In the search process to become your Rector, I told the Search Committee that, as an introvert, one of the ways that I find refreshment and renewal is in the minutiae of rubrics of the Book of Common Prayer and the Canons of the Episcopal Church. That’s me. I know full well that there are maybe 15 people like me in the whole world, and the last thing you want to hear from me today is some obscure reference to some never-turned-to page in the Book of Common Prayer, but given the stresses of preaching Trinity Sunday in the midst of a pandemic and a New Civil Rights movement, you’re going to have to excuse me while I find an anchor to hold on to.
Deep in the recesses of the Prayer Book is the Catechism. Catechism comes from ecclesiastical Greek and means, “to make heard.” Its purpose is to articulate the teaching of the church in terms that are as accessible as possible. Rarely actually “made heard,” our Catechism is intended to be a brief summary of the Church’s teaching and an outline for deeper discussion. About halfway through the Catechism the focus turns away from theological questions about the Trinity, sin and redemption, and the scriptures and toward the Church and its work. At the top of page 855, toward the tail end of the section titled “The Church,” the question is posed, “What is the mission of the Church?” The answer isn’t intended to be all inclusive, but it is about as good a summary as there is of why disciples of Jesus continue to be a part of this sometimes messy, human institution. “The mission of the Church is to restore all people to unity with God and each other in Christ.”
While not exactly identical to Paul’s message of unity in our lesson from Second Corinthians this morning, it seems obvious that the mission of the church as defined in the Catechism is built upon a similar foundation. Paul had sent two, maybe three, letters and made two in-person visits trying to lead the Church in Corinth beyond its near-constant fighting. Outsiders had come in and tried to undermine his message. The rich and powerful had hijacked Christ’s gift of the Eucharist for their own gain. The Gospel of God’s grace in Jesus Christ was getting lost in a long list of requirements for “true membership.” As Paul put the finishing touches on this second letter, he claimed every bit of his authority as an Apostle of Jesus and founder of the Corinthian Church and insisted that they finally accept the Holy Spirit’s call to become a new creation, find agreement, and live in peace with one another.
Living in peace with one another sounds so nice, doesn’t it? Working alongside Christ to restore all people to unity with God and with each other has that same sort of warm fuzzy feeling to it. They both evoke images of prayer circles around a campfire singing Kumbaya, but given the anger, pain, and stress that the Corinthian Church was experiencing, that naïve utopian vision seems to miss the mark. The anger, pain, and stress that we see in the nationwide call to end police brutality, to address systemic racism, to name that Black Lives Matter, and to unwind our nation’s 400-plus-year history of white supremacy make it clear that simple platitudes will not result in any true unity or lasting peace.
The peace that Paul calls for in Corinth and the unity that we are commissioned to seek are both based in the Hebrew concept of shalom. Shalom is most often translated as peace, but it carries a meaning much deeper than “no longer at war.” Inherent in the concept of shalom is oneness or completeness. Shalom exists when all people are as God intended them to be. Shalom exists when the world is as God created it to be. Shalom will exist when all is made whole again. As Christians who claim belief in God who is Three-in-One, we see the perfect example of shalom in the relationship of self-giving love that exists in the Trinity.
Whether we call it peace, or unity, or shalom, each word assumes the wholeness of the other, the belovedness of the other, and the sacredness of the other. Unfortunately, almost from the very beginning of humankind, we have repeatedly failed to offer to our neighbors these most basic assumptions. Instead, envy, fear, hatred, and bigotry have led us further and further from shalom, further and further from right relationship with each other, and ultimately, further and further from God. Again, and again God intervened, inviting humanity back into shalom with one another and with God. Again, and again, human beings, often led by those in positions of power who were intent on maintaining control of a social order that benefited them, made deals with the devil; taking themselves and their people further and further away from God. Again, and again, real people have failed to fulfill even the most basic commandments of loving God and loving your neighbor as yourself.
When the Second Person of the Trinity came to earth to live among us in the person of Jesus of Nazareth, the example of what shalom looks like in human flesh was right in front of our faces. Once again, humanity chose fear, violence, and control – nailing the shalom of God to a cross to die. Yet, as we well know, in the resurrection of Jesus, God the Father confirmed that death and destruction will not have the last word. Through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus, humanity was given atonement for their sins – at-one-ment in the shalom of God. In the outpouring of the Holy Spirit, we were given access to the heart of God and the perfect shalom of the Trinity, should we be willing to turn away from sin and toward the peace and unity of God.
After his resurrection, Jesus met his disciples on a Galilean mountain, and commissioned them, and by extension each of us, to take shalom into the world, teaching by word and example that loving God and loving neighbor really can change the world. Clearly, human beings still struggle with living into the wholeness that God intended for creation. People still crave power. People still hoard resources. People still dehumanize the other. People still think that the color of your skin somehow defines you as better or worse, more or less human, or more or less deserving of God’s love. As disciples of Jesus, we must utterly reject any worldview that works against peace, unity, and shalom.
“The mission of the Church is to restore all people to unity with God and each other in Christ.” The Catechism goes on to ask and answer a more practical question, “How does the Church pursue its mission? … It prays and worships, proclaims the Gospel, and promotes justice, peace, and love.” I, we, Christ Church, the Diocese of Kentucky, the Episcopal Church, Mainline Protestantism, and many predominantly white congregations have done a lot of good work in prayer, worship, and proclaiming the Gospel. Now, we must get about the work of promoting justice, peace, and love as we seek the shalom of God for our community and the whole world. Amen.