On Being Living Stones

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Sermon for the Anniversary of the Dedication of the Abbey Church, May 9

The abbey church has been a profound delight for me to pray in since I first visited here to discern if I had a monastic vocation. I’m still here, so maybe I do. I missed out on the Anglo-Catholic setup we once had which I am sure was also beautiful, but I deeply appreciate the simplicity of our worship space that has nurtured me and many others for many years. Our church is something to celebrate.

Much as I love this building and its space, I think the best way to celebrate it is to reflect on how we can be the Church with the help of this Church building. Solomon admitted that the temple could not contain God since not even the heavens can contain God. Moreover, we hope we don’t need Jesus’ ministry of throwing money changers out of our church. Peter gives us a powerful image for how we can be the church: “like living stones, let yourselves be built into a spiritual house.” (1 Pet. 2: 5) In being living stones, we imitate Jesus who was the stone rejected by the builders. This reference to Psalm 118 is used many times in the New Testament, often by Jesus himself. It means that the life and teaching of Jesus that was rejected by nailing Jesus to the cross has become the basis of a whole new culture and way of life in Jesus. We are called to be living stones built by the Holy Spirit into a new temple supported by Jesus, the cornerstone.

Stones are solid and surely we are to be solid in our commitment to Christ and to each other. It is the solidity of stones that makes them strong enough to support each other. We need to be as strong  as that if we are going to support one another. Stones, however, can be rigid and rigidity makes them hard and cold. Such stones are dead. But Living stones are vibrant so that they resonate deeply with each other. Unlike dead, rigid, stones, living stones are permeable to each other and most importantly to Christ.

Although our abbey church isn’t built with actual stones, but is mostly built of wood and brick, may this church that we celebrate today open us to each other and to Christ so as to transform us into living stones receiving life from the rejected cornerstone.

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Christian Community (6): The Church as Bride of Christ

NewJerusalemAnother biblical image of the Church is the Bride of Christ. Paul admonishes husbands to love their wives “just as Christ loved the Church and gave himself up for her in order to make her holy by cleansing her with the washing of the water of the Word so as to present the church to him in splendor, without a spot or winkle of any kind.” (Eph. 5:25-27) Here, Paul interweaves the image of spouse with that of the family as a whole with its hierarchical aspects. Before taking too much umbrage at the apparent subordination of women to men in these verses, it is important to note the Christological dimensions of these admonitions. The husband is the head of the woman as Christ is the head of the Church. That is, the husband must first subordinate himself to Christ before he can properly function as the head of anybody else. By saying that Christ gave himself up for his bride, the Church, Paul makes it clear that subordinating oneself to Christ means subordinating oneself to the self-giving of Jesus, a self-giving that took him to the cross. This doesn’t leave any room for dominating anybody in a domineering manner. Indeed, although parents have authority over children, Paul cautions against “provoking them to anger.” (Eph. 6:4)

In Revelation, the seer sees a new Jerusalem “coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband.” (Rev. 21:2) This deepens the Christological dimensions of the bridal imagery for the Church. Throughout this book, the seer sees imperial violence for the destructive force that it is and its inevitable collapse under its own violence. Meanwhile, although the Lion of Judah was announced to make an appearance, presumably to exact divine vengeance, which is what most people expect and hope for, what actually appears is “a lamb appearing as if it had been slaughtered.” (Rev. 5: 5-6) That is, just as Jesus confounded the peoples’ expectations of what kind of Messiah they would get, the risen Christ confounds these expectations yet again, which is precisely what the risen Christ died when he ascended to Heaven and sent the Holy Spirit.

There is a paradox in this bridal imagery because, although  spouses are fundamental to families, they share an intimacy that other members of the family simply cannot share. In fact, the fecundity of the spousal relationship, that most usually manifests in producing children but can take many other forms for nurturing other people, requires the unsharable intimacy at its core. I have noticed acts of intimacy among spouses that go beyond physical acts of affection that show the depth of their union, such as sharing food off each other’s plates at meals. This is something I notice when I am the table server at the monastery.

