The whole law can be summed up in a single commandment, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.”
Today we hear from Paul’s letter to the Galatians, written sometime in the middle of the first century. At that time the early Christian movement was still tied to Judaism, though many of the new converts were Gentiles. Paul’s travels to spread the gospel meant that most of those he evangelized were not Jews. One of the early conflicts within the developing church had to do with how to handle these Gentile believers. Would they be required to follow Jewish law or not? In this letter to the Galatians, Paul gives his view of the controversy, which was formed by knowing the Gentiles among whom he preached. Paul does not do this in a theoretical way but rather in answer for actual people, actual places, and actual situations. As his missionary work continued, he became even stronger in his views supporting that Gentile Christians do not need to follow Jewish law and customs. Paul firmly believed that this is not a condition for their belief in the risen Lord. And as we know that is the position that eventually won out.
Last week we heard the much-quoted verse from Galatians, “There is no longer Jew or Greek, no longer slave or free, male or female, all are one in Christ Jesus.” This is the core of Paul’s belief, all are one. In today’s passage Paul’s strong remarks are a reminder that in the arguments regarding Jewish law, Jesus’ basic commandment had gotten overlooked. He says, “For freedom Christ has set us free. Stand firm therefore and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery… For the whole law is summed up in a single commandment, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.”
As children of God, this is the crucial part of our identity. Through Jesus Christ we are members in community with one another. And that community is formed and based on love, God’s love for us and our reflection of that same love to others. In this passage Paul uses the word “flesh” as a shorthand for self-centered living and he gives a list of the results of that. He also names the opposite of the flesh and lists the results of God-centered living, a life of loving service for the benefit of others.
In theory it seems simple, but of course in living it out, it is not always that way. Loving our neighbor as ourselves, can sometimes be difficult. People with whom we do not agree, …are still our neighbor. People whom we do not necessarily like, …are still our neighbor. People who do not focus on the same priorities as we do,… are still our neighbor. Our neighbors are children of God, as are we, and we are to love them.
Whenever we are in community with other people, there will occasionally be conflict. It is how that conflict is discussed and resolved that matters. Putting our love of others ahead of the argument we fervently we believe in, takes practice! And at its best, the church can be a laboratory for learning and practicing love and mercy as Jesus intended.
In pre-Covid times most of us were a part of several communities. And this was good. It gave us socialization, a place to have fun, people with whom to share ideas and more. Perhaps these were with members of our physical neighborhoods, or people with whom we worked or attended school, or others in our extended family or those we met in a favorite coffee shop. And perhaps we found community here at Emmanuel as a part of the choir or a particular congregation, the 8 o-clockers, or a common age group, pub theology and so on.
During the shutdown some may have formed new communities through zoom or by taking walks masked and six feet apart in the neighborhood, but for many this was a time of loss of community connections. And now as we are learning how to make our way being with other people again, it can be a time of more intentional community formation. In fact, Emmanuel has made forming Christian community as one of its common themes as we reorganize some ministries.
I wonder today, what makes a church a community, a Christian community, that can be different from other groups?
One thing is a common faith. We say the creed together each time we worship. We profess to believe in Christ is risen and Christ will come again. Even if we do not all believe exactly the same way, at the basic level we believe in our Lord Jesus.
Another thing that sets us apart is common worship. The services here have a recognizable pattern and while the lessons and hymns change daily the structure is the same. Common faith, common worship. I suppose we might combine those two and say one characteristic that sets us apart is the book of common prayer that we share.
Another is Common scripture that we hear and read.
Through these, faith, worship, prayer, and scripture, we have common experiences that are grounded in Christ’s love. This is our foundation.
And yet, we can share these things and still have room to grow as a Christian community, a place where love and mercy are practiced and allowed to deepen.
A step forward in this is learning to use our words about our faith and speaking about what God has done for us. While this may seem awkward at first, it becomes easier with doing it and talking with a smaller number of people, one or two perhaps. If you are involved with Common Table there will be a chance to practice this in a very approachable and easy way this week.
The same is true of the sacred spaces ministry or inter-generational formation, one of the Bible study groups, doing a Meals on Wheels delivery with someone you want to know better, or to get involved with volunteering for the DREAAM program to name a few of the opportunities found here.
This is how we build Christian community by being a safe place to express God’s love for us, as well as our love of God, in both word and action. Christ is at the center of the community and for that to be so, we must acknowledge His presence in our lives. This is what makes Christian community different from the other secular communities in which we live. We can talk about our favorite baseball team in any community (and we do). We can talk about our experience of Christ’s love and mercy in any community, but it is easier to learn how we do this in a group where Christ is the center.
