Gravitas and grace: maturing in faith...

NOTE:  Here are my worship notes for Sunday, August 5, 2012.  I am using Ephesians 4 as the heart of this gathering with a little bit of wisdom from John 6: 24-35  and Isaiah 40: 1-2.  The wisdom of Eugene Peterson on this theme is deeply honored, too. If you are around @ 10:30 am, please join us for worship.

Earlier this week I came across a wonderfully insightful and humbling quote from the late Cardinal Leo Joseph Suenens of Brussels.  During the annual ordination ceremony for new priests, the old Cardinal would prayerfully lay hands upon the man’s head in blessing and then whisper into his ear:  “Remember the Lord our God has called you into the ministry because he does not trust you to be a layman.” 

Think about that:  God knows and loves us all so much that, because we are beloved and precious to the Lord, we have each been called in unique ways to become our best selves.

St. Paul wrote:  Remember God handed out gifts above and below, filled heaven with his gifts, filled earth with his gifts.  To some were given the gift of being an apostle, a prophet or an evangelist – to others God gave the gift of being a pastor-teacher to train Christ's followers in skilled servant work – all so that we would work together within Christ's body, the church, until we're moving rhythmically and easily with each other, efficient and graceful in response to God's Son, fully mature adults, fully developed within and without, fully alive like Christ.

And that is what I want to explore with you today – maturing in the faith – so that we become fully alive in Christ and authentically active in the world as our best selves.  I’ve been thinking about this passage of Scripture for us for a long time – there are so many parts of it that are applicable to our life together – and they are all so beautiful.  In fact, I believe that for us these verses can be like the bread from heaven Jesus spoke about in today’s gospel:

“Our ancestors ate the manna in the wilderness; as it is written, ‘He gave them bread from heaven to eat.’” Then Jesus said to them, “Very truly, I tell you, it was not Moses who gave you the bread from heaven, but it is my Father who gives you the true bread from heaven. For the bread of God is that which comes down from heaven and gives life to the world.”

So what I would like to share with you today breaks down like this:

·       First, let’s do a bit of Bible study about some of the insights being offered to us as bread from heaven in these words from Ephesians.

·       Second, let’s see what questions or concerns strike you as a challenge to being nourished by God’s heavenly bread.

·       And third, let’s consider a way that each and all of us might make these sacred words flesh in our own earthly lives utilizing four key Christian commitments or practices.

The first insight Paul wants us to embrace is that we have been called by God to both mature in the faith and live  in such a way that we spread joy wherever we go in the world:

Lead a life worthy of the calling to which you have been called, with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love, making every effort to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace.

So let’s be clear about it means to mature in the faith and what it means to authentically live into our calling or invitation from the Lord, ok?  In the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew 5, Jesus tells his disciples:  Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.” (5:48) Eugene Peterson’s reworking of the text, however, is more helpful because the Greek word, teleios, that is sometimes translated into English as “perfect” means to consummate with integrity or bring something to its most beautiful conclusion.  And so he rephrases the biblical text like this:  In a word, what I'm saying is: Grow up. You're kingdom subjects. Now live like it. Live out your God-created identity. Live generously and graciously toward others, the way God lives toward you."

Not be perfect – without flaws or moral contradictions – but rather become your best self by grace – by giving and receiving blessings as joyfully as God gives to you.  Are you with me on this distinction?

·       Part of what it means to mature in the faith is to grow up: quit being childish – no more bullying or carping or gossiping or kvetching in self-absorbed ways.  In his commentary on Ephesians, Peterson puts it like this:  Becoming mature means refusing to live a reduced life, refusing a minimalist spirituality.”

·       The other part of becoming mature is to recognize your calling:  embrace your unique invitation from God so that you become your best self and multiply the miracle of joy.

