Trinity Church, Yazoo City, MS–John 13:31-35, Acts 11:1-18, Revelation 21:1-6
The Church is certainly no stranger to conflict. Do I really need to back up such a statement? It is ridiculously true, even if painfully so. Heck, the very fact that a bishop from Illinois is preaching, celebrating, and confirming at a parish in Mississippi is itself evidence that there is conflict in the church, right? Now, I am not intimately acquainted with all the details of life here at Trinity Church in Yazoo City, but I’ve been around the block enough times to plausibly speculate, at least, that there have from time to time been occasions of conflict right here within the Trinity family—if not at this very moment, then at various times in the past. It may have been over small things, like what kind of flowers to plant in the courtyard or out by the street, or the conflict could have been over something important, like balancing the budget or calling a new rector.
And the Church, of course, has no monopoly on conflict. At every level—local, regional, and national—the Church exists in a secular environment that is perpetually, chronically conflicted. This is a presidential election year, in the thick of a bitterly contested primary season in both parties, and the level of conflict has long since reached the red zone of toxicity. We are, in the words of our Prayer Book in the collect for the Last Sunday after Pentecost—Christ the King—we are “divided and enslaved by sin.”
It has ever been so. In the Apostle Peter’s context, the conflict that commanded his attention was the one between Jew and Gentile. He’s on the roof of the house where he was staying one day, saying his prayers, when he’s drawn into a trance. He sees several animals before him, all of which were in the category that Jewish law considers “unclean,” and therefore not to be eaten. This would have included creatures like pigs, rabbits, any reptile, and any kind of shellfish, among others. Peter then hears a voice commanding him to “Kill and eat.” He immediately protests of course: “No way am I going to eat one of those nasty things!” But the voice he hears is insistent, and finally just point blank tells him, “What God has made clean, you must not call profane.” Right then, there was a knock at the door downstairs. Who was at the door? None other than a group of Gentiles, who had seen their own vision, directing them to the house where Peter was staying, where they would hear good news about someone named Jesus, who would be a absolute game-changer in their lives.
And then, for the original readers of the Revelation to St John the Divine, the conflict in front of them was that between a minority of trying-to-be-righteous-in-the-face-of-persecution Christians and a dominant majority of pagan, hedonistic, and just plain cruel Romans. It’s no accident that the most compelling line in today’s second reading talks about Jesus wiping away every tear, because there was no shortage of tears to wipe away among those first century Christians.
We know that the mission of Jesus was and is to be the instrument of God’s sovereign action, God’s determination to “do something” about alienation and conflict at every level—alienation from God, conflict with others, estrangement from our own selves and from the cosmos. That same collect that talks about human beings being “divided and enslaved by sin” goes on to ask God that we may be “freed and brought together under his most gracious rule.” Jesus called together a community of followers whom he charged with being the sourdough starter for his “gracious rule” of reconciliation and love. The Church is the extension into time of that community of disciples. The Greek word that is translated as “church” is ekklesia, and it literally means “called out ones.” Jesus had supper with these original “called out ones” on the night before his death—a supper in which we are about to mystically participate—and he gave them a “new commandment,” that they “love one another as I have loved you,” he says. And why? What is the purpose of this commandment? “By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.”
Our love for one another within the Church is the authenticating sign of the gospel. Without it, our witness is meaningless, and we are the worst of hypocrites. But if you think that’s severe, there’s this: the paradigm, the model, for the kind of love that Jesus calls us to is his laying-down of his own life.
Now, don’t infer from this that we all have a duty to go out and do whatever it takes to get ourselves crucified, although, if that’s the organic consequence of our following the “new commandment,” then so be it. But it does mean putting ourselves in Peter’s shoes, and rethinking our scruples about being “defiled” by contact with those whom we might be conditioned to consider unworthy of our company. Christian discipleship invites us to see a much, much bigger picture than we otherwise might. And I will say that one of the things I do know about Trinity Church, something that both pleases and humbles me, is the way you have faced right into some of the unsavory aspects of cultural history in places like Mississippi, and embraced the gospel imperative of racial reconciliation. But there’s more; there’s always more.
So, if loving one another—even the strange ones, even the mistaken ones, even the poorly-taught and wrong-headed ones—within the community of the Church is the authenticating sign of the gospel, then what is the authenticating sign of the authenticating sign? How is such love made manifest among us? The way we signal our love for one another, my friends, is by doing what we’re doing right here, right now. We are sharing in the celebration of the Eucharist.
This is why inability to share the Eucharist is the most painful aspect of the divisions among those who profess and call themselves Christians, sometimes even among those who are technically supposed to be in full communion with one another—in our case, even among those who call themselves Anglicans—because we who are supposed to be one for the sake of the world believing that Jesus is the Christ are deprived of the one sign of unity that trumps all others, the very essence of fellowship in Christ, and that is the ability to come together at the altar of God to celebrate the sacrament of our unity with one another in Christ. As long as there are Christians who are not able to come together at the altar, the Body of Christ is disabled, wounded, an inadequate witness to the world. This can happen within a parish community that is hijacked by conflict, and it can certainly happen, as we know all too well, within dioceses and between dioceses, and at a global level.
At every level, conflict and division within the Church are a scandal, because they offer to the world a “false Christ.” They offer to the world an image of a divided Christ when Christ cannot actually be divided. They obscure the truth that, in Christ, God is making all things new. This, indeed is the truth, the sacred and wonderful truth that, in our unreconciled state, we fail to see: “Behold, the dwelling place of God is with man. He will dwell with them, and they will be his people, and God himself will be with them as their God. He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away.” And he who was seated on the throne said, “Behold, I am making all things new.” Right here in Yazoo City, the community of Trinity Church has the opportunity to love one another, and thereby be the authenticating sign of the gospel, in this city, in this county, in the Diocese of Mississippi, and across the whole church. And we can begin to claim that opportunity by celebrating this particular Eucharist in this particular place and this particular time.
Alleluia and Amen.