Our Cause: The Body of Christ
1 Corinthians 12:12-31a
The Rev. Peter Faass
In an op-ed this past Friday, New York Times columnist David Brooks wrote of two great American philosophers who lived at the turn of the last century and worked at Harvard. One was named William James and the other Josiah Royce.
Brooks describes these men’s over-arching philosophical viewpoints this way: “James was pragmatic and tough-minded, looking for empirical truth. Royce was more idealistic and tender-minded, more spiritual and abstract.”
He goes on to say that James’ philosophy took root and holds sway in our culture these days, but that based on the condition of our nation and society, it is Royce’s philosophical ethos we need to reclaim.
Here is segment of Brooks column where he explains why:
“James’s emphasis was on tolerance. We live in a pluralistic society and we each know only a fragment of the truth. People should give one another enough social space so they can be themselves. For Royce the good life meant tightly binding yourself to others — giving yourself away with others for the sake of a noble cause. Tolerance is not enough.
James’s influence is now enormous — deservedly so. Royce is almost entirely forgotten. And yet I would say that Royce is the philosopher we need today. In an age of division, fragmentation and isolation, Royce is the philosopher we don’t know we have. He is the philosopher of binding and connection.
Royce argued that meaningful lives are marked, above all, by loyalty. Out on the frontier, he had seen the chaos and anarchy that ensues when it’s every man for himself, when society is just a bunch of individuals searching for gain. He concluded that people make themselves miserable when they pursue nothing more than their “fleeting, capricious and insatiable” desires.
So, for him the good human life meant loyalty, “the willing and practical and thoroughgoing devotion of a person to a cause.”
A person doesn’t have to invent a cause, or find it deep within herself. You are born into a world of causes, which existed before you were born and will be there after you die. You just have to become gripped by one, to give yourself away to it realizing that the cause is more important than your individual pleasure or pain . . .
Loyalty is not just emotion. It is action. “The loyal man serves. That is, he does not merely follow his own impulses. He looks to his cause for guidance. This cause tells him what to do,” Royce wrote in “The Philosophy of Loyalty. The cause gives unity and consistency to life. The cause gives fellowship, because there are always others serving the same cause.”
As I reflected about Royce and his philosophy of loyalty and devotion to a cause that is binding and gives connection to human life, one person to another, I could not help but think of today’s first letter of Paul to the Corinthians: “Just as the body is one and has many members, and all the members of the body, though many, are one body, so it is with Christ. For in the one Spirit we were all baptized into one body--Jews or Greeks, slaves or free--and we were all made to drink of one Spirit.”
Paul’s letter is written to a church community where there were great divisions based on class and wealth. A sense of entitlement and superiority had overcome some members of the Corinthian church, over those who had less resources or were of lower social status. Their loyalties were not to the cause of the Gospel but to their own needs. They felt that those different from themselves were not worthy of their concerns. To quote Royce, people had made themselves miserable pursuing nothing more than their “fleeting, capricious and insatiable” desires.
Paul admonishes this attitude in a decidedly Royceian way.
“Indeed, the body does not consist of one member but of many. If the foot would say, "Because I am not a hand, I do not belong to the body," that would not make it any less a part of the body. And if the ear would say, "Because I am not an eye, I do not belong to the body," that would not make it any less a part of the body. If the whole body were an eye, where would the hearing be? If the whole body were hearing, where would the sense of smell be? But as it is, God arranged the members in the body, each one of them, as he chose. If all were a single member, where would the body be? As it is, there are many members, yet one body. The eye cannot say to the hand, "I have no need of you," nor again the head to the feet, "I have no need of you." On the contrary, the members of the body that seem to be weaker are indispensable, and those members of the body that we think less honorable we clothe with greater honor, and our less respectable members are treated with greater respect; whereas our more respectable members do not need this. But God has so arranged the body, giving the greater honor to the inferior member, that there may be no dissension within the body, but the members may have the same care for one another. If one member suffers, all suffer together with it; if one member is honored, all rejoice together with it.”
Just as Royse was the philosopher of binding and connection to the cause of a healthy society, so Paul is the apostle of binding and connection to the cause of the body of Christ.
In our fragmented, divisive, me first society, the message of Paul and Royce need to be lifted up and embraced. To paraphrase Royce, “The loyal person serves. That is, she does not merely follow her own impulses. She looks to her cause for guidance. This cause tells her what to do.”
As followers of Jesus our cause is the body of Christ; a body that calls us to total interdependence, respect and mutual care. Our loyalty is to make our song this Gospel truth that regardless of who or what we are, we are all worthy, children made in the image of a loving God. We are called to sing that in that body there is no longer Jew or Greek, slave or free, male or female, rich or poor, black or white, gay or straight, for we are all one in Christ Jesus. That is our cause. That is where our loyalty lies. And the world is more than ready to hear the healing good news of that cause, and to be made whole by it.
