"Knit in Perfect Love"
Rev. Paul Mitchell
Vashon United Methodist Church
August 5, 2018
Exodus 34:27-35; Ephesians 4:1-16
I’ve just come down from the mountain. Unlike Moses, I wasn’t up there for 40 days and forty nights, but over the course of the next two years I will have been. This past week I spent five days and five nights in community with fifty-seven leaders of the community, both lay and clergy, at a Franciscan retreat center on a high ridge overlooking Sycamore Creek in the San Ramon Valley of California. It was a rarified week, with a monastic rhythm of worship, prayer, study, and silence. I also took a lot of walks…, and a lot of naps. It was the first of eight weeks of the fortieth cohort of the Academy for Spiritual Formation. I’ll be going back up that mountain once a quarter for the next two years, meeting with the same cohort, joining in the same rhythm. The rules I have come back with are not the kind of rules that Moses purportedly brought down from the mountaintop – dictated to him by the author of creation. Instead, they are more like the rules of life that Benedict and Francis and Ignatius created for their communities. They are rules that guide the follower of Jesus into closer communion with the Divine and the children of the Divine. Also, unlike Moses upon his return, I doubt that my face is shining, glowing, radiant – having been exposed to the un-seeable brilliance of the Gory of God. But from the perspective of my inner spirit – my whole self – I am still seeing the world around me as if it is illumined by a holy inner light.
I’ve been framing this summer series of sermons focused on Ephesians under the rubric of “What Is the Church?” What is it that we are called to be and do as followers of Jesus Christ in this time and place, wearing the label United Methodist? Addressing the early church, before there was institutional and doctrinal rigidity in the movement – indeed while it was still more of a movement than a bygone moment – again and again, chapter after chapter, Ephesians stresses the importance of being “one.” To our ears it is easy to hear that as a demand for uniformity. But here in the fourth chapter of Ephesians is the course correction.
“…to some, the gift they were given is that they should be apostles; to some, prophets; to some, evangelists; to some, pastors and teachers. These gifts were given to equip fully the holy ones for the work of service, and to build up the body of Christ – until we all attain unity in our faith and in our knowledge of the Only Begotten of God, until we become mature, attaining to the whole measure of the fullness of Christ.”
In our faith – πίστεως (pisteos) – of the Only Begotten and our knowledge – ἐπίγνωσις (epignosis) – of the Only Begotten. πίστεως is trust. ἐπίγνωσις is recognition from first hand, intimate knowledge. Ephesians tells us that more trust and more intimate knowledge of Christ is the very point of our differences. The translation “equip” puts an important nuance beyond reach. καταρτισμὸν (katartismon) is the word used when bones are knit back together – it means to align well, to reconcile, to be fit for its purpose – or even, to recall our Wesleyan heritage – to be perfected.
One of the pitfalls of our expectation that unity means conformity is that the church – especially the protestant stream of Christianity – has struggled since its inception to remain “one.” That’s not altogether a bad thing, as each branch and twig of Christianity has preserved some aspect – some nuance –of the diversity of understandings according to cultural context or historic watershed moment. The United Methodist Church, as a denomination, is teetering on the knife edge of division over our inability to be “one” in our zeal for opposing commitments in doctrine and practice. In February 2019, the global denomination will decide its future regarding sexuality, marriage, and ordination – as well as the underlying understandings of biblical interpretation – that will reverberate for the next forty years. In fact, this congregation is a case study for the struggle to be “one” though not the same. During acrimonious division over doctrine and practice regarding the private life of the pastor, members from across the spectrum of perspective and interpretation left this congregation – a de facto schism. In response, the statement was adopted that is printed in the bulletin today, beginning with a quotation from the very same chapter in Ephesians we are exploring today. You might call these the “Eight Commandments” of Vashon United Methodist Church. It is not the whole law, but it is foundational for our rule of life. Let’s read it together.
Agreeing and Disagreeing in Love: Healthy Practices for Vashon United Methodist Church in Times of Disagreement
“Making every effort to maintain the unity of the spirit in the bond of peace” (Eph 4:3) as members of the Vashon United Methodist Church family, we seek to use the following guidelines when we find ourselves in conflict with one another. We acknowledge together that conflict is a normal part of our life in the church and that God is present with us as we work and grow together. As individuals and as a congregation, we commit ourselves to using healthy practices for dealing with conflict when it arises.
We will seek to solve problems in a constructive and loving manner.
