Abu-ul-Fath Jalal-ud-Din Muhammad Akbar was Emperor of India at about the time that Elizabeth the First was queen of England. Akbar's grandson was Shah Jihan who built the Taj Mahal. In the latter part of the 16th century, Akbar constructed a capital city in Northern India called, Fatehpur-Sikri which means city of Victory.
I happened to think of his city when a fancy brochure arrived the other day for an around the world trip sponsored by National Geographic – Fatipur Sikri (now a deserted ruin) is one of the stops. (The trip is only 60 grand per person, double occupancy if you’re interested.)
Akbar is an interesting character for his day and age because he was a synthesizer, that is, he shunned the dogmatism or megalomania which many absolute rulers acquire as he sought to celebrate diversity in philosophy, the arts, religion, and the sciences. His reign is remembered as a kind of mini-renaissance in Indian history. Akbar married several wives...many of whom represented the different religious faiths of his vast nation. His chief wife, and mother of his heir was Moslem, but other wives were Hindu, Jain, Shiite, Parsi and Christian. Each had their own palaces which remain intact today, each decorated with the symbols of her parent faith. Akbar sought to unite the faiths under a new religious expression which celebrated aspects of each. In retrospect we might look upon such an effort as being one which would so dilute each faith that the homogenized product would be pretty tepid. But Akbar was not a theologian, he was a ruler who sought to reconcile the centuries of enmity between people of different traditions and forge a new kind of cultural tradition.
Although he was extremely powerful as an Emperor, he did not have the power to pull it off...when he died that dream died with him. Just three generations latter, the great grandson of Akbar was such a rabid fundamentalist Moslem that he began persecution of other religions and so weakened the fabulous empire of the Moguls in India that it became fragmented and divided never to regain the splendor or cultural standards of the great Akbar.
12For just as the body is one and has many members, and all the members of the body, though many, are one body, so it is with Christ. 13For in the one Spirit we were all baptized into one body—Jews or Greeks, slaves or free—and we were all made to drink of one Spirit.
When Paul wrote these words they were considered by some as blasphemy – those of Jewish heritage had always concentrated on their “apartness” not their unity with others of the many nations which intersected with their history. It is neither exclusively worldly nor exclusively spiritual unity about which Paul is speaking when he idealizes the church in this 12th chapter of Corinthians. He speaks both of one-ness and of special and unique gifts. He speaks of together making up the one body of Christ...but each being individual members. He speaks of tension...not incorporation. In the human body, each muscle has it opposite muscle...the biceps and the triceps...pulling against one another to keep the arm functioning and alive. Tension made possible through diversity; perhaps a vision of the world similar to Akbar's capital in that a plurality of voices is heard, a creative mix of ideas and skills exchanged.
During the time of the great empires, the physical presence of the human ruler kept things from flying apart, according to Paul’s analogy, it is the spiritual presence of Christ that mediates the diversity in the church and maintains balance.
Remembering that Paul’s letters are the earliest of the writings about this Jesus, we can deduce that “tension” was already in the air just decades after Jesus’ death and that Paul’s body imagery is an effort to keep the tent big enough – and broad enough to include both the left and the right hands, so to speak.
When the tension is in balance, no one aspect of church life is favored over another, and that is what we strive for, as well, is it not? Jumping across the centuries – yesterday we had a gathering of our Session and Deacons for a joint Officer Training event. We spent some time on the details of tasks and our hopes for our life together; we also spent some time looking at goals and objectives for the future.
Some of the words which came out again and again were “connectedness” and “visibility” and “mission.” There were lots of expressions of appreciation for quality of our life in worship and our emphasis on educational inquiry and thoughtful learning for children, youth and adults.
We want to be a church with a good church school and youth program...but not exclusively a church for traditional families alone. We want to be involved in our world; we also want to have a strong basis for spiritual growth. We want to have fine music and excellence in our worship services, but we also understand that the business of the church continues after the service is over and each participant as minister seeks to live the word lifted up in worship as they undertake the daily tasks of life in the community.
The creative tension which exists between the various pulls on our ministry is often felt and for many feels a bit inappropriate. “Shouldn't we all agree, shouldn't we all be the same.” “Should mission be our highest priority?” “What about stewardship of our building?” And “If we don’t bring in new people/young people what will the future look like?”
