Thursday, October 23, 2014

Reformation Sunday, Young Adults, and Prophetic Infidelity (to Our Divisions)


"What's the most important law?" they ask him. And this Sunday he'll answer, as he always does, "Love the Lord your God with all your heart, mind, and strength. And there's a second law just like it: Love your neighbor as yourself."

A fair chunk of churches across the gambit of Protestantism will be celebrating Reformation Sunday in a couple of days. There are special readings assigned for that day, and they'll be reading from John's gospel. The rest of us will be reading the text of the above paraphrase from Matthew. Read on Reformation Sunday, Matthew's gospel can't help but be read with a sadness informed, on the one hand, by the insistence of some to celebrate the church's divisions, and, on the other hand, the smugness of those who know better than to do the same, while no less committed in our own different ways to maintaining separation within Christ's Body.

Of course, that all of us will, in different ways, find ourselves at odds with the Gospel we proclaim this Sunday should not in itself be an impossible problem for us. To find ourselves at odds with the Gospel is the Christian's daily predicament and also her hope. That we know ourselves to be at odds with the Gospel can only mean that God has given us grace first to see the wounds which the Great Physician, with infinite mercy, stands ready to heal.

But, first, to back up.

To say that Reformation Sunday is a context which names our at-oddness with Matthew's gospel is to make the admittedly arguable case that he visible disunity of the Christian church represents a failure to love.

I say the case is "arguable" because I know many Protestant sisters and brothers, good friends, for who see these divisions as natural and necessary extensions of faithfulness. Nevertheless, it is difficult to imagine that Christ's ministry of reconciliation is most faithfully engaged by the perpetuation of separations that make difficult the recognition of gifts in each other.

Added to this difficulty is the observation of Brother Emile of Taizé that, while some of the separations between communities of faith are doctrinal, substantial, and over self-understandings of faithfulness, others of these separations are psychological, as, for example, in the contention of some scholars that Vatican II essentially addressed the grievances Luther first brought before the Catholic church, but that a subsequent identity of "not being them" had, by that time, taken inextricable root in many reformed communities.

Of course, the heart of the Reformation was not a static end - not the once-in-time correction of a single list of flaws - so much as, in its development, a posture of continual return and critique. Here too, though, it is difficult to see how a process of critique that continually results in greater separation from others has ever successfully managed to critique itself. To refuse reconciliation with a neighbor is to stave off reconciliation within oneself.

But even where we discover the divisions are within us, even here, Brother Emile's hopeful words to the gathering of young adults at Pine Ridge hold true: "We are not compelled to be faithful to our divisions."

To take seriously Brother Emile's invitation to refuse obligations to our divisions is to lay hold of Paul's conviction that
...[Christ] is our peace; in his flesh he has made both groups into one and has broken down the dividing wall, that is, the hostility between us. He has abolished the law with its commandments and ordinances, that he might create in himself one new humanity in place of the two, thus making peace, and might reconcile both groups to God in one body through the cross, thus putting to death that hostility through it. So he came and proclaimed peace to you who were far off and peace to those who were near; for through him both of us have access in one Spirit to the Father. So then you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are citizens with the saints and also members of the household of God, built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus himself as the cornerstone (Ephesians 2:14-20).
God's love, which the Gospel would have us know as the truest thing about ourselves, invites us to approach our neighbors, even our estranged sisters and brothers in Christ - that is, other Christians - and enter with them into a vulnerable exchange: the giving and receiving of gifts. The exchange to which we enter is not that of what Pope John Paul II called "dead mouse" gifts,  but of gifts from and for the other that each of us is able to receive as a blessing, with thanksgiving.

A final observation, then, from the perspective of a campus minister. What the church has sometimes perceived and/or articulated as the reluctance of young people to fully commit to a community of faith may turn out to be the prophetic witness of young adults toward an imagination for an unregistered community of faith unmarked by our divisions. Increasingly, I see and affirm young adults who avail and invest themselves of and in the resources and relationships of multiple faith communities, both inside and outside of a single denomination.

Indeed, at the UW Episcopal Center, we are intentional in giving students permission to make St. Francis House their spiritual home and, equally, to let the Episcopal Center be a supplement to a life of faith rooted elsewhere, be it another Episcopal Church or a church or campus ministry of a different denomination. In other words, you do not have to be faithful to the church's divisions to be welcome here. At the same time, as a community, we have come to understand and articulate the simple truth that the life of the community is enriched when each one of us shares and invests our gifts, and we recognize that only investing oneself, risking one's gifts, in community allows for the fullest experience of acceptance and belonging in a community of faith.

In other words, at the UW Episcopal Center, 1) we are honest about the incredible gift of knowing and being known in a community of faith, 2) I personally believe this Christ-centered community is an incredible community of remarkable young adults to know and be known by, and 3) we will seek together to name and appreciate the gifts we find in one another and other communities of faith, and 4) we believe, in the giving and receiving of gifts - God's gift of God's Son chief among them - God has given us all that we need, and there is more than enough joy for us all.

In the lives of young adults unfaithful to the church's past divisions, I see an imagination for a world in which the resources of faith-based community are readily accessible in local neighborhoods and through grassroots friendships. In this desire, I see faithful young adults scattering seed after our Savior's example: generously, lavishly, recklessly. When these young people fail the institution's standard for denominational fidelity, I thank God for what I take to be a not yet articulated - but profoundly prophetic - witness toward an imagination for the community of faith unmarked by our divisions.

God give us eyes that see and ears to hear.

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