The Wideness of God’s Mercy

Open ArmsA sermon for the Ninth Sunday after Pentecost, July 22, 2018.  The scripture readings are Jeremiah 23:1-6Psalm 23 Ephesians 2:11-22, and Mark 6:30-34, 53-56

Listen to the sermon HERE.

Every so often, I run into one or two people who are starting a “new church” in Manhattan.  Every time I’ve met such people they are white, young, and seem confident, upwardly mobile, and ready to take on the world.  God has called them to this new venture of being part of a new Christian community, they believe. And I’m sure they believe that.

One young couple came to our 6 pm worship service.  I noticed them because they were new and I couldn’t help but notice (in that small gathering) that they did not come forward for Communion.  After the service, they asked if the church ever rented space to other groups.  It turns out that their congregation was looking for a new site in which to worship.

I explained that we do sometimes rent space, but that I would have some serious questions about another congregation worshipping in our space.  And then I said to them, “I don’t mean to be rude, but I wonder… why do you suppose God wants you to create a new church, mostly of young people like yourselves, when there are so many churches already.  And these churches have old people and young people, rich and poor, and could probably use your energy and faith?”  They seemed a little uncomfortable and finally said, “That’s an interesting question. We’ll have to ask our pastor what he thinks about that.”  Then they left.

Maybe we all, from time to time, imagine our “dream church.” But chances are that God’s vision for the Church is much broader than mine or yours, or even ours combined.

The scriptures today work together to show us God’s vision, God’s dream of his called and gathered people.  The readings remind us of the broadness, the expanse, and the array which is to be the church of Jesus Christ.

Paul’s Letter to the Ephesians gets right to the point— though, admittedly, Paul writes in terms that may sound strange to us today. He writes about the “circumcised” and the “uncircumcised,” hardly a topic one might expect for a Sunday morning in July. But he’s really just using shorthand for a conversation about Jews and Gentiles, Gentiles being everyone who is not born Jewish. By the time of the Letter to the Ephesians, the early Church was filled with at least two kinds of people—some were former Jews who had decided to follow Christ. Many probably still thought of themselves as Jews, even thought they had, in many places, been driven out of the synagogues. But these Jews who followed Jesus were also successful at inviting non-Jews to join the movement. We have stories in scripture about some of them:  There was the Ethiopian Eunuch, there was the Centurion Cornelius, and before long there were many, many more.

But there’s a conflict going on in the early church at Ephesus. It’s not exactly clear what the problem is, but some scholars think it had to do with newer people beginning to follow Jesus who felt that since they were really Jewish (circumcised), they deserved a more immediate entry and a higher status in the community than those who were Gentile and had never been Jewish.

Among some early communities there was even the question of whether a Gentile man who joined the Christian Church should become circumcised like a Jew in order to be a good Christian. Should Gentile women adopt the customs of faithful and orthodox Jewish women? These questions may sound strange to us today, but they were HUGE question for early Christians.

And so, it’s in this atmosphere that Paul preaches, “You who once were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ. For he is our peace; in his flesh he has made both groups into one and has broken down the dividing wall, that is, the hostility between us. He has abolished the law with its commandments and ordinances, that he might create in himself one new humanity in place of the two, thus making peace.”

Paul goes on to write with assurance to the newly converted, “you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are citizens with the saints and also members of the household of God, built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus himself as the cornerstone.”

Paul says that we, all of us, are to be one household. If you go to Israel today and look at any of the archeological sites you can see what a household in the first few centuries looked like. It might be a couple of rooms, but then when the children grew older, a sleeping loft might be added on. Then when a child grew up and got married, an addition would be built on to the house, and so the household grew.

With each new addition, another room would be added. It didn’t matter if the new person was liked or disliked. It didn’t matter whether they brought anything in particular to the household. What mattered is that the new person was family, and they were welcomed, and they were included.

The other scripture readings for the day point to various dynamics with the church. The Old Testament reading warns that there will be those leaders who will seek to separate and divide. Some will attempt to scatter the flock and drive them away. But God will create a remnant of those who follow God, and this remnant from every land, and bring them home. And among this new family, there shall be no fear and none shall be missing.

In the Gospel, I wonder if this isn’t one of those places in which even Jesus questions his calling.  One can imagine a contemporary church growth consultant pointing out to Jesus that he would do much better if he were to focus on a particular demographic and tailor his message accordingly.  “Your vision is too big.  You can’t be all things to all people,” they would say.  In today’s Gospel, it seems like Jesus is getting tired and is trying to get a little break.  “For many were coming and going, and they had no leisure even to eat. And they went away in the boat to a deserted place by themselves.”  And with that, Jesus tries to go off to a “lonely place.” It’s almost as though Jesus, himself has enough of a following, an already full plate, a more-than-full agenda.

But then, before long, God sends more people.  God expands the word, the appeal, the message, and the healing.  And God gives Jesus the power he needs to keep on.  Jesus teaches and heals and loves with the knowledge that God’s love is for everyone.  There is no end to the wideness of God’s mercy, to the fullness of God’s fellowship.

A few years ago, the preacher and writer Martin Smith told a great story about a Sunday when he noticed a small boy doing a strange thing in church.  Martin noticed the little boy kept “high fiving” his mother.  Then, Martin noticed there was a pattern to the high fives—they happened at the end of prayers.  After church, when Martin saw the mother and child, he asked the mother, “What’s with the high-fives? It seems like there must be a story behind them?”  The mother smiled and explained that now, it was simply their way of participating in the worship and she hoped it wasn’t distracting. Martin assured her it was not, but still—he was curious.  “Well,” she said, “instead of hearing ‘AMEN,’ my son used to think we were saying what they say at soccer:  ‘I’m in!’”  “It just seemed right, then to follow the ‘I’m in!’ with a high five.”

“I’m in” perfectly captures the idea of an Amen.  Amen has been used not just as a punctuation mark to a prayer, but a way of our entering into the meaning and the intention of the prayer, of claiming our part in it, of saying “I’m part of the team.”  But it also means that there is a team.  There are others who have our back, and also lead out in front. There are people covering the sides.   Sometimes it’s our calling to play a different role, but faith is never, ever a solo sport.

Whether it is the worldwide community of believers who are trying to get along, or the Episcopal Church, or a local parish like this one—the good (but sometimes difficult) news of the Gospel is that all are welcome. It doesn’t matter if you are a life-long Christian. It doesn’t matter if you are still trying to figure God out.

God spreads a table before us in the presence of those who trouble us. God anoints us with holy oil, and fills our cup until it’s overflowing. God’s goodness and mercy will follow us all the days of our life, and we will dwell in the house of the Lord for ever. We’re in—each one of us.

May God continue to remind us of his holy welcome, and may God continue to show us how to welcome one another.

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

 

 

About John F. Beddingfield

Rector of The Church of the Holy Trinity (Episcopal) in New York City on East 88th Street between 1st Ave and 2nd Ave.
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