The Lectionary Readings for the Second Sunday After Epiphany
Sometimes a bit of Scripture transforms things you have lived with for a long time. Sometimes Scripture upsets the way you look at what you and who you are. This is what happened as I meditated on today’s Gospel. As I contemplated what the Scriptures might be saying to us I began to see our vision as a church and my own understanding of it broadened and changed. The bit of Scripture that began transform my sense of our ecumenical vision was the following portion of Johns Gospel;
1:35 The next day John again was standing with two of his disciples,
1:36 and as he watched Jesus walk by, he exclaimed, "Look, here is the Lamb of God!"
1:37 The two disciples heard him say this, and they followed Jesus.
1:38 When Jesus turned and saw them following, he said to them, "What are you looking for?" They said to him, "Rabbi" (which translated means Teacher), "where are you staying?"
1:39 He said to them, "Come and see." They came and saw where he was staying, and they remained with him that day. It was about four o'clock in the afternoon.
1:40 One of the two who heard John speak and followed him was Andrew, Simon Peter's brother.
Two disciples of John follow after Jesus no longer simply content with understanding and encountering Jesus along the Jordan witnessing to Christ with John. But only after John’s reiteration of his witness do these two disciples suddenly head off after to ask of him a question, but why this question in response to “What are you looking for?” “Rabbi, Where are you staying?” Of all they could possibly ask in that moment why that one? They want to be where the Christ is, not just encounter him, and find him in the world but to be and to stay where Jesus stays. Do we know where Jesus stays today? How do we seek out Christ and come and see where he lives? How do we move beyond witnessing at the Jordan, knowing Jesus but not abiding with Jesus? Have we come beyond the encounter of Christ as “Lamb of God” at the Jordan? I wonder if it is somehow easier to stay at the Jordan. Certainly not all disciples of John the Baptist sought out Jesus, though they heard Johns witness (Acts testifies that follower’s of John the Baptist continued to exist after Jesus’ ministry death Resurrection and ascension). Are we seeking to know where Jesus abides, stays, lives? Perhaps you are thinking but don’t we know. He is among the poor and oppressed, or the Sunday school answer “Jesus is in my heart I invited him in”. Or simply I know Jesus what more is there? What I want to suggest is that these answers are like choosing to live on the Jordan to recognize who Jesus is but to hope, and to plan, encountering Jesus where we are rather than to find and encounter Jesus where Jesus is. The current context of Protestantism and denominationalism perhaps does not encourage us to seek out Jesus and to find where he stays. There are a variety of ways we might do this, and there are personal practices and disciplines, but I want to focus on what is probably the foundational aspect, which is finding and knowing where the Church is. The seeking out of a firmer sense of what the Body of Christ is. Thus , seeking to move beyond the witnesses of our divided denominations to the unity of that place where Christ truly abides, not where Christ shows up now and again, not where you or I first encountered Christ, not the Jordan but that other place, to which Jesus invites us to “Come and see.” This search to abide where Christ lives is, I believe, ecumenism at its best by following after Andrew and that other first disciple of Jesus. In the end this is I believe Reconciler’s vision as an ecumenical congregation. Which means that to embrace Reconciler’s ecumenical vision is to be on a journey, and to admit an ignorance, to move into a position of humility of saying I don’t know, but I am seeking out Jesus and I will ask of him this simple question. “Where are you staying.”
The above assertion is in part personal testimony of my own engagement with ecumenism and my experience of being in the particular denomination The Evangelical Covenant Church. This also admits that my own personal search has lead me to come to some conclusions about what the Church the universal body of Christ is. It is that place where Christ is because it is Christ in the world. It is also a reflection of what I think was a motivating factor behind starting Reconciler, or at least articulates a longing that lead me here, to this sermon, to this pulpit, to pastoring an ecumenical congregation I helped start. I am also asking something of you all here tonight, to test these words. I am asking that as we begin a third year as a church start that we question our vision: have we moved beyond these longings and desires? Is God in bringing us together around this vision leading us to articulate our being brought together in a different way? That is not what I feel God is saying to us. I believe that God is saying to us follow the example of Andrew seek to find where Jesus the messiah stays in the world. But these are the sorts of questions I hope my words today will stir up in us, and I hope will lead us closer to what God has called us together to be and do.
