Can't We Just Get Back to the Business of Being the Church?

Sermon Preached at St. Barnabas-by-the-Bay
Villas, NJ on
August 19, 2007
Proper 15C

In light of the many controversies plaguing the Episcopal Church, the Anglican Communion and, indeed, the faithful of nearly every denomination, it can get exhausting fighting and debating and going round and round about what the Bible does or doesn’t say about the distinctions between priests and lay persons, about whether or not women should be allowed to preside at the Eucharist, and about what role gays and lesbians out to be allowed to have in the church or in society at large. Perhaps you’ve even wondered – as I have - “When can we get back to the business of just being the Church?” When I’m feeling this way, it is usually because I have Jesus’ words in my head. When asked what is the greatest commandment, Jesus replies, the greatest and first commandment is to “love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind” and that the second commandment is to “love your neighbor as yourself”?[1] Can’t we all just get along? Shouldn’t we just love one another in Christ and forget about all these controversies and divisions?

The answer is never a simple yes or a simple no. We should, of course, love one another in Christ, but we must also give heed to the words we heard from Luke’s gospel this morning:
“Do you think that I have come to bring peace to the earth? No, I tell you, but rather division! From now on five in one household will be divided, three against two and two against three; they will be divided: father against son and son against father, mother against daughter and daughter against mother, mother-in-law against her daughter-in-law and daughter-in-law against mother-in-law”[2]
What can this mean? What kind of love, if it is truly love, can also bring about such division? Thomas Merton, a Trappist monk, wrote, “Unfortunately, the true Christian concept of love has sometimes been discredited by those who have sentimentalized it.”[3] In our culture we talk about love in ways that would have been completely alien to Jesus. For example, the expression “falling in love” first appeared in the 15th century; “romantic love” didn’t appear until the 17th century; and, because I am a lover of dogs, I looked up the expression, “puppy love” and learned it didn’t appear until the 19th century.[4] Within the context of Scripture, love is more often coupled with notions of justice, righteousness, and mercy - each of which has implications far beyond our day-to-day nuancing of what it means to love.[5]

Thomas Merton goes on to say that Christian love does not free us “from energetic and sacrificial social action to restore violated rights to the oppressed, to create work for the workless, so that the hungry may eat and that everyone may have a chance to earn a decent wage.”[6] Is it possible that the love of which Jesus so often preached is, in fact, not so different from the division of which he speaks in today’s gospel reading? Jesus did not come to accept the status quo, to leave the world as it was, but rather he came, out of God’s merciful and passionate love for us, to begin restoring the social order as it was created, to turn the world on its head so that the hungry would no longer be hungry, the poor would no longer be poor, and the homeless would no longer be homeless. And this kind of love was, not surprisingly, often met with resistance and resulted in divisions – even among family members.

Today (at the 9:30 service) we will celebrate not one, but two baptisms, into new life in Christ. Luke and Dylan will be fully initiated by water and the Holy Spirit into Christ’s Body the Church, a lasting bond established by God.[7] As part of the sacrament of baptism we all make certain promises. The first of these is a commitment to support these persons in their life in Christ.[8] And, if we have any question as to what that means, we immediately proceed to the renewal of our own baptismal covenant. Through the covenant, we reaffirm our promise to continue in the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, in the breaking of bread, and in the prayers; to persevere in resisting evil; to proclaim by word and example the Good News of God in Christ; to seek and serve Christ in all persons, loving your neighbor as yourself; and to strive for justice and peace among all people, respecting the dignity of every human being.[9] This is a tall order and we cannot do it alone – but, with God’s help, as a gathered community of faith, we do not have to do it alone. It is out of our love of God and out of our promise to love one another as Christ loved us that we must continue to persevere.

So, when we are tempted to wonder, “Can’t we just get back to the business of being the Church?” we must remind ourselves that this is the business of the Church because, my friends, until there is justice and peace among all people, the loving work of the faithful is not finished. Luke and Dylan are just beginning their journeys in faith and they need each one of us – from the youngest to the oldest - to provide them, through our words and through our actions, an example of the Good News of God in Christ.

[1] Matthew 22:36-40.
[2] Luke 12:51-53.
[3] Thomas Merton, “Christian Humanism,” Love and Living, edited by Naomi Burton Stone and Brother Patrick Hart, (San Diego: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1979), p. 138.
[4] “Love”, “Puppy”, and “Romantic”, Online Etymology Dictionary accessed online on August 18, 2007.
[5] Cf. I Kings 3:6, Psalm 33:5, Jeremiah 9:24, Luke 11:42, Ephesians 2:4
[6] Merton, p. 138.
[7] BCP, p. 298.
[8] BCP, p. 303.
[9] BCP, p. 305.