Christian Identity on the Journey of Faith
Second Sunday of Easter, April 7, 2013
Episcopalians of the Florence Deanery
Episcopalians in this part of the world are finding creative ways to claim their identity. On Edisto, they had been meeting in a barbecue hut ... but now they have moved to the oldest church structure on the island – a historic African American Baptist church. In West Ashley, they have made a funeral home chapel their place of worship - as of Easter Day, believe it or not. And the Florence Deanery is drawing displaced Episcopalians from several different congregations, to experience a spirit of greater unity. Indeed, Episcopalians are being creative as we claim – and reclaim - our identity.
The collect today refers to “the new covenant of reconciliation”, which becomes known through the experience of Easter. It is that new covenant – the hope and promise of reconciliation – which forms the very essence of our identity as faithful followers of Jesus Christ, no matter what other challenges confront us. And therefore, in the spirit of that new covenant, we pray these words as we affirm our identity: “Grant that all those who have been reborn into the fellowship of Christ’s Body may show forth in their lives what they profess by their faith“ (BCP, p224).
To the extent that we are what we claim to be – Easter people of the new covenant – the content of our lives will demonstrate the basis of our faith. In our day, there are things about who we have been that we can negotiate and, even, give up. We have learned that there are some aspects of our previous identity which are subject to change. But this perspective is not negotiable, if we are true to our claim to be Christians. We must “show forth in (our) lives what (we) profess by (our) faith.” Thus, our lives and our faith testify to belief in the new covenant of reconciliation. That is basic to our identity as Christians. And that we cannot give up.
Now, the apostle Thomas had some questions about Jesus’ identity, in our Gospel reading today. Thomas also questioned what was essential for him to see in order to believe, as distinct from what he might be able to give up. Did he actually need to see the risen Jesus in person – to put his finger in the mark of the nails and his hand in Jesus’ side – or could he accept the testimony of his fellow disciples?
Remember that the other disciples told Thomas some news that was too good for him to believe – that Jesus, who had died on the cross, was actually alive. These disciples even told Thomas they had seen Jesus themselves. Of course, Thomas‘ response to the news too good to believe has given him the nickname, "doubting Thomas.” “Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands, and put my finger in the mark of the nails and my hand in his side, I will not believe” (Jn 20: 25).
Thomas simply wants to see, in order to believe. Put another way, he wants to affirm in his life what he professes by faith. That is not a completely bad attribute After all, the very identity of the one called the Messiah was at stake. Jesus himself – when he next appeared to the disciples – seemed not to be very hard on Thomas at all... but, rather, understanding of him. However, Jesus did go on to say, “Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe” (Jn 20: 29). That is good news indeed, for we ourselves are now included in the Gospel story at this point. Thus it is that the requirement of faith becomes closely tied to questions about identity. "Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.” They “have come to believe”, that is, in the identity of Jesus as the One who is the Messiah, the Christ.
Now, the church in our day is composed of those who “have come to believe” in the risen Christ, as a matter of faith. And the church is called “the body of Christ” on earth today, as today’s collect reminds us. Like Thomas, though, people today want to know how to tell the identity of that body – the church. What are the marks that distinguish it? By what characteristics are Christ’s body known in our time? As a way to answer those questions – and to sum up these thoughts – let me repeat the main ideas of this sermon now.
First of all, we seek and experiment with creative ways to claim our identity as Episcopal Christians. The places that we meet as communities of faith are but one indication of this creativity – creativity born out of necessity. Indicative of our self understanding, we attempt to appeal to a wide variety of people and to include a great deal of diversity in our midst. For instance, in this community we need to consider means to reach out and include younger people here. Thus, as a part of our identity, we seek and experiment with creative ways to claim who we are as Christians who are also Episcopalians. In that process, we come to know what is essential to our identity, and we try not to hold so tightly to those things that are not essential.
Secondly, a basic and non-negotiable aspect of our identity is “the new covenant of reconciliation”, which calls us “to show forth in (our) lives what (we) profess by (our) faith.” Reconciliation is the heart of the Easter message. And reconciliation must provide the heart of our message as Easter people, following the example and the way of the risen Lord. Reconciliation with God, with other people, and with ourselves must dominate our prayers and our lives, as people who claim to be Christians.
Thirdly, we are not yet where we shall be. That is, we are people on a journey, involved in a life of pilgrimage. We are on the way, but we have not yet arrived at the place we are called to be. Thus, our identity is filled with hope and with faith for the future. We rely on hope and faith as fundamental to our very being, our identity. As St. Paul wrote to the church in Corinth, “Now
we see in a mirror, dimly, but then, face to face. Now I know only in part; then I will know fully, even as I have been fully known” (I Cor 13:12). Our hope and faith will see us through this journey, for in the midst of things that are passing away, the attributes of hope and faith, along with love, will endure for ever.
Thus, I commend you on the path you are traveling as Episcopal Christians, in the Florence Deanery. You are a light to the world, for the sake of the Gospel here. You are becoming what God in Christ is calling you to be ... and the fact that you are not there yet is nothing to be ashamed of. Along the way, carrying the light, it is important to remember to remain true to who we are. Ours is the task that we share with our Lord – the ministry of reconciliation in a world which is fractured and broken. This also, though, is the world for which Jesus died and into which he calls us, day by day. Amen.
The Right Reverend Charles G. vonRosenberg
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