Luke 3:15-17, 21-22
The Rev. Peter Faass
Eighteen years have passed since the last time we heard about Jesus in the Gospel of Luke and today’s story about his appearing at the River Jordan to be baptized by John. Eighteen years earlier Jesus was twelve years old and he and his parents had gone to the Jerusalem Temple for Passover. Eighteen years since he engaged with the rabbis at the Temple in deep theological conversations.
And now he is a thirty-year old man, ready to embark on his life’s mission to bring the word of God’s salvation to the world.
What happened in those intervening years? Biblical scholars speculate. Did he remain in Nazareth taking up the family trade of carpentry? Did he travel to India and learn the mystical ways of eastern religions? Whatever he did, he was sure to have engaged – as all young people do – in thinking about his life, who he was called to be, and of what worth he had in the world. And as a thoughtful and reflective person, he had most likely arrived at the realization that he was unique, made in the image of a loving God, and that that he was to honor that uniqueness by living out who he actually was, in gratitude to the One who made him.
He also must have known that at some point he needed to leave the protections of his family and their village of Nazareth. He had grown from being a youth into adulthood. It was time to go out into the wider world to live out his realities – the truth he had discerned - of his own life.
Jesus had grown closer to God in those eighteen years, and when John the Baptist appeared, “proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins” and people were flocking to John to be baptized, Jesus knew that there was a movement toward God taking place. It was a movement propelled by people’s desire to be whole and healthy, in a renewed relationship with God. For Jesus, John’s emergence was God’s call to him to do likewise: To be who he was called to be and in so doing be whole and healthy. To be, as they say, true to oneself.
In that moment when he emerges from the baptismal waters God affirms what Jesus had realized when he tells him: “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased." The voice of God comes to him, acknowledging that he has made the right decision.
How that must have resonated with Jesus. God his father affirming his decision to be who he was, to be true to himself. While Jesus knew the path ahead would be fraught with perils, with people saying he was a phony, an apostate, a danger, he had God’s approbation – God’s love to sustain him - and that was enough. It was more than enough.
When I was twelve years old I came to understand there was something different about me. While other boys began dating girls and talking about the fascinating mysteries of the female sex, I became poignantly aware that I did not share this attraction. I was very aware that men were fascinating and of interest to me. But it was also crystal clear that this attraction was not to be shared with others.
My then church community, was clear from the pulpit, in Sunday School, and in general conversations, in conveying that my attractions were wrong, sinful, and not condoned by God. Much of the negative things the church and family and society say how being gay gets deeply embedded in our psyche. And we begin to believe them. These beliefs are hard to shake and cause self-doubt. They make you question your worth as a person.
In the ensuing years, as I grew older and reflected on my sexual orientation, I had few places to turn. But I did reflect and pray on this issue often . . . a lot . . . every day. Often this reflection was conflicted. For a while I joined a charismatic Christian group in high school, desiring to pray away the gay. My fervent prayers at the time were for God to heal me and make me “normal.” After about a year of that and no discernable reply from the Almighty, I gave up on the attempt.
In retrospect the lack of response was actually the response. In time I came to understand that. We don’t always recognize our epiphanies in the moment. While I can’t pinpoint an exact moment, I know that as I entered college an epiphany came over me and I heard the voice of God saying to me, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased. Be who I have made you to be. Be true to yourself, and all will be well.” That approbation from God has come to mean everything for me.
I spent another ten to twelve years maturing into that truth. Interestingly enough – and by no intentional design - it was at the age of thirty that I came back to my practice of faith, albeit in the Episcopal Church and not my old denomination.
The path forward through those years has sometimes been fraught with peril. People have called me a phony Christian, an apostate, a danger, and some way less savory things as well. But that epiphany of God’s approbation – God’s love - has sustained me and that was enough. In fact, it has been more than enough.
Regretfully that approbation of who I was, was not so quick in coming from my mother. But time and patience and the power of motherly love eventually brought her around as well. When in 1992 I told her that I felt a call from God toward ordained ministry, she did not rue my giving up a good paying career, and what I knew she believed to be a successful life. She didn’t say gay people would have a tough time in ministry. Rather she became my greatest supporter and cheerleader. She knew the road before me would be fraught with perils, but she sustained me on my journey with her love. Her love was a manifestation of God’s presence in my life and in that presence I once again heard the words, "You are my son, the beloved; with you I am well pleased."
