Sunday, January 7, 2024

Unity - the Mystery of the Body

Sermon preached for the Epiphany of Our Lord, January 6, 2024.

The mystery of the body, according to St. Paul, is that the Gentiles are fellow heirs with the Jews.  This is described not as an aspect of that great mystery but as THE mystery of Christ.  So the children of Abraham who knew the Lord only by faith in the promise of what was to come become co-heirs of the Kingdom with the Gentiles who knew nothing of the promise and only of its fulfillment.  That is a mystery.

We are tempted to believe that the mystery is somehow about the diversity of the Body of Christ – the fact that we all do not look alike or sound alike or come from the same background.  We hear that in this way because this is the diversity our culture values.  That is not, however, what St. Paul had in mind nor is it the significance of Magi and Shepherds and Gentiles of every kind kneeling before the infant Redeemer.

The mystery of Christ is not simply that He unites in common cause the diversity that passes for Christianity.  No, indeed.  He does not bring together the disparate and different skin tones and accents and eyes as some grand work of compromise and negotiation.  He merges the distinctions so important on earth but unworthy of Christ and His kingdom.  There is neither Jew nor Gentile, slave nor free, male or female, child or adult in Christ.  In Christ they are one.

What on earth is worked by toleration, acceptance, and compromise is in Christ worked by the common birth of baptism, the common life of faith, and the common hope of the resurrection of the dead.  We do not make a place for others but the others become us and we become them.  In fact, there is no more us and them in the language of Epiphany.  We are all one in Christ.

We want God to create a better world in which the differences and distinctions we value are preserved.  We like the separate but equal idea of things so long as we get to traverse the forbidden boundaries when we want.  It is comfortable and easy to think of a world in which me is preserved but within a community that accepts me.  This is surely the nature of the church the world would value.  But it is not quite what Christ calls unity.  The mystery of Christ is that the old you with all of your distinctions and differences is gone.  You are reborn into the only identity that counts – you belong to Me, says the Lord.
Here on earth we live with divided loyalties.  We are husband or wife but not only so.  We preserve our own individual identities as well.  Even when we have a child we are not simply mommy or daddy.  We are in a constant balancing act of the different identities and the different callings.  It is exhausting.  Like the circus act that spins the plates and runs around to keep them all spinning, the worldly version of unity is tiring and tiresome.  Nobody wins yet we all want to.

Only in Christ can barriers be replaced with bridges, fences with gates, and property lines with common ownership.  Christ does not buy us out so that we become wholly owned subsidiaries of Him.  He takes us into Himself in baptism.  There we not only surrender our sins but our identities as people.  We are born anew not in to individual identities but as the children of God.  Family is more important than individuality.  Belonging is more important than independence.  Unity is not something we strive for but the product of being washed in the blood of the Lamb and confessing the “I believe” of the creed.

The world’s version of unity is fragile.  We cater to the complainers and act out of deference to the important folks and out of guilt against those who have been forgotten or abused along the way.  We are constantly taking the temperature of this unity to see if everyone is happy, everyone is okay, and everyone is onboard.  But this is not unity.  This is a job of constant polling and answers in which we are constantly realigning ourselves and resetting the markers of our identities.  This has become what the Church does today.  We count unity by the number of faces not like our own or the accents spoken or the cultures represented.  God assumes them all into Himself.  He forges a unity not with consent or power of the people but by killing them and raising them to the new and everlasting lives He has won.

Epiphany was a gift to the gift bearers from the East.  They went home different people.  They bore a saving message to those at home – there is no place for you in Christ.  There is only Christ in whom you have an everlasting place.  This is the unity of the Table as well.  We do not come for our private moment with the King but to share in the common table of the Lord, each of us receiving the same gift of His flesh for the life of the world and His blood to cleanse us from all sin.  This is the unity of the Word.  We do not hear what we hear but what God says to all manner of people and times and places.  In Bethlehem Jesus said the Jews had life in Him.  In the Magi, Jesus says Gentiles have life in Him.  On Sundays and Thursdays, we admit the same mystery.  We all only have life in Christ the Savior!

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