The Church, as Bride of Christ, is foreshadowed by Hosea who married a prostitute and remained faithful to her throughout her infidelities. The prostitute, Gomer, stands for unfaithful Israel and for unfaithful us to this very day. More positively, the Church as bride is also foreshadowed in the Song of Songs where the playful hide-and-seek games of the lovers celebrates the hide-and-seek games we play with God and God plays with us.

The stronger paradox of the image of the Church as Bride of Christ is that every member of the Church shares the marital intimacy with God. That is, we share marital union with Christ and with each other. In this way, the image of the church as “living stones” is personalized in a deep union through mimetic resonance with one another in Christ’s Body. It is this image we see acted out at the Wedding at Cana where Jesus is the bridegroom and we are the Bride. The deeper we move into brideship with Christ, the more subordinationism among humans melts away and we experience our fundamental equality and unity in Christ. Within this union, Christ is the head of each and every one of us in an intimacy beyond our imagining even at times we experience in in fleeting moments.

See also: Christian Community (3), Mimetic Resonance, Strange Wedding

A Church of Living Stones

altarWhite 1When we celebrate an event like the anniversary of the consecration of the Abbey church, we are brought up short by the many negative things scripture says about temples and church buildings. Solomon humbly notes that not “even Heaven or the highest Heaven” can contain God, let alone a dinky temple in a backwater of civilization. Many of the prophets expressed discomfort or worse over the idea. David had wanted to build a temple but Nathan said God nixed it because David had fought too many battles that had made him impure for the task. A big part of the problem was that God wanted more elbow room than a temple would give. One of the more dramatic denunciations was Jeremiah’s admonition not to put any trust in stammering: “This is the temple of the Lord, the temple of the Lord, the temple of the Lord.” Fast forward to Jesus and we have him throwing the money changers and animals out of the temple.

What’s wrong with having a temple or a church building? Although Christians can and have worshiped in private houses, there are many practical reasons for having a building dedicated to worship, among them the problem of a host and hostess or their servants having to clean house before and after the service. Mircea Eliade famously pointed out humanity’s need of sacred space to draw attention to the Divine. St. Benedict affirmed the importance of the oratory in the monastery when he said that nothing else should be done there and nothing should be stored there so that there would be no mistaking this being the place for prayer and nothing but prayer. In throwing out the money changers, Jesus said that temple should not be a marketplace but a place of prayer.

There is an interesting detail in Matthew’s account of the cleansing of the temple that helps us understand Jesus’ actions in the temple. Jesus healed the blind and the lame who came to him there. We easily skip over this detail because Jesus was healing the blind and the lame all the time so yet another healing session doesn’t seem worthy of note. An obscure verse in Second Samuel sheds some light on this. When David brought his troops into Jerusalem, the Jebusites insulted David by saying that even the lame and the blind would turn him back. David reacts to the insult by heaping scorn on all lame and blind persons and barring them from the “house,” presumably once it was built. This was hardly fair to handicapped persons.

Jesus, by healing the lame and the blind was giving a strong signal that maybe he was the Messiah but if so, he was not a Davidic Messiah who would conquer by military might. More important, Jesus is giving us a positive teaching rather than simply denouncing the sacrificial cult. In short, Jesus was demonstrating, in action, the word of Hosea that God prefers mercy rather than sacrifice, a verse Jesus quoted more than once. In his first Epistle, Peter says we should rid ourselves of malice and all guile, insincerity, all slander and envy” so that we can become “living stones” “built into a spiritual house.” We are the ones who are called to be the temple of God, the Church grounded in Jesus who is the true temple. Being living stones that prefer mercy to sacrifice is how we do it. If we so allow ourselves by the grace of God to become such living stones, then having a place dedicated to precisely that is more than just fine.

