Sunday, May 01, 2016

Of Blessings and Duties - 6th Sunday of Easter

John 14:25-29

"All the blessings we enjoy are Divine deposits committed to our trust on this condition; that they should be dispensed for the benefit of our neighbors."  John Calvin

What brings us peace?  The kind of peace entrusted to us to be dispensed to our neighbors?  What does the Christian community embrace and celebrate as true and enduring, even empowering?  The kind of peace Jesus is referring to does not strictly mean the absence of all conflict; but, rather, striving for a higher end even within the presence of conflict.  This peace demands an enduring faith in something much greater than any single moment or any individual desire. 

It is entirely about the Mission of the Holy Church – not having our individual demands met.

Do you ever notice that when we think of peace, much in the way we think of Divine Will or blessings, we think almost exclusively in terms of what peace means to us as individuals, how we personally benefit?  That is, there will be no peace unless or until we get our own way, this measure of peace coming only on our own terms. 

The nature of this peace is entirely subjective to individual standards; and if these standards are not met, there is no peace nor even any desire for peace.  The sad thing is that too many Christians seem to be perfectly ok with this.  Pride is at the core of what can only be termed a power struggle – having our own demands met, things going our own way regardless of the cost or collateral damage to others.

For those of you who think I watch too much TV, too many gangster movies and irreverent cartoons (South Park!), I offer my most profound apology because a TV show/family drama brought to mind a common peace Christians and non-Christians alike can share.  It is that sense of “community” which reminds us we are not alone even when we choose to be.

This particular episode revolved around a baptism for an infant.  The dad and his family are not even a little religious but the mom and her family are very religious, so it was mom’s desire that the baby be baptized. 

The non-religious family went along with it and even participated without understanding or even caring what baptism means to the community of faith, but the dynamic of that non-religious family (which, incidentally, is being in each other’s business all the time!) expresses the very best of what baptism and membership in the Church mean to the Christian community. 

Even as this non-religious family did not understand the practice or the belief behind the practice, they were willing to respect the practice and the family members who desired this thing because, ultimately, is was (is) a family thing in more ways than only a biological or marital connection. 

I get it, though.  It is a TV show.  It isn’t real.  It could be.  It SHOULD be.  What is all too real, however, is that this kind of peace and fundamental respect are NOT forthcoming in the broader Christian community across denominational lines.  We get too caught up in our own individual or denominational notions of right time/right place/right practice of baptism so much so that we will not even offer the kind of respect which may more likely come from those who do not care about or understand baptism at all.

Even within the Church – which should ideally be a sanctuary against the conflicts of the world - things are sometimes messy and downright unholy.  I’ve heard from many that they “can’t stand” so-and-so, and thus they refuse to be a part of a particular church.  I’ve heard the same thing regarding myself; that my very presence is driving or keeping people away.  While staying away might provide some sense of temporal peace or even personal satisfaction, it does not scratch the surface of the kind of peace Jesus is referring to because the conflict these persons only think they are avoiding by avoiding these persons fail to realize the real conflict is within themselves.  Pride, however, refuses to acknowledge this possibility.

We may feel better about ourselves in the moment and may even feel some false sense of superiority in staying away or attempting to drive others out, but the peace Jesus alone is offering will still lacking – because the kind of peace Jesus is referring to has nothing to do with any individual demand or desire.  We may be successful in driving away those whom we blame for all manner of conflict and think we’ve resolved the conflict, but the heart of the conflict still remains and will inevitably involve others sooner or later when they find themselves on the wrong side of these persons.

When we get what we think may pass for peace when our own terms are met, it is the false sense of peace Jesus is referring to as what “the world gives”.  It is temporary at best, and by a wide margin it misses the mark of the peace Jesus is offering and advocating.  This peace goes to the very heart of what membership in the Holy Church really means: family, community, connection beyond ourselves, beyond our own agendas, certainly beyond vendettas – all of which are profoundly toxic to the Body of Christ and destructive to the community the Church is called to serve.

Pope Francis, in his remarks for the World Day of Peace on New Year’s Day 2016, stated that “Peace is both God’s gift and a human achievement.  As a gift of God, it is entrusted to all men and women, who are called to attain it ... Along these same lines, with the present Jubilee of Mercy, I want to invite the Church to pray and to work so that every Christian will have a humble and compassionate heart, one capable of proclaiming and witnessing to mercy ... Personal dignity and interpersonal relationships are what constitute us as human beings whom God willed to create in His own image and likeness.  As creatures endowed with unalienable dignity, we are related to all our brothers and sisters for whom we are responsible and with whom we must act in solidarity.  Lacking this relationship, we would be less human.”

I think, then, Pope Francis’ idea – and the Kingdom’s ideal – of peace rests on and revolves around mercy itself – for the absence of mercy is the absence of peace.  And mercy withheld from others is mercy withheld from us (Matthew 6:16).  As such, peace is a Divine Gift, its origin traced to its only Source – our Holy Father – and is given freely only by His Gracious Hand in Christ. 

As a “human achievement”, it manifests itself in our active participation when we recognize the foundation of our baptism: being brought into the community of faith and resting in the assurance that the community will fulfill its own vows to teach and to hold accountable to discipleship and the life of the Church all who call Christ “Lord”.

So it seems to be that if we are unwilling or unable to offer peace by offering mercy, it is because we are lacking peace because we have not yet known the Mercy of The Lord.  We cannot offer what we lack or have never known.  Now if we think we have known it and have experienced it and yet still refuse to share or offer it, we make ourselves “liars”.

As it is written (1 John 4:20): Whoever claims to love God yet hates a brother or sister is a liar.  For whoever does not love their brother and sister, whom they have seen, cannot love God, whom they have not seen.”

Claiming faith in Christ while actively trying to do harm to another because of a difference of opinion or a misunderstanding is not compatible with the kind of peace Jesus is offering to His disciples, and the “peace which surpasses all understanding” (Philippians 4:7) will not be found nor will it be offered to we who refuse to participate in mercy.

So before we offer our gifts, before we offer our prayers, before we dare approach the altar for the Supper of The Lord, let us not fail to understand that how we define our relationships to one another is precisely how our relationship is defined with The Lord.  Just as Christ cannot be separated from His Body the Church, neither can we be separated one from another.

Let there be peace by our determination to make peace; for it will come no other way.  Amen

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