Morning Eucharist Tuesday, July 30, 2003
To be baptized into Christ, to be clothed with Christ, to belong to Christ is, in the words of St. Paul, to be set free from the imprisoning divisions that set us one against another, “there is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male or female, for all of you are one in Jesus Christ.”
But are we one? Has the shattering reality of our baptism into Christ which undermines all notions of “them” and “us,” who is in and who is out, sunk into the depths of our consciousness and been allowed to wreak havoc with our fondly held notions of our rightness over against that of others? Like it or not, we are members one of another, so constituted in Christ that when one suffers, we all suffer, and when one rejoices their joy becomes our own. This is not hyperbole. Paul was no stranger to division and conflict within the Church, yet the reality out of which he lived was the ordering of his whole person to the risen Christ: “It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me,” he cries in the letter to the Galatians. His profound sense of Christ living in him and animating his prayer made it possible for Paul to pray, “Abba, Father,” and to proclaim, “I can do all things through him who strengthens me.” This conviction that his life was “hidden with Christ in God” also made it possible for Paul to accept his own limitations and to yield to the Risen One’s declaration, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.”
In virtue of our baptism into the death and resurrection of Christ, it is no longer we who live, but Christ who lives in us and declares to us, both personally and together as limbs and members of his risen body – some of whom are gathered here as deputies and bishops – “My grace is all you need, for my power is brought to realization not in your strength but in the weakness of your undefended hearts, and in your availability to my deathless love which transcends all boundaries, breaks down all divisions and makes all things one.”
Are we prepared for such undefendedness, such radical availability to the unrelenting force and power of love that may first appear to us a threat – threat to all our fondly held and carefully wrought opinions about how God should act and the church should be – a love that threatens to undo us before it becomes the source, the narrow door, through which we must pass to our freedom. “For freedom, Christ has set us free,” and the heart of freedom, “the glorious freedom that belongs to the children of God,” is love – a love derived not from us and our paltry ability to love, but a love “poured into our hearts by the Holy Spirit:” a love which is “patient and kind…does not insist on its own way…rejoices in the truth…bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.”
William Wilberforce, whom we remember this day, knew Christ and the power of his deathless love. In 1784 as a young man in his 20’s, while serving as a member of Parliament, he underwent a conversion to an Evangelical piety within the Church of England. Christ entered his heart and became the core and center of his life. Like many who undergo a profound conversion, his first thought was ordination. Friends, however, convinced him that he was called to public life. As a result, the political realm became the context in which he, together with a reforming group of Evangelicals known familiarly as the “Clapham Sect” bore witness to the transforming and reconciling power of the gospel.
Of all the causes for which he fought, which ranged from education to Catholic Emancipation, Wilberforce is best remembered for his crusade against slavery. In a speech to the House of Commons in 1789 he said, “I mean not to accuse anyone, but to take the stance upon myself, in common indeed with the whole Parliament of Britain, for having suffered this horrid trade of slavery to be carried out under their authority. We are all guilty – we ought to all plead guilty, and not to exculpate ourselves by throwing blame on others.” (These are words we might all take to heart as we continue our struggle against the sin of racism.) Eighteen years later, Parliament abolished slavery in the British Empire, and just before his death in 1833 Wilberforce was able to see its complete abolition.
Wilberforce’s vision of all being made one in Christ, beginning with his own experience of God’s reconciling and reordering love, gave him the courage and the patience to withstand opposition, ridicule and misunderstanding. At the same time, he was given the interior freedom to discern and publicly name as evil, a practice which few called into question. They chose to remain unaware of its evil and accepted it as part of the normal ordering of life.
Unawareness, dear friends, is a form of self-protection; it is also a form of bondage; it keeps us safe within the prison of our biases and judgments all the while convincing us that we possess the truth. It is one of the evil one’s favorite weapons. And, therefore, as we begin this General Convention it may be well for us to pause and ask the Spirit of Truth to work in us the grace of awareness.
Where am I free and unfree? What preconceptions, judgments, suspicions and fears do I bring? How willing am I, after the example of Paul and William Wilberforce, to allow Christ to live in me, reordering my perceptions and overcoming my defenses? How “one” with others in Christ with whom I disagree am I willing to be?
These are questions each one of us must ask as we enter into this Convention, as we seek to be set free from imprisonment in unawareness and brought by the Spirit to a state of mindfulness that can withstand the harsh and dreadful yet loving process of being conformed to the image of Christ.
In the gospel we have just heard, Jesus proclaims his real presence in those who are regarded as the least. Are the least always the stranger, the naked, the sick or those in prison? Are they not sometimes fellow limbs and members of Christ’s risen body whose experience of grace and understanding of the gospel are different from our own? “We are all guilty,” declared William Wilberforce in the face of the slave trade. We are all guilty of enslaving one another in our judgments and our fears.
Let us therefore take time at our tables, in the company of brothers and sisters who surround us, to examine our hearts and our minds and ask the Spirit to deliver us from the bondage to unawareness. What attitudes do I bring to this Convention that limit my freedom to encounter Christ in others? What prejudgments make me defensive or fearful? Am I undefended enough to allow Christ to live his life and work his consciousness in me? Above all, remember Christ’s words to Paul as he accepted his own weakness and limitation, “My grace is all you need, for my power is made perfect in weakness.”
May that grace and power be with each one of us during these days. Amen.