Church as Family

HolyFamilybyGutierrezAnother set of images of the Church is drawn from family. As with other images, only more so here, there are strengths and weaknesses. Most important, they bring to remembrance our families of origin. If our family experiences are, on balance, good, then the images reinforce that, but if the experiences are seriously bad, then the images become stumbling blocks. These can be at least as hard to overcome as the stumbling blocks parents and/or siblings have put before us, especially in our earliest years. If the latter is the case, we need to remember that healing was a major ministry on the part of Jesus and healing familial brokenness continues to be part of that.

The Fatherhood of God is an important familial image in Christian spirituality as the Lord’s Prayer reminds us every time we say it. But it is important to remember that God is addressed as “Father” (better yet: Papa) by Jesus before God is addressed that way by us. Jesus is alerting us to the paternal care given all of us by God, but God’s paternity comes to us through Jesus. At the Annunciation, the Heavenly Father, who already has begotten the Son from all Eternity, begets the human child in Mary’s womb. As a conscious human, Jesus experienced the love of his Heavenly Father most strongly when he was baptized in the Jordan by John. The voice from Heaven said: “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.” This pre-emptive love of the child is fatherhood at its best. It is like the happy parent who is overjoyed with the birth of a child simply because the child is. It is this pre-emptive Love that is the Foundation of the Church, the rock on which the Church is built.

The image of Mother, Jesus’ earthly mother, has often been used as an image for the Church. As a particular flesh-and-blood mother she is Mother Church without being an abstraction. That she would nourish the baby Jesus from her own body makes her a perfect image of nurturing. When confronted with the mysteries surrounding Jesus’ birth, she pondered them in her heart. Little else is told us about her from Scripture but she stood by Jesus at the cross, making her the archetype of many more grieving mothers whose sons have been treated the way her son was. The nurturing we receive from our mothers has a lot to do with having a basic sense of security that helps us resist rivalrous mimetic desire as we grow up. Failures in early nurturing create basic insecurities that are difficult to overcome. The Church as a whole is called to delight in every child and to nurture every child during maturation.

Important as these paternal and maternal relationships are, they belong to Jesus first and to the rest of us secondarily. That is to say, Jesus relates to us as our brother and we are all Jesus’ brothers and sisters. Considering the history of sibling rivalry in scripture, this is of immense significance. Jesus is the keeper of his brother that Abel never had and he is Cain’s keeper as well. In her book Intimate Domain, Martha Reineke discusses the tension and fundamental choice a child is faced with when a sibling is born: whether to compete or to welcome the sibling as “more of me” rather than less. There is no competing with Jesus over mama or papa so we might as well be civil brothers and sisters with him and with each other in the bargain.

There is a curious story in the Gospels that hint of possible tensions even in the Holy Family. Jesus is told that his mother and brothers and sisters are outside wanting to speak to him. Jesus points to the people who are listening to him and says that they are his mother and brothers and sisters. This indicates that even during his lifetime, Jesus is building a kinship network based not on bloodlines but on obedience to God’s Desire. There are people from broken families who find family through the Church. (Here I mean Church in the broadest sense! Where this nurturing takes place, there is Church, when it doesn’t, there is no church.) Building deep kinship ties through Jesus happens when we allow Jesus to bring us into the arms of his Mother and the Presence of the Heavenly Father who is so well-pleased with us that our hearts melt and we really want to be pleasing to our brothers and sisters.

Christian Community (5)

guestsNarthex1Unfortunately, I can’t discuss Church without saying something about institutions called churches. I also can’t overlook the unfortunate fact that although the word “church” has six letters in it, for some it is a four-letter word.

