. I am certain that none of us would be too comfortable in Paul’s Church. The best synopsis of the Pauline Churches is that everyone was considered an equal, as you can tell from this passage. It didn’t matter whether you were originally Jewish or Greek. It didn’t matter how long you had been a Christian or who your family was. More importantly, many scholars agree that in Paul’s Churches, women were every bit as empowered as men. The Eucharist wasn’t celebrated by the priest, but that privilege was rotated among the congregation, as did the task of preaching for those who felt called. It wasn’t until much later that church organization took on the boundaries of orders that exist today.
Not everyone agreed with Paul. In fact the Corinthian letters came in response to others, opponents of Paul, who had gone to Corinth to tell the Church that Paul was wrong. They said that Paul didn’t truly understand the Gospel and they had the authentic Gospel of Jesus. Books have been written about who these people were, although they left no written records. They were other Apostles, or those who claimed the right to be called Apostles, and they vehemently disagreed with Paul. So St. Paul penned these letters that now are part of our scripture back to Corinth, describing how he believed members of a Church ought to live with one another.
Paul was a radical. Even today he is a radical, if we take to heart his vision of the Body of Christ. He still challenges every Christian Church to be more and to do more than it would if left to its own desires and devices. We also learn from the New Testament correspondence that life as a first century Christian had parallels with today. There were no denominations then, but there were radically different ways of doing Christianity and believing in Jesus Christ, just as there are today. This is a Sunday which is set aside to celebrate Christian unity and we all know there is precious little of that around.
When St. Paul speaks about a church as one body yet with differing parts and its members with a variety of gifts, he drives to the heart of Christian discipleship. In other words, everybody has a place in God’s choir and nobody ranks higher or is more holy. We each have something to offer and, if we are truly filled with the Spirit, we will listen to each other because that is the way God works. God doesn’t hold anyone of us higher than the other, but only hopes for us to reach for our own highest good which is indeed for the highest good of others so that by loving what God has made in us we can see the goodness God has placed in others, and love that holiness too.
We – most of us anyway – entered the Body of Christ through the door known as the Episcopal Church. We are only one of the many communions who claim the name Christian. And we are not the one true Church but only one way of doing Christianity. It is always risky for a preacher to make self-confessions, but I do so this morning because I want you to know why I am a Christian who worships the Risen Lord as an Episcopalian.
I do not claim that my reasons should be your reasons, but they may prove to illumine your own ways of understanding your faith.
I know that you have all heard the bad jokes about the Episcopal Church. At Harvard they always referred to the Episcopal Church as the bridge Church between Catholic and Protestant and then added: a bridge because it is always getting walked on. You have heard it said that wherever you find four Episcopalians, you will find a fifth, and they don’t mean another person. Compared to the credo of the Baptists and other reformed sects, Episcopalians are more likely to engage in the vissicitudes of the world. No doubt some Roman Catholic told you that you can always tell the difference between a Roman Catholic sacristy and an Episcopal sacristy; in the Roman one you will find a crucifix and in the Episcopal one you will find a mirror. Much has been made of the Episcopal tendency to dress well and enjoy the plenty of the world. Finally, you have heard the tired joke about the different denominations and what they will receive in hell: there Episcopalians are made to eat off paper plates with plastic forks.
We have a negative reputation for being well-educated, wealthy, aloof, self-indulged, and worldly. All of which can be true, but as with all stereotypes, it fails to offer the inner truth of the life of our Body of Christ.
I grew up a Presbyterian and I say with thousands of others that I became an Episcopalian because the magic and the mystery of the liturgy swept over me and through me. When asked what Episcopalians believe, we do not hold up a document; we offer The Book of Common Prayer. Richard Hooker said it right, “You believe what you pray.” We often take our liturgy for granted, wishing that it would be over on time. We often are so used to the words that we forget to hear their beauty and the way they dive deep into our hearts. We often do not allow the mystery of words spoken through the centuries to unite us with the Risen Lord in ways we cannot imagine. Somehow, when we are open to its energy, our liturgy evaporates time and space as we know it and we become one with a great majesty of witnesses that we know and love.
I don’t know if you know this, but the Episcopal Church was the only one of the mainline Protestant denominations which did not split into northern and southern branches during the Civil War. We recognized that the Church in this country did not belong to our national differences but was part of something larger, the Anglican Communion. I am proud of this historical fact and I think it was one of the most faithful times in the history of the American Episcopal Church when they did not cut off each other because of political and social difference, but realized we belonged to something far beyond our temporal differences however difficult they were.