“Our English word, derived from the Latin vocare for “call” is vocation.  And vocation… is a way of life.  A job is different.  A job is an assigned piece of work – it is necessary and important – but when the work is done, the job is over and we go back to being just ourselves, free to do anything we choose to do.  A vocation, by contrast, is comprehensive.” (Peterson, Practice Resurrection, p. 170)

·       It is a combination of gravitas and grace – depth, wisdom and compassion shared in a healing way that evokes and nourishes joy. 

·       The bard of Vermont, Frederick Buechner, got it right I think when he wrote:  Vocation is where our deep gladness meets the world’s deep need.
That’s the first insight I want to share with you today:  maturing or growing up in faith has to do with gravitas and grace – the marriage of our deepest gladness and the world’s deepest need – does that make sense?

The second insight from Paul’s wisdom is perhaps even more counter-cultural and challenging:  in Ephesians he tells us that we can’t discern our vocation or calling with any maturity all by ourselves.  We can neither discover nor even trust our deepest joy or gladness in isolation – that is just foolish and selfish – and we are incapable of knowing the world’s deepest need in seclusion.

We must no longer be children, tossed to and fro and blown about by every wind of doctrine, by people’s trickery, by their craftiness in deceitful scheming. But speaking the truth in love, we must grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ, from whom the whole body, joined and knitted together by every ligament with which it is equipped, as each part is working properly, promotes the body’s growth in building itself up in love.

·       Did you catch that?  God gave us gifts and a vocation – a way of becoming our best selves as we share grace in the world – the Apostle tells us; but the only way these blessings are fully realized, celebrated and honored is in community.

·       Simply put:  Paul teaches that only by being a living and active part of the church can our gifts and vocation be revealed.

And let me be explicit about why I think this is so counter-cultural and essential:  we live in a world where “makeshift, do-it-yourself belief – or unbelief” reigns.  We want to be in control and in charge of everything.  We arrogantly insist that we know better than everybody else what is most important.  And, to quote one wise old soul, most of us are so impatient with the “complexities of community… we like to set ourselves up as freelance connoisseurs of transcendence, searching out experiences of ecstasy, taking photographs of sunsets, collecting books and music that inspire.” (Peterson, p. 168) Such is the status quo…

·       So we know how to be adolescents demanding our own way.  What we don’t know – and what takes a life time of practice – is how to live with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love, making every effort to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace.

·       We were called into one body and one Spirit. We were called into one hope, one Lord, one faith, one baptism and one God and Father of all, who is above all and through all and in all. 

Our calling – our vocation – our maturation in gravitas and grace, it seems, is revealed only in community – and specifically within that community we know as the Body of Christ:  the church.  And this is made clear if we pay careful attention to the words Paul uses in his teaching – and this is where Bible study can be a total gas.

·        First, the Greek verb, to call – kaleo – is the root of the Greek word for church – ekklesia.  Paul wants us to know very clearly that the community of Christ – the church – is built upon God’s invitation and call for us to mature in gravitas and grace. 

·       Second, the health of our calling is intimately connected to the strength of our commitment to the church.  Seven times in this short passage Paul speaks about how we are to be one with the Lord and one with the Spirit, one in baptism, one in faith. “Good Jew that he is… (you see) Paul is reminding us of Israel’s central creed – the Shema of Deuteronomy 6:4 – “Hear O Israel: the Lord our God, the Lord is one.” 

Everything is connected – everything begins and ends in the Lord – so if you want to live a life of deep integrity and indescribable joy you, too must be connected.  Your calling – your vocation – is where our deep gladness meets the world’s deep need – and it is impossible to discern this in isolation or selfishness.

·        Did I state that clearly:  that your calling is connected to your intimacy with Christ’s community? That gravitas and grace do not ripen and mature in isolation? 

·       I’m not asking you if you agree – we can talk about that later – but I do want to know if I’ve been clear.

