This morning is the Annual Meeting for Christ Church. It is a time to reflect on the previous year, reporting the facts, figures and general state of the parish. We are also using the Annual Meeting as a kind of kick off for our year, showcasing various ministries and ways to be involved. I think Christ Church is a wonderful place to be!
But, of course, no church is perfect. As Richard Newton, an19th century Episcopal clergyman says, “No form of Church organization is given us in the New Testament. All those now existing are of human origin. They bear the marks of human infirmity. Imperfection, in one form or another, clings to them all. We never shall see a perfect Church on earth until our Lord returns from heaven.”
Groucho Marx famously said about private clubs, “I refuse to join a club that would have me as a member.” So too we might say that the minute we walk through the red doors of a church, then the church we’ve walked into is no longer the perfect church!
But I do believe our Christ Church mission statement at least points us in the right direction: to preach (and receive) the gospel, to love people, and to trust God. We see a version of that in today’s reading from Romans. “Love one another. For the one who loves fulfills the law.” What does this mean and how can this type of love happen?
In the novel War and Peace, Tolstoy describes a moment when Prince Andrey fulfills the law described by St. Paul. He’s on a battlefield, looking at a wounded man who had been his rival and enemy. This man had seduced his fiance’, and yet Prince Andrey is moved to love.
“All at once a new, unexpected memory from the childlike world of purity and love rose up before Prince Andrey. He recalled now the bond that existed between him and this man, who was looking vaguely at him through the tears that filled his swollen eyes. Prince Andrey remembered everything, and a passionate pity and love for that suffering man filled his happy heart.
Prince Andrey could restrain himself no more and wept tears of love and tenderness over his fellow-men, over himself, and over their errors and his own.‘Sympathy, love for our brothers, for those who love us, love for those who hate us, love for our enemies; yes, the love that God preached upon earth.’”
What kind of epiphany brought Prince Andrey, known as a cold and calculating man, to this kind of euphoric love for neighbor and enemy? It was his own imminent death. He too had been mortally wounded on the field of battle. Which is why he laments his 11th hour insight, saying “All this I did not understand, that is why I am sorry to part with life, that is what was left me if I had lived. But now it is too late. I know that!”
Maybe you’ve had moments of love for everyone like Prince Andrey, hopefully not instigated by near death. Moments when judgment and anger fall away and you feel infused with love and compassion for all. But then something happens, somebody says or does something to make the reverie end, and you are right back where you started, backed against the wall of your impatience, or ennui, or frustration with everyone, including yourself. How are we to “love people”?
Prince Andrey’s near death experience contains a bible truth. Simply put, in order to love another, in order to fulfill the law, as St. Paul says, you have to die to yourself. You have to die to your own will. You have to die to your own wants. You have to die to your own ego. You have to die to your own illusion of control.
This is at least part of what Jesus meant when He said, “He who saves his own life will lose it, and he who loses his own life will save it.” And it is, I think, very much what St. Paul meant when he wrote, “I have been crucified with Christ and I no longer live. The life I live in the body I live by faith in the Son of God who loves me and gave himself for me.”
Dying to self in order to love is what is meant in the offertory song for today. It’s an old spiritual written by Blind Willie McTell: Just well to love your enemies, you got to die / You just well to love your enemies, you got to die / May be tomorrow, you can’t tell the minute or the hour / Get ready, you got to die, you got to die.
This metaphorical talk of death is not hard to understand. You have a situation right now in your life to which this is speaking directly. You may not want to hear it, or you may be doing all in your power to deflect it. Well of course you don’t want to hear it, because who on earth wants to die?! Nevertheless, the word comes directly to you from St. Paul, Jesus, Tolstoy, and Blind Willie McTell: “you got to die.” Then you will be able to love people – the second part of our mission statement.
Love and hate are not opposites, at least in terms of your relationship with another person. Love and control: they are the true opposites. To love is to suspend control, and to suspend control is to love. Suspending control requires trust – trust in God. Loving people and trusting God are symbiotically connected.
Trust in God is what we pray for in today’s collect. “Grant us, O Lord, to trust in you with all our hearts; for, as you always resist the proud who confide in their own strength, so you never forsake those who make their boast of your mercy”. This is a prayer that we would do well to pray everyday, or every hour of everyday. Grant us, O Lord, to trust in you with all our hearts. Love people, trust God.
The second and third parts of our mission statement are completely dependent on the first part – the Gospel. Loving others, trusting God for our lives and the lives of those around us, flows organically out of the gospel. And what is the gospel in today’s reading? St. Paul says, ““Love one another. For the one who loves fulfills the law.” We may episodically love others. But our trust is ultimately in the “one who loves” and therefore “fulfillsthe law.”
And that, of course, is Jesus Christ. He is the only One who loves and loves perfectly. He is the only one who fully dies to self through His death on the cross for our sake. He is the One who has already fulfilled the law for us. It is His death, not ours, that really counts. That is the gospel. As Dave Zahl preached last week, Christianity is not about what you can do for God, but what God has already done for you.
When this current church sanctuary was built 115 years ago, a cornerstone was laid. You can see it on the right of the steps leading from High Street up to our red doors. It says, “Christ Protestant Episcopal Church: This Site Chosen 1824. First Edifice Consecrated 1826. This Cornerstone Laid 1895”
That’s true. But the deeper truth, the Word underneath those words, is that our cornerstone, our chief cornerstone is Jesus Christ, who is the same yesterday, today and tomorrow. As long as the gospel of Jesus Christ is preached, Christ Church will be a wonderful place to be. Until our Lord returns from heaven, may we always be a place filled with people who make our boast of His mercy.