Thursday, March 31, 2011
Let Today be Tomorrow
[The Primate and the National Bishop honoured me by inviting me to preach at the opening eucharist of the first joint meeting of the Council of General Synod (Anglican) and the National Church Council (Lutheran) on 31 March 2011. The eucharist commemorated the Anglican theologian, Frederick Denison Maurice, a champion of Christian socialism and church unity.]
+ May the Holy One of Israel who sent the Word into the world to testify to the truth lead us into all truth by the power of the Spirit. Amen.
In 1853 a middle-aged Anglican theologian teaching at King’s College London published a series of essays which attracted significant attention from the religious establishment. King’s College was already the subject of considerable scrutiny as an Anglican balance to the so-called ‘secular’ University College London. University College had been established to provide university-level education for non-Anglicans in contrast to the Anglican universities of Cambridge and Oxford. Together King’s College and University College were united in the 1830’s to create the University of London. But the merger did not lessen the scrutiny directed at this early ecumenical venture.
This middle-aged theologian, Frederick Denison Maurice, challenged a number of the commonly-held positions of some leaders of the Church of England, but he was especially critical of several views held by the so-called ‘evangelical’ party. In the final essay he addressed the question of ‘everlasting punishment’, a principle that the evangelical party saw as crucial to maintaining society’s stability. Without this teaching, it was thought that the lower classes would cease to behave in a manner that preserved the social order of early Victorian Britain.
He criticized the idea of ‘everlasting punishment’ on two grounds. The first was a word study on the difference between ‘everlasting’ and ‘eternal’. He pointed out that the New Testament tends to use ‘eternal’, a term which means ‘outside of time’, rather than ‘everlasting’, a term which means ‘continuous time without an end’. This was an important distinction because it provided the rich soil for his second critique.
‘Everlasting punishment’ left no room, Maurice argued, for God’s love, a quality essential to God’s very nature. It was God’s intent that we become who we truly are, God’s beloved, made in the image and likeness of God. While we could resist God’s love, perhaps even into whatever awaits us after our death, God’s last word to each of us is not ‘everlasting death’ but ‘eternal life’, a ‘yes’ that shatters any ‘no’ human fears and desires for control can utter. Towards the end of his essay Maurice wrote these words, ones that continue to remain with me every time I begin to doubt what the future holds for me, for my Christian community and for our world:
I ask no one to pronounce, for I dare not pronounce myself, what are the possibilities of resistance in a human will to the loving will of God. There are times when they seem to me --- thinking of myself more than of others --- almost infinite. But I know that there is something which must be infinite. I am obliged to believe in an abyss of love which is deeper than the abyss of death: I dare not lose faith in that love. I sink into death, eternal death, if I do. I must feel that this love is compassing the universe. More about it I cannot know. But God knows. I leave myself and all to Him. (From 'Eternal Life and Eternal Death' in Theological Essays, 2nd ed. published in 1853)
Maurice’s words led to his dismissal from the faculty of King’s College. While the remaining nineteen years of his life would bring some rehabilitation, Maurice remained a voice that the establishment tried to mute in many and various ways. For Maurice, the words of the prophet ring true: “He was despised and rejected by others; a man of suffering and acquainted with infirmity, and as one from whom others hide their faces he was despised, and we held him of no account.” (Isaiah 53.3) But seventy-five years after Maurice’s death, the American theologian H. Richard Niebuhr, in his classic work, Christ and Culture, would describe Maurice as a living exemplar of a theologian committed to ‘Christ as the transformer of culture’. And Michael Ramsey, the one hundredth Archbishop of Canterbury and champion of church union, would write of the influence of Maurice on his own theology.
Maurice’s confidence in the ‘abyss of love’ was grounded in the ‘foolishness of God’ that Paul speaks of in our reading from 1 Corinthians. In the death of Jesus of Nazareth we see the abyss of God’s love, an abyss which is far deeper than the human sin which led to his death. While there are many ways theologians have attempted to explain why Jesus’ death bridges the gap between God’s love and human sin, one thing remains clear: God’s ‘yes’ to humanity, a ‘yes’ embodied in the life and witness of Jesus of Nazareth, remains stronger and more faithful than any of the ‘no’s’ human beings can express, whether that ‘no’ is found in the worship of power, in the poverty of human greed or in the denial that there is any more to life than the sometimes flat surface many of our sisters and brothers call ‘reality’. Just as surely as plants will seek the sun, even human perversity will eventually seek the warmth of God’s love and follow the path that this love tracks in the universe.
When Archbishop Morgan contacted me about tonight’s eucharist, he asked me whether I wanted to used the readings and prayers for John Donne, the seventeenth-century Anglican theologian, whose commemoration, for Anglicans and Lutherans, falls on the 31st of March. Now I have a deep and abiding respect for John Donne, but I realized that the church’s oldest custom is to begin a liturgical day at sunset the day before, a practice we inherited from our Jewish ancestors in the faith. That meant we could let today be tomorrow and I could honour Maurice, one of my theological heroes, who died on the 1st of April in 1872.
But there is something more here, my sisters and brothers, something more than a liturgist’s detail-mongering.
What both Paul and Maurice realized is that today is tomorrow. For Paul the story of humanity’s creation and fall is recapitulated in Jesus of Nazareth with a stunning reversal of human sin, “(so) if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new!” (2 Corinthians 5.17) Later in the same letter, Paul writes, “See, now is the acceptable time; see, now is the day of salvation!” (2 Corinthians 6.2b) For Maurice the gospel of John with its proclamation that, in Jesus of Nazareth, the Word has been made flesh and dwells among us is a clarion call to recognize that the kingdom of Christ is as well as shall be. Just as the Samaritan woman heard Jesus say, “I am he, the one who is speaking to you,” surely Maurice would affirm that the same voice, the same eternal presence, speaks to you and to me today.
