Looking at the list of participating West Seneca churches, it is interesting to me how interconnected we are with each other. My son Ethan attended 14 Holy Helpers some years ago through grammar school. He once asked Fr. Seblicki to become a Roman Catholic. Father, knowing that I was an Episcopal deacon at the time, told Ethan that he would much prefer him be a good Episcopalian than bad Catholic . . . he told me that he already enough of those. Saint David’s Episcopal Church saw the beginnings of the Charismatic group ‘Jubilate’ through a Forward in Faith weekend in the 70’s of which I was involved in the music ministry for many years, along with our current church organist Don Bliss and also Lynn Smith who I’ve known for years. Also at St. Davids, Fr. Farrabee was the person I went to see when I needed to store my father-in-law’s remains at the Cathedral downtown. Little did I know that that would be the longest time Jack ever spent in church! I’m sure I’ll hear about it one day. Father Wolf at Saint John XXIII, if you don’t it by now, is our landlord at Saint Nicholas and we are challenged sometimes to share the parking lot with him on Bingo nights. And I was at Ebenezer UCC some weeks ago to say farewell to a dear friend, Michael Misechok whose father and mother I knew and finally saw to rest many years ago. I am sure you all have stories to tell like these and I know it is something we’d like to hear about later in the evening.
Tonight of course, the theme is Christian fellowship . . . in that we are called into fellowship. At home on my computer desk stop screen I have a picture that was painted around the 14th century entitled Schism. It depicts a protestant bishop seated in an easy chair . . . back to back . . . with a Roman Catholic cardinal who is seated as well. They appear to be in the last stages of a horrendous argument . . . but the telling thing is that the bishop is not speaking . . . as his mouth is clamped shut and the cardinal is not listening . . . as his hands are placed tightly over his ears. The Bible, which they obviously had been arguing over, sits open and face down on the floor as if only a discarded player in this argument among two very angry men. I have it there on my desktop to remind me each and every time I go to write something that we should all be honor bound, as believers in Christ, to avoid doing just what these two are doing . . . causing a schism over a shared belief in our Lord Jesus Christ.
How appropriate this picture is to tonight’s reflection based on how we are called into fellowship . . . and how over the centuries we all, though separated by denomination, have held an abiding faith in one Lord, on Faith, one Baptism and yet, at the same time, have failed so miserably to communicate our shared belief and faith with each other. I use as my text for this homily the reading from 1John that we read tonight where the apostle wrote:
“we declare to you what we have seen and heard so that you also may have fellowship with us; and truly our fellowship is with the Father and with his Son Jesus Christ. We are writing these things so that our joy may be complete.”
One of the best things and one of the worse things that ever happened to the early Church was when the Christian religion was made the official religion of the Holy Roman Empire.
It was one of the best things that could have happened because it ended the time of persecution in the church and created a way for Christianity to spread over all of Europe, North Africa and throughout the Middle East .
It was also one of the worse things that could have happened because state sponsored religion, or legislated religion, is full of inherent problems caused by people, human beings, who seem to have a natural inclination to impress their own value systems on others . . . and sometimes not with the best of intentions.
Today we continue to fight a seemingly never ending war in Afghanistan that was initiated by a state sponsored religion. The Taliban, as you know, is an Islamic right wing sect who has taken their religion to extreme ends. Even after many years of fighting, people in Afghanistan continue to live in constant fear of the Taliban. People have been jailed for insignificant offenses, like wearing their beard to short, or playing music, or in the case of women . . . being shot for going to school. The Taliban take their cue from the Koran . . . and they read into every verse, a literal interpretation.
I mention this because at the time of Jesus and the apostles, Judea also was in the grip of a state sponsored religion, which was in effect, a Theocracy. The Priests and scribes of that time were much like the Taliban in our day. They had read into every verse of the bible a literal interpretation, and from it created thousands of laws that the people were bound to uphold. In effect, they had enslaved the people into a religious and legal nightmare where people could be stoned by mob rule for offenses or turned into the temple police for saving a lamb that got tangled on the Sabbath day. The Jews had laws governing every moment of every day that oppressed the people unendingly and it was this, that Jesus came to change.