Some of the things we can do consciously to help to foster Christian community are the same as with any other community, but some are not.
The first thing step is to come together regularly. For relationships to grow being together frequently is important, at least at first. If too much time elapses between being in the same place, we have to start over, and this can keep us from forming those common bonds. Getting to know our neighbor is an important part of loving our neighbor.
Being able to express our own experience, the truth as you know it, comes next. Trust can only be built by taking that step of speaking about what is meaningful to you. Take it in small steps! In several of the groups that have met over the last year listening to a passage of scripture together and then saying the word or phrase that stands out to each person has been an easy way to begin. Letting others know us is another important part of loving our neighbor.
Perhaps most importantly we need to allow God to lead us in the process of forming community. Praying specifically about how we might be more involved or perhaps how we might get to know another Emmanuelite is an intentional way to begin. As time goes on, you will find your unique place in the group and learn to know others special gifts. The awkwardness will disappear with practice. And we will be able to see how despite surface differences we do meet Paul’s statement that in Christ, all are one.
With the support of the community, we can then spread out that love, our reflection of God’s love, to others who may or may not be a Christian. I have seen this happen here at Emmanuel many, many times in the past. I look forward to us widening our vision of loving our neighbors through strengthening these community bonds in the months ahead.
While our current day issues and conflicts are not the same as in Paul’s time, the principles and foundation that he speaks are the same.
The whole law can be summed up in a single commandment, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.”
Take one step (Mother Beth)
Today’s Gospel is just cinematic: the howling hulk of a man who lives in the cemetery like someone’s worst nightmare, the Legion of demons, the herd of pigs rushing to their death, the local citizenry showing up to find this guy who used to wander around the tombs half naked ranting to himself, who has been the bogey man for their whole generation, sitting calm, clothed, rational and chatting politely -- and then finally the absolutely hilarious request the locals make of Jesus, “Could you just go away? Could you leave our town?” And Jesus gets in the boat and sails off into the sunset. (It’s been a quiet week in Lake Wobegon…)
But what I want us to look at in particular is the last couple sentences of the reading. The man from whom the demons had gone begged that he might be with him; but Jesus sent him away, saying, "Return to your home, and declare how much God has done for you." So he went away, proclaiming throughout the city how much Jesus had done for him.
He wants to just hang around Jesus, but instead Jesus immediately sends him out to take an action. But notice that it’s an action that is fairly small, fairly local, and fairly easy. Not: go begin a lecture series on the Hebrew Scriptures. Not go raise enough money to found a nonprofit counseling service for other troubled outcasts. Not go become chairman of the board of the regional association of synagogues. No. What Jesus asks him is this: In the place where you already are, take this one simple action step. Say what happened to you. Do this one thing, straight out of your own life experience. Anybody can do that. And when the man set free from the legion of demons does it, when he takes a simple step of faith in the place he already is with the people he already knows, God backs him up. God works through him to spread life to others.
That’s what so many of the laypeople at Emmanuel are doing. And I am not exaggerating or being pious when I say that. God sometimes works dramatically in ways that seem like striking interventions. I’ve seen it. But very, very often God works incognito, through small actions, ordinary daily steps people take. I think he prefers that strategy for several reasons, but one of them is that it makes the formative and encouraging experience of having God work through you accessible at absolutely any time to absolutely anybody.
You don’t have to have a license, you don’t have to be theologically literate, you don’t have to be over 18. You don’t have to understand all the ins and outs of the Bible. You don’t have to have a title. All you have to do is take some step, right where you are, for the sake of your faith in Jesus Christ. And I should have said: you don’t even need to think you have all that solid a faith in Jesus Christ! Just take the step. And then as you take the step for Jesus’ sake, you discover something under your feet that feels just a little more solid than you remember things feeling before.
You may not initially give that feeling a spiritual name. If you volunteer to be an Emmanuel driver for Meals on Wheels in July, or to help support kindergarteners this summer through our partner DREAAM, you may call what you feel a sense of helping the needy, say. If you decide to give being a greeter for Mass a try, you may call it building community. If you set up a recurring financial pledge via your Breeze account, you may call it the glow of generosity. If you choose one day a week to start coming to 5:15 pm Evening Prayer, you may call it the peacefulness of taking a pause. There’s nothing wrong with those names. They’re true as far as they go. But there’s more to it, because along with all of that, the Holy Spirit is also using your act of offering to strengthen your spirit. As long as you aren’t merely offering a sacrifice on the altar of guilt or duty, as long as there is the tiniest flicker of intentionality towards the living God, you have an incognito collaborator called the Holy Spirit. A quiet inner coach who delights in even your first glimmers of desire to belong more fully to God.
