TENTH SUNDAY AFTER PENTECOST
PRAYER OF THE DAY: Gracious God, you have placed within the hearts of all your children a longing for your word and a hunger for your truth. Grant that we may know your Son to be the true bread of heaven and share this bread with all the world, through Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord.
“I pray that you may have the power to comprehend, with all the saints, what is the breadth and length and height and depth, and to know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge, so that you may be filled with all the fullness of God.” Ephesians 3:18-19.
One might say this fragment from the second lesson for the coming Sunday sums up the reason for the church’s existence. The church is where you go to be filled with the love of Christ. Yes, I know there are plenty of folks who have left the church complaining that they found nothing of the kind there. Instead, they experienced hypocrisy, judgment, self-righteousness, arrogance and a host of hurtful behaviors that look nothing like love. So they left. I get that. I really do. But here’s the thing. Knowing the love of Christ does not come easily. You don’t learn tolerance by living among people who look and think exactly like you. You don’t learn forgiveness by sticking with people who never rub you the wrong way. You will never be led to repentance and a change of heart without people who push your buttons, criticize you and tell you things you don’t want to hear. You will never know love like that of Jesus until you are challenged to love people for whom love does not come naturally. If you are looking for a community that affirms you, accepts you as you are, meets all of your needs and makes you feel good, try a Yoga weekend in the Poconos. If you are looking for a community where you will learn to love as Jesus loves, the church is the place you need to be. It’s called sanctification. It’s what we do. But be warned: it’s a lot more like boot camp than Club Med.
Here is the hard word: the church is not there to meet your needs. It has a mission. The church exists to serve and witness to the reign of God. It is made up of people Jesus calls to be formed for participation in that mission. When you join the Marines, you don’t get to choose the people in your unit. When you join the church, you don’t get to choose your fellow disciples. That’s Jesus’ prerogative. The single biggest complaint about Jesus in the gospels was the company he kept. The religious leaders were offended that Jesus ate with harlots and tax collectors. Simon the Pharisee was offended that Jesus allowed a woman who was a “sinner” to touch him. The disciples were annoyed that Jesus permitted a nameless woman to anoint him. If you are going to follow Jesus, you will have to accept that he hangs with people you probably won’t like. If you want to learn to love as Jesus loves, you must begin by believing that everyone in your church, even-no, especially-the least appealing, least loving, least seemingly Christlike member, has something to teach you that no one else can. Church is living together with people you would never choose as friends, but whom Jesus has called to serve his life giving mission of reconciliation along with you. Church is a process of learning first to tolerate, then to care and finally to love. Not everybody is up for that.
Our Gospel lesson for Sunday sets the stage for a lengthy discourse throughout chapter 6 of John’s gospel between Jesus and the crowd that was initially attracted to him. It is the familiar story about how Jesus feeds five thousand hungry people in the wilderness with a few loaves of bread and some fish. So impressed are the people by this work of power that they are ready to acclaim Jesus as their king. But as Jesus engages them in a discussion about their deeper hunger and the bread of life he offers and that they so desperately need, their enthusiastic support gradually changes to hostility. By the end of chapter 6, the crowd and even most of his followers will have deserted Jesus. “This teaching is difficult,” they grumble, “who can accept it?” John 6:60. Only the twelve remain faithful. “To whom shall we go?” asks Peter rhetorically. “You have the words of eternal life.” John 6:68. Life is eternal only when “rooted and grounded in love.” Ephesians 3:17.
In contrast to our dying culture that is increasingly divided politically, racially and ideologically, the call of Jesus is for his disciples to thrive as an alternative community whose members work together under the reign of God in the same harmony different parts of a body display as they function to serve the well being of the whole. The church exists to let the world know that the walls we have built to divide ourselves are permeable; that there is a way out of the vortex of mutual enmity and retaliation threatening to swallow us. It takes more than love based on mutual attraction, admiration for the pastor, a liking for the church’s sanctuary, music, liturgy and preaching to form and hold such a community together. Forging the Body of Christ out of willful, selfish, thin-skinned, individualistic people like us is a slow, painful process. But it is the process through which one comes to experience “what is the breadth and length and height and depth, and to know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge, so [as to] be filled with all the fullness of God.” Ephesians 3:18-19. It’s called church and it’s not for the faint of heart.
Here is a poem by Elizabeth Barrett Browning speaking about the fusion of life into love that, in biblical terms, is deemed “eternal.”
We cannot live, except thus mutually
We alternate, aware or unaware,
The reflex act of life: and when we bear
Our virtue onward most impulsively,
Most full of invocation, and to be
Most instantly compellant, certes, there
We live most life, whoever breathes most air
And counts his dying years by sun and sea.
But when a soul, by choice and conscience, doth
Throw out her full force on another soul,
The conscience and the concentration both
Make mere life, Love. For Life in perfect whole
And aim consummated, is Love in sooth,
As nature’s magnet-heat rounds pole with pole.
Elizabeth Barrett Browning (1806-1861) was held in high regard throughout her lifetime surpassing nearly all other female poets of the English speaking world eclipsing even the work of her poet husband, Robert Browning. She had a formative influence upon American poet, Emily Dickinson who hung her portrait in her bedroom. Browning was highly skilled in multiple languages reading voraciously the Greek and Latin classics as well as the Hebrew Scriptures. Though the beneficiary of a privileged upbringing, she was a passionate advocate for the oppressed on the issues of slavery, child labor and the exploitation of colonized peoples. You can read more about Elizabeth Barrett Browning and sample more of her poetry at the Poetry Foundation website.