Today’s second lesson contains one of my favorite Bible passages from the third chapter of the book of Galatians. To me, it embodies the ideal that is the Kingdom of God and how that kingdom ideally operates. St. Paul writes, “For as many of you as were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. 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 Christ Jesus.”
Imagine a world where we are not divided into categories or separated by gender or social status. Imagine a world where those things make absolutely no difference at all: where Republicans and Democrats sit at table together and don’t argue about politics and who is right and who is wrong and whose fault it is for the economy or poverty or what have you. Imagine a world where men and women do not blame gender differences for how one acts and the hobbies one engages in or the television shows a person watches. Imagine a world where country folks are not called redneck hicks and city folks aren’t called city slickers and each works for the betterment of the other. I can imagine such a world, and it looks pretty good.
The early Christian church imagined such a world, and when it came to worship, they actually managed to enact it in many and various places. And for many during that period, it was a sight to behold. For in the Greco-Roman society, you just didn’t cross social, ethnic, and religious boundaries. Jews didn’t associate and sit down to eat with Gentiles. Slaves were not allowed to eat and associate with free. Males and females had their various spheres and the two were not to clash. But, when the early church gathered for worship, exactly those things happened. All of these differences were set aside as the early church gathered to be nourished with God’s word, fellowship, and meal. Those who were outside the faith marveled at this new world being embraced by this entity called the Church. Within, there was no mystery. Those who gathered believed that Christ had called each and every one of them. They believed they were redeemed sinners and called to live differently, and it started in worship as they sought to have a piece of God’s Kingdom on earth.
God’s Kingdom on earth. It is something we pray for each and every time we pray the Lord’s Prayer. “Thy kingdom come–thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.” We see glimpses of this kingdom from time to time in our daily lives as we see acts of kindness, compassion, and hope. We see glimpses of this kingdom as we see children laugh and play. We see glimpses of this kingdom when we throw our heads back and laugh loudly and powerfully. We see glimpses of this kingdom as we see the love and commitment in a couple married for 50 or more years. But we know that kingdom has not arrived fully. We know there is much still that must happen before that kingdom encompasses all of reality. And, so it is that we gather for worship each week. We gather for worship to pray for the fullness of that kingdom, and, this is important, we gather to enact a piece of that kingdom on earth. Just like the early church, it is our goal now to provide a place where there is no distinction where all are clothed with Christ and we worship Him with reckless abandon.
That’s the ideal. But what is reality? What is the reality of most of our churches these days? These are the questions I began asking myself this past week as I worked on this sermon. I started delving into my own heart and mind as I wrestled with this favorite Bible passage from the book of Galatains. “For as many of you as are baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ and 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 Christ Jesus.”
As I took my journey of introspection, I realized something quite concerning. I realized something quite unsettling. A question began resonating deep within the recesses of my heart and mind. “Do you see Christ in those who are gathering for worship?” I had to stop for a moment as that question formulated. I had to catch my bearings. For I realized, I do not. And I realized it’s not intentional. I mean, when I come to worship each Sunday and see each of you, I see you. I see Rick and Jean and Melvin and Suzie and Glenda and Shirley and James and Otto and Clarence and so on and so forth. I see each and every one of you as the unique individuals that God made you. But I confess to you this morning, I was not seeing Christ–and in many ways, I still am not–even though I should. For seeing Christ in you and as we see Christ in one another, I believe, could set us apart tremendously from the rest of the world in how we treat each other.
To illustrate, let me tell this old story that I believe I have recounted before. There was once a monastery that had fallen upon hard times. No longer did pilgrims travel to this holy place to chant the old liturgy and seek spiritual peace and guidance. No longer did people offer donations to help the monastery engage its job and practice of prayer and holiness. The stress and labors led the brothers to begin bickering and arguing amongst themselves. Rumors often spread like wildfire, and bitterness reigned.
The abbot of the monastery had tried many and various things to try and turn things around, but all had failed. Nothing seemed to work, and so, at his last straw, he decided to visit a teacher who resided in a nearby wood. According to legend, this teacher had regular visits with the Lord and spoke with the Lord just like you and I would speak on the phone. Desperate for advice, the abbot sought this teacher out.
Walking down an old, beaten path, the abbot finally came to the teacher’s humble hut. The teacher was sitting outside, and the abbot saw that the teacher seemed to be expecting him. The teacher stood and embraced the abbot, and unexpectedly, the abbot began shedding tears.
The teacher led the abbot into his home, and they sat down. There, the abbot poured out his grief. He told the teacher of how the monastery had fallen onto hard times–how pilgrims no longer sought spiritual comfort or peace there–how no longer people would come and worship with them and support them–how the brothers seemed to argue and bicker and fight and spread rumors–how he had tried everything he knew to reverse this process but how they had all failed. Knowing that the teacher regularly spoke with the Lord, the abbot had come seeking a word that might help their situation.
The teacher embraced the abbot once more. “I know why you are here,” he said. “The Lord told me to expect you. That’s why I was waiting outside.”
“Did the Lord give you anything to tell me?” the abbot asked.
“Yes,” the teacher replied. “He told me to tell you one thing. He said, ‘Tell the abbot that he is to go back to the brothers and tell them, ‘The Messiah is among you.’‘”
Pondering this news, the abbot returned to the monastery. The brothers anxiously asked the abbot what the teacher in the woods had said. The abbot gathered the brothers in the chapel and said, “The teacher said the Lord had one thing to say to us. The Lord said, ‘The Messiah is among you.’”
Immediately, this caused a stir among the brothers. Who is the Messiah? Is it Brother John? Is it Brother Alfred? Is it Brother Lawrence? They began pondering the implications of this, and since they didn’t know who the Messiah was in their midst, they began treating each and every brother as if he could be the Messiah. Soon, bitterness and rumor was replaced with gentleness, compassion, and friendliness. The respect, love, and joy the brothers showed toward one another became palpable. You could literally feel it when you walked into the monastery.
Soon, pilgrims from all over began making their way to the monastery once again to sing the old liturgies, to seek spiritual wisdom, to give their offerings, and to marvel at this group of brothers who treated one another in such a marvelous way.
My brothers and sisters in Christ, we do not need anyone to tell us that the Messiah is among us. We know that where two or three are gathered in His name, Jesus is with them. We also know that as many of us who were baptized into Christ have clothed themselves with Christ so that there is no longer any distinctions. Christ is among us and can be found sitting next to us. How do we desire to treat Him? Amen.