August 9, 2009

Sermon by the Rev. Amanda Currie

Ephesians 4:25 — 5:2
John 6:35, 41-51

The day of a baptism is a wonderful day to reflect on and to celebrate the church — the family of God — the Body of Christ that we all belong to together. Today we are welcoming a new member of our big family. Grace Anne is joined to Christ and to all of us (to our congregation here at St. Andrew’s, and to the whole Christian church throughout the world).

I would love to be able to simply celebrate that… to say “Welcome Grace Anne, to this big, happy, healthy, wholesome family of God!” and let that be all that I say. But like most families, our Christian family is not always a happy place. Our family is prone to dysfunction. We often do recognize that we all belong to the same family, but we don’t always get along, or talk to each other, or act like we belong together. We’ve had lots of disagreements in our Christian family over the years, and lots of our members are still feeling angry or hurt or disappointed. Some have moved out. Others have given up on trying to get along, and mostly stay in their own little corners of the family home.

When Doug and Vickie brought Grace Anne home from the hospital a few months ago, their new house in Biggar wasn’t quite ready to move into yet. And the Christian family home that she officially joins today still needs a lot of work too. Together, we have the responsibility of doing that work (with the guidance and help of the Holy Spirit) — the work of renovating the church, of being reformed by the Word of God, of growing up into Christ who is our head.

Today’s reading from Paul’s letter to the Church at Ephesus gives some advice to the Christian community as to how that continual change and growth must take place, and it expresses an understanding of Christian life in community that runs through all of Paul’s letters. We must first remember that Christians have been transformed in Christ. In our baptism, we have been forgiven, cleansed, and renewed. We have died to our old lives, and been raised with Christ to a new life. We have been joined to Christ as members of his body. And we have received the gift of the Holy Spirit who teaches us and empowers us to live as faithful disciples of Jesus. We have been transformed, and we are children of God, disciples of Christ, and members of the church.

But at the same time, Christians must be actively engaged in strengthening what we already are. Conversion, baptism, putting off the old and putting on the new, and being sealed with the Spirit and freed from sin are not past events whose effects simply remain. Rather, these events have introduced us into a new reality — the body of Christ — which is still in the process of growing into its head.

In order for the Christian community to grow in love and unity, Paul says that we must begin by speaking the truth to one another. Honesty is the place to start when it comes to getting along in community. We need to tell the truth to each other about who we are, and what we’re feeling and thinking. We need to tell the truth about what we need and what we have to share. We need to tell the truth about what we believe and what are our doubts, about what we value and love, and those things that make us afraid. Telling the truth in love is the only way that we will be able to know and love one another in Christian community. It is the foundation for relationships of trust and care within all our families and within the family of God.

But Paul knows that telling the truth is not enough to ensure a healthy Christian community. Openness and honesty in our relationships will reduce misunderstanding and conflict, but it won’t solve all our disagreements. Paul writes, “Be angry, but do not sin.” And I’m reminded of something my mother used to say when our sibling conflicts had gotten out of hand. She said, “You can HATE your sister, but you can’t HIT her.” You can FEEL angry, and you WILL feel angry at times, but don’t let that anger control your behaviour. Don’t let the anger take over so that you hit your annoying sister or sin against your neighbour in the Christian community.

I had a conversation a few weeks ago during which I had to hold fast to that advice. It was during the Canada Youth conference in St. Catharines when I was chatting with another minister from Ontario and a youth worker from the Maritimes. The youth worker decided to stimulate the conversation by asking us whether we would describe ourselves as conservative or liberal. I responded that I found those labels rather misleading and unhelpful, but that I could tell him where I stood on individual issues.

He brought up inclusive language and various issues around the interpretation of scripture, and then he started talking about the ordination of women. For a moment, I wondered whether he realized that the two women he was speaking with were, in fact, ordained ministers in the Presbyterian Church in Canada. Our very being witnessed to our obvious position on the issue.

With great boldness, this young man explained to us why he believed that God did not want women to be ordained. And as I listened, I could feel the anger rising up inside me, the adrenaline kicking in and getting me ready to fight. And don’t worry, I didn’t hit him. I didn’t even hate him, actually. I simply presented my own position and my interpretation of scripture, and explained the church’s position as clearly as I could.

