Sermon for World Communion Sunday, October 4, 2015, on Ephesians 3:14-21
I bow my knees before the Father, from whom every family in heaven and on earth takes its name. I pray that, according to the riches of his glory, he may grant that you may be strengthened in your inner being with power through his Spirit, and that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith, as you are being rooted and grounded in love. I pray that you may have the power to comprehend, with all the saints, what is the breadth and length and height and depth, 19 and to know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge, so that you may be filled with all the fullness of God.
Now to him who by the power at work within us is able to accomplish abundantly far more than all we can ask or imagine, to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus to all generations, forever and ever. Amen.
On this World Communion Sunday, I feel blessed in many ways, none the least of which is that I have had the opportunity to worship with Christians in so many places around the world. One year before we had children we spent the summer in Kenya where we worshiped with African congregations in a wide variety of denominations from Anglican and Presbyterian to Wesleyan and Baptist. I have worshiped with Romanian and Croatian Pentecostals, Baptists and Catholics and with Serbian Orthodox Christians, and often with Hungarian Reformed believers.
Once I even got to worship with Palestinian Lutherans in Bethlehem, hearing hymns that I knew in English, being sung in Arabic. I have worshiped in Latin America too, and maybe someday I will get to go to Asia and experience worship there. Anticipating this World Communion Sunday has reminded me of these experiences of the global church. It is wonderful that within our walls each Sunday a group of Christians come to worship in Portuguese.
The Basis of Our Unity
What is it that we Christians around the world share in common? Often, on World Communion Sunday, churches will say the Nicene Creed. This is the one creed still affirmed by all the major Christian traditions: Catholic, Orthodox and Protestant.
But is that creed and what it proclaims the basis of our unity? This needs to be heard very clearly: the answer is No. Our unity as Christians does not come from shared belief in a creed about Christ, it comes from Christ alone. Let me say this more clearly; Jesus is at the heart of our faith.
And this is why I have hope for the future. I believe we are living in an extraordinary time now in which Christians are re-discovering Jesus. There are so many books being published now about Jesus; I have never seen such an outpouring. There are seminars, conferences, festivals, and blogs by the hundreds – probably thousands (who knows?) focused on Jesus.
I am so thankful for this. It has often been pointed out that the creeds completely leave out the life and teachings of Jesus. All that we get between the statement that he was born of the virgin Mary and suffered under Pontius Pilate is a comma. If a comma can be tragic, that is a tragic comma.
It is tragic because it is not belief in the the virgin birth or the ascension to the father that give us a reason to get out of bed in the morning. It is certainly not the cryptic line about Jesus descending to hell (which, by the way, was added centuries later) that gives us the courage to face the coming week with joy and hope.
And none of the lines of the creeds tell us how to live. None of them mentions what the life of a Christian is supposed to look like and be like.
The First 324 Years
If we stopped for a moment on World Communion Sunday to ask what it was that gave the Church its character, its grounding, its sense of purpose in the 324 years before the conversion of Roman Emperor Constantine and the council he called at Nicea, in other words, before the Nicene Creed became the officially orthodox statement that defined Christianity from then on, there is only one answer: Jesus.
The book of Acts says that Christians were first called Christianos or “Christians” in Antioch. Christianos literally just means “belonging to Christ” as for example a slave would belong to a master; the ending indicates possession, like an apostrophe +s in English.
But before being called Christians, they were called people of “The Way” which means the path – the Jesus path (see Acts 24:14). To be a Christian was simply to be on the Jesus path; the way of life that Jesus opened up for us and on which he leads us.
In our Wednesday night youth program, this is our focus. On the wall, from floor to ceiling is an artist’s rendering of a path. It’s the Jesus path poster. Each week we add a new footstep on the path. We are teaching our young people to be people of the Way; the Jesus way.
Being a COG
And it is this Way that will give them reasons to get out of bed in the morning and courage to face the day ahead. The first footprint we made was the one that says who we are, our identity. Jesus taught us to approach God as our Father, so the first step is knowing that we are COG’s, children of God, and that nothing in the world can ever change that.
That is what the letter to the Ephesians says:
“I bow my knees before the Father, from whom every family in heaven and on earth takes its name.”
On World Communion Sunday we celebrate our common identity as humans: we are all children of God; every family on earth. If Genesis 1 and 2 means anything, it means we are all one family, for we share one common origin.