A common distinction is made between the visible Church and the invisible Church. The former is made up of people who wear clerical collars and vestments and those who sit or stand or kneel in pews and sing hymns or songs of praise. The latter is made up of those who actually have their hearts and minds conformed to Christ regardless of whether or not they place their bodies in buildings with a cross on it. In such a distinction, the invisible Church is the real Church, although people invested in the visible church (sorry about the pun!) hope that at least some of them are in the real, invisible Church as well. Of course, this invisible church isn’t really invisible. It is perfectly visible to God and it is visible to all people who have eyes to see. In my earlier posts on the subject of Church, I have suggested that the essence of Church is to be aligned with the forgiving love of Christ that brings us to the place of the victim in opposition to the principalities and powers that feast on victims. Acting out the role of Church in this way is quite visible, just as visible the people who sing hymns and preach in buildings that we call churches. Again, we hope there is at least some overlap between the two, but we all know that the two hardly coincide.

The Church is, then, visible in acts of worship and in charitable acts such as ministering to the poor. The disconnect between these two visibilities is a cause of dismay and downright confusion. Some people who are devoted to both might find that the people they worship with and the people they work with in ministry are very different. This problem becomes particularly acute when a “church” openly allies itself with Empire. To this day, there is concern that when the Roman Empire theoretically converted to Christianity, Christianity was actually converted to the Empire. The establishment of what was called “Christendom” tended to institutionalize the violent tactics of Empire. The Inquisition was a particularly notorious example of this. In more recent history, the Nazi government of Germany ordered the Evangelical (Lutheran) Church to expel all members of Jewish descent from leadership positions. Complying with this demand was a betrayal of their own members and of Christ. The Confessing Church which seceded in protest was a remnant of the Body of Christ.

The disunity and discord among Christians is a further cause of scandal to many. That there should be many ecclesiastical bodies with long or sometimes short traditions is not a problem to me. People are different and cultures are different. It is sad, however, that most churches, were founded in protest against the ecclesiastical body they left. Many of the long-standing debates have been resolved and many ecclesiastical bodies work together charitably in matters such as world relief. Many of the divisions, however, smack of emulating the disciples who argued about who is the greatest and/or the slogans in 1 Corinthians: “I am of Apollos!” “I am of Cephas!” Many of the theological debates in the early Christian centuries over the Trinity and the Natures of Christ could have been carried on with less rancor if church leaders had not been so afraid that God would eternally torture anyone who didn’t get the formulas just right. Getting the theology right just isn’t enough when we get the Love of God wrong.

The scandal of Church for so many of us tempts us to chuck it all and try to go it alone. If Girard’s theory of mimetic desire is true, that is simply not possible. We are affected by the desires and intentions of others whether we like it or not. If we set ourselves over against everybody else in defiance, that very defiance makes us totally dependent on the people we are defying. After all, if we aren’t defying people, we aren’t doing much in the way of defying. The deeper problem is that when we make ourselves that dependent on other people, we are easily sucked into the power of persecutory mechanisms when they occur. A lone individual can’t hold out against such a thing.

So there is need to connect with others. This is a point I illustrate in some of the stories I’ve written, most particularly in Merendael’s Gift. The protagonist can’t stand up to social pressures of the kids he hangs out with until he allies himself with other children who band together to befriend this strange visitor from another planet. This group becomes an analogy for the Church as the Body of Christ. In real life, we have to be alert to the people who are sincerely and humbly entering the place of the Victim. (I say “humbly” because some people pridefully use “victimhood” to manipulate others.) We can only hope that some of these people actually are in a church in the ecclesiastical sense.

Girard’s theory of mimetic desire and the rivalry and sacrificial violence it can lead to suggests that they greatest division among Christians is along the lines of a theology and practice that is sacrificial on the one hand and one that is grounded in Jesus the Forgiving Victim on the other. Girard’s theory shows us how easily followers of Jesus’ Kingdom could easily slide back into remnants of the primitive sacred. The Body of Christ looks like the Body of Christ when it is embodied by people who stand up to the persecutory mechanism whenever it occurs. Unfortunately, any of us can easily fall into embodying instead the Satan who is the Accuser. That is to say, this schism between sacrificial and forgiving members can split right down the middle our own selves. This is why we need to strengthen ourselves with the practices of Church such as worship and interior prayer and mutual encouragement.

