This last Sunday I felt led to begin a six-week sermon series on the new identity that Christ gives to us, His people (as opposed to the identity that we make for ourselves). Here is the first week’s instalment.
Someone said that if there’s something wrong with your church community, we might each begin by looking in the mirror. Is our congregation unfriendly? Let me look into my mirror: “Mirror? Mirror on the wall!” am I unfriendly? Is our congregation unconcerned about people who don’t know Jesus? Am I? Is our congregation behind on its budget? What about me – am I behind in my giving? Is there hostility in our fellowship, between members? What is my attitude like? what is my behaviour communicating to others?
Now, for any number of us there may not be answers to those questions in the mirror. Sometimes the problems really do lie with other members of the community – but that doesn’t mean that it’s any less a problem that each of us owns. Because God has brought us together. A manager of a business was interviewing a potential new employee who asked, “How many people work here?” To which he replied, “Precious few!” Such a statement should never be made of God’s Church. Every one of us is here by His grace; every one of us is a representative of His transformative purpose in the world; every one of us owns the witness and ministry of this congregation – this portion of His Church.
Gaze up, if you will, and view this incredible stained glass window that we have at the front of our worship space. The triune God is depicted on it, and St. Luke, and St. Stephen. There are a lot of pieces that make that one window – many pieces of glass, different sizes and shapes and colours. They’re all pieced together in just the right way that a beautiful mosaic appears. A mosaic that draws our hearts and minds to God. A mosaic that light shines through. In some ways, it’s a picture of our congregation gathered today, isn’t it? People from different walks of life – different ways of employing our time, different ages, different upbringing – God has put us all together to produce the beautiful mosaic that He has in mind, to draw others to Himself as He shines His light through us into a dark world. And He does shine through us to other people, because Jesus is about all people – not just the ones who are already gathering in His Name.
Our gospel lesson today told the story of a Canaanite woman who came to Jesus to beg for healing for her daughter. Jesus told her that He’d been sent to the lost sheep of the house of Israel. How easy it would have been to stick to that external, and to have ignored the internal – to say that she was born into the wrong family, and so stood outside of grace! Yet Jesus never ignored the internal, and when she exhibited the kind of faith that He’d been searching for and inspiring in the lost sheep of the house of Israel, He didn’t ignore it. So He stuck to His guns. Your faith has brought healing.
But we get waylaid by the instruction rather than the principle behind it, and we divide by denomination. There’s the story of the priest who’d been asked to officiate at the funeral for a Baptist man. He inquired of his bishop as to how he should perceive. The response he got was this: “By all means! Bury as many Baptists as you can!” John Wesley rightly asked: “Although a difference in opinions or modes of worship may prevent an entire external union; yet need it prevent our union in affection? Though we cannot think alike, may we not love alike? May we not be of one heart, though we are not of one opinion?” Indeed, if we Christians are always bickering with one another, aren’t we denying Christ, the Prince of Peace, who has called us into His one Church, and who prayed in the garden, the night before He was crucified, that we would all be one?
But we get distracted from faith in Christ by loyalty to faction, even within our local congregations; we forget loyalty to Jesus and being open to the work of the Spirit to move us to the holiness of God, and we settle for the way of the world: we preach sermons against gossip and then turn around singing “I Love to Tell the Story,” sharing everyone’s story but Jesus’. We forget to welcome others into Christ’s fellowship because “someone” needs to do something about the shingles on the roof – there was one man who was approached by the ushers at his church because he hadn’t taken his hat off for worship that day. His response was telling, “Praise the Lord! I’ve been coming here for six months and you’re the first people to speak to me. I figured that would do it!”
We forget to be hospitable, because we’re concerned with what so-and-so is, or is not, doing for us. We hold grudges against people that Jesus died to redeem. How easy would it have been for Joseph to disown his brothers? They’d disowned him years earlier, selling him into slavery (which was, in their estimation, the least they could do for him – considering that he was their brother) which had led him to prison for a crime he hadn’t committed. In our Old Testament lesson today, they stood before him and he had the power to do anything to them that he wanted. He could have disowned them, as they had done to him. He could have practised “eye for an eye” retributive justice on them. He could have mocked their attempts to get rid of him, because he’d ended up rising beyond anything he’d even dreamed of. Instead, he turned his mind to God’s purposes – they’d intended evil, but God had used it for good. They would be saved from the famine on the land, and all their families.
There were a handful of Lutheran pastors who’d decided to “check out” the competition, going to Saturday night mass at the local Roman Catholic church. They arrived a little late, and found that all of the pews were filled – so they stood at the back. The priest noticed them and recognized them, and whispered to one of the altar boys, “Go and get three chairs for our Lutheran friends.” The boy didn’t hear, so the priest spoke a bit louder, motioning to the rear of the congregation, “Three chairs for the Lutherans.” Dutifully, the altar boy rose and proclaimed to the congregation, who responded as prompted, “Three cheers for the Lutherans!”
Now, something tells me that three “Hip hip hurray!”s (or “Huzzah!”s) would make newcomers feel very out-of-place at our churches, and wouldn’t be a great way to welcome them in. But that doesn’t mean that there isn’t a good way to welcome people in. But welcoming people begins with having something to welcome them into. And having that “something” begins with the unity of the Church.
A piano tuner doesn’t tune each piano to the one that he tuned before it. He tunes each one, individually, to his tuning fork. So it is with the Church. We are not called to factions, or to interest groups, or to follow in one another’s footsteps. We are called to Jesus, and to have our lives tuned to His. Believe it or not, when our lives are all attuned to His – instead of trying to attune them with one another’s – we will have greater unity in the Body. We will actually be in tune with one another.
Seek Christ, who reveals Himself to you, that you may be fit into the wonderful mosaic of His Church which He is building – fashioning us into a great stained glass window, through which His light shines in this dark world. Amen.