(I meant to record this sermon, but I goofed and my iPad presented me with a blank file when I was done speaking. So I post the text here. Some off-script ad-libbing is missing.)
The Epistle for 2nd Sunday in Advent:
“Whatsoever things were written aforetime were written for our learning, that we through patience and comfort of the scriptures might have hope. Now the God of patience and consolation grant you to be like-minded one toward another according to Christ Jesus: that ye may with one mind and one mouth glorify God, even the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ. Wherefore receive ye one another, as Christ also received us to the glory of God. Now I say that Jesus Christ was a minister of the circumcision for the truth of God, to confirm the promises made unto the fathers: and that the Gentiles might glorify God for his mercy; as it is written, For this cause I will confess to thee among the Gentiles, and sing unto thy name. And again he saith, Rejoice, ye Gentiles, with his people. And again, Praise the Lord, all ye Gentiles; and laud him, all ye people. And again, Esaias saith, There shall be a root of Jesse, and he that shall rise to reign over the Gentiles; in him shall the Gentiles trust. Now the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace in believing, that ye may abound in hope, through the power of the Holy Ghost.” (Romans 15:4-13)
Those of you who have attended men’s Bible study with me for the last 7 years or so will know that I have hammered on two things: the inclusion of little children in the covenant, and the necessity of obeying God. And these two things are really just one thing: the nature of faith. I’m about to leave you now for a few years, and so the passage of Scripture that comes to mind is Acts 20:7:
“Now on l the first day of the week, when the disciples came together m to break bread, Paul, ready to depart the next day, spoke to them and continued his message until midnight. 8 There were many lamps n in the upper room where 1 they were gathered together. 9 And in a window sat a certain young man named Eutychus, who was sinking into a deep sleep. He was overcome by sleep; and as Paul continued speaking, he fell down from the third story and was taken up dead.”
Fortunately, the windows are shut in here.
As I wrote this sermon, I had a real struggle with my emotions. I’ve done a lot of preaching in the last three months: I’ve preached before REC bishops and before congregations I didn’t know. And today ought to be easy: I have plenty of thoughts about our readings from the epistle and gospel this morning. But it isn’t easy at all, because I love the people in this church, and I’m not going to see you for three years. And it seems worth asking, in connection with our epistle lesson this morning, how it has come about that I, who came into this church holding my nose about bishops and prayerbooks and the 1982 hymnal, am now so full of emotion about leaving it for a few years.
I have a friend who came close to joining this church. Ultimately he decided not to, for doctrinal reasons that I won’t go into. But even as he left, he paid this parish the highest compliment I have ever heard a congregation receive: he said that it was obvious that the people in the congregation love each other.
That is what the epistle lesson this morning is about: “be likeminded” and “receive one another.”
“Receive” one another is set in the context of the Jew/Gentile issue once again.
Peter: “Then he said to them, “You know how unlawful it is for a Jewish man to keep company with or go to one of another nation. But God has shown me that I should not call any man common or unclean. (Acts 10:28 NKJV)” What got Peter over his scruples? How did he come to realize that the Gentiles don’t have cooties? He explains it in Acts 15, when the Jerusalem council is trying to figure out what to do about Gentile Christians. Some of the circumcision who believed don’t want Gentiles in the Church. So Peter tells his story about how “ So God, who knows the heart, acknowledged them by giving them the Holy Spirit, just as He did to us, and made no distinction between us and them, purifying their hearts by faith.” This is the doctrine of justification by faith. It is not a doctrine of lazy faith, or faith that doesn’t obey. Peter also puts it this way: “Whoever fears God and does what is right is acceptable to him.” And lest anyone think that St. Paul had a different doctrine, let’s remember that he originally wrote the book of Galatians in order to get Jewish Christians and Gentile Christians to eat together.
For a Jew, Greeks were especially horrifying. It’s not just that they ate pig meat. It’s that they forced Jews to eat pig meat – something not even Mr. Langdon does, because he figures if the Jews don’t eat bacon, it means more for us. Maccabees. To receive Greeks required overlooking or forgiving their offenses past. It also means overcoming deep-set distaste, to eat and share food together. “Rise, Peter, kill and eat.” But Peter said, “Not so, Lord! For I have never eaten anything common or unclean.” (Acts 10:14 NKJV) Then God showed him that he must not call any man common or unclean.