Christian Community (3)

vocationersAtTable1The best-known image of the Church in the New Testament is the analogy of the human body with the Church which is the Body of Christ (1 Cor. 12:12-28). The implication is that as the various parts of a body add up to a unity, the various members of the church, different as we are, also make up a body. This analogy suggests each part must be well-coordinated with all the others. We can see this readily—and impressively—in athletic maneuvers such as acrobatics or in the artistry of a ballet dancer or musician. This image suggests a deep intuition on St. Paul’s part into mimetic desire. Just as each part of the human body must be sensitive and synchronized with each other, so must each member of Christ’s Body resonate with one another. As with the body, this resonance needs to be preconscious, an ongoing awareness of and sensitivity to the other members. The most essential elements of this sensitivity are accepting the other members and not overstepping limits. St. Paul says one part cannot say it doesn’t need another part. His extension of the analogy to a list of various ministries in the church makes it clear that if a foot wants to be a hand, the body won’t walk very well. Neither will the body work well if a foot is amputated. These destructive outcomes happen if the parts of the body fall into mimetic rivalry. The comic character Bottom in Shakespeare’s Midsummer Night’s Dream is a perfect example of overstepping boundaries. At the rehearsal of the play to be performed before the Duke’s court, Bottom first accepts the part assigned to him but then demands every other part as it is doled out to the cast. The absurdity of Bottom’s demands is clear enough if we try to imagine him doing all the parts in the play himself. It is the same absurdity if the neck tried to do all the walking.

Another image of the Church comes in the First Epistle of Peter. The author envisions the community of Christ as a “holy house” made out of “living stones.” (1 Pet. 2: 5) This image reminds us of St. Paul’s admonition that individually and corporately we should each be a Temple of God. (1 Cor. 3:16) It is significant that Peter calls the building a house and not a temple although it is a place where priestly ministry takes place. I see here a hint that Christ’s household is not a place set apart but a place for everyone, sort of like the City of God that doesn’t have a temple because the whole place is one. We have a sense of unity-in-diversity in this image as well. There are many stones and each has to be in its proper place or the house collapses. The stones are not inert but living, vibrant. Again each living stone should resonate with all the other living stones, another powerful image of mimetic desire working constructively.

Another biblical image that I don’t recall seeing used as an image of the Church, but one that could be, is that of the vine and the branches (John 15: 1-9).Here, we are all to be connected with one another through our rootedness in Christ. This image stresses our resonance with the Desire of God but also our connectedness with others through God’s Desire.

These images of the Church complement one another. The Body of Christ has possible pantheistic overtones if taken too far so that the distinction between us and Christ is blurred. But we are, all of us, called to act the part of Christ in the world. The body is dynamic. It can be still for a time to meditate, but usually it is going places and doing stuff. This body and should go out and minister to people in need. The image of the holy house made of living stones is more static. The dynamism is in the living stones while the building stays in one place. This holy house is to be open for the Holy Spirit to fill it and just as open for people to enter and be in it. That is, we are to be living stones creating a loving environment of hospitality for all. The image of the vine and the branches is the most contemplative. While the other two images emphasize the relationships between the members, the image of the vine and the branches emphasizes the grounding of all members in God. It is an important corrective to the pantheistic pitfall of the Body of Christ image.

In themselves, these images are inspiring ideals. The reality is something different. St. Paul himself knew this full well. Just before presenting the Church as the Body of Christ, he had castigated the Corinthians for their disorderly and exclusionary suppers where some gorge themselves in front of their poorer and hungrier brothers and sisters. This same epistle began with Paul’s outrage over the divisions within the church with its party slogans that reinforced the divisions. Likewise, Luke’s claim that “the whole group of those who believed were of one heart and soul, and no one claimed private ownership of any possessions, but everything they owned was held in common” (Acts 4:32) was wishful thinking as the subsequent story of Ananias and Sapphira makes clear. Rather than throwing out these images as unrealistic, we need to keep them before us as models we constantly fail to live up to. Without these images, we would just act like the Corinthians without a second thought. We will have to look again at the reality in relationship to these ideal images.