Actually a coach isn’t a bad metaphor. I sometimes tell people that the Christian life is a little bit like going to the gym: you can’t hang around the building, watching someone else do Downward Dog or a set of tricep dips, and expect to get stronger. Christianity is not a spectator sport. As they say in the 12 step groups, the program works if you work it. That’s why Christian communities are always touting opportunities for people to get involved: we want you to work this life so it will work for you.
See, the man who had the legion was hoping to hang around and watch Jesus some more. But Jesus says no, go to your town, and tell what God has done for you. He might have argued back, “But I’m barely getting started. Can’t the apostles do it? Can’t the vestry do it? I don’t have enough faith.” And I think Jesus would have replied, “Of course you don’t. That’s why I’m giving you a chance to do something.” Taking one small local step of furthering the life of the kingdom is how you have faith. It is the exercise by which faith grows stronger.
I don’t mean to make it sound this morning as if a ministry at Emmanuel is the only place someone from Emmanuel can or should exercise their faith. You can just as well do that in your neighborhood or in your workplace, and I hope you are! Learning how to see yourself as an ambassador for Christ in more public venues is, I think, a very important lesson for nearly every member of nearly every institutional church today. So those are great places to serve God.
But this is your spiritual home. We’re all here because, in at least some way, however we’d frame it, we think Jesus wants us to be here and wants us to serve and know him better through the life of this parish. So we’re all standing with each other, at least I hope we are, in that quest. We’re all on each other’s sides, at least I hope we are, in wanting this to be a safe and encouraging place for absolutely anybody, any age, any background, any tenure at the church, any level of prior knowledge, to try out some small step that’s going to help them grow in spiritual maturity.
And here’s how the story often goes; I’ve heard this story over and over. So you take that step, and it’s easier than you thought, and then you find yourself strong enough to do a little more, and then you’re looking forward to the next time, and then one day you find yourself looking back on the past year and realizing that you’ve changed a little, that there’s more to you somehow. And then later maybe something bad happens, something that’s really hard, and you find yourself wondering where you’d be inside if you’d never gotten involved at Emmanuel. And then after you’ve been through all that, you discover you’ve got this stuff, this empathy, this groundedness, these things to say to people who need help. Where did that come from? And then eventually, people take time to express gratitude. They tell you how much it means to them that you got involved, that they wouldn’t be where they were if it weren’t for you: You!
And through every one of their words, God is also speaking, saying: Thank you. I’m proud of you. We built this together, you and I. You thought you were just driving groceries to a family every few months, you thought you were just handing our bulletins, you thought you were just cleaning the silver and setting up the altar, you thought you were just taking 5 minutes to read a few sentences from the lectern. You weren’t. You were helping me, Father Son and Holy Spirit, change someone’s life. I’m proud of you. Thank you.
And that, friends, is an experience not to be missed.
In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.
Peace be with you. God’s peace. Peace. Peace of the Lord.
We say it — we share it every Sunday; but what does God’s peace really mean? What does it look like, sound like, taste like, feel like? Are these words we say to one another just wishful thinking? Or is God’s peace something else entirely?
I begin there on this Trinity Sunday because we worship a God who is peace at his very core. The Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit are three distinct persons who nevertheless reside in perfect harmony with one another, resting in the beauty and holiness of their shared being, always one and always three. It’s a doctrine that at once “bewilders the intellect and comforts the soul.”
And I think that’s because we live in a world where true peace, definitive peace, doesn't seem to exist. Even in the closest of families or among the best of friends, friction arises because someone left socks on the floor or had a sudden, unexplained change in political opinion. We all want peace, we all want there to be perfect understanding and perfect communion, but the world in which we live says that is impossible. There is simply too much hate, too much violence, too much selfishness for anyone to truly rest.
But according to St Paul in our epistle passage today, that’s not the case at all. “Therefore,” he writes, “since we are justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ.” We have peace with God. We have peace with God now. This is not just wishful thinking, not just something we’ll enjoy one day. It’s ours. It is in our midst now.
