Some of us are physically back in church this week, in a familiar yet now quite unfamiliar setting. Some of us have chosen to continue in the Emmanuel community by virtual means for the time being. All of us, though, are grounded in the same things: the truth of the Gospel, the reality of God, the gift of belonging to Jesus Christ. We are not grounded in the experience of being together in the church building or the experience of waiting to be together. We are not actually grounded in our own experience at all. Our experience comes and goes. Grounding in God is what’s given us the strength to get through these past months and will give us the strength to get through the months to come.
I was struck recently by a remark by Fr. Andrew McGowan from the Yale Divinity School, that made the same point about this time when we’ve not been inside the church as we’re used to. He said “While our celebration of the Eucharist is the center of our worship, the eucharistic givenness of Jesus is not created by our [gathering] or limited to it. We are created a community by him and our participation in him, not the reverse. We come and go, as our recent experience during the pandemic has underlined so sharply, but he does not; we may not have been in Church, but he has.”
We come and go but he does not. We may not have been in Church, but he has. Jesus talks today in the Gospel about just this kind of ultimacy. He says that he is our teacher and we are not above him as if we could evaluate him based on our opinions, or avoid him when the church doors are shut. He says that following him will lead to opposition, but because he is ultimate, we have no need to fear. He says that belonging to him ranks above even belonging to your family, and we know from other passages of Scripture that in fact it ranks above all the ways human beings come up with to distinguish themselves from others.
Whether it’s gender, class, race, age, family, nation, language, belonging to Jesus is more foundational than all of them. Now it’s important to say that of course this doesn’t mean they don’t matter, or that we should pretend not to notice them. We are not genderblind or colorblind or familyblind or nationblind – nobody is – and as Christians we get to celebrate those kinds of difference, all of them set within the body of Christ. I’m glad to be an American, I love my Dad, God happens to have made me a straight white woman; but none of those things are my real identity. My real identity is that I’m someone who belongs to Jesus.
I went out to the benches on State Street earlier this week, as I do sometimes, to talk to the folks there, remind them to clean up now and again, make sure they know about the sack lunches, see how they’re doing. This particular time there was a man I had not met before, an African-American gentleman maybe about 40, and after we chatted a bit, he asked me if my hair were naturally this color. When I said it was, he smiled at me and quoted the book of Proverbs: “Gray hair is a crown of glory; it is attained along the path of righteousness.”
And that’s how I knew that he was my brother. I belong to him as a fellow Christian more than I belong to someone who happened to go to the same college or who is a blood relative or likes the kind of music I like or is white like me, but isn’t a disciple of Jesus. He is my brother in Christ, despite the many differences between us. Of course I see the differences. I’m not colorblind or familyblind or classblind; nobody is. And believe me, where unredeemed human nature has written those differences into attitudes and customs and policies that cause harm, Christians and non-Christians and everybody else can and should join hands to unlearn the attitudes and change the customs and rewrite the policies. But at the same time, you and I who follow Jesus can start now, drawing on the Kingdom of God that is already present now, stepping out into the reality of God that is already grounding his followers now, and say: My brother. My sister.
Of course we Christians see difference, and we also see the ways unredeemed human nature takes it and uses it as a tool of division and injustice. But we also see that in Christ, there is something more foundational, a reality that can enable us not just to do something limited like accept difference or find contentment or get through a pandemic. It can enable us, as Jesus says in his closing words today, to find our lives. To find a way of being human that is unafraid and just and free because it is grounded in nothing but God.