unity in the church
The Sunday Next Before Advent
Jeremiah 3:14-18, Psalm 39, Jeremiah 23:5-8, St. John 6:5-14
One Bread, One Way
If you’ve hung out much in church – and don’t try to deny it; I know a couple of you have – you’ve heard the story of the feeding of the 5,000 preached about 5,000 times. And if I were a gamblin’ man I’d wager you feel as though you’ve heard 5,000 preachers say that number refers only to the men arrayed on that hillside overlooking the Sea of Galilee.
Toss in the women and children, the preacher always says, and the total could be 20,000 or 25,000.
That information is accurate, but is it relevant? Would it matter if there had been 50,000 hungry souls sitting with hands outstretched?
The limit on God’s provision is never His power, always human need. And even that is an elastic boundary, for He always supplies far more than His people require. This is the God who offers life more abundantly, and we never see that truth illustrated more vividly than in this passage.
When those countless thousands have eaten their fill – not merely enough to sustain them but to satisfy them – the Lord sends His disciples to gather the leftovers. And they collect an excess far greater than the morsels He began with. Would it have mattered if there had been 500,000 men, women and children to feed? Indeed, it would not.
So we have many and we have one and we have two: many hungry souls, one Provider and two menu items, bread and fish. Forget the second for now. Fish figure into the gospel story elsewhere; in this episode they are merely a bit of added flavor. It is the bread that gives life.
St. John is pointing us to something, and we shouldn’t need a Geiger counter to locate it. A few verses later he will report our Lord’s staggering declaration: “I am the Bread of Life.”
John develops the bread metaphor through the remainder of this sixth chapter. Jesus rebukes His followers for gawking at Him as the wizard who performed the feeding miracle without looking past it and grasping that He is the life of the world.
“Do not labor for the food which perishes,” He tells them, “but for the food which endures to everlasting life, which the Son of Man will give you, because God the Father has set His seal on Him.”
What do they know of bread? Their fathers feared they were perishing in the wilderness but their leader Moses called down manna – bread – from heaven, and it sustained them. Didn’t he?
“Then Jesus said to them, ‘Most assuredly, I say to you, Moses did not give you the bread from heaven, but My Father gives you the true bread from heaven. For the bread of God is He who comes down from heaven and gives life to the world.’”
And, “Most assuredly, I say to you, he who believes in Me has everlasting life. I am the bread of life. Your fathers ate the manna in the wilderness, and are dead. This is the bread which comes down from heaven, that one may eat of it and not die. I am the living bread which came down from heaven. If anyone eats of this bread, he will live forever; and the bread that I shall give is My flesh, which I shall give for the life of the world.”
Finally, “Most assuredly, I say to you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink His blood, you have no life in you. Whoever eats My flesh and drinks My blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up at the last day. For My flesh is food indeed, and My blood is drink indeed. He who eats My flesh and drinks My blood abides in Me, and I in him. As the living Father sent Me, and I live because of the Father, so he who feeds on Me will live because of Me.”
It is Jesus and no other who is the bread of life. One Lord, one bread. When we gather we receive Him in the bread, His flesh. But we receive Him by faith, and if our faith is to be rightly placed we must know the One in whom we invest it. How do we know Him? We know Him by His word.
And the Lord had scarcely returned to His Father on high when men began distorting that word. False teachers began to insinuate themselves into the churches and to lead the sheep astray.
So it is that St. Paul testifies in the first chapter of his letter to the Galatians: “I marvel that you are turning away so soon from Him who called you in the grace of Christ, to a different gospel, which is not another; but there are some who trouble you and want to pervert the gospel of Christ. But even if we, or an angel from heaven, preach any other gospel to you than what we have preached to you, let him be accursed.”
In the Greek, let him be “anathema.” It is no mean thing to be anathema.