Now let me tell you how these two things – maturation and calling – take place in community because there are four time-tested practices or commitments of the Church that are guaranteed to change your life.  I don’t know if you have paid attention for the past three years, but there are four words that appear over and over again in our worship bulletin – gather, engage, reflect and bless – and they are the WAY we mature and ripen in gravitas and grace.  They are HOW we discern our calling and discover WHAT to do about it.  And the simple explanation goes like this:

·       The church gathers - we come together – we get up and come to worship, we find ways of serving together, we sing in community and all the rest.  We gather – we practice getting over ourselves – we refuse to live as if we are the center of the universe.  And this is counter-cultural all by itself – especially in our internet, plugged-in, hyper-individualized world. 

But it has always been a practice or discipline that trains us as disciples because at the heart of gathering is hospitality:  selfishness is banished, generosity is encouraged, bread is broken, wine is poured, songs are lifted, prayers are shared and a bunch of rich/poor, old/young, male/female, gay/straight people become… one.  First, we gather.

·       Second we engage:  we open ourselves to God’s word, to God’s people, to God’s world.  We open our minds and hearts – sometimes we open our checkbooks and purses – often we open our arms – and even on occasion our homes.  To engage is to go deeper in being the body of Christ using our heads and hearts, bodies, souls, spirits and resources.  Second, we engage

·       Third we reflect:  we take all of reality inside us and test it out.  Does this make sense?  Where does the whole blessed thing touch me?  Heal me?  Challenge me?  Make me uncomfortable?  Where do I need forgiveness?  Where does my church need strength and grace?  Call it contemplation, the inward journey or simple being still, we take time to listen and discern.  That is, we reflect.

·       And fourth we bless:  we share the grace – we aren’t stingy or selfish – everyone is welcome to the table. We know that others need nourishment and peace, grace and justice, hope and integrity so we go out from the gathering into the world to touch and heal and encourage.

The late Henri Nouwen used to describe these four practices of gathering, engaging, reflecting and blessing in Eucharistic language.  Like Holy Communion he said:

·       First we are taken – taken from the field like wheat and grapes – taken from our solitary and busy lives like disciples – and called beyond self into the Lord.

·       Second we are blessed:  the bread and cup are offered to the Lord at the table, our lives are given to God in community just as Christ was raised up and given to God in his life, death, resurrection and ascension.  We are blessed.

·       Third we are broken – the wheat must die to become bread and grapes must be crushed for the wine – what’s more the loaf must be broken to be shared and the wine poured out.  So, too we are broken because this is how life ripens and matures and nourishes.

·        And fourth we are shared – sent out in blessing and brokenness – to be bread for the world in so many unique and ordinary ways.

It doesn’t really matter whether you use the words gathering/engaging/reflecting and blessing or the more sacramental words taking/blessing/breaking and sharing, the practices are the same:  we come together in Christ’s community from out of our isolation – we are nourished and blessed and trained in community – and then sent back into the world to share God’s blessings. 

And here’s the last word from St. Paul in Ephesians that I find essential:  he begin his teaching with the words, “As a prisoner in the Lord… I beg you.”  He does not say:  I challenge you – I scold you – I implore you – or I argue with you.  No, he says:  I beg you…

·         Another translation of the Greek parakaleo would be:  I encourage you.

·       And if you’re listening carefully you will hear that root word kaleo (to be called) again in parakaleo: it seems that calling, community and encouragement are all wrapped together as one.

Like the prophet Isaiah said: most of the time in community our words must be about comfort, comfort O my people.  There is a time for teaching – a time for bold preaching, too – but mostly what we need is encourage-ment.  Speak tenderly to one another – with all humility and gentleness – with patience – bearing with one another in love.  Don’t hurry – listen.  Don’t carp – rest and trust.  Don’t fret – taste and see.

Gravitas and grace – maturation and sharing joy – take time and practice, beloved:  and in the flurry of days like these, I sense we are being called here more than ever before.  So let those who have hears to hear, hear.
2) dkdemott: pittsfield
3) church year
4) mako fukimura


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