Prayers to Papa
Step two on the Jesus path is called “Prayers to Papa”. Jesus taught us to pray to our father in heaven, calling him “Abba” or papa. Papa knows we need daily bread, and he invites us to trust him to provide it.
This is part of the revolutionary nature of the Jesus path. It is perhaps subtle, but understand what this simple prayer is an alternative to: to an orientation to God based on fear. The picture of God as Papa is an alternative to a picture of a God who is so full of wrath and so interested in punishing that an animal must be sacrificed at a temple by a priest in order to remove guilt and shame. That all goes away when we can know that God is for us, not against us, and that our Papa wants to be in communion with us, even over the mundane aspects of our lives like daily bread.
This is what gives us all the courage to get out of bed and face a new day. We trust that God will be there for us and with us, in all of the events of the day. God will not magically make everything go to our liking, but God will be there in the difficulty, in the struggle, even in the tragic. We can trust God, as Jesus demonstrated, all the way to the end, even at our deaths.
Jesus did not live the life of a secluded hermit. The God whom he called Abba, he knew, was not his own private deity. Rather, God is the father of all humanity, and wills the good for all of humanity as well. So Jesus lived a life for others; on behalf of others. This too is an essential part of the Jesus path.
So, the third footprint we put on the Jesus path poster proclaims the kind of life Jesus taught us to live: Compassion. Compassion, caring, mercy, or simply love in action is the Jesus Way of life. There is no better way to summarize it. Jesus lived a life of compassion and caring and calls us to live lives of compassionate caring. This is fundamental.
That is why I chose the Ephesians text for World Communion Sunday. Not only does it assert the Fatherhood of God, it also proclaims the basis of the Christian way of life. The author says:
“I pray that, … [God] may grant that you may be strengthened in your inner being with power through his Spirit, and that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith, as you are being rooted and grounded in love.”
What is the soil that grounds us, that our living roots go down into for nourishment? It is love. It is not dogma. It is not a creed. It is love that we see exemplified in Jesus, who gave himself for us; love in action; compassion.
The song got it right: what the world needs now is love; not another creed, but rather a movement of people whose agenda is to put compassion into action and to love as Christ loved.
So, we are participating in a project to provide for the refugees fleeing violence and hopelessness in Syria and other places. Compassion; love in action. That is the Jesus path.
Compassionate Action for the Common Good
Sometimes compassion calls us in to action on behalf of others. Compassion for people leads us to stand up for justice for people who are being treated unfairly. Compassion means that we hold people who are in positions of power responsible to use their power ethically and compassionately.
Compassion leads us to work and strive for the common good so that we all may share the benefits of a just and equal society. Compassion means we stand solidly against the use of violence as a means. We respect all human life and work to protect the safety of every person.
We grieve that we are a society that is so violent. We grieve for the ways violence has become an acceptable norm. We long for the days when families will reject violent entertainment, violent video games, films filled with violence, and super-heroes whose powers enable their cosmic-scale violence.
We grieve with the people of Umpqua and for the tragic fact that they are not alone. We grieve that there have been 294 mass shootings – in which four or more people were killed or injured by a gun – so far in 2015. It is not anywhere within reason to accept that 9,956 people have been killed by firearms so far this year in our country – three times the number of people killed on 9/11.
We do not believe that simply making laws alone will change this – Oregon’s gun laws are quite strong – though certainly a lot more could be done to bring normal caution to the kind of unfettered access we have in so many places.
But the change we seek must be deeper. As people on the Jesus path, we must be people who believe in the power of love and compassion, and who therefore reject violence as a solution. We have become a culture of violence. Let us be people of an alternative way to live; the Jesus alternative.
Call to our Roots
On this World Communion Sunday, let us hear a call to return to our roots. Just as it was for the first three centuries of Christianity before the creeds were written, so today, what unites us as Christians is Jesus. We are followers of Jesus. Knowing ourselves as children of of God, we seek to be followers of Jesus, rooted and grounded in love.
This is what we celebrate as we come to the Lord’s Table. The bread that we break is a symbol of our unity: one bread, the body of Christ, given for the world. One cup, poured out so that all may know that God is still giving God’s self to each of us, as Ephesians says, so that we all may be
“strengthened in our inner beings with power through his Spirit”