Will you seek and serve Christ in all persons…?

Featured

Originally posted on Pentecost Sunday, May 23, 2021

Today is the feast of Pentecost.

While it does not get anywhere near the secular attention that Christmas or Easter garner, Pentecost is still a “biggie“ in the Christian tradition. That’s because it’s the big celebration of “The Holy Spirit” — that most mysterious portion of our mysterious and unfathomable triune God.

seek and serve ChristIt is often called the “birthday of the Church,” and commemorates the very strange appearance of the HS coming upon the disciples of first century Palestine, very soon after the resurrection and ascension of Jesus. Nobody knows exactly what happened on that particular morning, but the writer of Acts says it was “like the rush of a violent wind” with something like “tongues of fire that separated and rested on each one of them.” (Acts 2:1-4). Because of the day’s significance, a reciting of the “Renewal of the Baptismal Covenant” is often part of the Pentecost worship service.

As I’ve written before in this blog, this fairly modern liturgy of Baptismal renewal goes through a series of eight questions, the first three being corporate “we” affirmations of doctrinal beliefs expressed in the Nicene Creed. The last five though are individual and specific, compelling the personal commitment of each believer and the promise of “I will, with God’s help.”

Four of those five specific questions have been covered in previous posts:

Will you continue in the Apostle’s teaching and the prayers…?

Will you persevere in resisting evil…?

Will you proclaim… the Good News…?

Will you…respect the dignity of every human being?

This last one, for my money at least, is the sine qua non of them all:

Will you seek and serve Christ in all persons, loving your neighbor as yourself?

It seems to me that this one personal commitment is the one that matters most, the one without which the other four really wouldn’t matter all that much. The depth of this question, if taken seriously, both expands the world view of a “Jesus follower” and compels a believer to bring it down to the most intimate and microcosmic view.

I believe that it is no accident that the writers of this liturgy purposely chose the term “Christ” as opposed to “Jesus.” Of course, the central tenet of the Christian faith is to believe that “Jesus is the Christ”inextricably intertwined.

But they are not synonymous.

Jesus is the human, the carpenter’s son turned itinerant preacher. Christ is the title, the fulfillment, the hope of humankind — as old as humankind itself — that God the Creator would be made manifest in humanity, thereby drawing all creation to its Self in unity with the Divine.

The first seven words of this question presume an astounding truth. That is, the assurance Christ is woven within every human being, without exception, and without regard to race or age or gender or nationality or status or for that matter one’s personal religion or faith. Paul spoke this Truth to the early church in Galatia that “There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.” (Gal. 3:28) Likewise, John writes the nascent churches in Asia that, far from being some stern celestial grandfather or vengeful prison warden, “God is love and whoever abides in love abides in god, and God abides in them.  God is love and all who live in love live in God and God abides in them.” (1 Jn. 4:16)

Maybe the simple, sweet words of that old hymn say it best and make this truth plain:

In Christ there is no east or west, in Him no south or north; but one great fellowship of Love throughout the whole wide earth.

Such a truth, seems to me, leads then inevitably to the commitment encapsulated in the last five words of this quintessential question in the Baptismal Covenant, about ”loving your neighbor as yourself.”

Jesus told a profound story once about being a “neighbor” that may be the best known of all his parables. I confess to taking some misguided and ill-advised  pride that it was a lawyer that led to Jesus sharing his story of the “Good Samaritan.” (Lk. 10:25-37) After correctly reciting the letter of the law to “love your neighbor as yourself,” this smart-ass barrister proves to Jesus he really doesn’t understand it. He attempts to slice and dice and parse the commandment, and asks Jesus a smart-ass technical question about the definition of “neighbor.”

“Yeah, but Teacher Jesus, really now…just who exactly qualifies as my ‘neighbor’?”

Of course, like the most evasive of witnesses, Jesus never really answers the lawyer’s question but rather tells the timeless story of a Jew being helped by a lowly Samaritan. There are hundreds of modern-day equivalents, whether someone in a BLM t-shirt being rescued by someone in a MAGA hat, to a Tar Heel picked up from a broken down car on 15-501 by a Duke fan.

Jesus is never interested in legal technicalities or strict definitions. Rather, we are led to a broad all-inclusive embrace that my “neighbor” comes to me in the form of whoever darkens my doorstep or crosses my path.

One last point about this most essential part of Baptismal Covenant. I often overlook the fact that Jesus’ command to “love your neighbor as yourself” pretty much requires that I have to find a way to love myself, too — not at all an easy thing for me to do sometimes. There are things that I say to myself, with such vitriol and venom, that I would never say to any other human. Ever. Thus, this question in the Baptismal Covenant reminds me to ease up on myself, to cut myself as much slack as I would readily give to the guy in the apartment upstairs making a little noise, or a colleague or client missing a deadline, or a fellow parishioner for taking up that last space in the parking lot.

That’s why THIS part of the Baptismal Covenant, more than any other I think, merits the most earnest and hearty response: “I will, with God’s help.”

…that we and the whole world may perceive the glory of his marvelous works.

Featured

Did it know it was being noticed? Regarded? Admired? Worshipped for the Spirit that was within it and flowing from it?

I can’t imagine so. It was a tree after all. Who knows what a tree knows?

