Community is the answer, but what is the question?

Since Trinity Sunday, the Lectionary Gospel focus has been on Matthew’s rendition of Jesus’ teaching concerning the experience of discipleship. I have already commented on the way Matthew presents Jesus as a very Moses-like figure https://relationalrealities.com/2014/06/21/facing-up-to-matthew-10-after-a-bewildering-week.

In his condemnation of the Galilean towns where his message has not been received, Jesus’ tone is reminiscent of God’s tone of voice, as we hear it in the Torah, or the first five books of the Old Testament. This tone is an expression of the Jewish nature of Matthew’s Christian community, and their pain having recently been expelled from the synagogue.

The Gospel

The word Gospel means good news. What is the good news? The good news  is that through the birth, death, and resurrection of Jesus, God has entered into the experience of being fully human. God becoming human means that the community of the Trinity has now expanded to include us. So, the good news is that after Jesus everything has changed. Now that, we might say, is a big claim!

As we receive[1] the Gospel Sunday-by-Sunday, we are accepting God’s invitation to enter into a conversation about the nature of our common life. This is an invitation to make the good news a reality in our shared common life, and only then, by extension, in our individual lives. One Christian is no Christian, said the Early Church Father, Tertullian. We receive the good news as a community of the baptized. In the Anglican Tradition of the Episcopal Church, worship is the principal occasion in which we, as a community receive the good news  of the Gospel, which is our acceptance of God’s invitation to become changed.

Doing theology

We are all familiar with the phrase: let’s do the math. Doing the math is to work something through to a conclusion. So, what does it mean when Christianity claims that in Jesus, God changed everything? Let’s do the theology.

It’s a difficult question because at the level of the obvious, it appears to us that the world before and after Jesus has remained largely, unchanged. Let me list only a few obvious points:

  • Roman domination continued, and in time was simply replaced by countless other regimes of domination down to our own time. A society built on the principles of the unequal distribution of power, fuelled by the institution of slavery continued. Subsequently, societies, left to their own inevitable trajectories have continued to systemically enshrine the inequalities and resulting abuses of power.
  • The Temple as an institution of spiritual domination was simply in time replaced by the Church, which came to behave in the same way.
  • Today, we can be excused for feeling that human beings seem to be as selfish and bad as ever they were in olden times.

Christians claim that after Jesus everything has changed, the old order is ended and the new order has arrived. What we mean by this is that in Jesus, God has moved human consciousness through a threshold[2] shift. Put simply and concisely, after Christ, however badly we behave, we know better! 

Growing into the fullness of the promise

As the Christian Community, God invites us to become changed through allowing ourselves to grow into the fuller expression of what it means to be human. An oft repeated mantra of mine is:

To be human is to be most like God. To be Christian is to know, that to be human is to be most like God. 

Yet, Paul, in Romans 7:15-25 highlights our human experience of internal conflict. Here, Paul distinguishes between an experience of the spirit and one of the flesh. Interpreting him, rather than translating his words, I understand Paul to be talking about the tensions between will and desire. I don’t read this passage as Paul’s puritan-struggle with the demon flesh- i.e. sexual impulses. The contrast between Paul’s use of the terms spirit and flesh refers more to the tension between intention and gratification.

We have all heard the phrase act of will –a phrase, which for me brings to mind the exhortations of the Anglo-Catholic Manuals of Devotion, much beloved by me in my youth. To perform an act of will  is to consciously intend something at a point in time when you have no certainty of how to achieve what you intend. An act of will  is like firing an arrow into the middle distance. We note where the arrow falls and this becomes the marker towards which we then, begin to journey. Our intention is clear. Yet, on our journey towards the place marked by the arrow’s fall, i.e. the fulfillment of our intention, we are tempted to take detours or short cuts. The detours are the action of desire upon our intention.

Psychologically, our desires reflect the multilayered nature of our sense of self – of who we are. Our identity is not comprised from a single sense of self, but from a complex interplay of aspects of self, each with conflicting desires. There is a noble desire that fuels our intention. However, there are lesser desires, seeking gratification. When we achieve gratification, we often feel short-changed because the imagined fruits of gratification have promised more than they can deliver. Of the less than satisfactory consequences of our satiated desires we protest: but this is not what I intended. And indeed it was not, which leads us to join with Paul in crying: who will rescue us from this body of death? 

Liberation into the mind of Christ

We are redeemed from our human desire to be gratified (liberated from the flesh as Paul would put it) by the death and resurrection of Christ. I hear Paul saying that the old self still echoes in our minds, but because in Christ everything has changed, even though we may not always be able to resist the siren call of the old voices we now, know better. The significance of this knowledge is not negated by our failure to walk a straight path of our intension. Rather it is validated trhough our perseverance when we pick ourselves up and return to the path of our intention, guided by the mind of Christ. Failure is a necessary part of the process through which we hopefully, become a little wiser than we were.

Where do we find this mind of Christ? The mind of Christ is found through our participation in the life of the community of the baptized. We express and become empowered by the mind of Christ when we become, and act as the community of the baptized.

Receiving the Gospel

I am a newcomer to participation in the community of the baptized at St Martin’s, Wayland Square. Being new, I bring fresh eyes and what I see is a deep commitment by many to the building-up of our common life in Christ. Yet, I also see an experience of commitment that leads to exhaustion.

Someone said to me the other day: at St Martin’s if you volunteer to do something, then, everyone else leaves you to it. I didn’t hear this person saying: its great, no one gets in your way, but: you are abandoned to carry the load alone. While this is clearly not the whole truth, it is nevertheless an element of experience that we need to explore.

After condemning the towns through which he has passed for refusing the invitation to become changed by the good news of God, Jesus offers words of consolation. These words are burned into the memories of older Episcopalians as the Comfortable Words. These words were spoken by the priest following the pronouncement of the absolution of sins in the 1928 Book of Common Prayer:

Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.

Looking to the future

It’s summer and many are away, yet I trust that you will commend one another to read the sermon blog here at relationalrealities.com or on the St Martin’s FaceBook page  https://www.facebook.com/stmartinsprovidence?ref=hl.

A repetitive theme of my teaching and spiritual leadership will be to emphasize our need to move from a traditional Church culture of membership to a new culture of discipleship.

The difference between the two is graphically expressed by Jesus’ in the comfortable words from Matthew 11:25-30: Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. Membership emphasizes responsibility, which eventually becomes a heavy burden that saps the spirit, because membership emphasizes our individuality. Contrastingly, discipleship emphasizes an engagement with our passion, fed through participation in community, and is a response to Jesus’ invitation to: Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls.

 

[1]Receive is the proper verb here, not read or hear, although both of these actions are involved. We receive the Gospel because having read and heard, we take it to heart in the hope that in doing so our lives may be shaped by it.

[2] The notion of a threshold change is usually applied to material things, such as when water freezes to become ice, or boils to become steam. It’s the same substance but changes its form. Human consciousness although hardwired biologically, nevertheless evolves in the direction of higher levels of apprehension and at certain key moments in history bursts onto a new level functioning.

2 thoughts on “Community is the answer, but what is the question?

Add yours

  1. I like the way you have been teaching ever since I attended the Cathedral in Phoenix. I am the one who lived in Saudi Arabia, coming home for the summers only. Your words and ideas have maintained my life and spirit literally in the desert. The Internet was my only world towards sanity. Now I am back home in New England visiting family and friends. My mother’s parish seems to experience the same situations that you present in your sermon . Perhaps, the world is a lot smaller than we think.

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