There is a phenomenon in American culture that I cannot understand. The fascination, the energy, the money, the vitriol, all of which are expended on professional sports teams.
What would someone who think who had no experience of professional sports, about the energy that fans burn up on their favorites? They might think that it was a deeply important matter, instead of a game for amusement.
I have come to see this obsession with sports as a function of one of the truisms of human behavior: that we define ourselves in large measure by identification with a group, a franchise, a culture, a clan or a family. It is desperately important to us to belong, to have some roots, I suppose belonging goes some distance to assuaging some of the loneliness which is part of being trapped in our own bodies and heads.
And so fans identify themselves with the Yankees, or the Cowboys, or the Flyers, as a way of belonging. Sports of course, are a lighter example of this identification and belonging, but there are far darker and more dangerous examples of it. Because one of the corollaries of belonging to a culture or group is that groups are often defined over and against other groups. We not only like to belong to a group, but one of the ways that we know we belong to a group is that we don't belong to that other group. There are a plethora of examples of this throughout history: the English and the Irish, (in fact, the English and almost everyone else whom they colonized), the Tutsis and Hutus, Jews and Palestinians, whites and blacks; we define who we are by defining who we are not.
In scientific terms these differences are negligible, of course. The genetic differences between “races” are to all extents and purposes, so minute as to be invisible. Indeed, “race” turns out to be one of those ways that we define ourselves, that we identify and belong.
The question of belonging and group identification has been very much in the news lately, as a state in which I used to live, Arizona, has voted for what I think of as a draconian law designed to discourage illegal immigration. What the law is saying is: we are Americans, they are not. We belong, they do not.
But it is not just Arizona, of course. The Church is involved in a massive debate about who belongs, who is inside the pale and who is not. The debate is about many things: who has legitimate claims to the faith of Augustine, Becket, Cranmer, and Ramsey; who has political power, money and property; whether women and gay persons belong as ordained persons in the Church; in short, who belongs in the Anglican Communion, and who does not, who belongs as the true descendant of the Church of England in these United States.
This is one of the ways that we do business as humans, we locate ourselves in the world, we define the boundaries that give us belonging, and we defend them.
But that way of doing business is alien to the Christian faith. Although it sometimes seems as if becoming a member of the Church is to become a member of yet another exclusive group, one might even say a rapidly shrinking, exclusive gathering, the Gospel this morning teaches us otherwise: the vows of baptism make us members of a body that brooks no boundaries, for all are one in Christ, as Christ is one with God. And this oneness, never quite realized but always underlying the life of the Church begins in the Gospel this morning, as Jesus prays for that nascent little ragtag band of disciples, that they will be one.
The message is that becoming a member of the body of Christ overwhelms all other artificial cultural barriers which separate, and makes us one with as diverse and ragtag a group of people as were those early disciples.
I was talking recently to someone who was here at St. Mark's years ago, and this is the story he told me. A former priest here, wandered into a potluck gathering, very much like we had this past Thursday after the Feast of the Ascension, and this priest wondered out loud where else you would find so unusual and diverse a gathering of people. The only possibility that he could come up with was an air raid shelter.
Look at the body of Christ's people, gathered in this place. People of deep faith, people who would like to have faith, all sorts of ethnic, racial, economic, and other diversities.
Multiply that by all the churches that have been and will be, by all the people that will gather in them, by all who will be united at the altars where Christ will be present from the beginning of the ragtag Church until the Last Trump and you get a sense of the diversity, the absolute mad unity of the life of the Church, which is Christ's body, to which we are called in the magnificent light of his resurrection. And imagine how ragamuffin a band is gathered, mystically, when we become one in the Sacrament of His Body and Blood, and with all that great multitude that none can number.
Which is why, though I shy away from politics in the pulpit, matters like Arizona's immigration law, civil rights, war and peace, genocide, health care, ecology, and economics are not simply political matters, but inherently religious ones.
In the Church, we are called into massive diverse fellowship which brooks no political boundaries. God calls Republicans and Democrats, Whigs, Tories, Liberal Democrats, Socialists, Communists, Ulster Orange men and Sinn Fein; everyone into the unseen unity of oneness with each other in God.
But that does not mean that simply everything is compatible with the vision of oneness that is part of the Gospel of Jesus Christ. I or anyone can believe whatever we want about any political matter, but that does not mean that such a belief is compatible with the duty that I owe to my brothers and sisters in Christ, with whom I am one. If we are one in Christ, then I have specific duties and obligations to my brothers and sisters who come from south of the Arizona/Mexico border, or those who are called to ordained ministry who are women or gay people, or those who believe that schism is their only alternative, because we are one with each other, and will be together not just in this haphazard gathering that is the Church temporal, but forever.
C.S. Lewis once preached these words and they speak to the unity of the Body of Christ:
“It is a serious thing to live in a society of possible gods and goddesses, to remember that the dullest and most uninteresting person you can talk to may one day be a creature which, if you saw it now, you would be strongly tempted to worship, or else a horror and a corruption such as you now meet, if at all, only in a nightmare. All day long we are, in some degree, helping each other to one or other of these destinations. It is in the light of these overwhelming possibilities, it is with the awe and the circumspection proper to them, that we should conduct all our dealings with one another, all friendships, all loves, all play, all politics. There are no ordinary people. You have never talked to a mere mortal. Nations, cultures, (shall we insert sports franchises), arts, civilisations--these are mortal... But it is immortals whom we joke with, work with, marry, snub, and exploit--immortal horrors or everlasting splendours.”
If all are one in Christ, my actions and your actions always occur against the backdrop that is the oneness of that Body, and the excuses of political, or tribal, or family allegiance do not quell the responsibilities that I have to the whole Body, to the immortals we meet everyday. My actions can heal or wound that Body, seen or unseen.
Which means that we are none of us absolved either from the necessity of struggling to understand and work for political ends which are consonant with the Gospel (which affect the real lives of immortal people that we are united to in Christ), or from the hard, hard work of being one in Christ with people who it is very, very difficult to be one with. That is the kind of “shirt of flame” that oneness in Christ binds us to.
Yesterday, the Diocese of Los Angeles consecrated two bishops suffragon. They were the 16th and 17th women to be consecrated as bishops in the Episcopal Church, (the 1044th and 1045th bishops in the American succession), but what has garnered so much news is that one of them, Mary Glasspool, is openly gay and has lived for the past 19 years in a committed relationship with another woman.
The election and the consent process by which the Episcopal Church has agreed to now-Bishop Glasspool's consecration, has garnered the usual baleful predictions about the end of the Anglican Communion and the departure of the Episcopal Church from the historic faith.
And, whenever I hear that noise, from the conservative side of the aisle, my knee-jerk inclination is to say “You know what? You don't like it? Don't let the door hit you on the way out. Good riddance!”
But, of course, I owe my beloved brothers and sisters so much more than that. We are one in Christ, whether they like it, or even believe it, and whether I like it or agree with it.
It is a madness, of course, to gather all of us crazy people of faith throughout time into one body. By doing this God is operating with what Dorothy Sayers used to call “His usual outrageous lack of scruple.” But as is often the case with God's lack of scruple, who are we to complain?
So, brothers and sisters, let us glory in the ridiculousness of being one in Christ! Come conservative breakaway Anglicans, come right wing Republican lawmakers in Arizona, come Yankees fans, come terrorists, and people of all colors and strips, come with me to the Supper of the Lamb. It matters not that I cannot understand you and have terrible trouble loving you. I'm sure I'm not that easy to love either. But we are one in Christ. God in his glory and wonder has made us one.
Preached by Fr. Andrew Ashcroft
Saint Mark's Church, Philadelphia