Beloved, we must be united in the gospel of Christ. Instructed by His word, we must be of one will when we approach His table to receive the one bread. For that is our Lord’s desire for us. John goes, in chapter 17, to relate these words of Jesus as He prays to His Father and ours:
“I do not pray for these alone, but also for those who will believe in Me through their word; that they all may be one, as You, Father, are in Me, and I in You; that they also may be one in Us, that the world may believe that You sent Me. And the glory which You gave Me I have given them, that they may be one just as We are one: I in them, and You in Me; that they may be made perfect in one, and that the world may know that You have sent Me, and have loved them as You have loved Me.”
A church is a community of believers and a community must have a common core. Let me put the matter more plainly: We must be on the same page. Those who have been in the Front Porch Ministry sessions have heard it from Bp. Sutton: A church cannot hope to grow unless and until it is truly united.
And in some important ways we at St. Michael’s are not on the same page. We do not come forward each Lord’s day to receive Christ with a common understanding of who Christ is, of how we are saved, of what mission He has given His church.
I’m shooting straight with you now. I will be your priest for only a few more weeks. I’m running out of time and there are some things that need to be said as you prepare to confront another change. I say these things out of a sense of duty and a spirit of love: I want nothing more than for you to come together in truly biblical fellowship.
Change is often difficult for a church. I recall the teaching of Archdeacon Payne in a class at Cranmer Theological House. He said a new rector should make no changes in the first year of his incumbency and no major changes in the first three years.
Those words hit home with me. To begin knocking over apple carts would be to say, in effect, that the man he replaced had gotten things wrong – and that would be most unwise. Then I arrived in Durango, Colo., to take my first cure and in my first month there more than half of the people in that small congregation asked me, “When are you going to start changing things?”
I thought perhaps they didn’t truly want change but were humoring me. But a month later they were asking me again, “When are you going to start changing things?” Their church had been shrinking and turning grayer. They were willing – nay, eager — to adapt – to change – to survive.
In time I came to Broken Arrow and to another small church in decline. Naively, I suppose, I expected the same practical attitude. I got a surprise. The predominant opinion appeared to be that, declining or not, everything should remain the same. The archdeacon’s instruction that had not fit the situation I inherited in Durango appeared entirely applicable here.
A priest walks a fine line. For a new priest, the more so. If he tries to nudge parishioners onto a different course they may flee, or remain and tune him out. If he finds them in error and does nothing by way of remedy he will fail in his duty as a shepherd of the sheep. The patient approach is undoubtedly the best.
But due to circumstances I could not foresee I have run out of time. You will soon have a new rector, I trust, and it will be his brief to mold you into one – united in your understanding of who the Lord is when you receive him each Sunday.
I will have failed utterly if I do not ask you to consider how you will relate to this man. To begin with, you must relate to him as Anglicans.
This is a hierarchical church. Our democratic and egalitarian culture has all but obliterated hierarchy in the church but the Scriptures haven’t changed. Recall that when Bp. Banek visited us a few months ago he told you that our word “rector” comes from the Latin for “ruler.” The rector is put in place to rule the parish.
Will your new priest be your servant? Of course he will. He stands in the place of Christ, who is both your Servant and your King.
That is the structure the Bible gives us. In Acts, we see the disciples devoting themselves to the apostles’ teaching. The bishops are the successors to the apostles. In Ephesus alone by the time the last apostle died there were dozens of churches. Bishops – episkopoi – designated elders – presbuteroi – to oversee the individual churches. “Priest” is merely a shortened form of “presbyter.”
We find Paul serving as archbishop, instructing Timothy and Titus in the role of bishops as they supervise the presbyters, or priests, in the various churches, which they rule. This is the order of the ancient church, of which we are heirs.
And yet I hear, “Well, you’ve got your opinion and I’ve got mine.” That is the church following in the way of the world, not the way of the word. It is certainly not the Anglican way and it is not the way of unity.
You have chosen to be Reformed Episcopalians. Subject yourselves to the Reformed Episcopal Church. Be faithful Reformed Episcopalians.
