Sunday, January 23, 2011

Follow the Lord

What happens to the church, or a Communion, when it takes its eyes off Christ.

SJF • Epiphany 3a 2011 • Tobias S Haller BSG
Jesus said, follow me and I will make you fish for people. Immediately they left their nets and followed him.
In last week’s gospel from John we heard one version of the call of Andrew and his brother Simon Peter. This week we hear Matthew’s version of this call; and a very different version it is, with a very different message. Last week we heard about Andrew, a disciple of John the Baptist, asking after Jesus; and then finding his brother Peter.

Today we hear of two pairs of brothers, all four of them fishermen. And all four of them, upon hearing the compelling call of Jesus Christ himself — not an intermediary like John the Baptist, but the Lord himself — all four of them drop everything and immediately leave their familiar world of work and family to answer the call of this fascinating stranger. So it is that Jesus gathers up the first four disciples as he strolls by the seaside, catching fishermen with the net of his word, and then setting them free to do his work.

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These are Christ’s first four disciples, and it is discipleship I want to talk about today, what it means for us and for the church of which we are members. Disciple is a word we are likely to misunderstand. We often think of a disciple as someone who carries out a particular ministry. But we can see the true meaning of discipleship in this call of Jesus to the first four disciples. For to be a disciple is to be one who follows. A disciple of Christ is one who follows Christ, one who upon hearing the call of Christ, of his compelling voice, sets all else aside: livelihood, family, and sometimes even life itself. The disciple is devoted to the one he or she follows, and leaves everything else behind.

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In the reading from First Corinthians, we see what happens when disciples forget who it is they are supposed to be following, and instead get focused on their own issues, their own personal problems, their own needs, their own desires, and most importantly upon the persons and personalities of their earthly leaders in the church. The Corinthians have taken their eyes off Christ, and instead have turned to their favorite teachers, the ones who brought them the word of God, rather than the incarnate Word of God himself. Is it any wonder they are lost and stumbling? Some say, “I belong to Apollos,” while others claim to belong to Cephas or to Paul. And Paul himself reminds them that the one they belong to is Jesus Christ, who is not divided into bits and pieces or parts or parties. He is the head of the body of the whole church which builds itself up in unity through the Spirit. By ceasing to focus on Christ, and turning to their own earthly leaders, the Corinthians have become quarrelsome, divided and disagreeable. They have lost their way.

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Now, this sounds very familiar. It is no secret that our own Anglican Communion has been going through some very quarrelsome times over the last few years. Division abounds, and some would like to see that division made permanent: some bishops have ceased to recognize other bishops — a few have even said they won’t be in the same room together, let alone talk to each other.

This coming week the Primates — the leaders of each church of the Anglican Communion — are supposed to meet in Dublin. They all have been invited, but a number of them have said they will not come if the Primate of our church, .the Episcopal Church — our Presiding Bishop — is there. I hope you will forgive me if I say this sounds more like students in a middle school than bishops and leaders of the church! Let’s pray that sense will prevail, and these leaders will recover some humility and charity, and meet together in spite of their differences.

This meeting together in spite of differences is part of what that “Indaba Process” — in which I have been involved — is all about. As you know, I travel to London twice a year to play my part in helping Anglican church leaders to learn how to talk with each other, to deal with each other, in spite of their differences — not in an effort to change each others’ minds, but to get a handle on what Paul is taking about when he speaks of “the mind of Christ.” It isn’t that you have to have my mind, or you have to have my mind, but that both together are under that larger, embracing mind of Christ, who came to us when we were at our most disagreeable, as sinners. It is not to change one another’s minds in this Indaba Process, but to have that “mind of Christ” — to be unified in Him, not in some favorite theory or worship practice, or some local theology or discipline.

How did we come to such a state of affairs; where difference of opinion meant an end to the conversation rather than the beginning of the real hard work of what it means to be a Christian — a disciple of Christ? After all, it is how we behave when we disagree that shows our ability to love. If God loved us and came to save us even when we were in rebellion against him as sinners, how much more gently ought we treat one another.

