It is good to be back with you this week, though it seems I missed a lot of excitement! A bit of irony to share with you-when I heard that the east coast had had an earthquake, I was visiting my friend Lisa, who lives in the “east Bay”, or the area across the bay from San Francisco. That area is crisscrossed with a large number of fault lines, and, thinking about earthquakes, is one of the most dangerous areas in the world. And I was standing right in the middle of it reading about the earthquake that evacuated the White House and the Capitol and put people in Wilkes Barre out in the street.
While I was visiting California, reconnecting with old friends and making a few new ones, I had the opportunity to attend church in two different UM churches. And I have been thinking a lot about the different ways church is done.
I don’t say this as a way of comparison, as if one is better and the other worse. Every community does it the best they can, I believe, and takes on the character of the environment they live in. One church’s prayer concerns were largely about world hunger, social justice, and peace, naming Somalia and Darfur specifically, and was enriched by a homeless man, one of many the congregation has relationship with, speaking in a language all his own in the midst of the sermon. The pastor acknowledged it, and the congregation accepted it as worship in the world. Another church had a large rainbow flag, signifying their support of people who are homosexual, hanging in their fellowship hall, but in every other way would have had much in common with what we do here.
All churches, and indeed all Christians, live in a weird space between the here and now, the “who” we are; and the who we’re supposed to be. Sometimes we succeed in being the face of Christ to someone. Sometimes, like the nuclear elements that are created in those 30 mile radius super-colliders, the existence of which only lasts milliseconds, we are fully able to reflect the spirit and the strength of God. Other times, we fall short of being fully human-we fall prey to petty jealousies, to nursing resentments and hurts, we unfairly judge people for their mistakes, we do not forgive, and do not acknowledge our own shortcomings.
We are given the gift of knowing the personality, humanity, the image we are trying to attain, that of Christ. Sometimes I think this is God’s greatest gift to us. In Christ, we have the goal set before us, and we spend a lifetime seeking to grow into a Christlike, fully human being. At least that’s what we should be doing.
Paul, writing to the Roman church, tells us in this passage, that if we are to project the face of Christ into the world around us, if we are to share the good news of God that is entrusted to us to share, the secret ingredient to it all is love. It is love that is at the root of the law. If you love your neighbor you will not murder them. If you love your neighbor, you will not commit adultery with their spouse; if you love, you will celebrate what they have, you will not be jealous of it, and crave it. Love, as Paul says, “is the fulfilling of the Law.”
He writes that we are to “live honorably as in the day.” This implies that there is a way of life that we live apart from the day, or from the light. We sometimes live another way, as in the night. What is it that we do under cover of darkness, in secret, away from prying eyes, something we do not wish people to know? What attitudes, prejudices, and opinions do we not share because we know they are not part of the light of the love of God? Paul specifically goes to the examples of drunkenness, debauchery and licentiousness (which I think we can safely define as sexual promiscuity and loss of self control), and I think these examples are obvious in that they are clearly separate from the image of Christ we are seeking to copy.
But then Paul jumps from that to specifically calling out “quarreling and jealousy”. This is entirely another kettle of fish, isn’t it? It’s one thing to judge those people who go to dance clubs and wear very little as they dance suggestively on the floor as not being Christian, however we may define it, and however little we know about them. It is something else to purse your lips at someone who has just bought a spiffy new car, or shake your head at some relative who is trying to change the patterns of their life, ones that they inherited from your common family system. It’s easy to be angry at or dismissive of the person who has different politics or business practices from you. But I think it very interesting that jealousy and quarreling, of which gossip and rush to judgment are usually a part, is judged to be equal in the eyes of the Apostle Paul to drunkenness and promiscuity.
Is it because they cause the same amount of damage to the body of Christ?
How then, as Christians, are we called to refrain from causing that damage? How are we supposed to live in the world?
Both kinds of sin here feel good. But both are empty pleasures. Loving is hard, and loving someone who we disagree with, or even don’t like very much, is even harder. It’s much easier to distance ourselves from them, and see them as somehow falling short. We may even use the language of the church to assist us in causing pain to them, in enabling us to separate ourselves from them. To stand with someone in love can sometimes give us wounds, too, when the community around that person is angry.
But this, nonetheless, is our call. To accept that homeless guy who interrupts our sermon. To love that person who loves to tear down people of authority. To loving address the shortcomings of the ones whom God has put in our path, while acknowledging our own.
This is to lay aside the works of darkness. This is to put on the armor of light.
This is to be the body of Christ.