Then there is the matter of the stones. These living stones aren’t just any stones. The cornerstone had been rejected by the builders. What does this mean for the other living stones we are supposed to be? That is another question for further reflection.

Go to Christian Community (4)

Christian Community (2)

guestsNarthex1In essence, the kingdom Jesus encouraged his followers to enter is based on peace and forgiveness. In his inaugural sermon in Luke, Jesus announced that the kingdom was about bringing good news to the poor, proclaiming release to the captives, recovery of sight to the blind, letting the oppressed go free, and proclaiming the Lord’s favor, to use the summary Jesus draws from Isaiah in his inaugural sermon in Luke. The year of the Lord’s favor refers to the Jubilee year, the year that debts were to be forgiven. We should not forget that the petition in the Our Father about asking forgiveness of our sins is also about forgiving our debts. Letting the oppressed go free refers to God’s command to Pharaoh to let God’s people go. This command applies to all of us insofar as we keep even one person in bondage to us in any way, including emotional blackmail. Years ago, at a Benedictine abbots’ workshop, I head a series of conferences on biblical spirituality by Demetrius Dumm, a seasoned monk of St. Vincent’s Archabbey. He said with deep solemnity that he was afraid that at the Judgment, we would each be asked one question and one question only: “Did you let my people go?”

These teachings are the primary blueprint for a community based on Christ, what some call Church, but this community that Jesus clearly tried to form did not happen in his lifetime, as recounted in my earlier post. (See Christian Community (1) This suggests that, important and fundamental as Jesus teachings are, they are no enough to form a community based on these teachings. What did form such a community was Jesus’ Resurrection from the dead. But it was not just the Resurrection itself that formed the community; it was the radical preemptive forgiveness with which Jesus approached his scattered followers. If Jesus had just bashed in the heads of his persecutors, everything would have been the same and we humans would still have no alternative but to cohere through the persecution of a victim. The church was not founded on the teachings of Jesus; the Church was founded by Jesus himself acting on his teachings. In short, Jesus forgave the Church into existence.

Note that Jesus did not forgive individuals and leave them as individuals. Jesus forgave all of us as the community of humanity. Jesus could stand alone against the persecutory crowd. We cannot. Only a community gathered on a radically new principle can counteract the old human community gathered the old way. This is what St. Paul was getting at when he said we have to become members of a new humanity in Christ.

I am not talking about the church as a set of institutions with their paraphernalia of miters, Geneva gowns, pointed steeples and mega buildings. I am talking about people who consciously seek to gather in the radical forgiveness of Jesus, a gathering that precludes the persecutory mechanism as a means of binding people together. This radical act of forgiveness on the part of Jesus was made for all people at all times. This means that everybody everywhere and any time who gathers in forgiveness is within the Church regardless of what ecclesiastical cards one might or might not carry in one’s wallet. Of course, most of us gather through forgiveness some of the time at best. That means that most of us are partly in the Church and partly outside of it. The Parable of the Wheat and the Weeds is about the world, the institutional church and each one of us. (See Christ  the Rejected Cornerstone among the Weeds.)

The New Testament word for Church, ekklesia, literally means “calling out of.” In this respect, everybody is in the church because everybody, without exception, is being called out of human community based on persecution and called into human community based on forgiveness. Of course, some people respond to this call and some don’t. Actually, most of us respond to the call some of the time at most. Such is the case of those of us who are members of an organized church and those who wouldn’t go through a church door under any circumstances. Not even as unifying an act as pre-emptive forgiveness by the risen Jesus can avoid causing division for the simple reason that each of us is divided by a choice we have to make day by day. There is much more to a theology of Church than this, but without the attempt to gather in the risen Jesus’ radical forgiveness there is no real church at all.

 Go to Christian Community (3)