The Presbyterian Church in Canada has been ordaining women to the ministries of Ruling Eldership and Word & Sacraments since way back in 1966 (15-20 years before this young man was born), so it’s rare that I encounter a Presbyterian who disagrees so strongly with the practice. But there are always issues on which we disagree, even within the Presbyterian Church, and even within one congregation.

What is the best way to promote our mission fund “Presbyterians Sharing” and to meet our own congregational budget during challenging financial times?

Should we purchase a grand piano for the church, and where should we put it, and how will we use it as a significant tool for the ministry of our church?

What factors should we consider when purchasing coffee for the church? Taste? Cost? Fair trade? Organic?

How are we being called to reach out from our congregation? Is it by caring for the poor, getting involved in political action for justice and peace, or by connecting with suburban families — figuring out their needs and seeking to meet them?

These are just a few examples of the many issues in congregations like ours that lead to disagreements, and sometimes disputes and divisions. Paul’s advice can be very helpful to us as we strive to keep on living in loving community with one another, despite the inevitable differences of opinion.

Yes, we’ll get angry at times, but let’s resolve not to STAY angry. As Paul says, “Don’t let the sun go down on your anger.” Talk it out. Work it out. Listen to one another. And sometimes we might even have to just “let it go”.

Paul continues… “Let no evil talk come out of your mouths, but only what is useful for building up, as there is need, so that your words may give grace to those who hear.”

It would be fairly simple to live by Paul’s advice if our conflicts were always as benign as the music we sing in worship or the colour of the carpets. But even our little Presbyterian Church in Canada is home to Christians with an amazing diversity of background, experience, opinion, and theological perspective. The same diversity that gives our church its richness and beauty also creates some challenges for us as we attempt to live together in harmony.

We’ve pretty much settled the issue of the ordination of women in our church, but we’re still deeply divided over the inclusion and ordination of gay and lesbian men and women in our congregations. We’re so far from agreement on that issue that we hardly even discuss it anymore. And the issue that raised the most concern and debate at recent General Assemblies was around how to co-operate and dialogue with other faith groups, while maintaining a belief in the uniqueness of Christ for salvation.

These are big issues with implications for who we are as a Christian community and who we are in relationship to our neighbours in the world. They are not simple issues with black or white answers. And open, honest discussion of them brings along a whole whack of feelings, often including that anger that Paul wrote about.

John’s Gospel gives us a powerful example of a Christian community that had suffered through disagreement, conflict, and division. In their case, it was over the very identity of Jesus of Nazareth. This group of Jewish Christians had been kicked out the synagogues by other Jews who did not agree with their new beliefs about Jesus.

The fourth Gospel illustrates how that Christian community tried to cope with the situation. They kept themselves separate, and allowed others into their circle only when they could declare their belief in the group’s doctrines. They demonized those with whom they had disagreed, making that “other” group of Jews into “the Jews that killed Jesus”. John’s Gospel is the only one in which Jesus seems to require right belief before grace and salvation is given. And John’s Gospel sets clear boundaries for who is in and who is out of God’s family, having Jesus make statements like “No one comes to the Father except by me”.

The Johannine Christian community was not the first or the last church to stumble through difference, disagreement, and conflict. Today’s church throughout the world, our denominational bodies, and our individual congregations experience many similar challenges. Although life together in our Presbyterian Church might be simpler if we agreed on at least the big issues, it would not be as interesting, or growth-producing as it continues to be.

And while part of me wishes that everyone would just agree with the way I see things, I’m also kind of proud of the way our Presbyterian Church stays together, and keeps on talking, and keeps on listening, and keeps on loving one another even when we don’t agree. It’s too easy to let anger lead us into sin, to let hating become hitting.

Paul encourages us, “Put away from you all kinds of bitterness and wrath and anger and wrangling and slander, together with all malice, and be kind to one another…” Be KIND to one another. There’s an interesting thing about the Greek word that is translated as “kind”. It sounds very similar to the Greek word for “Christ”.

Even when the issues get between us… even when we’re angry… Paul tells us to be KIND to one another. Be CHRIST to one another… welcoming, accepting, loving, forgiving, challenging, and loving some more.

That’s what it means to be members of the Body of Christ and the Family of God. Welcome, Grace Anne. Welcome to the family. Amen.