That eating together is the key part of “receiving one another”. It is also at the core of the church’s life: Christ has put the Table at the center of who we are. We are defined by our participation in it. Christ has made it possible for us all to eat together. The Table is His, not ours. That is why Paul argues, “receive ye one another, as Christ also received us.” We didn’t have a claim on Jesus. He invited us even though we were sinners, and made us to eat with Him. Therefore, we ought to behave as He does, and receive each other.
In 1 Corinthians 11, Paul gives instructions about how to behave at the Lord’s table. The conclusion of it all is “therefore, my brothers, when you come together to eat, wait for one another.” Paul’s goal is for Christians to eat together, because this is productive of unity and love. Note well: it’s not that if we like someone, or they pass our tests, then we will deign to eat with them. No, the table is a way of building relationships with those whom Christ has already accepted.
The table is the context for the church’s teaching. If you want your congregation to have factions, if you want get really good at quarreling with each other over doctrine, make sure you never eat together.
And I do mean “eat together.” In many churches, the only time parishioners share food together is when they have Communion. And especially when the Supper is conceived of as an individualistic affair, between the individual and God, it is less productive of love and fellowship between Christians in the Church. When you can eat communion in your pew, curled up into a little ball, meditating in your own head, there is a temptation to think that my brothers and sisters in the church are a distraction from Jesus. But the apostle Paul is so far from thinking that, that he spends a whole chapter urging Christians to eat together. And when the Galatian church starts having separate tables for Jews and Gentiles, Paul is furious. But why? If Communion is only about individuals and their individual connection to Jesus, then separate tables should be no problem.
This is why it is helpful to come forward and partake. The pastor sees you face to face, and presses bread into your hand and speaks words to you. Mary Giese this week was talking with me about Fr. Chris Herman, and how he serves communion. (I would talk about how Fr. Manto serves communion, but he’s here, so I don’t want to embarrass him.) Fr. Chris takes extra care to look into your eyes with fatherly affection and he presses that bread into your hand, and he says, “The body of Christ, broken for you preserve your body and soul unto everlasting life.”
But the Lord’s Supper was also instituted as part of a larger meal, and the early church practiced it that way. We don’t have a full meal during the service, but we often do afterwards. Our parish is always looking for an excuse to eat together. And as a result, it is much harder to fight with someone with whom you have broken bread. You have shared the good things of God’s creation. A bond is formed, so that unloving behavior and nastiness appear more starkly as betrayals of that bond formed over a meal.
Spiritually, we say that we are partaking of Christ, sharing in His life, when we have Holy Communion together. Unloving behavior is a betrayal of that spiritual union.
In Homer’s Odyssey, you can tell who are the good guys and who are the bad guys by watching how they eat.
- Suitors are slobs. They approach the table in a profane manner.
- The gods are always feasting. That’s almost all they do. It’s part of the blessed life.
The cyclops is feasting, on you.
But in the Odyssey, as in the real life, the good guys share food together.
John Calvin unpacks Paul’s command to receive one another this way: “Receive ye then, etc. He returns to exhortation; and to strengthen this he still retains the example of Christ. For he, having received, not one or two of us, but all together, has thus connected us, so that we ought to cherish one another, if we would indeed continue in his bosom. Only thus then shall we confirm our calling, that is, if we separate not ourselves from those whom the Lord has bound together.”
By confirm your calling, Calvin means, “make your salvation sure.” And he says that in order to do this, we need to be bound together with “not one or two of us, but all together.” You cannot say, “That person is elderly, so I have no need of her.” Or “That person is small and slobbery and has a smelly diaper, so I have no need of him.” God has put you in the body of Christ and has bound you together with everyone in the church.
One of the things this church does especially well is to receive little children. Jesus says in Mark 9:37 that “Whoever receives one of these little children in My name receives Me; and whoever receives Me, receives not Me but Him who sent Me.” So remember, when one of those Langdon kids is howling in the back, he’s a member of the body of Christ, a part of the priesthood of all believers, and he has a ministry to you. Or when you’re trying to go home after evening prayer, but you can’t find your five-year-old, remember that like Jesus, he must be about his Father’s business. That, or he’s over at the Truaxes’ house.