Paul talks about the importance of different tasks within the body of the faithful...the apostle, the prophet, the teacher the healer. There are different gifts...there are also different jobs to do to keep the body strong. Our annual report is a fine example of the ways in which these jobs are undertaken…in preparation for next week’s Annual Meeting, you might want to pick up one of the green booklets found on the table by the Parlor. There is no single report which represents the most important tasks of being a congregation. But each contributes to the good of the whole subject always to the guiding principles. We cannot be a faithful church and at the same time be a body which operates by simple majority rule...even the smallest constituent is important to the ministry of the whole. Just as one leaky valve can stop a railroad engine or a missing screw can ground a passenger jet...so each of the parts, no matter how minor, contributes to the function of the whole.
Luke has a prologue to his Gospel, rather less well known than the prologue in John. But it is interesting, and caused some stir back in the day, 200AD when the Roman cannon was being set down and they were struggling against a major heresy of the day, Marcionism.
Marcion did not like Jews – he rejected the Old Testament references and the connections made between the ancient faith of the Hebrews and the new faith centered on Jesus Christ. He said, in essence, “Don’t look back – just look forward!” Luke makes it clear in this prologue that his Gospel will be an orderly compilation of events that he has thoroughly “investigated” and will reflect the eyewitness accounts of the “word” that have come down from “the beginning.” That is to say, this Gospel is part of a tradition that spans the generations gone before – from the days of the Hebrews until and through the days of the Apostles teaching in Asia Minor, Greece and Rome.
“To my most excellent Theophilus…” Luke does not identify himself as he begins this Gospel, nor as he starts the second volume of the work which we call Acts, but in both instances he refers to Theophilus. Scholars have been looking for some record of this fellow Theophilus for 1500 years and not found him; so that some detect a play on words here. One of the early church fathers suggested that it should be read as “God’s Friend” which would be the literal Greek translation of the word – “Theo” and “Philus.” Luke’s Gospel therefore begins:
To all of you who are excellent friends of God, let me recount to you the events of recent times which have been handed down to us – in concert with ancient sources so that you may know the whole truth!
The Congregation at Nazareth where apparently Jesus had been a member of the youth group and had his Bar Mitzvah was no doubt like many congregations of the time, dealing with the pressures of the Roman Conquest and trying to be faithful within the tension of an imposed culture from the west and an imagined time back when the Jewish Nation was free and independent. They practiced their faith in a vacuum, sort of – as do many well-meaning Christians today, recalling wistfully the values of the good old days that never really existed and trying to differentiate themselves from the norms of “modern times.”
The Congregation at Nazareth apparently was in just such a mood when one of their favorite sons came home to preach. The familiar passage from Luke describes Jesus first sermon as a grown-up. His reading was from the prophet Isaiah. What he was doing was waking the body to the idea that these marvelous words of scripture are not some ideal...some poetic memory to be acknowledged and placed on a pedestal. This vision of good news is to become operating principles for God's faithful people TODAY...now in our midst, this vision of healing, restoring, and releasing is to be accomplished. Jesus says – turn around and look at the world, and look at yourselves – you are the “friends of God.” Don’t just idealize the word – make it your challenge and your way of life.
"The mission of the Church of Jesus Christ, in the power and unity of the Holy Spirit, is to serve as an alternative community to an alienated and fractured world; a loving and peaceable multinational company transcending all governments, races, and ideologies, reaching out to all ‘enemies’ ministering to all the victims of poverty and oppression." These words are from a Methodist document which I found in my files from 20 years ago. They are words used to describe the unity of the church...its catholicity...in a statement prepared by the Methodist Council of Bishops to address issues of peacemaking. It is one body; with many expressions...it is one body which exists as an alternative model...not in opposition to the world of secular human culture, nor in deference to it either.
That is our common call, isn't it? and our cause for celebration. That is the good news which we celebrate. We live in a tension between being and doing; remembering how it was and looking forward to becoming something new. In the midst of a fractured world we hold out a vision of wholeness. Yet, we are many, diverse and multi-talented ourselves. We have the perspective of many ages to share.
My most excellent friends – and friends of God! As we come together here we come apart from the world to gather strength and support from one another and most of all to find direction and hope in the Lord of Life whose name we bare as Christians. We are one body – but we have lots of parts with lots of interests and concerns – hopes and dreams. Now you are the earthly representation of Christ who in himself embodied the same kind of creative tension – he was the long expected and he was and is the one who is doing a new thing among us. This Jesus has chosen to work through us and through him we are held together as one body. It can be an exciting prospect.
Next week we bring one year to a close and begin a new year in our corporate life. Let us seek to build each other up so that, enabled by the holy spirit, we may turn and face the world as a people made new and strong...as people who declare with their lives, "today, this vision is being fulfilled though us." AMEN.