Grace to you, and peace | 19 January 2014

Text: 1 Corinthians 1:1-10, John 1:35-42

It feels appropriate to begin speaking on this theme of reconciliation with a tone of humility.  We are a people in a tradition that has valued peace from our very beginnings.  Out of the fray that was 16th century Europe – Reformers, peasant wars, apocalyptic prophets, state church territorial battles, the ever present threat from the outside of those Ottoman Turks – out of this mix emerged small fellowships of Anabaptists, who believed that their baptismal commitment to Christ called them to reject violence outright.  One of their early leaders wrote:  “The regenerated do not go to war, nor engage in strife.  They are children of peace who have beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning forks, and know no war.”  These people lived out their convictions under threat of death, and over the following centuries migrated to different parts of the world where they were given haven, economic opportunity, and exemption from military service.  They also went to different parts of the world to share their faith such that today there are over 1.7 million of these Anabaptist Christians globally, with the largest numbers being in the continent of not North America, definitely not Europe, but Africa.

We continue to believe that peace is inseparable from the gospel of Jesus and goes beyond merely not engaging in warfare.  We have helped pioneer the Fair Trade movement in which artisans are paid a fair and living wage for their wares that are sold in wealthier nations.  Our alternative service during wartimes led us to help reform the public mental health system to be more humane.  We have developed alternatives to the punishment oriented criminal justice system by teaching the value of restorative justice and creating programs where victims and offenders meet together to restore the wrong committed.  We witness against the death penalty, against nuclear weapons, for diplomacy, for treating our planet Earth with honor.  On this Martin Luther King Jr. weekend we resonate with those urgent words that Dr. King repeated so often when he said: “the choice today is no longer between violence and nonviolence, but between nonviolence and nonexistence.”  Many of us in this tradition still bear the name of that early leader who spoke of the regenerated as being children of peace.  Menno Simons.  Mennonites.  And Womennonites.  This is our spiritual ancestry, and, for some of you, your biological ancestry.

This doesn’t sound very humble yet.

That was the set up.  Here’s the note of humility.  We are children of peace, have this rich heritage of peaceful relating to our neighbors, and yet! we have struggled like all other faith communities, all other human communities, to live peaceably among ourselves.  We struggle to reconcile and forgive in our interpersonal relationships, to disagree lovingly.  As a result, our family tree has many branches splitting off from one another.

If you’ve ever told anyone that you attend a Mennonite church and are then asked with a perflexed look if that’s kind of like the Amish, you have one of those historic splits to thank.  At the end of the 17th century Jakob Ammann and several of his co-ministers felt that the Brethren should be more firm in their practice of shunning and excommunication, and clearer in their definition of who was truly saved.  The factions couldn’t agree and Ammann’s followers came to be called the Amish and the others Mennonites.  If you want to use a short-hand answer to the question of whether Mennonites are like the Amish, just say that we’re cousins.  I think this congregation is more like Amish meets Bono.  Tell them that and see what they say.  They might show up with you the next week!

This is not a service about denominational church unity.  It’s not about social justice and peacemaking between the nations, important as that is.  It’s also not about what you get when you cross a politically active rock star with conservative bearded farmers.  The Reconciliation Team is helping us focus on interpersonal peacemaking.  Peacemaking among ourselves.

I’m going under the assumption that we’re all in the same boat in believing this is important and don’t need a whole lot of convincing on that.  It’s not easy, but it’s important.  I think it’s also safe to say that we have all been hurt by the church in some way.  I don’t mean this congregation specifically, but if you hang around church long enough, just like if you’re married long enough, you will encounter tensions, maybe painfully so.  To be in a church, to be in a family, to be in a friendship or relationship of any kind, is to experience conflict as a normal part of life.  It’s normal, it’s human, it’s potentially very creative, but it’s hard.

