A Word to the Church

June 22, 2004

My dear brothers and sisters in Christ:

The last weeks of the Easter Season and first weeks of Pentecost for me have been particularly rich and full. I preached at the commencements of the Episcopal Theological Seminary of the Southwest and the Virginia Theological Seminary. As well, I have had the privilege of leading a clergy retreat in the Diocese of Maine and of preaching at the installation of Andrew Hutchison, the new primate of the Anglican Church of Canada. I also spent some days, as I do from time to time, in conversation with theologians of our church pursuing questions related to how Christ is formed in us and how we are being called to give room to the Spirit in the deep and often defended places of our lives. Following that conversation, I took part in the meeting of the Executive Council in Burlington, Vermont, and then went on to North Carolina to meet with the members of the Lambeth Commission, which is looking at how the provinces of the Anglican Communion can live together when faced with deep differences in theology and practice.

Preparing for these events led to a great deal of reflection on my part. The background for my ponderings was our annual celebration of the paschal mystery of Christ's death and resurrection and the outpouring of the Spirit at Pentecost. It is my privilege as Presiding Bishop to be able to communicate widely with the church from time to time to let you know of my activities on your behalf and to help and support you in your ministries. In that spirit, as we begin summer, a season which often gives us space and time for reflection, I write to share with you some of what I have been thinking and saying over these last weeks.

As we are well aware, this is not an easy time in the life of the church, as we live with questions that yield no easy answers. And, it is certainly not an easy time in the life of the world we are called to serve in Christ's name. Anxiety, confusion, fear and anger abound. Divisions and polarizations are the order of the day both in our political and ecclesial life. With respect to the latter we must remember that the church is called into being not by us, but by God through the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ in the power of the Holy Spirit. As such, the church is never ours. And, we become part of the church through baptism, whereby we are taken into Christ and made limbs and members of Christ's risen body. In this way Christ lives his life in us. Through us Christ continues to exercise his ministry of reconciliation, drawing all people and all things to himself in the unrelenting force of his death-defying love.

The letter to the Ephesians tells us that "each of us was given grace according to the measure of Christ's gift." This grace is not solely a competency or a particular skill, but the gift of Christ himself in the form of love. Christ's passionate love for the world obliges him to hold nothing back, and to continue to draw all things to himself by living his risen life in us and loving through us.

The love of Christ dwelling within us isn't simply a warm feeling for us to revel in and enjoy. Love possesses an urgency which directs it outward toward others; love by its very nature must give itself away. Love, Paul tells us, does not insist on its own way: "it bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things." By these words I believe Paul is trying to suggest something of love's expansive and supple nature. Love can see below the surface of things and can find hints of God in often the strangest and most unlikely places and situations. Love opens us to constant surprise and supplies us with the imagination and resiliency not to be utterly undone by God's wild and unpredictable ways.

The love of Christ, given root-room within us, is a dangerous force. We know that--as was the case for St. Peter--love can take us where we do not wish to go. It can require us to die to our desire for safety. It can demand a relinquishment of our carefully crafted plans, of our fondly held views, and of our clear expectations.

Love does not obliterate difference or do away with divergent points of view. Instead, love takes us to a new place--making it possible for me to recognize Christ embodied in you and the pattern of your discipleship. And, love gives you the ability to discern the image of Christ in me and in the pattern of my discipleship.

Here I think of some words of Thomas Merton: "If I allow Christ to use my heart in order to love my brothers and sisters with it, I will soon find that Christ, loving in me and through me, has brought to light Christ in my brothers and sisters. And I will find that the love of Christ in my brothers and sisters, loving me in return, has drawn forth the image and reality of Christ in my own soul." What Merton is describing is what happens when "the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord" allows us to see and perceive "the other" from Christ's own point of view.

We speak a great deal these days about communion. Are we in communion or out of communion? Is our communion real but imperfect, or is it impaired? We speak of communion as if it were a human construction, as if it were something we have the power to bestow or withhold. In so doing we overlook the fact that communion is an expression of God's love: the love with which the Father loves the Son and the Son loves the Father in what St. Paul calls the "communion of the Holy Spirit." And, it is this communion of the Holy Spirit into which we are drawn through baptism which unfolds within us the mystery of God's fathomless and all-embracing love. The joy of which Jesus speaks in the gospel is the deep knowing that he is rooted and grounded in--and indeed draws his identity from--the Father's love. It is this deep joy--Jesus' own joy--which the Spirit of truth works into us over time as we come "to maturity, to the measure of the full stature of Christ."

Communion also implies difference. There would be no communion between the Father and the Son if there were no distinction between them. There would be no risen body of Christ if we were all a hand or a foot. Communion requires differentiation in order that love can go forth from itself and find another to love. Communion requires that there be singularities that set us apart from one another: that there be various ways in which we seek to inhabit and live the gospel, as well as different contexts in which we seek to discern the authentic workings of the Spirit--who is weaving the love of God into the fabric of our lives and spinning the webs of relationship of which our lives are made.

