Sunday, May 7, 2017 – Fourth Sunday of Easter
1 Peter 2:19-25
This afternoon, on behalf of all of us, I will present Kate Ramseyer for confirmation into the
Episcopal Church, at the regional confirmation, at the Cathedral Church of St. Luke. Kate, like a
few of our youth before her, is participating in the confirmation program at First Parish. The
program is run by Rev. Dalton, the youth minister at First Parish. Kate and her classmates have
visited a synagogue and a mosque, and had a chance to ask questions of religious leaders of
those traditions, among other speakers. Toward the end of the program each year, I am invited
to come in and speak as one of these religious leaders, but also as the one who puts it all in the
context of the bigger picture of Christian history.
This week Kate and I met to talk about her confirmation. We looked at sections of the
catechism in the prayer book, Kate asked some really great questions about sin and
reconciliation, and we talked about the ways the theology of the church shifts in emphasis over
time, as our understanding continues to evolve. We discussed how that is Anglican and faithful,
as we believe that Truth is derived from Scripture, Tradition, and Reason. Somehow we ended
up talking about the fact that Jesus didn’t really concern himself with establishing a Church, so
much as reconciling people to God.
The institutional church is our response, and happens much later. Long after the resurrection,
and the ascension, and the sending forth of the disciples. First the people respond by gathering
and talking about Jesus and sharing a meal, and sharing all they have with one another. The
early church as described in our lesson this morning from Acts. That church isn’t an institution,
but a gathering of friends, who share what they have, who break bread together, and whose
community is marked by praise, grace and growth. At its best, the institutional church is simply
the structure that allows that to happen in a transparent and equitable way on a large scale at
any given moment in history; sharing the love of Christ with the world.
At its worst, the institutional church resembles the very institutions Jesus spends a lot of his
time arguing against. Again and again pronouncing that in their effort “to get it right,” they
have missed the point entirely. In the case of this morning’s Gospel he is in the midst of these
exchanges yet again. Responding to the ways of the institution, in light of the ways of God. We
enter the text right after the episode where Jesus has healed the man who was born blind. The
Pharisees have interrogated and expelled this formerly blind man, for now he can see, and it’s
beyond their understanding, beyond the rules. These words about the sheep and the sheep
gate are aimed at the religious institution, at all religious institutions, which value the stability
of the institution over the well-being of God’s people, which heed the lure of power over the
call of God.
As commentator Elisabeth Johnson writes: “The Pharisees who have interrogated the blind man
… are supposed to be the shepherds of Israel, those who care for, protect, and nourish the
people. Instead, they expel the healed blind man from their community, refusing to believe that
Jesus and his healing work come from God. They are more concerned about guarding their
power and authority than about the well-being of the people.”
Jesus shows us how those who act on behalf of God should respond. Not only does Jesus heal
the man born blind, he seeks him out after his expulsion from the synagogue and makes him
part of the community his followers. This man is healed, and once he recognizes who Jesus is,
he believes in him, and becomes a valued member of his community, cared for and protected.
He receives the ultimate gift of grace – abundant life. The definition of a life of abundance is
being a full, valued member of the community of Christ.
Jesus isn’t impressed with the values of preserving the institution at the expense of the wellbeing
of the people of God… he never has been.
Jesus came to show us the love of God, the ways of God which are not the ways of humankind,
not the ways of power, or of empire, or of institution, not even the most well-meaning
institutions, when those ways impinge on the what is best for the people of God. Jesus came so
that we might know the love of God, and might have life abundant in his name.
I realize that I make my living within the setting of the institutional church, and I know how this
all must sound, but I think it’s imperative that we be completely honest about what it is and
what it isn’t. So we are clear: we serve God and God’s mission, through the Church. God’s
mission has a Church (not the other way around). The institutional church is our attempt to do
the best we can to empower God’s mission in a structured way, and while imperfect at times,
sometimes there are moments when we reflect glimmers of the kingdom of God, when we are
truly able to share the love of Christ with the world.
Personally, I believe the Episcopal Church has something to offer the world that just might help
the people of God find their way out of the nightmare we often make for ourselves, and into
the dream of God.
So this morning, on behalf of Kate and myself, I’d like to show you a shortened version of the
confirmation presentation – confirming our faith in This Episcopal Church.