Saturday, April 30, 2011

One in Christ

Let Today be Tomorrow
1 May 2011

Redeemer Lutheran Church
Vancouver BC

The Rev’d Dr Richard Geoffrey Leggett
Saint Faith's Anglican Church

         + 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 the fall of 1978 I began my seminary career at Nashotah House Theological Seminary just west of Milwaukee, Wisconsin.  At some point in the year we celebrated the successful conclusion of the first dialogue series between American Lutherans and Anglicans hosted by my seminary given the involvement of one of the faculty on the Dialogue.  Two years later a similar event was held, also at Nashotah, to celebrate the beginning of the second dialogue series.

         Since that beginning more than thirty years ago, my life as a presbyter of the Anglican Church has been marked by an involvement in this facet of the recovery of our visible unity in Christ which is already ours spiritually through our dying and rising with Christ in the sacrament of baptism.  After so many years of involvement it was with great joy that I received an invitation from the National Bishop, Susan Johnson, and the Primate, Fred Hiltz, to preach at the first joint meeting of our two executive councils, the Lutheran National Church Council and the Anglican Council of General Synod, a month ago.

         When Archbishop Morgan, the chaplain for the meeting, contacted me about the opening eucharist, he asked me whether I wanted to use the readings and prayers for John Donne, the seventeenth-century Anglican theologian, whose commemoration, for both 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 one of my theological heroes, Frederick Denison Maurice, who died on the 1st of April in 1872.

         In 1853 Maurice was a middle-aged Anglican theologian teaching at King’s College London, when he 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. 

         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 not behave in a manner that preserved the social order of early Victorian Britain with its distinctions between the rich and poor, the upper classes and the lower classes, management and labour.

         ‘Everlasting punishment’ left no room, Maurice argued, for God’s eternal 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 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.

         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. . . . 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?”

         My sisters and brothers, we are gathered to celebrate ten years of full communion between our two churches in Canada. 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.  Over these past thirty 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.

         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’.
         I am convinced that you and I, members of our two churches in Metro Vancouver, are gathered to let today be tomorrow.  We are here to break the bread and drink the cup so that the world can see 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. But I can tell you that the kingdom of Christ is among us today, that the Spirit of God moves among us today, 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.  So let us go forth from here prepared to do more than celebrate anniversaries; let us go forth to make unity that is already ours a vision for the whole world to see and know.  Amen.

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