That means accepting the instruction of your rector, whom you will call but whom your bishop must certify and institute. If you would be devoted to your bishop’s teaching you will devoted to the teaching of the man he approves to represent him at St. Michael’s.
His authority is not absolute. Should you hear from him anything contrary to the gospel of our Lord or to the canons and constitution of the Reformed Episcopal Church you have ways of redress available to you. But if your rector is presenting a faithful witness he is the authority in the parish. His is not one opinion among many.
You will not become one as our Lord Jesus wishes you to be one by chasing diverse doctrines. It grieves my heart to say this as I prepare to leave you but there are souls hanging in the balance here. I have become aware over the last few months that some among us believe their works can save them.
Some say Jesus is not the only way to God the Father. These are salvation issues. Your eternal destiny is at stake. Repent!
Others cling to views at odds with the doctrine of the Reformed Episcopal Church. These are not matters of mere taste without consequence for the oneness of the body of Christ. I want to show you why they are not.
If you are awaiting the Rapture you will be disappointed. There is no Rapture. That is part of a view held by a small, very vocal minority of the world’s Christians known as dispensationalists. Neither Anglicans nor Roman Catholics nor Eastern Orthodox nor Lutherans nor Presbyterians subscribe to it. Dispensationalists hold a premillennial eschatology. The Jerusalem that will be restored is the heavenly Jerusalem which God will occupy when He transfers His throne from heaven to earth.
We are not dispensationalists and we hold a postmillennial view. For our purpose today, the difference it makes is that your eschatology – your view of the end times – affects your ecclesiology – your view of the church.
Those who hold the premillennial view are waiting to be taken out of this world. Those who hold the postmillennial view are committed to renovating this world in preparation for Christ’s return to transfer His eternal throne to it. Eschatology controls in large measure what we believe God has commissioned His church to do.
Some embrace the prosperity gospel. It relies on a method of interpreting Scripture that leaves out important chunks. Its preachers may quote the Bible and they may deliver sermons containing nothing objectionable. Heretics, including Mormons and Jehovah’s Witnesses, do the same.
Those who advance the prosperity gospel will not preach the sacrifice our Lord has demanded of His followers in emulation of Him because they cannot square it with their claims that He wants health and wealth for those of true faith.
They obscure the treasures of the eternal kingdom by their incessant promotion of the things of this realm which is passing away. This is, to use St. Paul’s term, a perverted gospel and it has no place in this church.
Finally, some among you hold fast to a way of Anglicanism you learned in days gone by. Let me tell you a brief story.
When I arrived here Fr. Robert explained to me that my way of celebrating the Eucharist was not the right way – which is to say the way he had learned it going back to his days as an acolyte in the Episcopal Church in Oklahoma.
And I thought back to my time in Durango, when a retired priest who attended our church there informed me my way of celebrating was not the right way because it was not the way he had learned it going back to his days as an acolyte in the Episcopal Church in North Carolina. And Fr. Randolph’s way and Fr. Robert’s way do not line up on every point.
If you were watching when Bp. Sutton celebrated here this summer, his method matched neither mine nor Fr. Robert’s in some particulars. I do not know how the man you call to replace me will celebrate Holy Communion.
I do know that he will be your rector and you will owe him the honor he is due in that capacity. His calling and his training have equipped him in a way you are not equipped. His opinion is not one among many.
I do know that if you would approach the Lord’s table and take into yourselves the body of Christ as the one body of Christ you must put away diverse doctrines and unite under the apostles’ teaching as delivered by your bishop through your priest. You must make the Anglican way – our Anglican way – your way. And at last you will be one, according to the desire of our Lord.
We embark next on the season of Advent, a time of reflection and renewal for all Christians. I pray you will use it, each and every one, to contemplate how you can make St. Michael’s more united and more powerful in the service of our Lord. Amen.