To understand the magnitude of Paul’s assertion, to actually believe and to feel that this peace we’re given is a now-thing and not just a later-thing, we have to back up a little bit. See, the word “therefore” means that we’re stepping into the middle of an argument. Paul has spent the first part of his letter to the Roman church explaining that everyone has fallen short of the glory of God. To put it simply: Apart from Christ, we are all God’s enemies. No matter our personal piety, our appearance, or our power, we are all unrighteous, permanently out-of-sync with the one who made us. And that affects everything else. If we were to flip back to the first chapters of Genesis, or even if we were just to reflect on history for a few moments, we would find that the vertical fracture between humankind and God leads to ruptures in every other relationship we have. Humankind is a messy, broken, sometimes well-intentioned but more often cruel race. In a world apart from God, we do not have peace; and yet, thanks be to God, his faithfulness infinitely exceeds our faithlessness, and his generosity, his willingness to share the goodness and joy and peace and love that is his knows no bounds.
And so it is that God in his mercy sent his only Son, so that we might be reconciled with the one who made us. We have peace with God because he decided that no matter our mistakes, no matter our rebelliousness, he would free us from slavery to sin and bring us home. And so God himself acted. Jesus emptied himself, living and dying as one of us, so that the rift between us and our Creator might be healed – and more. His work, the grace that Christ extends, is a gift that reveals new treasures with every passing day because it is the gift of God’s own self to us. As we celebrated last Sunday, we live and move and breathe in the company of the Holy Spirit. He is with us every day and every moment, speaking the words of the Father and the Son, guiding us in the way of all truth.
Through the over-abundant, ever-flowing love of the Trinity, we are swept up into the life of the creator God and are made citizens of a realm ruled by the One who is perfect peace and love and justice and mercy, Through the over-abundant, ever-flowing love of the Trinity, we are made one people, where every tribe and every nation comes together to worship the Lamb.
This is a reality that is fixed on an unshakeable cornerstone, a reality that shines brightly despite the pernicious and persistent evil in this world. And that’s because it’s peace that doesn’t end when we snap at our friends or family. It’s peace that doesn’t rely on political correctness or adhering to an unspoken social contract. It’s peace that is God’s, that comes from his very nature. When we say, “The Peace of the Lord be Always With You,” we confess that that peace is present now. In our midst. We confess that we are a community bound by love of the Triune God that somehow manifests that peace — the peace of the world to come — in the world that is. And we see that happening when people of every class and color break bread together. We see that when the rich and the poor, the young and the old, confess that Christ is our center, that he reigns, and that we are citizens of his kingdom.
We worship a God who has adopted us as his children, that we might share in the life and peace that constantly makes room for more. And so I say again, “The peace of the Lord be always with you.” AMEN.
The feast of Pentecost is a great day to have a nine o’clock service. As you will have seen in your Messenger, we will be going back to 8 and 10:15 Masses in August, but right now, Pentecost is a great day to have a 9:00 service. We actually know the time that the Holy Spirit was poured out on the disciples, because it was preserved for us in the text of our first lesson today. The disciples are proclaiming the power of God so loudly and so enthusiastically, speaking in multiple languages at the same time, that a crowd begins to gather and someone suggests that they’re obviously all just drunk. Peter, rebutting the accusation, argues that nobody gets drunk at nine o clock in the morning.
So because Peter made that point, we know what time Pentecost happened, and here we are, at nine o’clock, a couple of thousand years later, wearing our red and singing our hymns and celebrating that the Spirit is still poured out, on you and on me, and that as Peter explains by quoting the Old Testament, everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.
People often focus on the miracle of speaking that happened that first Pentecost at 9AM. The book of Acts tells us, “Divided tongues, as of fire, appeared among them, and a tongue rested on each of them. All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages, as the Spirit gave them ability.” So there’s a miracle of speaking, which seems here to be of speaking several known human languages, although that word “other languages” is also used later in the New Testament to describe the Spirit inspiring people to speak unknown languages in prayer and praise to God.
But in this case, the miracle of speaking seems to be known languages, which commentators usually theorize symbolizes the way that the Gospel will spread, thanks to the power of the Spirit, through all cultures and all nations. It’s for everyone, not just for us. God’s disciples need to be able to speak every language so that every person can hear the Gospel.
So there’s a miracle of speaking. But if you read a little farther, it seems to imply that at Pentecost there is also a miracle of hearing. The crowd is listening to the disciples proclaiming what God has done, and the book of Acts depicts them as saying, “Are not all these who are speaking Galileans? And how is it that we hear, each of us, in our own native language?” (And then there’s that long list of countries we get every Pentecost:) “Parthians, Medes, Elamites, and residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya belonging to Cyrene, and visitors from Rome, both Jews and proselytes, Cretans and Arabs-- in our own languages we hear them speaking about God's deeds of power.”