An oak tree, and an epiphany on a winter Sunday evening…

But I knew. For I was the one who had noticed, regarded, admired and worshiped the tallest of the tall oak trees, now completely bare and leafless in the midwinter cold, lining Providence Road outside Christ Church this past Sunday evening. I was sitting in the back pew at the 5pm evening Eucharist. Being late as usual, I had just sheepishly parked my walker/rollator out of the traffic pattern of the side aisle and surreptitiously slid into the vacant row. There was a smattering of worshippers spread out in the pews before me. Our deacon Emily was preaching, and I began listening.

She reflected on Paul’s metaphor in the appointed New Testament scripture for that Third Sunday after Epiphany (1 Cor. 12:21-31a), about how the different parts of our physical bodies are like the different members of the church, and how all of those members are part of one spiritual body in Christ.

As she spoke, I glanced outside, and began to take notice of how the shadow of the church sanctuary was slowly creeping up the main trunk of this magnificent oak. I thought about how long this tallest tree has been growing in that same spot, and suspect it must be significantly longer than the 80-year-old parish it now keeps company and watches over.

As I gazed, hundreds of the smallest branches extended to its outmost perimeter, all connected to dozens of not-so-small branches; all connected to a score or more of larger and thicker branches; all connected to the five or six huge and strong main branches which shot out at different heights and angles from its massive trunk. That trunk, of course, became even thicker as it extended into the ground where, unseen but so essential, silently grew equally large and deep roots. Over those roots cars now traveled, each with oblivious drivers and headlights beginning to come on.

Meanwhile, Emily the Deacon was reminding us scattered worshippers present how Paul wrote to the Corinthians, reminding them that “Just as the body is one and has many members, and all the members of the body, though many, are one body, so it is with Christ…If one member suffers, all suffer together with it; if one member is honored, all rejoice together with it.” (1 Cor. 12:12,25)

Two millennia after Paul wrote these words, this one tree in that one moment gave me a gift of a great epiphany during this Epiphany season, one that I suspect will stay with me for a long time. It stood silent, proclaiming loudly and proudly to me that it was a pretty good metaphor for the Body of Christ, too.

It was later when I received a second gift, a bit of icing to go along with the delicious cake that this tree had served me. Just in case the Almighty wasn’t clear enough for my thick cynical lawyer-brain to get the message of the importance of paying attention, I noticed that night that the church bulletin for the evening service contained the appointed collect for the Third Sunday after Epiphany:

Give us grace, O Lord, to answer readily the call of our Savior Jesus Christ and proclaim to all people the Good News of his salvation, that we and the whole world may perceive the glory of his marvelous works; who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

Marvelous works, indeed.

What do your want me to do for you?

Featured

As both a courtroom advocate and civil mediator, I have learned through the years that there are few “declarative” statements more powerful than a tough honest question.

An entire trial can turn on the right question being asked of the right witness at the right time. Likewise, the most intransient “dug in“ positions of the most hostile opponents can be altered by a skilled mediator asking a probing question that has yet to be fully considered.

Blind Bart – Jesus asks him an “absurd” question of life-changing importance

It so happens that this past Sunday, many worshipers in many congregations worldwide heard one of the most important and insightful questions Jesus ever asked.   The appointed Gospel for this week was taken from the most earthy and direct of the four Gospels, Mark.  In its 10th chapter, the writer of Mark tells the story of Jesus leaving the ancient revered city of Jericho, where a few centuries earlier the city walls came a-tumbling down.  Jesus and the large crowd that followed him come upon a person who – before this episode – the world held in a little account, a “blind beggar” named Bartimaeus.

As the crowd comes closer, this sightless destitute begins shouting at Jesus, calling him by name and the messianic title “Son of David” and beseeching Jesus to “Have mercy on me!”  At first, the crowd tries to shut him up, but old “Blind Bart” yells all the more loudly, “SON OF DAVID! HAVE MERCY ON ME!!!”  Jesus stops and tells the crowd to call him forward. Bartimaeus immediately, springs forward, casting aside his cloak and somehow makes his way to Jesus.

It is at that moment that Jesus asks him the question.  On one level it seems absurd, maybe even a little mocking or cruel.  In reality, it reveals layer upon layer of insight, probing the depths of not only human nature but into the nature and mystery of Jesus himself.

“What do you want me to do for you?” Jesus asks the blind beggar.

This question would be a lot easier for me and my cynical trial lawyer self if I could keep it at arm’s length, a rhetorical question asked to a different person in different circumstances “a long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away.”  But there is something nagging and gnawing, Some Thing beckoning within that will not let me escape the terrifying liberation of knowing that question is not just for Blind Bart.  It is for ME.   It is not only for me of course, but for anyone willing to listen and dare be so bold to answer. Regardless, I can’t answer it for anyone else, and no one else can answer it for me.

What do you want me to do for you?” Jesus asks. For Bartimaeus, the answer was “I want to see again,” which I do not think for a minute he meant to be limited to the repairing of his optic nerves. What we do know is that Bart was in fact healed, probably had 20-20 vision (spiritual as well as physical) without benefit of Lasik surgery, and “followed Jesus along the way.” This blind beggar of little account became so important to the early believers that his story is included not only in Mark (10:46-52) but also later in Matthew (20:29-34) and Luke (18:35-43).

What do you want me to do for you?” Jesus asks. I don’t have my answer yet.  Sometimes, I know my answer (at least in attitude, even if too fearful to express it otherwise) is to just leave me alone. 

That’s the one request Jesus seems to have no interest in granting.