Tenth Sunday after Pentecost
One of the greatest challenges in a life of faith is to see and be a community that is distinct, but not divided; to be united, but not uniform. In light of the work of Jesus Christ, through his life, death, and resurrection we have already been made one in God. Nothing separates us from God’s love and grace, and nothing separates us from our sisters and brothers who share that same love and grace. Christian life is not a solo pursuit by design.
We have been blessed with the assurance of God’s presence in the harshest places of life. God is with us and provides healing and grace for us if we are famished by physical or spiritual hunger like the Israelites wandering the wilderness of Sinai, if we are in prison like Paul as he wrote faithful letters to the early Christians, if we are lost and desperately looking for someone or something to save us like the many followers of God who have gone before us. That is the belief and reality that unites us despite our myriad differences- we have all received a promise from God for presence, love, and provision even in the wildernesses we find ourselves in.
We need that unity gift from God to help us grow as people of faith in love toward God and one another. We need the blessing of God’s people to be strengthened and to strengthen others.
I used to exercise a lot. I do not exercise much at all lately.
This past year, I thought I could keep my exercise routine simple. I resolves to get up each morning a bit earlier than usual and take some time to do push ups, sit ups, and the like before beginning my day. Nope. That didn’t happen. Instead, I woke up gave a quick glance toward my gym shorts that I had laid out the night before, swallowed my guilt, and continued my day without push ups, sit ups, and the like. I just couldn’t motivate myself to give up a little bit of sleep and comfort to work out.
I didn’t have this problem in high school when I ran cross country. Our team practiced together at least five days per week running miles in the woods and mountains of my hometown, on the streets, by the river… all over the place. We ran probably 50 miles each week. One day, a friend of mine, Anna, spoke up after a particularly long and grueling practice. She called for the attention of the whole team and announced,“I would like to get some extra practice in. Who’d like to join me and run a few miles every day before school starts?” A heavy silence filled the air. As she was speaking these words, I was keenly aware of the sweat stinging my eyes, the ache in my feet, and the burning in my lungs which resulted from the miles we had just run. For some reason, I shot up my hand and said, “Yeah. I’ll run with you.” Looking back on it, I am not sure that I would have done that again. At the time, however, I did want to get better at running.
I was not a terrible runner, but I wasn’t particularly good either. I was always just a couple of places behind making varsity, so I thought that if I got a little bit more practice in, I could finally run on the varsity team.
Every weekday at about 5:30 in the morning, Anna would swing by my house and we would go for a 2-3 mile run. I wanted to become a better runner, but if I am being honest I often waited in front of my house, dreary from just waking up and cold from the pre-sunrise chill in the air hoping and praying that Anna had slept through her alarm, so I could crawl back into bed.
I would not have been out there getting ready to run in the early morning had I not had someone there with me.
The church is similar in some ways. God calls us to live for the growth of the entire body, not just ourselves, or the parts we like best. I would not have been able to grow as an athlete without Anna encouraging me to do so.
Being a part of the body of Christ is caring for the body as a whole. It is about caring for every part, even the one who lacks self-motivation. Even the one who is genuinely afraid of what lies ahead. Even the one who is struggling with deep, emotional pain. Even the one who would be completely alone outside of this body. Even the one who is slow to trust. Every part of the body.
The author of Ephesians writes, “I… beg you to lead a life worthy of the calling to which you have been called.” What does it mean to lead a worthy life? What is the calling to which we have been called? We are called to be humble, gentle, patient, bearing with each other “making every effort to maintain the unity of the Spirit.” God calls us to unity. The church in Ephesus receiving this letter is being torn apart by people who just seem to be too different to get along- Jews who keep kosher, observe the Sabbath, and who have been steeped in Scripture for generations and the newcomer Gentiles who eat what they want, work when they need to, and who are just starting to dive into the history of God and God’s people recorded in Scripture. These opposite peoples were called into the same body of Christ. “Tension” doesn’t begin to describe what they were going through. A worthy life, is not the life that has it all together necessarily, but it is the one that works to recognize the holy unity in God’s people no matter how different they might be outside of God.
In God’s kingdom we are called to celebrate differences in us and our neighbors, but not to regard them ultimately as divisions. We are to see those whom we might otherwise consider to be strangers or even enemies as sisters and brothers.
Last Friday, Leon McClendon was shot and killed. The Trentonian titled their story about the death, “Trenton Man with Violent Past Dies in City Shooting.” Leon’s “violent past” includes, among other things, dealing crack cocaine and shooting a rival gang member on a crowded bus. The Trentonian’s headline is accurate, but incomplete. God’s headline regarding the story of Leon’s life is honest about Leon’s “violent past,” but God never leads with that. God’s headline is “Beloved Child of God Shot and Killed.”
God too marks us as Beloved Child of God whether or not we share the headline “…with violent past,” or “…with painful past” or “…with tired present” or “…with uncertain future.” We are always first “Beloved Child of God.” We remember the words as Ephesians says that there is “…one God and Father of all, who is above all and through all and in all.” That declaration of God’s truth just made you, me, Leon, and everyone else we may or may not look like, think like, or feel like family and all followers of Christ are part of his body.
As part of this body, we grow together and not independently of one another. We grow fuller into the reality of our God-given unity so that we might believe that we are “joined and knit together…”
It isn’t easy work. We are certainly more inclined to believe that we are unconnected to those whom we deem strangers or enemies than we are to believe that we are siblings and members of one body. We might not trust each other like the desert-wandering Israelites who seriously questioned the leadership of Moses and Aaron, we might fight over doctrine and morality like the Jews and Gentiles of Ephesus, we might lack an understanding of where we are to go next to live out our shared calling to bring God’s Good News to the world like Jesus’ disciples. In the face of doubt, conflict, division, and fear, we receive God’s presence and sustenance. We receive the bread of heaven, Jesus Christ. We remember that just as the Israelites who were given bread from heaven that strengthened them in their bodies and their hearts so that they might have faith in God, so too do we receive the bread of life, Jesus Christ. We receive this bread of life every time we gather around the Lord’s table. God, one Lord, comes to us to give us faith to believe in God’s salvation for all of God’s children and that we might believe in the truth of our united oneness in the one God.
Let us pray.
Most high and holy God, pour out upon us your one and unifying Spirit, and awaken in every confession of the whole church a holy hunger and thirst for unity in you; through Jesus Christ our Savior and Lord. Amen.