We all parent in various ways: As biological and adoptive parents, as grandparents, teachers, extended family, clergy, as the church community. And we all know young people who struggle with issues of identity and self-worth; about what value their lives have. Some are LGBTQ, others struggle with issues like body imaging, race, religion, class. They all carry heavy burdens in the guilt and shame baggage that society often heaps upon them in their struggles. Our responsibility as faithful Christians is to nurture their being thoughtful and reflective people. God calls us to help guide them so they arrive at the realization that they are unique, wonderful people, made in the image of a loving God, and that that like Jesus and all of us, they are to honor their uniqueness as children of God, living their lives with integrity and in gratitude to the One who made them.
In a nutshell, we are to be the voice of God telling them, "You are [a child of God], [you are] beloved; with you I am well pleased."
We do this for many reasons. There are many in society who tell them otherwise, including religious communities. There are many who bully and harass them. There are many who shame them and rob them of their human dignity. There are many who disown them and throw them into the streets to fend for themselves. And there are many who believe they can change them and make them “better.”
A recent writer of a letter to the editor on Cleveland.com bemoaned the growing number of state legislatures that were passing laws prohibiting so called “conversion therapy” for LGBTQ people. They wrote that, “the goal in [conversion] therapy is not conversion but healing.” They went on to say that legislation should be written to, “guard licensed therapists from limitations on their healing art.”
The reality is that “conversion therapy” is pseudo-science; a travesty that is discredited by all legitimate medical associations. It is not healing, it is not art. It is profoundly damaging, a form of torture that wreaks havoc emotionally, spiritually, mentally, and often, physically on those compelled to engage in it. I have never meet anyone who has been successfully “converted” from being gay into a straight person. I have met plenty who have suffered terribly and unnecessarily as they were hounded into denying their authentic selves.
In a few moments we will renew our Baptismal vows. These vows are not just a bunch of hollow words that the clergy are compelled by the Book of Common Prayer to have us recite on certain feast days on the liturgical calendar. They are our holy vows to heal the brokenness of this world, just as Jesus did. They are the foundation of our faith in Jesus, because they reflect the values he incarnated for us. These vows are meant to be a plumb line hanging in our lives, guiding us into right behavior toward all: Seeking and serving Christ in all persons, loving our neighbor as ourselves. Striving for justice and peace among all people. Respecting the dignity of every human being. This is our work as followers of Jesus: loving people for who and where they are. All the time. To all we encounter. No exceptions. Ever.
These holy vows are what allow us to proclaim to all God’s children: "You are my [child], [you are] beloved; with you I am well pleased." Amen.
We Were Wrong.
Ephesians 3:1-12; Matthew 2:1-12
The Rev. Peter Faass
As we see 2018 fade behind us in the rearview mirror, we find ourselves in the midst of the season of resolutions.
Resolutions are commitments to make an amendment of life, turning from bad toward good behaviors. Resolution is the secular sister term for the theological word, repentance.
We tend to view resolutions as being an individual effort. People think, “I’ll give up smoking and be healthier,” or “I’ll lose fifteen pounds by a change in my diet and exercise.” And most resolutions have as their end goal a healthier state of being, either physically, mentally, relationally, emotionally or spiritually.
But resolutions can be taken on by groups and institutions as well. And actually, they should be because we all – individually and corporately - need to have our goal be a healthier state of being.
I read an article this week written by Mark Wingfield, an American Baptist minister, where he stated his hope for the church in 2019 is that our resolution will be saying three simple words: “we were wrong.”
We were wrong.
That’s a serious challenge to the church, and may be the most difficult thing we, as an institution, will ever be asked to do! After-all we are the institution that always gets it right, no? And admitting error about anything we have said or done will not fall easily from the lips of people who expect others to confess their sins, not themselves.
But Wingfield says, the church in fact has had gotten it wrong, still gets it wrong, and persists in doing wrong in many ways:
We were wrong on race, trying to prove a Biblical warrant for making Blacks inferior. We were wrong, and continue to get it grotesquely wrong, on protecting sexual predators. We were wrong about women not being co-equally made in the image of God. We were wrong on excluding people from the Eucharist and ordination due to their sexual identity. We were wrong to demand right belief for participation in the life of the church, forgoing the actual call of Jesus to engage in right practice.
So much of the church’s being wrong is rooted in its desire for control and power. Being wrong is often actually nurtured by the church, which stokes human fear and insecurity, thereby allowing the institution to engage in absolutism and certainty, versus encouraging people to live into Divine mystery. All too often the church trains us to worship the Bible as it has been interpreted through the lens of those who have an agenda based on control and power and of institutional preservation, rather than reading the scripture through the overarching narrative of love embodied in the gospel of Jesus. Through this lens the Bible becomes the inerrant word of God - albeit cherry picked words to meet the needs of the institutional – but to the detriment of Jesus being the Word made flesh.