It’s fitting that the lectionary epistle for the morning is the opening words of Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians.  The Corinthians can make any church feel better about itself because the Corinthians had problems.  They were this prototype of Christian community, the first go around at trying to make this thing work, and it was not without its hitches.  In his letter Paul addresses a number of different issues going on within this community.  For example: There were arguments about who was their spiritual leader.  Was it Paul?  Was it Peter, Cephas?  Was it Apollos?  Could it be, perhaps, Christ?  The Corinthians had disagreements about issues of sexuality and marriage, they were taking each other to court over trivial things, they were elevating certain spiritual gifts-  like speaking in ecstatic languages -above others, some of them were even scarfing down the Communion bread and wine before everyone had a chance to partake, causing Paul to write, “one goes hungry and another becomes drunk.”  Prototype!  They were struggling along as a little community who had fallen in love with the message about Jesus, and Paul is instructing, scolding, guiding, lovingly accompanying this group of tryers.  They were trying, and Paul loves them for it.

In Paul’s opening words to them, he uses a wonderful phrase, one he also uses as he addresses other communities in other letters.  “Grace to you and peace.”

“Grace to you, and peace.”  He goes right on to say that he “gives thanks to God always because of you because of the grace of God that has been given you in Christ.”

I don’t know if Paul was strategically thinking about putting grace and peace right alongside each other, with grace coming first, followed by peace, but it presents us with a lovely idea.  If we are to be a community of peace, we must first be a community of grace.  A community who has deeply experienced the grace of God, and a community that extends that grace to one another.

A couple months ago I had lunch with a student from Trinity Lutheran Seminary.  We had met at a BREAD clergy gathering and, when he learned I was Mennonite, was interested to meet to talk about Anabaptism.  He very much shared Anabaptist core convictions, and after talking about this for a while, I  asked him what he thought was the most important value that his own tradition, the Lutheran church, emphasized.  He did not hesitate, and answered with one word.  “Grace.”

“Grace to you, and peace.”

This word for grace that Paul uses so frequently, charis, is directly related to the Greek word for gift, charisma.  Grace is gift.  Gifts are grace.  We are starting the annual Gifts Discernment process here and we could also call it the Grace Discernment process.  What graces are there among us to be shared with others?  To live in grace is to live with the recognition that all is gift.  Absolutely everything we have, every kindness we experience, is grace.  Every breath we breathe in this rich was made possible by the faithful photosynthesizing of the cyanobacteria over the course of millions, even billion of years, slowly transforming our atmosphere to have the amount of oxygen to sustain strange life forms who need the stuff.  How that for biological ancestry?  That’s the long view anyways.

We can shape our world, but we do not create it.  It precedes us.  All good things flow from the Divine Mystery and everything is gift.  The air is within us and we are within the air.  Grace is within us, and we are within grace.  We’re swimming in it.

There are skills and habits and important practices for working at reconciliation in our interpersonal relationships, and the Reconciliation Team is committed to helping us practice those, but as a foundation, and even a prerequisite, for those practices, there is the presence of grace.  It is a powerful thing for us to consider ourselves a community of peace.  I am suggesting that we also consider ourselves a community of grace.

The gospel reading is from John and John always has his own unique take on things.  In this case it involves the calling of the first disciples.  In Matthew, Mark, and Luke, Jesus invitation into discipleship is “Follow me.”  You want to know what this kin-dom of God thing is all about?  Follow me.  Here we go.  In John, the invitation is a little different, and shows up twice in the passage that was read.  Andrew and Peter and Philip and Nathanael meet Jesus for the first time, want to know what he’s all about, and Jesus’ response to them is, “Come and see.”  It has a little different feel to it.  Rather than just following this start-up wandering preacher around the countryside, in John it’s as if Jesus is inviting them into something that’s already going on.  Not something to help start, but something to join.  John begins his gospel by talking about the Word that was from the very beginning with God, the Word through which all things were created, this Word and communion and intimacy and union with God that Jesus embodied so radiantly.  This grace-filled way of being that Jesus invited his followers to join.  You want to find out where the party really is?  Come and join this Divine overflowing that has been going on from the very beginning, even before the cyanobacteria saw the light of day.  For John, that’s what eternal life is, that’s salvation, and it’s happening right now.  And the invitation is simple, Come and See.

Being a grace-filled community is being a community that continually encounters this overflowing  Source of life.  Each of us become better grounded in this reality and it affects all of our relationships.  When you know in your inmost being that you are loved, that you are a child of God, that you an expression of the Divine life, it is transformational.