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So how did we come to this mess among Anglicans? I think it is in large part because, just as with the Corinthians, we have taken their eyes off of Christ — who cannot be divided — and instead focused attention upon the various other leaders of the church, as if what really mattered most to God was who gets to be a bishop or not.

And what does the gospel have to say about bishops? Not one word! The only time the root of the Greek word for bishop appears in the Gospel, Jesus is talking about himself. Remember that verse: he is shepherd and bishop of our souls. He is the one we follow. And when he uses that word, he is referring to himself and Jerusalem’s failure to recognize him at the time of his visitation! (Luke 19:44)

Christian discipleship, as Saint Paul reminded the Corinthians, is not about following another Christian, but about following Christ. It is Christ’s visitation, not the bishop’s, or even the Primate’s, that should concern us. And when it happens that following another Christian, whether a priest or a bishop or a Primate, leads us to division in the body of Christ, then something has gone terribly wrong.

Various solutions to this problem have been proposed, among them a new Anglican Covenant, and agreement that all member churches of the Communion are being urged to sign. Not all see this document as a way forward, however, for this Covenant dangles ecclesiastical division as the ultimate threat. It speaks of “relational consequences” for bad behavior imposed by a process that is not entirely clear. But since what really matters about the church is the relationship we have with one another, this approach raises two problems.

First, if you see division in the body of Christ as a penalty, a possibility from the start, you have undertcut the call to Christian unity that God calls us to in the first place. It is rather like someone crossing his fingers during a marriage ceremony, mouthing “till death do us part” but thinking “until I change my mind.” You won’t build unity by threatening division! That is something, if we are to have the mind of Christ, is to be put out of our mind, because Christ is not divided. He does not call us to division; he calls us to follow him. You can’t build relationships by threatening to dissolve them the moment things get rocky. As with marriage, Jesus calls Christians to stay together for better for worse, for richer for poorer, till death do us part. He calls us to leave behind the familiar and to follow him into the unknown territory that lies before us, knowing it can only be realized and explored with him who is our guide and our God.

Second, if you look for unity not in Christ himself but in your earthly leaders, you are simply replicating the mistakes the Corinthians made. If Anglicans have learned anything down the years — and given the current state of affairs I’m wondering if we have learned anything — it is that we find our way forward in the One who is the Way, true unity in the one who is the Truth, and life lived together in him who is the Life, Jesus Christ the only Lord, the Son of God.

An international body of Christians cannot possibly look to itself to be robust enough to contain all of the many cultural differences which exist at a human level. These differences ultimately only can be embraced and comprehended and included through the spirit of Christ, in whom, as Saint Paul assured the Galatians, there is neither Jew nor Greek, neither slave nor free, no more male and female — but all are one in him: having that one mind, the mind of Christ. On Christ the solid rock I stand, all other ground is shifting sand.

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As I said, the Primates — or some of them; that is all of them are invited to meet, but some may not attend — but all are invited to meet this week. I hope some come who threatened to stay away may come after all. Sometimes threats are just threats, after all. Perhaps if they actually meet, actually sit down around the meeting table at the dinner table, and I hope the Table of the Lord, they may come to realize that the things they’ve found so troublesome and tense are not quite so dire as to lead them into condemnation and separation. Bishops from around the world who have been taking part in that Indaba process have in fact learned that there are more important things that unite us than divide us, especially Christ himself. Perhaps if they do make the effort to come together they will come to see the face of Christ even in those with whom they disagree, and recognize that in Christ they can celebrate that unity through their common baptism and call in Him, who is the shepherd and bishop of their souls. They are all, I hope, committed, come what may, to following the Lord. Perhaps they will realize that this is the only form of church unity that is ultimately meaningful, for only as disciples of Christ can we have trust that we are one in him who is our Savior and our God. In this coming week, especially as the Primates meet, and in the next year and a half as we and other churches of the Communion consider the proposed Anglican Covenant, let us pray for the Spirit of wisdom to descend upon us and our leaders, all the members and the leaders of the church, wherever they may be. May the Spirit of our loving God turn our hearts from quarrelsome division and tiresome dissent, taking our minds off of themselves, and finding the mind of Christ. May they and we turn towards Jesus Christ our Lord in whom alone our unity is assured and whose visitation we await with hopeful and devoted hearts.+

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