Jesus was highly critical of this approach to the scriptures. In Matthew he tells the religious authorities, “So, for the sake of your tradition, you make void the word of God. You hypocrites! Isaiah prophesied rightly about you when he said:
‘This people honors me with their lips,
but their hearts are far from me;
in vain do they worship me,
teaching human precepts as doctrines.’” (Matthew 15:6-9)
Today is Epiphany; the day we celebrate the arrival of the Three Kings at the manger in Bethlehem to pay homage to the Messiah. This story is all about how the institutional religion at the time of Jesus’ birth got it wrong. And like us, they got it really wrong.
At the time of Jesus’ birth, it was the belief of institutional Judaism that salvation was for Jews – faithful Jews – only. That as the chosen people they alone were entitled to the salvation of God. Now this belief , while based on cherry-picked scripture passages - contravened what had been proclaimed by many of the prophets, which was God’s plan was for universal salvation. Isaiah particularly undergirds the inclusion of the Gentiles in God’s plan. Note that whenever the words nation or nations are used in scripture it is a reference to the Gentiles. Here are a few examples of Isaiah’s inclusivity of the nations:
“In days to come
the mountain of the Lord’s house
shall be established as the highest of the mountains,
and shall be raised above the hills;
all the nations shall stream to it. (Is 2:2)
“I will give you as a light to the nations,
that my salvation may reach to the end of the earth.” (Is. 49:6)
“On this mountain the Lord of hosts will make for all peoples a feast of rich food, a feast of well-aged wines, of rich food filled with marrow, of well-aged wines strained clear. (Is. 25:6)
In these passages it is unambiguous that God’s plan is for all peoples to receive the light of God’s saving grace.
Yet the institutional religion of the time chose to ignore that message, rather proclaiming a more exclusivist access to God. And in so doing they got it wrong.
And then along comes Jesus, the Messiah – the Word of God incarnate. And who are among the first people who come to witness to his Messiahship and pay him homage? Three Gentiles from Persia!
“When they [the Wise men] saw that the star had stopped, they were overwhelmed with joy. On entering the house, they saw the child with Mary his mother; and they knelt down and paid him homage. Then, opening their treasure chests, they offered him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh.”
The Wise Men were over-whelmed with joy! I can imagine as they peered into the face of this child who came down from heaven for us – for all of us – and for our salvation, that this profound good news is what caused their joy. And all of a sudden – in that moment - what had been very wrong was made oh, so very right. Because God will not let wrongs persist. Because God will always right every wrong. And in Jesus we have the revelation of God at work doing just that.
Paul expounds on this truth in his letter to the Ephesians.
“This is the reason that I Paul am a prisoner for Christ Jesus for the sake of you Gentiles,” he writes. [Through Jesus] “the Gentiles have become fellow heirs, members of the same body, and sharers in the promise in Christ Jesus through the gospel.”
Paul of course was the apostle to the Gentiles, and he relentlessly battled with the early church in Jerusalem who had defaulted to the old ways of exclusivism, and were getting it wrong when it came to living into the wide embrace of Jesus’ love for all God’s people. But Paul’s persistence made the institutional church in Jerusalem see the error of its wrongness and he compelled them to make those wrongs right. His most well- known summation of this effort is captured in his letter to the Galatians: “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.” (Gal. 3:28)
Wingfield writes, “There is a day of reckoning coming – hopefully soon – when the church will have to give account not only for its hypocrisy” [in ignoring the Gospel] “but also for its silence” [in the face of the wrongs that have been perpetrated.]
“If the church of Jesus Christ is to be relevant in our mission, if we are to be agents of God’s reconciling love, we’ve got to take a hard look in the mirror . . . It’s time to say we were wrong.
And that’s just the beginning.”
It is Epiphany, a season when we lift up God’s revelations of new things that are intended to change us in some way for the better. In this season of revelations and resolutions my prayer is that the entire church universal look in the mirror and admit we were wrong. And more pointedly that we – you and I -as followers of Jesus, and as a community of faith here in the heart of the Van Aken district, we will take a hard look in the mirrors of our lives as well. And that in so doing we will have the integrity to say that we have been wrong. Those will be epiphany moments: moments revealing the radical, inclusive love of God in Jesus for all people. May the joy of that moment be the same joy of the Magi as they peered into Jesus’ face. And may that joy propel us to be agents of God’s reconciling love to all we encounter. That will be the beginning of a better way of life for all of us . . . but it will not be the end. Amen.