But what could this mean to seek out and find where Jesus Christ is staying? I want to begin to answer this question by directing our attention to parts of our vision. Reconciler’s vision:
We say “It is in worship - word and table- where we are invited to lay aside what divides and are joined together as the one body of Christ. We affirm and seek the unity we are called to by Christ.”…. “United as one body with many members serving not only our particular identities but the identity of Christ our head.” … “We then see this ecumenical congregation as a proclamation of the universal body of Christ—the one holy catholic and apostolic church as a concrete spiritual reality… As such we hope to draw those who find Christ hidden by the disunity of Christians and our various claims to be church, that all may find reconciliation offered them in Christ Jesus.” To what does all this language of unity, of one body, the Body of Christ, of identity with Christ our head, the universal body of Christ point? What is the scandal of disunity that keeps Christ obscured to us and to those beyond the boundaries of Christianity? I am stating this in a starker way but still what the vision statement at least begins to say. If we are followers of Christ we are called to unity. We are called to this unity because by virtue of faith, baptism and Eucharist we are supposed to be the Body of Christ in the world, that is, we are to be Christ in the world. The Church is supposed to be that place where Christ stays abides and is to live. This is what it means for the Church to be the body of Christ. Where the Church is there is where Christ is to be found! Not that he can’t be found elsewhere as well, but the place where Christ stays from where Christ moves out into the world is the Church. Our vision also indicates that this reality is somehow obscured rendered ineffective or ruined somehow by our divisions. Our divisions while they allow our denominations to continue to witness to Christ they also keep people from finding Jesus Christ and coming to live where he lives.
All of our denominations will speak of the church or their congregations as the Body of Christ. They give witness to this reality. They like John speak the truth about Christ. Yet, there is something amiss. When we began Reconciler we were identifying divisions and denominationalism as that which is amiss, and that Reconciler was to be a journey to something else, something offered to us by 50 years of the World Council of Churches and ecumenical dialog between various denominations, and agreements that those involved in these dialogs have come to about the faith and the nature of the church, its ministries its sacraments and its mission. Yet, Christ remains obscured. The vision with which Reconciler began took this and said we need to find Christ in our coming together, in seeking that faith that was once delivered to the Saints, to seek out the One Holy Catholic and Apostolic Church. In a sense we were saying (though we didn’t know it at the time) that our denominations as denominations as separated Christian groups fail to be the Church. They function as witnesses to Christ, but they fail to show Jesus Christ fully and intimately. We in our Protestant context of denominationalism (and its offspring non-denominational and independent churches) are more like John the Baptist on the Jordan, witnessing to something we do not fully comprehend, something to which we can only point but not fully experience. Our denominations and we who cling tightly to denominational identity are better John the Baptists giving witness than we are Andrews. We are content to stay on the Jordan.
In saying the above I risk being heard as preaching some form of pure church, or as saying that what makes Christ abide is through members of the church/Christians living out the Gospel perfectly or at least very consistently. But this puts the emphasis on us and not on Christ’s abiding presence. Our actions our divisions do not prevent us from being the Church they prevent us from asking the right question, they prevent us from seeing clearly where Christ abides. So this is not “Oh if only Christians were more Christ like! Oh if only there were no ethical and moral scandals then we would know where Christ abides, and we must seek out the morally ethically and doctrinally pure individual Christians and all band together and then we would be the church.” That has already been tried and every time it has been attempted it has been found wanting and is the reason we are in the place that we are in now. The opening of Saint Paul’s letter to the Corinthians in relation to the rest of the letter (One can do this with most of Paul letters) is revealing in this regard. Paul speaks in glorious and exalted terms about the church of God in Corinth (and he does this in every epistle) yet in much of the letter he is correcting the actions of those in that church for not agreeing with the exalted reality they supposedly live in. In fact Immediately following the exalted words we read today about the church of God in Corinth Paul begins by castigating them for falling into identifying with the person and practices of this or that prominent and leader of the church, when their focus should be on Christ as the one with whom we are to identify and be identified by. No the high view of the church does not mean that Christians always live up to it even those who are in the place where Christ lives. Unfortunately the performance of individual Christians either saintly or sinful will not really tell us about where Christ is staying. So what obscures our vision aren’t the conduct of those in our denominations, but the fact of our divisions and our conflicting identities and loyalties that are not of Christ and of the Church. We are talking something more mystical and less moralistic.
