“There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called to the one hope of your calling; one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all, who is above all, and through all, and in all.” – Ephesians 4:4-6
Paul is in prison, like a caged lion, and is being driven to distraction by the stories he is hearing from the great city of Ephesus. In a city of such vigorous, often louche, cultural and religious variety, the newly-founded church is arguing with itself rather than living out the gospel of love and the love of Jesus.
We are living in times which are at least as vigorously various as Ephesus was two millennia ago, culturally, religiously and, especially, non-religiously. We can do louche too. And what do we see? The Church arguing with itself.
In the college which I serve as chaplain, there is a real breadth of genuine interest in questions of meaning, value, and personal worth. But in my experience many, if not most, students are not especially interested in what the Church might have to say, whether it presents a united face or not. Not that they are hostile; there is very little of that Dawkins angry atheism here. Most of the time there is simply indifference to the stuff of mainstream church life and conversation.
For some, that indifference might be marbled, so to speak, by a vague awareness of what happens here in our chapel (usually as a cultural phenomenon that can be nice to experience now and then); or by the determined proselytizing of a certain brand of bright-eyed but hard-nosed evangelism; or by stories on social media about the church’s tortuous fights over the role of women in leadership or matters of sexuality and gender identity.
None of that “marbling” is likely to lead an otherwise indifferent student, or even a potentially interested one, towards the life-giving light and beauty of the love of God — the love which we know best from the stories of Jesus, the God-made-man, the love which animates all that is fine in human living. That student is likely to say, “Well you can talk all you like about love and joy and beauty, but if you want to treat women as second-class, or leave a bunch of LGBT+ folk depressed or even suicidal, you can count me out. Work out what love and joy and beauty really mean, and then come and talk to me.”
Now I’m painfully aware of the irony in all this. I’m lamenting the lack of unity in the visible, audible Church by publicly sharing my distress at a certain version of it. It grieves me to do that, but I hope it is just the small but necessary minor-key prelude before the major-key stuff I actually want to (be able to) offer. Ubi caritas… where love is, there God is to be found. It’s where such love isn’t, that a lament is needed.
In Luke 14, Jesus gives us a couple of heavy hints about what really antagonized him in the religious leadership of his day. He heals a sick man on the Sabbath, and the Pharisees get in a twitch about doing work on the day of rest. Their mulish behavior reveals their hard-hearted legalism, the triumph of the letter over the spirit of the law — the triumph of a kind of literalism, too, versions of which are alive and well in our own day.
Then Jesus tells a very recognizable story of bigwigs at a dinner aiming for the top seats (the guests chose the place of honor), only to be humiliated by the host and sent to the bottom of the table. What does that look like today? Maybe a certain kind of righteous self-confidence? Pious pride?
Legalism. Pride. These are two abiding sins in the life of people of faith, in the life of the Church. All of us, ALL of us, have to be on our guard against this; especially those of us who are public ministers and pastors. It is a part of that bigger irony in many forms of human commitment, not just faith — that the more passionately you believe in something, the more tempting it is to behave badly in its defense, however good the thing is that you are defending. And indeed, legalism and pride very often spring from a kind of defending which is actually defensive, and which has its roots in a fearful resistance to being carried along by the waves of divine love, driven by the winds of the divine Spirit.
I reach for that kind of language, because when we try to understand the things of God, we are severely hamstrung by the ham-fistedness of much human language. Without metaphor we are stuck in the shallow end, where all the noise comes from, of course. But with the riches of more suggestive, allusive, imaginative language, we can open ourselves to the riches of a love who still wants to lead us deeper into the truth — which is to say, into slightly clearer glimpses of the God of love. Without those linguistic riches we get mired in legalism, or in an assertive but defensive pride. (To those who wince at this, I tend to say “imaginative, not imaginary.”)
As we hope for those glimpses, we already know, in Paul’s words, that our God and Father is God and Father of all of us — and is above all and through all and in us all. This is about that mesmerizing coincidence of God’s infinite distance and interior intimacy. It is the lodestar of our journey, on which we struggle to get a clearer sense of what God’s love looks like in human conversation: and, vitally, what our little icon of that love, our own acting out of it, looks like. As we grope toward an understanding of what’s demanded, we shuffle toward something a bit more like unity.
This demands some daring rethinking of ideas which have been only-too-prevalent in Church teaching. There’s nothing new in that. Think of usury, or slavery, or the rights of women, or racism, or the death penalty, or divorce or just war theory. In all these, the real meaning of God’s love has become a bit clearer, often in the midst of agonized, even angry, debate — and Christian values have edged closer to realizing that love. The whole gamut of sexuality and gender identity is now what is so pressing. It’s one of the hardest such challenges to old ways of thinking that the Church has faced, because it stirs up not just genuine anxiety about how we read the Bible, but also — sad to say — some very deep-seated prejudices, taboos, and fears.
Such prejudices, taboos, and fears have melted away in large swaths of society, leaving the Church looking leaden-footed and iron-hearted. This is not the whole story, of course. Many of us in the Church passionately sense a call to argue for a robust, radically affirming, and downright celebratory understanding of all the ways in which human love can be shared and shown. The quality of the love, not the gender of the lovers, is what matters. In 10 years of ordained life, I have said that in every other context, but not in the pulpit. When I did, just over a year ago, the reaction at the door afterwards was remarkable. People were gripping my arm and saying “thank you,” and “it has to be said.”
This experience is a different use of the word pride, one that is closer to virtue than vice. And we need to see where the love of God is at work there — at work there already, most likely, since the Holy Spirit is always ahead of us, beckoning us on.