We will avoid behind the back criticism.
We will avoid blaming and name calling.
We will attempt to communicate directly and in private with the party with whom we have a disagreement.
We will listen carefully to the other, seeking to understand as much as we seek to be understood.
We will keep an open mind, and refrain from being judgmental.
We will attempt to respond in non-defensive ways to those who disagree with us.
We will bring our concerns to the appropriate committee or person who can address them.
I bring this up now, not because I see division looming on our congregational horizon. We don’t have to wait for divisive disagreement to engage in the spiritual practice outlined in this statement. In fact, it might be understood as a rule of life for our congregation in all times – a covenant that makes us one in focus and purpose, regardless of our doctrines or practices. But, whether we are aware of it or not, the underlying ethos of a congregation can be hidden and yet perceived by a casual visitor. When a visitor shows up, their senses are tuned to pick up the ethos of the body. Subconsciously they are asking, “Will I fit in here?” The person whose unconscious desire is to be knit together intimately with God and the other will either sense the knit together unity of the body, or they will sense the underlying fissures – the unhealed skeletons in the closet. Likewise, the person who is seeking to wreak havoc – perhaps unknowingly, will stay away from the well-knit body, but seek to enter the body that is only nominally held together in order to tear it apart at the seams.
Ephesians also attests that faith, knowledge, and unity come as the preemptive action of the Divine. All we can do in our little ship is to set the sails. It is God who sends the πνεύματος – the wind/breath/spirit that propels us. I’m not a sailor, but from what I understand, when sailing, each member of the crew has a task. If all crew members are trying to complete the same task, the boat will capsize or stall. I also understand that sailing requires resistance. The sail resists the wind, but is attached to the boat, thus driving it forward. Sometimes progress is only possible when the rudder works against the sails to tack against the wind. Opposing views are not inherently problematic. They are sometimes the only way we can proceed.
One of the lessons I re-learned on the mountaintop last week is that the spiritual life is not separate from the daily routine. Spiritual formation does not occur primarily in some rarified esoteric realm – but in the daily clatter and mess of our lives. We may, like Jesus or the desert mothers and fathers or the likes of Julian of Norwich, draw apart for a moment or a lifetime. Julian, who was an anchoress, lived in a cell attached to the chancel of the cathedral in Norwich. She did not leave for forty years. It was Julian who gave us the wisdom, “All shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of things shall be well.” But these contemplative followers of Jesus did not draw apart because the life of the spirit is separate in some way from the life of the body – whether that body be the single organism or the organic whole – what we call the body of Christ.
Everyone is spiritual. Everything is spiritual. The spiritual life is the life of the whole.
Some of you may be concerned that on my periodic return from the mountaintop over the next two years that I will attempt to impose upon you strange new practices or some arbitrary uniformity of practice. The good news is that spiritual life is whole life. Spiritual formation happens while preparing a meal, cutting the grass, planting bulbs, serving a community meal, welcoming the stranger, yielding in traffic, praying the hours, walking the dog, sailing, swimming, singing, and sighing. Spiritual formation is what happens when we take the bits and pieces of our lives and knit them together into a whole fabric of love that draws us closer to one another and closer to God. Because I already do the things I have listed, the commitment I have made to my covenant group on the mountaintop is a form of the Ignatian Examen in which at the end of each day I will draw apart, center myself, and list what I am grateful for in that day. I will pay attention to the consolations – the events and relationships in which I have drawn closer to God – and the desolations – the events and relationships in which I have drawn away from God and the other. Then I will ask myself, where has Holy Being entered my day.
Beloved, we are knit together in a fabric of love, richer and more perfect in diversity. In the infinite mystery of God’s love, we are called to grow more diverse and more perfect. On our last night on the mountain top, Thursday evening, we reflected on the week in small covenant groups of eight. We shared with each other each of our highlights for the week and committed to hold one another accountable to personal practices of spiritual discipline in our first year of the Academy. I shared that I had deliberately set my expectations low, so that I could focus on the in between time – the valley time so to speak – the time that I am blessed to spend with you here. I’m certainly no Moses, and I feel that the real test of spiritual growth and maturity will be in the valley time. It’s when the rubber hits the road. It’s when the tough stuff happens that we really grow. You here are my true cohort. You are the ones with whom I live and grow and have my being. As I said before l left, it’s my hope and prayer that the concentrated experience I have on the mountaintop will translocate to include you in this place – that it will enrich us together and knit us more perfectly in love.