Some people will say that the Episcopal Church is in more peril today than it was during the Civil War. Some think we are so radically divided that we cannot in any sense be the body of Christ. Conservatives, liberals, fundamentalists, high Church, low Church, universalists; the list goes on, but all inhabit the precincts of our Body of Christ.
I believe St. Paul would agree that the most hurtful and unfaithful thing Christians can do is to split the Church. This is a sin in God’s eyes worse than all those other sins we so easily talk about. Often the cultural disagreement is couched in scriptural terms as if one side knows scripture better than another. Not long ago one of these groups produced a letter that addressed the issue this way:
“There are now two religions in the Episcopal Church. We worship two Gods…one religion serves the God whose self-revelation is preserved in Scriptures and reliably passed on in the tradition of the Church. The other serves the desires and beliefs of this age as interpreted by the consciences of individuals…. A Church which affirms biblical truth but cannot discipline those who reject them has descended to the level of any other human institution and thus cannot win the world for the Gospel. We cannot speak for those who have taken our Church away from her Scriptures and tradition. They have claimed to act in good conscience. But they cannot pretend, or expect us to pretend, that we are following the same understanding of God. In this situation, as loyal members of a Church torn between two religions, we commit ourselves to the religion of the Gospel as the Church has received it.”
I hear different themes in that challenge. One is a call for a stronger authority, a belief that Scripture and proven tradition are the main basis for what we are to believe. I don’t hold with that. I want to be part of a larger community in which there is a place for reason, for interpretation of new ideas, and even for dialogue with other religions. Anglicanism has always had room in it for doubters and pilgrims. Every time in the history of the Church, Scripture is made a hammer, people die. They die physically and they die spiritually.
Mostly I hear in this manifesto a plea for authoritarianism and for the exclusion of others who share a different view. I don’t hold with that either. I am part of a Body of many different kinds of people: Catholics, Evangelicals, traditional people, liberal people, conservative people, and, if we are honest, gay people and straight people. Those who regard the church in one way and those who regard it in another. I, for one, don’t want to be part of a Body of Christ that is an exclusive society and demands conformity. I choose Paul and his Scripture and not his opponents who understand belief as the key to faith rather than faith as the key to belief. I am reminded of a little poem that goes:
We only shall be saved,
all others will be damned;
There is no room in heaven for you;
we can’t have heaven crammed.
To those who say the survival of the Gospel in our Church is threatened, I say that Jesus’ Gospel is alive and well because people of the twentieth century take it seriously and apply it to their lives. More importantly, the Gospel is ultimately in Jesus’ hands, not yours or mine. It is foolish to think that you can have Scripture that is not tested by the assumptions and knowledge of our time. If one truly believes in the efficacy of the Scripture, then one has nothing to fear.
Mostly, I am an Episcopalian because we embrace others rather than turn them away. We have rubrics and we follow them, but we also have soul and follow that soul as well. Once when I was in Alexandria, a Cambodian family, recently refugees to the United States and living with a family in that church, came to communion. They were aged thirteen to five. They were Buddhists. They were not baptized Christians, though later they joined the church. The rubrics said they could not have communion; the Jesus I knew said they could. I want to live in a Church with that understanding of Christ.
Because the Episcopal Church is a church of privilege, education and room it will always be an easy target for others. It reminds me of Jesus who was criticized as a drunkard, a party goer, a blasphemer, a breaker of the rules, who did not understand scripture, and associated with the wrong people. I often hear those
same criticisms thrown at our Church and it makes me confident we are on the right path.
St. Paul tried to tell this to the Corinthians centuries ago because they were consumed with getting it right. What needs to be right is our hearts filled with love and grace and forgiveness, nothing less, and that is and ever will be the Body of Christ.
In this day and age, I am glad to be an Episcopalian, because we know our shortcomings and that doesn’t stop us from worship, from joy, from hope, or from being a band of sinners dedicated to loving each other and the Lord Jesus. We have our Scripture, our Prayer Book, our history and traditions, but mostly we have each other. God is not ever going to give us a theological test to get into heaven; rather God will ask us how we loved each other.
Let Us Pray:
We pray this day for the Church wherever it is found. Open Thy people anew to the empowering winds of Thy Spirit, lest we look for sustenance to sources that were never meant to be our life.
Increase our confidence in the Gospel to change our lives and to make us whole; our belief in the power of love to conquer hate; our patience to accept and work through any conflict as away of preaching peace; our ability to be in the world but not of the world.
O Thou who art able to do for us more than ever we could ask or think; let or faith in hope and in resurrection bid our hearts to love each other beyond what we would do left to our own devices. Let your light stream through us that the world, our neighbors and we ourselves may see and feel your Holy presence right here, right now, with us and within us. Through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.