Third Sunday after the Epiphany
“…that we may abide in your love and serve only your will.”
That sentence fragment is taken from the corporate confession verbiage we will use together in a few moments. What follows is the absolution offered by the Celebrant, of course, and, more to the point of these remarks, the exchange of peace.
It can be said that the Eucharist is the central expression of our theology as Anglicans. And yet, the overt articulation of our desire to abide in love and serve only love’s will – and to do so with peace – these twin strands hold, very nearly, the central position in the arc of our worship experience together.
Please understand that making such an observation is in no way meant to imply a sense of competition in terms of importance. Rather, it’s meant to suggest that saying out loud that we desire to abide in love and serve only what love requires, and to do so in peace, happens where it happens in the liturgy on purpose. Not by accident. My simple aim, for starters, is to make us conscious of that.
And I’m moved to share my enthusiasm regarding how today’s epistle and gospel readings can support us in that desire.
First, it’s worth noting that the epistle reading for any given Sunday doesn’t ordinarily fit neatly together with the core message of the gospel for the day. The epistle is usually part of a continuous reading within one of Paul’s letters, or Hebrews, or Acts of the Apostles or The Revelation of St. John the Divine, and is given attention over a period of weeks.
Today is one of those fortuitous occasions when thematic threads of epistle and gospel can be said to almost intertwine. Especially as concerns the ways we are or are not spiritually conscious.
I must say that I’ve been moved to reflect in this way, in part, in response to Mother Hershey’s voice and work among us. The importance of sharing our stories cannot be overstated. It is a vibrant and vital – and enjoyable – way to build up the collective spiritual consciousness of our community of faith. Moreover, from here, the benefit of that building up reaches out to the various corners of the world we love and seek to serve.
So, let’s take a very brief adventure together and see how we can draw some seemingly disparate thoughts together toward the building up of good.
There’s no denying that this might be challenging when we first look at what Paul has to say to us today. In three verses he repeats five times the almost desperate-sounding advice that one should live “as though not”: married, or mourning, or rejoicing, or making purchases – and (in summation) be as though we are not dealing with the world in general. Disengage from the world, for all is transitory. No point in entanglement because “the present form of the world is passing away”. Paul was convinced that the second coming of Christ was imminent.
But when we view these thoughts within the arc of his extant writings, we begin to realize that all of Paul’s concerns the nature of relationship with Christ, that is, God, and by extension how we abide in love and peacefully serve only what love requires.
Now we’re ready to look at what Jesus has to say – and what he does – and see if it helps inform us in the place Paul has brought us to.
Note that Jesus’ first words in today’s gospel are the first words we find him saying to us in any of the gospels. Mark’s gospel – historically the first (as believed by the majority of modern NT scholars) – doesn’t include a birth narrative. Instead, Jesus’ baptism begins the action and, after he returns from the desert (having been driven there right from the river by the Holy Spirit), he enters Galilee and begins his ministry with these words, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near, repent and believe in the good news.” His very next words are, “Follow me and I will make you fish for people.”
Fishing for people = repenting and believing in the good news.
“Follow me and I will make you fish for people.”
But Paul says, “…let those with spouses be as though they had none…” – would have us disengage from the world. Now you want us to form relationships? It doesn’t seem to make sense.
And yet, if we are abide in love as we look at this, what happens? Hopefully abiding in love will have a softening effect on our hearts. If so, we may be open to how Paul’s words and those of Jesus support each other. Jesus, who has called the disciples away from their normal lives, might now be seen as operating in tandem with Paul. He’s called Peter, Andrew, James and John away from the worldly, in order that he might show them relationship in ways they never imagined. Think about it. These boys could have lived their lives – in quiet desperation – or full and happy lives – in their limited, insular communities and been completely satisfied.
Paul builds a door with his words, and Jesus kick it open. He radicalizes what Paul suggests: inviting, fostering, mentoring, gently teaching – all these leading toward intentional recognition of spiritual consciousness in human relationships.
Throughout the gospels, Jesus’ gentle approach draws his followers closer and closer and right up to what is known as the contact boundary. With lepers, prostitutes and tax-collectors, to name a few.
The first thing Jesus does to show us how to repent and believe in the good news is to draw us away from our worldly preoccupations (or even occupations as in the case of the disciples) and show us how to have relationship with others in ways we’d never imagined.
What does that say to us in this community? Sure, we may encounter lepers and prostitutes – not to mention tax-collectors – but the greater point is that the contact boundary exists between us and people who don’t know us – people who simply don’t know the warmth and joy and comfort and fulfillment that comes so readily when you are part of the Ascension community.
We talked about having relationship in new ways yesterday at our Ascension Outreach Board meeting. It’s been strongly suggested to me that not enough promotion or information dissemination about Ascension Outreach occurs in terms of repenting and getting the good news out to our parish. So I’m hereby committing to speak more openly. And with joy.
We talked about how the story-telling initiative is so vital.
I have a fairly long history of local social-service non-prof board-governance experience, and in that milieu story-telling has always been a mechanism in need of intentional development. We used to call it the elevator speech. An anecdote about how or why you love the service community with which you participate – y’gotta have it ready at all times. And it’s gotta be natural and organic – but most of all, it’s gotta be unapologetically inviting. And it’s so worth practicing. Not to be disingenuous. No. But because it’s not always a skill we are born with and, consequently, can benefit greatly from practice meant to normalize the experience.
And I don’t know if your “story” has to turn out to be transactional or even linear – this happened, this happened and I felt or became that. We spent some very pleasant time together last Sunday, very freely sharing observations relating – directly or indirectly – to the gospel theme of “Come and see”. And as we shared, the warmth grew and grew so beautifully, even as our stories may have gotten more and more expansive. (Full disclosure: I’m recalling that I was the only one to go overtime with my story, so I think it’s for me to sit down now.)
Final thought: Abiding in love, and peacefully serving only what love demands as, together, we build up both personal and corporate spiritual consciousness by joyfully crossing the contact boundary with our inviting stories. Sounds do-able. Sounds like fun, actually. And I love the fun Jesus!
So come and see how much fun it can be today at coffee hour.
The Rev. Edwin Chinery
January 21, 2018