Jesus said, “You are the salt of the earth; but if salt has lost its taste, how can its saltiness be restored? It is no longer good for anything; but is thrown out and trampled under foot.” In this way Jesus was telling the Scribes and the Pharisees that they were in fact the best that the world had to offer and its one great hope for survival, but they had been corrupted by teachings that were never intended by God. They had enveloped their people in the letter of the law while ignoring the spirit of the law. They had opened crooked money changing schemes in the temple and had exacted temple taxes and sacrifices, even from the very poor, who could not afford them. They had set themselves up as the holy and pure elite among their constituents, even though in private they were themselves corrupted by money and power. They had used their power to corrupt the true message of Judaism, which was a religion of worship, charity, prayer and tolerance. And because of this, God sent Jesus into the world, to set things right. And that is why he was crucified.
Nearly four hundred years ago the pilgrims arrived here to settle in a new land at Plymouth, Massachusetts. They left their homes because of religious persecution by a right wing state sponsored religion. They came to risk life and limb, to endure hardship in an untamed wilderness and exposure to the elements. In the first few years almost half of them died. They came to settle in a new land where differing religious belief systems would not only be tolerated, but welcomed. They knew what they believed and they knew why they believed it.
And so the beginnings of one of the chief tenets of our country’s constitution began. The Freedom of religion, second only to the Freedom of Speech. The Pilgrims founded this country based on the freedom of religion and the proposition that all men are created equal in the sight of God.
But perhaps what you didn’t know, and buried in the dusty pages of history, are WHO these founding fathers were escaping from. Everyone has the mistaken idea that it was the Pope and the Roman Catholic Church, but it was not . . . they were escaping from the Church of England better known to us as the Anglican Church. The state sponsored Anglican Church called them separatists and they were considered traitors to the crown because they did not believe in the hierarchy of the church or the use of communion altars or graven images. For this they were either imprisoned or ‘re-educated’ in the ways of the church or were barred from holding land or having tradesmen’s jobs. The Puritan’s as they became known were the sheep of their time, living among the wolves of their time. And so they fled England and its state sponsored Church to come to America.
Back at St. Nicholas there is a testimonial about me. It is signed by a Bishop and sealed with a seal. It says basically, that here is a person who is to be trusted beyond any doubt and who believes that the Holy Scriptures contain all things necessary to salvation. It was my certificate of Holy Orders to the Diaconate in the Episcopal Church twenty-six years ago this month. I read it every so often to remind myself what others thought of me then and how, in some cases, I have failed to live up to that standard. If I have succeeded in anything, it is most likely in the wide latitude I try to extend to every person I meet. I lived with the wolves once, and I would tell you that at one time I would have been first in line to utterly condemn today’s liberals. But one day I finally grew up. And with spiritual maturity comes spiritual temperance.
I can remember in my youth trying desperately to follow a bunch of arbitrary rules in order to stay pure. One of them that I can remember was a teaching against eating lobster and pork. It must have taken hold, because even today the thought of eating lobster still bothers me a little. The church where I grew up was to the far right of the spectrum of orthodox belief. The priest tried to resurrect in his congregation, the Judaic dietary laws, that one shouldn’t drink milk with roast beef or steak; that you shouldn’t mix bread in the same bowel as you mix meat. He of course, meant well, but I think he was wrong in suggesting this. That church had denied the teachings of the apostles in order to gain control through the ignorance of the people . . . and so I left.
The church where I ended up before coming where I am was to the very far left of the religious spectrum . . . where virtually anything goes so long as it is not illegal . . . or fattening. Here was a church where Good Friday was joked about and where the resurrection was deemed a myth made up by ignorant, but well intentioned, disciples. This church also had denied the teachings of the apostles in order to gain acceptance through the ignorance of the people . . . and so again, I left.
So you might ask, what happened? What happened is that I discovered that in both cases the love of God had been sucked right out of my religion and all I had left was a black and white belief system on the one hand, that was condemning . . . and on the other a religion of exclusive intolerance that was outrageous . . . both of them far from the Kingdom that I believed Jesus had come to secure for me.
