Relationship Over Rules. Love Over Laws.*

An amazing fact about the God we serve is that God chose to limit God’s self in the person of Jesus Christ. Now we don’t usually think of God as limited, do we? But the truth is, the all-knowing, all-powerful God freely choose a limited body, a limited context in history, and a limited creation in order to express to us those limitless aspects of God’s divine love.

The great mystery of the Judeo-Christian God is that this God who is all-powerful, and all knowing chose to speak, specifically to Abraham, and in doing so, started the process of limiting himself to be part of a people’s history. This same God freed an enslaved people from Egypt, brought up prophets and kings in Israel, and seems (according to my reading of Holy Scriptures) to be very fond of the widow/widower, the orphan, the migrant, the oppressed, and the enslaved. But God didn’t and doesn’t stop there. God chose to come among us, to be with us more fully (not more powerfully…but more fully) to be with us in a way that changed history. God, through the person of Jesus Christ, came among us to live, to suffer, and to ultimately die not for a cause, not for any rule, but for a relationship. For love: A love so powerful that three days later, death could not hold to it.

The small salvation history I just revealed is revealed further to us every time we release ourselves into the mystery of God’s love. Its results are always the same, although its situations are without end. And what are the results? Relationship. Love. Humbleness before our God, to name a few.

The best example of God asking us to limit ourselves in the name of relationship and love is found in the words of Jesus in Mark 8. Jesus said, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.”

“If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves (or quite possibly, let them limit themselves) and take up their cross and follow me.” Notice here, we must give up something in order to follow Christ. We must limit ourselves in order to be in full relationship with God. I don’t think God would ask us to limit ourselves if he didn’t do this himself already? And because he did this through the person of Jesus Christ, God is revealing to us what love looks like: When we look upon our Savior Jesus Christ, we are looking at a God who limited God’s self for the sake of love, so that we may do the same. Why? Because it’s about relationship, not rules. It’s about love, not law.

A great example of this happened early last week. Pope Francis called upon all European churches (starting with the two within Vatican City) to host Syrian migrant and refugee families who were fleeing their country because of Civil War. Now, the secular rules talked about quotas, and space, and policy and procedure, but in the freedom of God, the Pope reminded us that if we all start from an ethic of care, compassion, and relationship, then the refuges would be taken care of. Rules (in many situations) are put into place because the relationship is not fully there from the beginning; it’s torn and tattered by sin and complex situations.

But let’s look at the order of correct relationship for this type of Christian hospitality to take root. The root of Christian hospitality does not start with an ethic of care, compassion, and relationship to our fellow man. No. The root of Christian hospitality starts with the ethic of care, compassion, and relationship we have with Christ. In the negative sense, if that relationship with Christ is broken, then the relationships we have with one another (be it biological family or church family or refugee family) are also broken. To be fair, this isn’t totally our fault. I mentioned sin earlier, and the complexities of sin I’ll have to write on another day, but the bottom line is that our relationship with Christ is key to our relationship to ourselves and to others.

Jesus again, “For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it.” So what are the European Churches loosing? Well, lots of things: They may see community as a loss. They may see status quo as a loss. But what Christ reminds us is that in His freedom, in God’s freedom to love, we are set free to lose the life we think we should have in order to live a life of full freedom in Christ. If we give up some things, if we take up our cross, if we lose and let go of things we think are precious – be that a tangible thing, or a ideal, or a politic – what we gain is Christ’s love, and the Gospel of Christ guides us to salvation. The classical word for all of this is repentance. We repent, and turn to God. Repent is best translated as “turning around”. So we quite literally turn around from something to something, and that “to something” is God. Then and only then are we completely free to love God, self, and neighbor (in that order). Now, the frustrating thing to me is that this is not a one-time deal; instead, repentance happens constantly, and confession and reconciliation are part of the process of salvation. But, we can only turn toward God if we experience the grace of God inviting us to turn away and repent, or give up what it is we must give up to experience His Love.

Rowan Williams, the Archbishop of Canterbury before Justin Welby said that meditation on the Gospels is a matter of “coming to know ourselves through Christ.” So, in order for Pope Francis to call on all European Churches to take in folks is assuming that all these church bodies are on a continual path of “coming to know [themselves] through Christ.” So, there will probably be resistance if this isn’t the case for these churches. Why: Because the ethic of care, compassion, and relationship is out of order, and people don’t actually believe, or experience, the love of Christ in their lives.

That’s why the universal church founded in Christ is so important. That’s why receiving a prophetic call like the Pope delivered last week is so important to pay attention and live to. The church, through its liturgy, proclamations, and actions reveal (to all) the importance of relationship over rules. It is bold when it proclaims justice to immigrants, whether that be from Mexico, Latin America, or Syria. That is why we will never hear the Church talking about building walls. Instead, it is about breaking them down, and not for the sake of rules, and not even for the sake of order, but for the sake of relationship because the Church, and only the Church reveals to the world the love of Christ in the stranger, neighbor, and even to its enemies. Now that’s crazy. That’s counter-cultural, and we are certainly not hearing this kind of talk in the marketplace of ideas.