While it is difficult for some people to believe in God’s final renewal of the kosmos and our own resurrection, it is even more difficult for many believers to live in ‘eternal’ life, a recognition that the reign of God is a present reality as much as it is a future hope. It seems so very foolish, in the face of natural disasters in many parts of the world, in the face of civil unrest and violence in other places and in the face of thinly-veiled apocalyptic rhetoric of a federal election campaign, to believe, as the old hymn puts it:
My life flows on in endless song
above earth’s lamentation.
I hear the real though far-off hymn
that hails a new creation.
No storm can shake my inmost calm,
while to that Rock I’m clinging.
Since Love is lord of heaven and earth,
how can I keep from singing?
What though the tempest ‘round me roar,
I hear the truth it liveth.
What though the darkness ‘round me close,
songs in the night it giveth.
No storm can shake my inmost calm,
while to that Rock I’m clinging.
Since Love is lord of heaven and earth,
how can I keep from singing?
(Common Praise #401 vv. 1, 3)
My sisters and brothers, we are gathered at what may be seen, in some not so distant future, as a historic meeting of the leadership of our two churches. Although our formal agreement of full communion is but a decade old, our work in Canada reaches back more than three decades and our relationship as two reform movements in the Catholic Church more than four hundred and fifty years. My own involvement in Anglican-Lutheran relations began in 1978 in seminary and over the intervening thirty-three years I have seen us dutifully crossing the ‘t’s’ and dotting the ‘i’s’ and even the ‘j’s’ in order to achieve some semblance of visible unity. But I feel the time has come for some serious foolishness on our part if we are to proclaim Christ crucified and risen to our country and, perhaps, to our world.
I have no doubt that there are many challenges to our moving forward into an unknowable future. We share so many beliefs and practices in common, but the ethos of our polities, the structures of our national offices and the natural theological diversity that colour both our churches can hinder us from taking bold steps. When a common office in Ottawa was first mooted at a meeting of the Joint Commission in the autumn of 2007, my colleagues on the Joint Commission will tell you that I looked at the obstacles rather than the promise. But I have come to believe that our full communion agreement, already embodied in the bricks and mortar of congregations across this country, needs to have a more visible national symbol of our earnest commitment to the full, visible unity of God’s people.
What I am hoping for, what I believe others in our two churches are hoping for, is some dramatic steps forward, even at the risk of looking foolish during a time of fiscal uncertainty and a natural but perhaps unwise temptation to withdraw inward in the interests of institutional survival. The irony is that retrenchment can lead to stagnation and stagnation leads eventually to death. Paul’s missionary journeys to the cities of the Mediterranean world were not about institutional survival but about sharing the good news of God in Jesus of Nazareth --- even when that message was ‘a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles’ (1 Corinthians 1.23b) Maurice’s essays were not about institutional survival but about sharing the good news of God in Jesus of Nazareth to an industrial working class that had been marginalized by those with power and influence and who needed a message of hope rather than the reading of a theological ‘riot act’.
In the late months of 1862 Abraham Lincoln decided upon a course of action that many considered not only foolishness but political suicide. The federal forces had been repeatedly defeated by smaller confederate armies. His cabinet and the Congress were divided as to the reason the states were at war with one another. In this moment Lincoln decided to issue a proclamation emancipating all the slaves held in any area under the control of federal forces effective in March 1863. His cabinet thought him mad; his family feared for his life. In December of 1862 Lincoln sent his annual message to the Congress and included these words.
The dogmas of the quiet past, are inadequate to the stormy present. The occasion is piled high with difficulty, and we must rise with the occasion.
As our case is new, so we must think anew, and act anew. We must disenthrall ourselves, and then we shall save our country. Fellow-citizens, we cannot escape history. We of this Congress and this administration, will be remembered in spite of ourselves. No personal significance, or insignificance, can spare one or another of us. The fiery trial through which we pass, will light us down, in honor or dishonor, to the latest generation.
These are dramatic words; some might even think them melodramatic to use at a joint business meeting of our two church councils. But I am convinced that you, members of the executive councils of our two churches, are gathered to let today be tomorrow. You are here to do more than hear reports and engage in friendly conversation, whether around the business table, the dining table or the social table. You are here to do more than tick off one more commitment of the Waterloo Declaration and declare ourselves satisfied so that we can back to business as usual.
You are here to disenthrall our two churches from any idea of institutional survival and to think anew as surely as our case as churches in full communion is new. You are here to rise to the occasion of showing the world how truly foolish Christians can be when they are confident that the abyss of God’s love is infinitely deeper than the abyss of human fear.
What shape our communion will take is beyond the scope of one sermon. What direction you should take in achieving a more visible expression of full communion is beyond my authority to describe. But I can tell you that the kingdom of Christ is among us tonight, that the Spirit of God moves among us tonight, so that we can look beyond budgets and bylaws, canons and constitutions to discover how today can be tomorrow.
If you believe, as I believe, that the Waterloo Communion is more than a convenient way to deal with economic challenges, that the Waterloo Communion is more than a guidebook to ecclesiastical etiquette, that the Waterloo Communion is actually an expression of what the kingdom of Christ can look like in the here and now of twenty-first century Canada, then I am confident that any foolishness that may occur over the next few days and months and years will turn out to be the wisdom of God.
Let us pray.
O God of unchangeable power and eternal light, look favourably on your whole Church, that wonderful and sacred mystery. By the effectual working of your providence, carry out in tranquillity the plan of salvation. Let the whole world see and know that things which were cast down are being raise up, and things which had grown old are being made new, and that all things are being brought to their perfection by him through whom all things were made, your Son Jesus Christ our Lord; who lives and reigns with you, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.