When it comes to our life within the body of Christ, each one of us has our particular experience, our personal history, a culture that has shaped us, a way in which Christ has encountered us, and a way in which faith has been born in us. We have each had our struggles, our successes and failures. We have had to live, in the fullness of our humanity, with all its paradoxes and contradictions, what we might call "the scripture of our lives." And, through it all, the Spirit is deeply at work--shaping and forming Christ in us--and conforming us to the image of God's son, loving us into a fullness of being that reveals Christ in us, "the hope of glory."

There are many challenges to the life of communion God so deeply desires. One of these is the inherent tension between the call to embody the gospel locally and the need for sensitivity to the perspectives and understandings of the wider church. At this time we would do well to remind ourselves that none of us stands alone, and our struggles in the Episcopal Church to discern the mind of Christ have profound ramifications in other parts of our Anglican Communion. While ours, I believe, is a church genuinely seeking to be faithful to the motions of the Spirit, we are obliged constantly to examine ourselves and ask God, and our brothers and sisters in other parts of our Communion, to forgive us for ways in which we may be insensitive to the realities they live and the burdens they bear. We must also continually seek to be mindful of the weight our actions can have in contexts quite different from our own.

And, what is it that binds us together across our many differences and our varying ways of reading and interpreting the gospel as we seek to live it faithfully and forthrightly in our various circumstances? It is nothing less than "God's love which has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us."

When we read the Book of Acts it becomes clear that the Holy Spirit is always somewhat ahead of the community, turning things upside down and expanding the apostles' understanding of the ways of God. The account of Cornelius the Centurion comes to mind. Cornelius is told by an angel to send to Joppa for Simon Peter. Meanwhile, in Joppa Peter is praying on a rooftop and, in a trance, he sees a sheet being let down from heaven filled with unclean animals. He then hears a voice saying "Get up Peter. Kill and eat." To which Peter replies "I've never eaten anything profane or unclean."

"What God has made clean, you must not call profane," the voice answers.

This happens three times and Peter is left wondering what this all means.

Messengers then arrive from Cornelius and Peter returns with them to Caesarea. While he is preaching, the Holy Spirit descends upon Cornelius and his family. At that moment, I can imagine Peter exclaiming in confusion: "I thought the Spirit was only for us. These Gentiles are outsiders and the Spirit has descended upon them as it did upon us!"

The apostolic community then had to catch up with where the Spirit had revealed its presence. God was up to something they did not comprehend. They were obliged to return to their Scriptures and reread them and interpret them in new ways. They were led to see new levels of meaning and application in passages that heretofore may have seemed peripheral. References to the Gentiles being under God's care suddenly became relevant and alive because of what the Spirit had done.

There are times when something that seems to contradict what we understand as God's will and intention is precisely the way in which God's deepest desire is seeking to make itself known. Each one of us lives with particular images and understandings of the church, many of which strengthen, console and challenge us. In some instances, these images make it difficult to recognize the presence of God's larger purposes and radically reordering love. Here I am put in mind of a verse from the book of Ecclesiastes: "Consider the work of God. Who can make straight what he has made crooked?"

I believe that deep within the strains and tensions we are experiencing God is profoundly present, and it is our task, aided by the Holy Spirit, to live the present moment in all its fullness-–confident that we will come to a place of deeper communion. If we allow that same Spirit to pour the love of God within our hearts without measure, we shall certainly find the way forward and become a source of blessing, not only to ourselves but to a fractured and fearful world around us. God's power working in us, as we are told by St. Paul, can do more than we can ask or imagine. That spirit of hope and confidence, which we see writ large in the lives of Anglican brothers and sisters in other parts of the world who live with crushing burdens of poverty, war, disease and religious persecution needs to become our own. Our affluence and self-sufficiency beguile us into believing that ours is the power. When we find ourselves in difficult situations, rather than collapsing in despair let us trust in the One who is our true source of strength in whom "we can do all things." Let us look ahead, bound together in Christ, with love and hope and courage in our hearts.

During this season of Pentecost we ponder the continuing activity of the Spirit in the life of the church, both past and present. Let us seek to make ourselves more profoundly available to the Spirit who draws us out of the confinement of our limited worlds of self-preoccupation and invites us, as terrifying as it may seem, to yield ourselves to the fullness of God's mystery as it overtakes us in ways both strange and familiar.

It is my hope and prayer that the present season, in all its challenge and hidden potentiality, will draw out of us--with the help of the Spirit--those energies of love which make for communion and therefore healing and reconciliation in our broken and divided world.

Glory to God whose power working in us can do infinitely more than we can ask or imagine.

Yours in Christ,

Frank T. Griswold
Presiding Bishop and Primate