But today I know where I stand, which is somewhere in mid-stream. I say this because to me, though I know his ways well, God is still a complete mystery, awesome and hidden from my eyes. Who am I to judge his creation, his motives, and his Spirit? Religion for me boils down to this. I know that Jesus came to die for my sins so that I wouldn’t have to; and that through his sacrifice, I am saved. That’s it! That’s my whole philosophy . . . much in line with Saint Paul who wrote to the Church in Corinth, “For I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ, and him crucified” . . . . Period.
There are many today who would try to sway me from this skewed, but orthodox, way of looking at Christianity. There are many revisionists in our day who read into the scriptures and find things that aren’t there or re-interpret the things that are. In doing so and teaching others to do likewise, they have led many far from the truth. Jesus of course warns us . . .
“Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets; I have come not to abolish but to fulfill. For truly I tell you, until heaven and earth pass away, not one letter, not one stroke of a letter, will pass from the law until all is accomplished . . .
And so what is the law? The ten commandments? The golden rule? The two greatest commandments? It is indeed all of these and much more, written for our enlightenment and encouragement in the scriptures. But how do we know we have the correct interpretation? How do we know we are right? How do we know that others are wrong? Christians are bound to hold true what Paul describes . . . that “we speak of these things in words not taught by human wisdom but taught by the Spirit, interpreting spiritual things to those who are spiritual. Those who are unspiritual do not receive the gifts of God’s Spirit, for they are foolishness to them, and they are unable to understand them because they are spiritually discerned. Those who are spiritual discern all things, and they are themselves subject to no one else’s scrutiny.”
Christian believers down through the ages have held fast to the truth revealed by the Spirit through those who have come before, through the church fathers, the creeds and the bible, which is the scriptural basis of our faith. The orthodox believe what the early church received from the first believers, the apostles, as it was taught to them by Jesus Christ Himself. The orthodox believe what Christ told us to believe.
As a fellowship of believers, we must always bear in our minds eye that there is really only one Church, one Faith, one Baptism, one Lord and Father of All. We may call ourselves ‘Anglicans’, or ‘Lutherans’, or ‘Methodists’ or ‘Roman Catholics’ but in the end we are simply all one fellowship of believers in the Lord Jesus Christ who have received the Spirit of Life from our Father in Heaven . . . but only so long as we hold true the message that has been given to his people.
But what about the differences between us all and all our differing belief structures and liturgies? I would say that the differences in which we find ourselves pale in comparison to the joy that God holds in the saving grace of just one of his own. Do you think it really concerns God if his ministers are ordained through a hierarchy of bishops or touched directly by the Spirit? Paul never even met Jesus until after the resurrection. Is Paul’s ministry to be any less revered than Peter’s, who actually walked with Jesus and was physically touched by him? Does this negate the apostolic tradition of the church? No it doesn’t . . . I believe the scripture shows us clearly that God uses every and all means possible to get His point across and that it will remain for us a mystery until we see him face to face.
We should all be aware by now that the Church today is at a critical time in its life. There are voices who have come forward to show the faithful alternative pathways to the truth, but their words and actions show that they are deceived and their deception is a killer. They do this because they believe they have been enlightened by the spirit and have been given a new freedom to act out and to embrace what they choose to hear and . . . to believe what they want to believe . . . but in fact, they are promoting a false gospel and teaching others to do the same because they claim they have a God given freedom to do so. In the same way, we all may possess the freedom to yell “fire” in a crowded movie theatre, but that does not mean we are justified or moral in doing so. Freedom is never free and there will ever remain a cause and an effect.
One of the great thinkers of our time was Pope John Paul II who described it this way . . . “When freedom does not have a purpose, when it does not wish to know anything about the rule of law engraved in the hearts of men and women; when it does not listen to the voice of conscience, it will turn against humanity and eventually lead society to destruction.” I believe that this is what we are seeing in the continued splits and fracturing in the Church in many places in the world today.
This is the message we have heard from him and proclaim to you, that God is light and in him there is no darkness at all. If we say that we have fellowship with him while we are walking in darkness, we lie and do not do what is true; but if we walk in the light as he himself is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus his Son cleanses us from all sin.
Gathering in fellowship as we are here tonight, gives us a unique opportunity to learn from each other and experience that peace of God which passes all understanding. We must continue at all times to pray for the church that indeed, we will, one day all be one. Amen.