Thursday, July 23, 2009

Standing in the Gap - Sermon for Pentecost 7

“We are called to stand in the gap and that has not and will not change.”(Carol Barnwell, Communications Director, Diocese of Texas, July 2009)

Sometimes we can be very na├»ve in our reading of the New Testament. We read it with rose-colored lenses, thinking that there were no serious or divisive controversies in the New Testament age – at least none as serious as those which threaten to divide our churches today. Well, I have news for you: there has never been a time in church history when the Body of Christ has not been under the threat of division; and this includes the New Testament age. Today’s reading from the Book of Ephesians [2:11-22] reminds us of this.

Read in light of the controversies of the day (rather than reading it as just another theological treatise) we can begin to appreciate that, in context, this passage was an admonition of sorts. Specifically, it served as an admonition directed towards a predominantly Gentile church – i.e., a church tempted to think too highly of itself as it looked down upon those of Jewish descent, and thus a church in danger of division. The “presenting cause” (if you will) was the Law of Moses and, more specifically, the practice of circumcision which Gentile believers rejected, but which many believers of Jewish descent still regarded as a necessary rite of initiation.

By the time this letter was written, Gentile Christians no doubt outnumbered those of Jewish descent in most places, and were presumably enjoying their newfound preeminence in the Church. But here the author takes the opportunity to remind them that they were once “far off” … “without Christ and aliens from the commonwealth of Israel” … “strangers to the covenants of promise and without God in the world.” After reminding them of their former alien-status, the author proceeds to tell them that there is absolutely no basis or reason for divisions amongst Christians of different backgrounds, because “…Christ is our peace; in his flesh he has made both groups into one and has broken down the dividing wall, that is, the hostility between us.”

Once again – this week – we were made painfully aware of how divided our own Church and Communion are. (On a personal note, I tried very hard to ignore what was going on in Anaheim. However, the media and blogosphere managed to break through my self-imposed indifference to remind me of just how close the Anglican Communion actually is to dividing and separating into factions.)

True, the issues of today are very different from those of St. Paul’s day. Nevertheless, we are witnessing the same dynamics at work: people of strong convictions on both sides of serious issues alienating each other, and setting up walls of division between themselves for the sake of preeminence in the church. Somewhere along the way, we have forgotten that “Christ is our peace”; and that in his flesh he has made us one Body, by breaking down dividing walls and abolishing all of our hostilities.

I know it is natural at this point to object to what I am suggesting. After all, if this statement were true (or if it applied to OUR controversies) – i.e., if Christ really has broken down all “dividing walls” and abolished all hostilities through his flesh – then how is it that otherwise sincere Christians still find themselves so divided? Why are there differences of opinion at all? How can it be that the Church of Christ is of two minds on such important matters? I believe the answer can be boiled down to a simple distinction: The difference between “being” and “knowing;” i.e., the difference between “what we are” and “our understanding of what we are.”

Now the dirty little secret in academic circles is that philosophers and theologians have known about this distinction for a long time; indeed, they have built whole careers on it! How this distinction applies to the Body of Christ is quite simple: there is a crucial difference between “what we are in Christ” and how we understand and experience “what it means to be in Christ.” Intuitively, we all know this to be true, especially when it comes to our own personal Christian walks. For example: We so fervently believe in Christ’s victory in our lives! And yet… how difficult is it to live that life of victory? As a tenet of our faith we believe that Christ has conquered sin and death, and yet… we continue to struggle with sin and the prospect of death! Each week we drop to our knees in confession, because we believe that God is faithful and just to forgive us our sins. But if “knowing” was identical to “being,” we would never have to confess our sins because we would never sin!

Individually, we experience salvation as a process. It is process for us corporately as the Body of Christ as well. Hence, if “knowing” was identical to “being,” it would stand to reason that there would no longer be any differences in the Church. Yet as St. Paul reminds us elsewhere, what we know we know “only in part”: “Now we see but a poor reflection as in a mirror; then we shall see face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I am fully known” (cf. 1 Corinthians 13:9, 12).

It is when one or more parties in the Church confuse “knowing” with “being” that separation and division in the Body of Christ becomes inevitable. It is only a matter of time.

Most of you know I have not always been an Episcopalian. My original ordination was in the Reformed Episcopal Church, a group that separated 136 years ago from the Episcopal Church because they could no longer tolerate differences of opinion in that denomination. However, 136 years ago the controversies were not over homosexual bishops and same-sex unions, but rather whether or not ministers should wear Eucharistic vestments … and whether candles should be placed on the altar … and whether the altar should even be called an altar (rather than a table) … and whether a priest should be called a priest! These issues seem petty and unimportant to us today; indeed, they are no longer important to the Reformed Episcopal Church! But they were important enough at the time to separate from the main body. Though the issues have changed, the underlying problem for the original Reformed Episcopalians is the same one we face today: the confusion of “knowing” with “being.”

When someone or some group insists that they alone “know” or possess the truth they are, in essence, making a claim to be the embodiment of the truth. Recent events clearly demonstrate this. On the one hand, we have the “ultra-conservatives” (for want of a better term) who have so settled the issues in their minds that no amount of potential new evidence, scientific research, or even careful consideration of and attention to pastoral needs could ever dislodge their conviction that not only do they KNOW the truth but that they themselves ARE the truth – that is, that their separate existence apart from the rest of the Anglican world embodies “true Anglicanism.”

On the other hand, what is becoming ever so clear to the rest of the Anglican Communion is that the “elites” and “social activists” in our Church are confusing American-style democratic processes with the voice and leading of the Holy Spirit, and majority voting procedures with the consensus fidelium (i.e., the consensus of the faithful). As a result, our national church ends up ignoring or belittling the legitimate concerns and consensus of the rest of the Anglican Communion, while insisting that the Anglican Communion should accept us on our terms (always under the veiled threat of withdrawing our financial support).

That’s why I’m thankful to part of the Diocese of Texas, and indeed, your priest. You may not always feel like it (and I sometimes might be negligent in telling you), but you are a gift to this diocese; and the diocese as a whole is a gift to The Episcopal Church. Why? Because, as Carol Barnwell (communication director for the diocese) recently expressed it, “We [as a diocese] are called to stand in the gap and that has not and will not change.” As your priest I am here today to remind you that this parish in particular is called to “stand in the gap” as well. I’m not telling you anything you do not already know from your own experience. We live this calling every day. We are keenly aware of the costs and the struggle. It will always be a part of our DNA.

So what does it mean to stand in the gap?

Standing in the gap means guarding and protecting that which has been received by the Church and remaining faithful to our Anglican heritage and consensus. But it also means remaining open to the guidance and prompting of the Holy Spirit, and thus perhaps to the possibility (if only hypothetical) of the emergence of a new consensus on issues that, at present, are controversial.

Standing in the gap means understanding the difference between “knowing” and “being.” It means that if we would ever hope to know the fullness of Christ we must first live into the truth that we – ALL OF THE BAPTIZED (even those with whom we disagree) – are the Body of Christ.

Standing in the gap means standing precisely where others will want to build walls of separation, walls of hostility and division, walls that Christ through his flesh tore down, and refusing to step aside or out of the way.

Standing in the gap means being called to offer ourselves as a bridge of reconciliation to those, on both sides, who cannot see beyond their own prejudices to appreciate the gifts that others of different opinions might bring to the table.