So picture this: What if the clarion call sent out from the halls of the Vatican actually catches on worldwide? What will the churches in Europe look like? How, by giving up some comfort, how, by loosing a status-quo life, how, by taking up Christ’s cross will they look? If the churches in the America’s catch this revival of putting Christ first in order to serve the world, what would it look like over here? What do we have to give up in order to follow Christ? Is it something tangible? Is it an ideal? Is it a philosophy? All the above?

Well, I believe we will be better equipped to answer what the church will “look like” if we continue to repent, and continue to turn around and constantly face God. If we are constantly turning around and facing God, then eventually we see Jesus, and if we see Jesus, we have relationship, and if we have relationship with Jesus, we experience true freedom, and if we experience true freedom, then we are free to freely love God, ourselves, our neighbors, and even our enemies.

So, I’m excited. I feel revival in the air. I feel God’s love spoken and lived out in high profile Christian leaders like Pope Francis, Archbishop Desmund Tutu, the Episcopal Church’s Bishop Curry, and Bishop Wright, but also in everyday people such as you and I. And all of these leaders, be they known or unknown, get their charisma and boldness from Christ, and they (like us and as sinners) must continually repent, to turn around and to lovingly limit ourselves, in order to take up our crosses, and follow the God of Love.

So, is there revival going on? My faith points me to Christ to help answer that question, and hope is always pointing me to God’s answer of, “Yes.”

*This is a redacted sermon preached on the Eve of Holy Cross Day, September 13, 2015.

The Imitation of Christ

Within Holy Communion, we remember Christ’s death and resurrection, as we await his coming in glory. Christ himself compelled us to remember him in a specific way, not as an intellectual assent or idea, but to remember him in a practice – in a sacramental rite that seems to be summed up in the word, “Do.” Do this in remembrance of me. He might even say, “Practice this in remembrance of me.” “Pray this in remembrance of me.” “Do this in remembrance of me.”

Charles C. Colton once said, “Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery.” It’s a complement to imitate. It’s a complement to remember. But is there a difference in remembering and imitating? Are we to remember Christ – only – or are we called to imitate Christ? Or, are we compelled to do a bit of both?

I grew up in East Texas, and at one time my family owned and rode horses. But before we had horses, we had ideas of what it would be like to groom, ride, and care for a horse. My Mom expressed her interest in horses by going out and purchasing roper boots in a variety of colors. My Dad read and researched how to care for a horse (very practical, right)? But it was my brother who gave our family the most expressive way of remembering horses. He would run through the house on all fours galloping like a horse. He ate Cheerios and juice from a bowl…on the floor…with only his mouth…eating like a horse. He hardly used words when he was in this state of consciousness, but nayed and whinnied like a horse. My brother did not believe he was like a horse; however, my brother believed he was a horse. The way that he best remembered and related to the horse was to be and to become the horse.

In the reading from the first chapter in the Book of James we get that famous verse, “Be doers of the word, and not hearers only, deceiving yourselves.” Again, the word, “Do” is highlighted. And how can we be and become doers of the word? Well, the Word was made flesh, so that means the Word is Christ. If the Word is Christ, then that must mean that we are all called to be doers of Christ. And doers of Christ are ones who remember him through his Body and Blood, and in remembering him, we are given strength to imitate him.

The imitation of Christ is both a nod to religion and our various religious traditions, but the imitation of Christ also transcends religion because all of our hearts and souls, all of our strength and minds reaches toward the Way, the Truth, and the Life – which our faith teaches is the person and presence of God through Jesus Christ our Lord. That’s comforting to me: That the very person and presence we are trying to imitate is already there…and/or here. And if we are reaching out to Christ, we know that he is reaching back to us.

To be an imitator of Christ holds great responsibility. To be an imitator of Christ, we don’t necessarily take on new things, so much as we give up old things. And Christ seems to be pretty good at revealing to us (deep within our hearts) what those things we need to give up are…what things are holding us back from full participation and imitation of Him. The Church has traditionally called the process of giving up things, the process of sanctification. It’s within this process of sanctification that we are being made holy by emptying ourselves so that Christ may fill us more fully.

This is played out in the liturgy of the Church when we empty ourselves of sin by confessing them to God before remembering and being filled by Christ with His Body and Blood. It’s played out further with the passing of the peace where we remember a brother or sister in Christ that has something against us (or we against them), so we pass the peace of the Lord, and are reconciled with each other before offering our gifts at the altar (Matt 5:23, 24). By doing such things in the liturgy of the Church allots a specific time to practice our faith, to be better Christians, and (ultimately) to imitate Christ, himself. Practicing gets under our skin, and in our pores so much so that if we are used to passing the peace every time we celebrate the Holy Eucharist, then outside the doors of the Church we will find ourselves being more peaceful and forgiving to those whom are hard to get along with. In other words, we are practicing what we are preaching…that’s remembering Christ. But we are also preaching what we are practicing…that imitating Christ. It’s a both/and, not one or the other.

So our primary gift from God is the gift of Christ, and it is with this gift that we (as Christians) get to share with the rest of the world; and we best share Christ by being imitators of him. What is another gift of God, but is only secondary are the gifts of the Church – mainly the sacraments of holy baptism and communion. It is through these gifts that we get to remember Christ, and practice our faith, and prayerfully commit to something that is bigger than ourselves.

These are the primary and secondary gifts of God for the people of God. Take them in remembrance that Christ died for you, and feed on him in your hearts, by faith, with thanksgiving, and ultimately, in the imitation of Him.