Perfecting Harmony

Sunday, February 4, 2018

Perfecting Harmony

A homily preached by Rev. Ginger E. Gaines-Cirelli at Foundry UMC, February 4, 2018, the fifth Sunday after the Epiphany. “Grace Notes” sermon series.

Texts: Ephesians 4:1-7, 14-16, Mark 14:12-16, 22-26 


“Remember that you’re free and who it is that saved you.” That, in short, is the message of Passover.  Our Jewish siblings celebrate Passover as a commemoration of their liberation by God from slavery in ancient Egypt.  It’s called “Passover” (Hebrew Pesach) because the turning point in the struggle for Israel’s freedom came when God “passed over” the Jewish homes as a death-dealing plague struck Egypt. The Jewish people were to mark their doorposts with the blood of a lamb, a lamb they would then roast and share together equally—and the sign of the blood upon their door “covered” them from death. The sacrament we celebrate and share today is our “passover”—our remembrance that we’re free and who it is that saves us.  The ancient symbolic connections between blood and life, of a sacrificial lamb and liberation still pulsate in the story we tell when we gather at the table.  But when Jesus gathered with his disciples to celebrate the Pesach for the last time, the meal and ritual were transformed and expanded. It was no longer simply a commemoration of God’s saving activity in the past, but also a proclamation of the coming Kindom. It was no longer only a remembrance of what God did in Egypt for Israel at one point in time, but what God would do on the cross for the whole world for all time. It became a feast of remembrance, thanksgiving, communion, and anticipation of what God does in Jesus the Christ out of love for the world.


In fact, the “great thanksgiving” prayer recounts the whole story of God’s saving grace from the moment of creation to the incarnation of Jesus to the future return of Christ in glory.  Here’s what we pray when we gather at the Table: We are created in God’s image; when we turn away from God’s wisdom and way, God’s love and mercy remain steadfast; God speaks to us through the prophets and through signs in creation; God draws near to us in Jesus, literally “fleshing out” what our God is like and the vision of who we are called to become; Jesus gives himself fully, in solidarity with the poor, oppressed, and lost—he gives his body to nourish and guide us, his blood to assure life and freedom; Spirit is poured out, just as in Baptism, upon common, earthy elements—here upon bread and unfermented wine—infusing them with the real presence of Christ; when we receive those elements we become one with Christ and our sharing of this meal makes us one with each other; we are then ourselves infused with Spirit, strengthened in our communion, and renewed and empowered to give ourselves to others, just as Jesus gave himself to us.


This prayer recounts the whole story, the whole love song that is God’s passionate commitment to us and to all.  And it draws us into the song, calling, empowering, and connecting us to sing together as one, in harmony. It’s a beautiful ritual, a beautiful prayer, a beautiful sentiment, a beautiful vision… And it’s one of the messiest things we do in the church! 


Some of the funniest stories church people tell are about things that happen at the Communion Table. And that kind of makes sense—because when people gather around a table to eat and drink together, things happen, things get dropped and spilled, stuff can get stuck in someone’s teeth or dribbled into a friend’s beard; folks may not know the family or cultural rituals and inadvertently “step in it” (awkward!); some may talk with their mouth full or do a “spit take” at something said. Some churches put out mats on Communion Sundays to guard against the drips of wine or juice on sanctuary carpets. Others simply live with the stains. Even the Christian churches who for theological reasons are very careful not to drop or spill any of the elements have mishaps and very human moments at this meal.  It seems to me that the messiness of the meal is also part of the message.  On the journey of life with God and other people, things can get messy. The story we tell around the Table is about how we make a mess and God loves us through it and offers everything to guide and sustain us as we continue the journey. Even though the harmony we are made to sing is never perfect, part of the promise is that Spirit will abide with us, will always be poured out in the sacrament, to continually perfect our harmony as we raise our voices to sing God’s love song.


