“Though many, we are one body, so it is with Christ.”
Today, as we mark our centennial year in this place we call St. Paul’s Memorial Church, I want to begin a yearlong conversation about our role – our mission – in the body of Christ.
It probably is a good idea to have this conversation at least every 100 years, so today is a good day to get started. How we have this conversation, I would suggest, will unfold in many ways, over meals, in small groups, at big gatherings, informally and formally, and I hope, especially in our prayers.
Each of us has a role in this mission because each of us is a vital part the Body of Christ, just as each of us is connected to this amazing proclamation we hear from Jesus in this morning’s gospel.
Hear it again: the “Scripture has been fulfilled today in your hearing” to bring good news to the poor, to free the captives, to give sight to the blind and to let the oppressed go free.
That proclamation nothing less than the definition of salvation that begins now in this world and does not wait the next; salvation especially for those in the greatest of need, the poor, the destitute, the people of Haiti and other troubled people of this earth, either far away or just around the corner.
The good news, and there is lots of good news, is that there are many members of the body Christ; many branches, many vines, many to make the yoke easy and the burden light. We are many, and we are one body.
The namesake of our parish, the apostle Paul, went to great lengths in his letters long ago to remind a sometimes crabby bunch of people called Christians that they are connected to each other through Jesus Christ, and each of us is given special gifts to carry out this mission of salvation.
The fact Paul wrote a lot of letters with this theme means that a lot of his listeners struggled with how to live as faithful people especially in those times when it was hardest, and that makes them not much different than many of us.
We are also sometimes contentious; we have different ideas on just about everything from faith to politics, from creeds to music, and if I have learned anything about you in the last year, it is you are usually not shy in expressing what you think.
I would suggest to you that is not a weakness, but is one of the strengths God has given us. As St. Paul reminds us, “all the members of the body, though many, are one body, so it is with Christ.”
All of us have need of each other, everyone is valuable, every gift counts.
As Paul tells us, “The eye cannot say to the hand, "I have no need of you,” nor again the head to the feet, “I have no need of you.”
We share together in the tenderness of life’s joys and sorrows. “If one member suffers,” Paul tells us, “all suffer together with it; if one member is honored, all rejoice together with it.”
With that comes responsibility to be gentle with each other, to be careful how we speak to one another, and how we speak about one another. When we are mean or cynical, we hurt the whole body.
Paul reminds us of who the head is, and it isn’t us.
I’d like you to open a prayer book to page 854. Note the question, “How is the Church described in the Bible?”
Answer: “The Church is described as the Body of which Jesus Christ is the Head and of which all baptized persons are members.”
We are the members, but not the owners of the church; we are the builders, not the architect.
Yet it takes all of us, with our many perspectives on the truth, shared together, to discern what the architect -- Jesus -- would have us do.
I find a certain freedom in that. There are many branches of Christ’s Church in many places, many languages, many ways of worship, and it is not up to me to say who is better than whom.
This branch of the Church, the Episcopal Church, has its own history, and its own peculiar ways. We come from an old root, the Church of England, born of the 16th century in the tumult of the Reformation. Our American branch split off two hundred years later, during the American Revolution.
Yet we maintain a spiritual connection to the parent church, and all the churches of the same rootstock that remain connected through the Anglican Communion, which is the third largest branch of Christianity in the world.
We are called Episcopal because we are formed around bishops – the word “episcope” is Greek for bishop. The name signifies we are formed around bishops. That is not merely an administrative structure or a franchise name. Bishops are human symbols of our spiritual unity across geographic and chronological boundaries in the Body of Christ.
Bishops connect us to each other, and to all those who have gone before, and all those who will come after. Bishops especially connect us symbolically through the sacraments of baptism and Eucharist.
That makes an Episcopal parish different from some other brands of church.
The basic unit of our church is the diocese, not the local congregation. We are connected through our diocesan bishop, Shannon Johnston, to each of the 180 congregations of the Diocese of Virginia.
Sometimes this structure is described as hierarchical, with bishops at the top, then the priests, deacons, and people.
I’d like to think of this a different way: as bishops at the center of a baptismal web, all connected to each other symbolically by our baptism through the bishop.
The bishops are connected to each other, and that connects us to a larger baptismal web: the other 109 dioceses of The Episcopal Church. At the center of the larger web is one bishop: the Presiding Bishop of The Episcopal Church, the Most Rev. Katharine Jefferts Schori, who as the Bishop of Nevada was elected by her peers in 2006 to lead this church for nine years.
Bishop Katharine is the first woman to lead our church, and the only woman to be the chief bishop of any province of the Anglican Communion.
Next week we will mark a major event in the life of our parish: Presiding Bishop Katharine will come here to St. Paul’s to help us inaugurate our centennial year. I hope you will be here and avail yourself of the opportunity to meet this extraordinary woman.
Yet, her presence will be more than an honor for us.
I expect that she will challenge us, and challenge us deeply. It brings us back to that proclamation by Jesus that: “Today the Scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.”
How will we fulfill that Scripture? How will we live out our mission of salvation as a member of the Body of Christ in this time and place? That is for all of us to discover, and to discover together as God grants us the wisdom and grace to do so. AMEN.