The story told in this reading has a familiar ring to it:
Church people quarreling over
rites of religious righteousness.
The squabbles among the Romans were about
keeping kosher and
the appropriate day on which to keep the Sabbath.
Those became church-dividing issues—literally.
The church eventually turned from its Jewish piety and
oriented its mission to the Gentile culture.
Jewish religious practice withdrew from Christianity and
defined itself over against Christianity.
In retaliation, Christianity portrayed itself
as having replaced Judaism.
Paul tried his level best to overcome the hostility.
The opening chapters of Romans
contain his theological arguments with his Jewish peers.
In those arguments he makes the case that
there is room within the Torah
for a spectrum of adaptations.
There is no need for Judaism to be so historically-defined
that it cannot accommodate Rabbi Jesus' teachings
as part of the larger tradition.
In the latter chapters he pleads for compassion
on the part of Gentiles who have no larger tradition.
Although Jewish practices
may be quaint and sometimes arbitrary
in a Roman world,they are genuine expressions
of faith in and service of God's mission.
Questions of justice enter the debate.
The Gentile church is about
the freeing of slaves and amnesty for sinners.
Jews are concerned about
Roman domination of cultures and
Each community has a legitimate cause,
but uses it as an argument against the other.
It is so easy to condemn the other
in the name of having it right.
And if the gospel were about getting it right,
there might be room to make decisions
between one position and another.
But this same letter to the Romans
contains this expression of the gospel:
…where sin increased, grace abounded all the more, so that, just as sin exercised dominion in death, so grace might also exercise dominion through justification leading to eternal life…
We all stand in the shoes of Job.
Our religious practices can be impeccable,
but God is not interested in our religious differences.
God was angry with the theologians who counseled Job
that religious practice
makes a difference to God.
God is utterly free to be who God wants to be.
In utter freedom, God makes choices;
makes choices for our sakes;
sets self-limits for our sakes;
dies for our sakes.
But those are God's choices.
They are not motivated by our practices.
They are motivated by God's compassion
for our helplessness and need.
On the other hand, Paul does not
consider various religious practices to be invalid.
Paul is, in fact, much more tolerant than I am.
But religious practice is intended to open us
so that we do not prevent God
from making the choices God's mission needs to make.
We cannot claim to know God's will with certainty.
The best thing for us is
to adopt a posture of voluntary transparency
so that our perceptions do not control the vision.
Our religious practices should be windows, not mirrors.
Mirrors show us only our own images,
the shape of God looks like the one
expressed in our religion.
What God is actually doing
may or may not look anything like that.
We can only wait for revelation from God's own self.
For now we see in a mirror, dimly, but then we will see face to face. Now I know only in part; then I will know fully, even as I have been fully known.
1 Corinthians 13:12
As we debrief the Tenth Biennial Convention and
consider the polarized nature of this church,
we can be guided by these wise words from the past.
This is gospel so relentlessly crystalline
that it slices and shreds
every scrap of our self-declared rightness.
It cuts away the falsehood of religious certainties
and allows us to enter with confidence
into trusting communion with God.
So far, we must settle for the mediated presence of God:
mediated through Word and sacrament.
All the more reason to take seriously
Paul's plea that we cherish each other.
Where there is no communion there is no revelation.
Where there is no communion
there exist only solitary self-righteous narcissism
doing battle with straw men.
The seven marks of the church include not only
Eucharist and the
Word proclaimed, but also
Confession and Forgiveness,
Prayers for all people, and
Provision for those
for whom no provision has been made.
These are acts of communion.
There is no revelation apart from our being together.
It's tough to swallow,
but it is, in the end, it is the Good News!
+ Raymond L. Schultz, National Bishop
This sermon was written to open the National Church Council meeting held 15-17 September 2005, Winnipeg MB.
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