The other part of Paul’s command is “be likeminded” – “think the same thing with each other according to Christ Jesus.” This command does not mean, “Hold the same opinions.” Rather, the Greek construction φρονειτε το αυτο εν αλληλοις is very similar to Philippians 2, where Paul tells believers to “think this among you which was also in Christ Jesus”, and then enumerates what they are to consider: that Christ came in the likeness of a servant” and ‘humbled himself unto death, the death of a cross.” The pattern of death and resurrection is what shapes the mind of the people of God. It is this pattern that we are cultivating and dwelling on in our liturgy and in our life together in the church.
The surprising thing is that participation in shared prayer, shared study of the Scriptures, and shared meals together actually leads to agreement and love. That’s what happened to me. I came to this church willing to put up with its doctrine if it would feed my children Communion, and I was willing to tolerate (not always graciously) the bishop and his funny hat, the seemingly interminable communion liturgy, communion at the front, etc. Deacon Truax knew exactly how to get a rise out of me, and Mark Butler knew that he need only say the words, “schismatic heterodoxy” to wind me up. But I ended up being caught up into the life of this church, and being rubbed – ground in a lapidary machine – if not perfectly smooth yet, at least a little less rough, by sharing in the church’s life.
I was talking to Andy Giese about my education. And I noted that I went to grad school and got a lot of technical knowledge about Greek and Latin. But my professors were not mentors. Their lives were a wreck: serial divorce, alcoholism, drug abuse, affairs with grad students. After I graduated, I was astonished by the news that one of the profs had divorced his wife of 30 years, the mother of his children, and married a grad student 30 years younger than him. I learned a good deal of technical information at grad school. But I didn’t learn how to live.
For that, I had to come here and submit myself to Fr. Manto’s program. He summarized it a few weeks ago at our 10th anniversary celebration when the bishop was present: “We hear the Scriptures together. We worship together. We eat together.”
We hear the Scriptures together! Our collect this morning is one of the most beautiful and classic prayers in the BCP:
“BLESSED Lord, who hast caused all holy Scriptures to be written for our learning; Grant that we may in such wise hear them, read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest them, that by patience and comfort of thy holy Word, we may embrace, and ever hold fast, the blessed hope of everlasting life, which thou hast given us in our Saviour Jesus Christ. Amen. ~ The Collect for the Second Sunday in Advent
Note that Cranmerian cadence: “hear them, read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest” the Scriptures. That’s what we have to do with the Scriptures. We hear them as they are read aloud in corporate worship and family worship. We read them ourselves in Bible study and following the lectionary — a life-changing practice that I cannot recommend strongly enough to you. We mark them. That doesn’t necessarily mean that we underline and highlight our Bibles to within an inch of their lives. But it means that we notice things. Bible study together helps us do that. We learn them. We put Scripture in our hearts and minds by memorizing it, singing it, talking about it. And last, we “inwardly digest it”. Now, this word “digest” was a fossilized metaphor even in Cranmer’s day. But I want to bring it back to life again for a minute: What happens when you digest food? It’s actually kind of miraculous, isn’t it? You’re one thing, and that piece of pizza is another. And then, that piece of pizza becomes part of you because you digest it. So when we digest Scripture, it becomes part of us. It means that we are like Ezekiel or John on Patmos or the Psalmist, who sees God’s word as a scroll that is sweeter than honey and the honeycomb.
The result is that we live different lives. When the Scripture becomes part of us, so that we live out of its story, it means that we do bizarre things. And part of the joy of being a missionary on deputation is that we have got to see a lot of the REC, and just what bizarre things people are doing because they have digested the Scriptures and made them part of themselves.
Crazy things! Fr. Wayne’s church welcome refugees from Africa and his parishioners devote themselves to finding housing and jobs for them. Fr. Mike Fitzpatrick’s church runs a school for Liberian boys in Philadelphia. Fr. Chris Herman runs a church for the elderly in a nursing home. And a little church in Mason sends a family of 6 as missionaries to the other side of the world, because its members believe the Scriptures that Paul writes in Romans 15 this morning: “There shall be a root of Jesse, and he that shall rise to reign over the Gentiles; in him shall the Gentiles trust.” The result when Christians do these things is that the comfort and hope of the Scriptures becomes clear and real to us. No one gets comfort and hope by just reading. You have to make the Scriptures part of yourself, have Jesus reigning over your life even as he reigns over the Gentiles.
So keep devoting yourselves “to the apostles’ teaching and to the fellowship; to the breaking of bread; and to the prayers.”