The disciples are speaking a lot of languages, but whether or not the disciples are actually speaking in every single one that happens to be spoken in that big crowd, the people are hearing in their own languages. (Except, perhaps, the ones who think the disciples are just drunk, whom the text says “sneered”; they apparently are so closed to the work of the Spirit that they don’t hear the Gospel, they don’t hear joy. They just hear chaos.) But for many of the crowd, the message of God’s power and love is coming across so that they can understand it in the language that is the most natural and intuitive to them; they don’t have to translate, because the Spirit is translating for them. A miracle of speaking, and a miracle of hearing.
Now there are many things the Holy Spirit does in us and through us – it’s quite a fascinating study to go through the Bible and try to pick out sort of the job description of the Holy Spirit. But Spirit-empowered speaking and Spirit-empowered listening are the two I want to talk about a little today.
As most of you know, I hope, we are reworking the ministry of small group meals in homes that we call Common Table. When Fr. Caleb began Common Table, it was only for our 20s-30s, and at a pilot event this spring we expanded it so that it was part of Emmanuel’s efforts at intergenerational ministry, something for all ages. The first round of the new version of Common Table meals will take place this summer. If you sign up to take part, you’ll be invited once in June, once in July, and once in August into the home or yard of an Emmanuelite host, along with maybe 7-11 other Emmanuel members. It’s a true potluck, so we’ll all bring a dish of any kind to share. Everyone will enjoy conversation and social time, and along the way your host will make sure everyone gets to respond to a few accessible discussion prompts designed to help us have a relaxed exchange about things that are important to us as Christians and Episcopalians. If you came to the pilot this spring, you saw how that worked. Each evening will conclude with Compline.
So what does this Common Table ministry have to do with inviting the Holy Spirit to be part of our speaking and part of our listening? A great deal. One of the main ways the Spirit works is through groups of Christians; through using several of us as a team. While you can experience the Spirit individually, a central way we see the Spirit working throughout the New Testament is by empowering and deploying a collection of believers. We each have different gifts and different personalities, and God uses those as he expresses himself through us together. Even some of the New Testament people that we think of, because of our modern American biases, as working individually actually didn’t. Paul traveled with a team, and what we think of as his letters are frequently signed not just by him, but by the whole team. 1st Corinthians is signed Paul and Sosthenes. 1st Thessalonians is from Paul, Silvanus, and Timothy.
So if we want to experience what God has for us in the outpouring of the Holy Spirit, we need to experience gathering in groups of Christians who are together specifically as groups of Christians. You could hypothetically experience the Holy Spirit working through both of you when you run into someone who goes to this church at Prairie Gardens or a high school graduation, but it could also be just the same as running into anybody. The intentionality of making time to be together as Christians, open to the Holy Spirit, speaking and listening as Christians, is extremely important.
This is an area we’ve been growing in somewhat at Emmanuel this year, thanks to the way our Sacred Spaces group and our Intergenerational Formation Group and the Revive lay leadership program have engaged their work. And I think people taking part in any of those are seeing that the nervousness they may have had was unnecessary, and that actually it’s rewarding and enjoyable to speak and listen to one another as Christians. That the Spirit does move among us when we gather as Christians in order to grow as Christians.
So we want to build on these successes, and Common Table is one of the ways. We want to offer the Spirit more places to work among Emmanuelites, as we gather to get to know one another better, to enjoy fellowship over food, to speak in simple and accessible ways about things that are important to us as followers of Jesus Christ, and to listen as others speak. The first meal will take place at 5pm on Sunday, June 26th and there is a signup sheet for the summer round of Common Table in your bulletin today. You can just fill it in and leave it in the Offertory bowl here by the pulpit. There’s also an online signup via Breeze that went out in the Mini Messenger. Either way will work, but we do want to know how big the pool of participants is soon, so we can tell our hosts when we need them.
Of course signing up doesn’t obligate you to come to all three meals, but it does ensure that you can take advantage of this chance to get to know your fellow Emmanuelites better, to build relationships based on Christian belonging, and to enjoy some great food – we have a lot of terrific cooks here! Join us this summer at Common Table, speak and listen to words about our Lord, and pray for the coming of the Holy Spirit.