By the time Tripp approached me about planting Reconciler and I began to help Tripp David Gortner and Jane Schmoetzer flesh out the founding pastoral vision, I had tired of simply witnessing to Christ, and yet feeling distant disconnected from those in the Body of Christ who had gone before, all those saints commemorated by the Catholic and Orthodox Churches. I was struggling with what it meant for someone to convert to Christianity, to come to Christ, by becoming a Covenanter. I had already come to feel that there was something partial and incomplete in this picture of living out my life as simply a Covenant minister. Yet, I loved and still love the Covenant, I know it, it is my home it raised me in the faith. In fact the emphasis that Ecumenism at its best is to be a search to find where Christ abides and to stay where he stays in relationship with Jesus Christ and those who have also found that place, in part is informed by the faith of Swedish Lutheran Pietists who formed the Covenant. I believe they were seeking to find where Christ stays, feeling the incompleteness of Lutheranism that claimed for itself the complete articulation of the faith and attempted to claim that Christ abides in its institution. We saw that while it gave witness to Christ in so many ways it showed that Christ did not stay there, and so we went out from the Lutheran Church in search of Christ that we may invite people into a fuller relationship. Some 130 years later I a great-great grandson of those Swedish Lutheran Pietists was looking at the denomination they founded and asking some of the very same questions they had asked of the Lutheran Church but added to those questions was the answers and questions given and asked by the ecumenical movement and the World Council of Churches. Thanks to these, the questions were also asked with a greater understanding of the best of Roman Catholicism and Eastern Orthodoxy, and a deeper understanding of the history of catholic and orthodox Christianity. I was in a quandary one I still am in as I stand before you today: I do not doubt that in the Covenant Church I have encountered Christ, that Jesus Christ is witnessed to, and yet I cannot say that the Covenant church is where Jesus Christ stays. In fact until preparing this sermon my own commitment to my denomination had hid this very question from me even though it articulates the very longing that lead me to help form a vision for an ecumenical congregation and help start it. All the longings the questions that lead me to embrace Tripp’s thoughts of an ecumenical congregation are summed up in this “Rabbi, Where are you staying.” I want to be in that place where Christ is, where Christ stays where Christ abides. As I probe and test my own denomination and other Protestant denominations I know that Christ does not stay in any of them. Our divisions obscure Christ’s habitation, and I find I am incapable of evaluating Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox claims that Christ abides among them, that they are not just witnesses to Christ but are in fact the Body of Christ.
So where does that leave me? Where might that leave us? My hope is that our ecumenical vision, our coming together, are having been brought here by God and the spirit indicates that we are on that journey from the side of John the Baptist on the Jordan witnessing to the coming of Christ and the presence of Jesus Christ in the world and in our lives, following Andrew on our way to finding where Christ truly abides that we may know where Jesus Christ stays in this world that we can show people where Christ is staying. So that we may truly bring them to Jesus Christ, not to John the Baptist and the Jordan, not to my idea of Christ, but to the one who truly is my head my identity, that I may fully together with all the disciples, in continuity throughout history, be Christ in the world, Christ’s Body, and be able to say come and see, we know where the messiah lives and we live in him and he in us, because I can tell you for sure where the Church is and thus where Christ abides.
For now all I can say is let us journey together from the Jordan affirming the witness of John the Baptist, and seek out Christ and say together “Rabbi where are you staying.” We have met you we know you but we do not live where you live, and that is what we want, that is what every spiritual longing in us wants. We want to bring people to where you live, where they will know they can find you, not to the Jordan where they may get a glimpse of you and hear witnesses and rumors of your presence in the world. Perhaps I am alone in hearing in this the articulation of my deepest longings but I hope not, for to me that is ecumenism, it is all about being with Christ, about truly being his Body, about being able to say to people not journey with me to the Christ, but come and see, this is the fulfillment of all your longings here is the Messiah, Jesus Christ, he is in us we are in him because we abide where he abides. I am not there yet; I do not believe we are there yet. And it may be a long road to follow Andrew. Following Christ to where he stays may be longer road for us, but I believe this is the path we must go if we are going to be able to know where Christ stays and bring people to Jesus Christ and not just witness to others about Christ presence in the World. This is how I have come to see our vision, this is the adventure and journey I invite you all and any who may come to us as we live out our ecumenical call and vision together.