A sermon preached on August 2nd, 2015 based upon Ephesians 4:1 – 7; 11 – 16.
Philip Yancey tells in one of his books about a conversation he had with a friend named Richard who had lost his faith after having been through a dark time of intense suffering. Job-like, his pain included severe physical pain, grief at having lost a loved one, and financial woes. In his misery, God’s love seemed altogether absent. Yancey quotes Richard as asking, “Where is God? I want to see Him!”
As Yancey reflects on this question, he is humbled by the fact that at least part of the answer is that if you want to see God, then look at the people who belong to him – We are, as Paul says in our lesson, the Body of Christ.
And yet as the philosopher Nietzsche said, “His disciples will have to look more saved if I am to believe in their Savior.” Yancey concludes with words that he finds humbling:
“Richard does not know Mother Teresa, but he does know me… Richard will
probably never hear a voice from a whirlwind that drowns out all questions.
He will likely never get a personal glimpse of God in this life. He will only see me.”
In our epistle lesson the Apostle Paul calls us to live a life worthy of the calling to which we have been called… to be “mature.” We are the body of Christ, he says, and we must “grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ.”
I must admit that my first reaction to this passage is to confess that even as I approach my 60th birthday, I don’t feel especially “grown up” or mature in my faith. It seems that after 40 years or so of calling myself a Christian, I should have a stronger faith than I do, but mostly I am aware that I am pretty fragile, that it doesn’t take a lot to lead me to feel anxious or afraid, resentful or discouraged. I would have thought I’d be further along by now — more confident, knowing what’s what.
But I am comforted by the fact that apart from what Paul calls “maturity”, which he doesn’t really define — the specific qualities that he mentions in this passage are ones I do think I am more likely to express these days than I did 40 years ago: “humility and gentleness,” “patience”, and a willingness to “bear with one another in love.” I haven’t learned how to master life so that I can remain serene and confident in the chaotic waters of life, but I do think I am more humble, gentler, more patient and more willing to bear with others than I once was. I have moved in this direction because life has made me more honest about what others must bear in me.
There is this beautiful story in John’s Gospel about the time the Pharisees and the scribes come to Jesus as they are taking a woman away to be stoned to death. She’s been caught committing adultery (and you can’t help but wonder, what about the man involved? it takes two to commit adultery) and the Book of Leviticus says that she is to be stoned. They seize the opportunity to trap Jesus: knowing he is soft-hearted, compassionate and forgiving, and they ask him if he agrees what they are doing. They hope to get him in trouble by having him defy the Scriptural teaching.
It seems to take Jesus a while to answer them — he spends some time seated, drawing in the dirt with his finger — but finally he stands up and say, “Let him who is without sin throw the first stone.” And then he sits down again, and continues to draw some more in the dirt.
Slowly, one by one, beginning with the eldest among them, the scribes and the Pharisees depart, until none are left to condemn the woman.
The longer we live in this world, the more we tend to recognize that we’ve done things we shouldn’t have done, and left undone things we should have done. We’ve hurt people, we’ve hurt ourselves. We know something of the darkness that lies within us.
Of course, this isn’t always the case. You can still find people like Donald Trump who seem to be constitutionally incapable of apologizing, even when he made an off the cuff remark mocking John McCain for having been a prisoner of war.
But for most of us, life has a way of humbling us, and this a part of what Paul calls the truth we must speak in love.
The saying holds: “Be kind: Everyone you meet is carrying a heavy burden.” If we take the time to listen to the people we meet in life, we discover this is true. Everybody, as least some of the time, has heavy burdens to carry.
It’s interesting that Philip Yancey mentioned Mother Teresa as the cultural icon of saintliness whose presence would most likely reveal the presence of God. “Richard does not know Mother Teresa, but he does know me.”
Mother Teresa was alive when Yancey wrote those words. Ten years after she died, a book was published made up of intimate letters Teresa had written through the course of her life that gave people a glimpse for the first time of her inner life. People were surprised, and in some instances upset to discover that she seemed to know more about darkness than she did of light. God often seemed to her to be absent from her life.
Teresa was once asked why she did the work she did and she gave the peculiar answer that it because there was a Hitler inside her.
It is said that the greatest saints are those who know they are sinners, and the greatest sinners are those who think they are saints.
We all share, Paul says, in one baptism, one faith, one God, one Spirit, and we are one Body. Let us live out the unity of that oneness; let us bear with one another’s frailty.
No where is this truth more clearly expressed than in Holy Communion and the one loaf we share. There is a great leveling of the human race expressed in Holy Communion. When we come forward to receive the bread and the cup, there isn’t one line for the saints, and one for the sinners. There isn’t one line for those whose faith is strong, and one for those struggling with doubt. There’s just one line because we are all saints and sinners, faith and doubt wrestle inside all of us. That’s why at the beginning of the ritual I always say there is no requirement that have faith: what does that mean exactly? What is required is simply that you come with the willingness to receive a gift. You come humbly, knowing that you cannot save yourself, and you need the grace of God.
We all come carrying a heavy burden, and Jesus meet us with his grace, saying “Come unto me all you who are heavy laden and I will give you rest.” And we catch a glimpse of the kingdom of heaven touching down here on earth.