Fr. Andrew Armond – The Fourth Sunday after Pentecost, July 3, 2022
In the Name of God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, Amen.
I did a really nerdy thing this week. I had a hunch about something, a hypothesis, and so I tested it: I ran the Book of Common Prayer through an analytical tool that ranks words based on frequency, or how often they show up in the text. I removed the Psalter but left everything else in the book intact.
And so, if you were to look through the Book of Common Prayer, all the liturgies compiled for our various services within the Episcopal Church, including Holy Eucharist, Baptism, Funerals, Weddings, blessings of various kinds, ordinations, and all the rest, you would find, above all else, several very frequently used words. (Thankfully, my hunch was correct.) Those words reveal a central focus of not only our worship, but our theology and, ultimately, our faith itself and how as Episcopalians we are tasked with living it out.
Once you get rid of the articles, prepositions, and conjunctions, these are some of the most common words in the Book of Common Prayer: “our,” “we,” and “us.”
This shouldn’t surprise us, after all: this is the book of “common” prayer.
But what so much of our liturgy and our prayers remind us is that the journey of faith was never meant to be taken alone. What we do here, we do in common. We sing together, we speak together, we pray together. When the Gospel is processed, we turn toward it together. We listen together. We come to the table together. We eat the one bread together, we drink the one cup together.
We are dismissed together, as a body; but then, we go into a world that knows very little of this kind of community. After we leave this place, we go into a world of individuals, a world that struggles to form communities based on any shared values. We go into a world of every person for themselves. We go into a world of isolation and unhappiness, a world in which, according to a recent study, about ⅔ of young adults reported that they are seriously and deeply lonely, and about half of all Americans report having three or fewer close friends.
In a book called Bowling Alone that is now a generation old, the journalist Robert Putnam wrote in the year 2000 about the decline of “social capital” across the country. No longer could we easily and readily form in-person social networks that were defined by a common purpose and cause. No longer could we easily reach across political boundaries to unite behind a shared vision of the common good for our communities and our nation.
Some have pointed to Putnam’s research in the years of turmoil and tumult since 2000 as prophetic. What people lost in those older forms of social capital they have found in other networks that have had a far less positive impact on American society, in groups that use hatred and violence as motivating factors to bring people together and foment division and social decay.
Our collect for today–the word itself meaning “a prayer that brings together the needs and concerns of the entire congregation” –reinforces a communitarian view of our faith that is at odds with the world around us. It is especially at odds with our prevailing national ethos.
When Jesus summarizes the Law, he offers us a type of branching relationship with God, our neighbor, and our Self that suggests that the entirety of our Christian faith is lived among a set of ongoing and dynamic communal relationships.
Those relationships are supposed to transcend every earthly division, so that we might be “united to one another with pure affection,” as the collect says. That affection binds not only us as a congregation together, but it binds us to other Christians in our community, to others in our nation, and to our brothers and sisters in Christ across the entire world.
Simply put, we need each other; we can’t do this alone. As Dietrich Bonhoeffer put it in his wonderful book on Christian community entitled Life Together, “God has willed that we should seek and find God’s living Word in the witness of each other. . . . the Christian needs another Christian who speaks God’s Word to them . . . We need our siblings in Christ because the Christ in our own hearts is often weaker than the Christ in the words of our [fellow Christians].”
The goal, therefore, of all Christian community, according to Bonhoeffer, is that fellow Christians “meet one another as bringers of the message of salvation.”
And so, when Jesus sends the first witnesses to go ahead of him to prepare the way of salvation, he sends them out in pairs–in communities in which they can encourage one another, since they are, after all, lambs–creatures of peace and goodwill–among wolves–creatures of stealth and violence.
Among the wolves today, when was the last time you were encouraged by a fellow Christian who spoke God’s word to you?
Or when was the last time you encouraged a fellow Christian by speaking God’s word to them?
When have you felt that the Christ in your own heart was weaker than the Christ in the word of your brother or sister in the Lord?
How can we meet one another as bringers of the message of salvation?
How can we do so across a nation, and a world, that is as divided, chaotic, and violent as it ever has been?
We would do well to remember that the context of Paul’s letters to the early churches was likewise an incredibly divided time. One of the greatest accomplishments and miracles of the early church was that it somehow brought Gentile converts and Jewish believers together. These divisions in the early Church were based not merely on centuries but even millennia of differences in culture and philosophy and understandings of God.
Paul is above all an apostle of radical unity. He shows both by his writings and his life’s work that the Gospel of Jesus Christ can, should, and will tear down every kind of humanly-created dividing wall that stands as a barrier to God’s grace, which is made freely available to and for all people.
This is quite literally the miracle of Paul’s ministry, that a man who was deeply steeped in the Jewish culture and traditions of his own day was willing to say that what he found in Christ, and the possibility of real Christian unity, was more important than all the ideologies and traditions that had formed him up to that point.
After many debates about who counts as a Christian and whether or not the physical signs of the Jewish covenant, food laws, and all the rest, applied to non-Jewish Christians, Paul had come to the quite radical position that none of it mattered at all. None of it mattered–at all! That, as he says, those old debates are nothing compared to the new creation at work within us.
In Philippians 3, a parallel passage to today’s Epistle from Galatians, Paul reinforces this same claim, that nothing in his own cultural and religious heritage is of any worth or value compared to knowing Christ Jesus. And as a Roman citizen himself, Paul is not ashamed to say that our truest citizenship, as Christians, is in heaven.
What would it mean for us to boast of nothing except the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ?
What would it mean for us if the world was crucified to us, and we to the world?
What would it mean to claim that our citizenship is in heaven?
Jesus tells the disciples who returned from this first heavenly reconnaissance mission that even the power they have over the forces of sin in this world is less important than their heavenly citizenship.
At our baptism, we are given that heavenly citizenship, marked as Christ’s own forever. Then and there, we are given the heavenly grace that enables us, through the power of the Holy Spirit, to live as citizens of the heavenly Kingdom. Then and there, the new Creation begins, with the trickle of the waters of baptism turning into a mighty river of Grace that follows us throughout our earthly lives.
This Grace–this new Creation–is everything! Rejoice, Jesus says, that your names are written in heaven! We are bound to be disappointed and frustrated by human traditions and creations, but we are never ultimately disappointed in the ever-flowing stream of God’s grace! So come, as the Psalmist says: come now and see the works of God, how wonderful God is in God’s treatment of all people. The Kingdom of God has come near to you AND me; the Kingdom of God has come near to US.
Thanks be to God!