This leads me to the third movement of God’s grace. Over the past couple of Sundays, we’ve reflected on John Wesley’s articulation of the experiences of God’s grace.   The first movement is prevenient grace, God’s presence even when we’re unaware of it, nudging, beckoning, inviting us into a closer relationship.  Next is the gift of justifying grace, the assurance of forgiveness and acceptance that comes when we turn toward God and open our hearts to receive God’s saving and liberating love.  When we have crossed that threshold, we enter into a new life and a new experience of God’s grace, what Wesley called “sanctifying grace.” According to John Wesley, justifying grace is what God does for us through the Son and sanctifying grace is what God does in us through God’s Spirit.[i]  Justifying grace is a beginning assurance of our restored relationship with God; sanctifying grace is the journey of living that relationship out.


When meeting with members of the Annual Conference, our previous Bishop Marcus Matthews regularly shared words he’s prayed daily for many years: “Lord, make me better today than I was yesterday.”  This is a deeply Wesleyan, United Methodist prayer.  Because in it is the promise that we can do better, be better tomorrow.  We are not stuck forever in whatever mess the world has made of us or we have made of ourselves.  We are not predestined to be in or out of God’s favor.  We can grow and change through cooperation with God’s sanctifying grace.  Justifying grace says, “God loves us just as we are;” sanctifying grace says, “God loves us too much to let us stay the same.”  


John Wesley sometimes referred to sanctifying grace as “perfecting grace.” This reflects Wesley’s central teaching about the goal of God’s grace in human life, namely Christian Perfection.  When United Methodist clergy are ordained, we are asked to affirm that we will teach this—and that we believe ourselves to be “going on to perfection.”  This doesn’t mean that we think folks who call themselves Christian (or United Methodist) believe they are perfect as compared to other people.  It doesn’t mean that we will sing God’s love song in perfect harmony or that we will never make a mess or that we’re magically free from whatever holds us hostage.  It doesn’t mean that followers of Christ will never make a mistake or hurt anyone else.  Christian perfection is not about boasting about our awesomeness and judging others.  It is not about trying to act like we’ve got it all together when we don’t.  It is not about being in control and fixing ourselves.


To affirm that we are “going on to perfection” means we believe that, through the grace of God, we are able to grow in love, we are able to grow in holiness, to be better tomorrow than we are today.  Christian perfection is about giving our lives over to the power of God, to be enfolded in that love so completely that our every thought, word, intention, and action reflects—even in some dim, small way—the perfect love of God.  (How we understand that to happen is something we’ll get into next week as we conclude our Grace Notes series.)

Because we know ourselves and the reality of life together, I’m grateful for the promise that sanctifying grace is always in process… The harmony we are made to sing, the freedom we are called to embody, in communion with God and one another, is always “going on to perfection.”  That has always been very good news to this perfectionist that stands before you—even if difficult to fully take in. 


Lord knows that in the church we make a mess of things in so many ways.  A crumby, drippy Communion is one outward and visible sign of that reality.  But another outward and visible sign is of people at different places on the journey of discipleship all receiving the gifts of God’s grace at the Table.  United Methodists welcome ALL to the table—you don’t have to be a member of this or any church, you don’t have to know what you believe or doubt, you don’t have to be baptized, be a certain age, or to claim any understanding of what is happening in Communion.  There are no prerequisites for stepping into the story and song of God’s amazing grace, no promises have to be made in order to receive the real presence of Christ in the bread and cup.  And that sign of radical hospitality and participation at this Table, though not as tidy as some would prefer, is a beautiful vision of God’s perfecting grace.


I remember a child in one of my congregations saying one time, “I don’t understand why we call this the Lord’s Supper.  This clearly isn’t a supper. They should call it the Lord’s snack!”  It may be more like a snack than a supper, but even still, and even with all the mess, at this Table we are fed, sustained with the food that truly satisfies, the perfect love of God, poured out for us in the body and blood of Jesus our Lord.  As we receive Christ in our own body, we are connected in the one Body of Christ. And bodies are prone to stumbling and drooling, bumping into each other and stepping on toes.  But this body, infused with Spirit and God’s sanctifying grace, is always going on to perfection.  And for that I wholeheartedly say, “Thanks be to God.”