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The Fullness of the Church

August 1, 2021 Series: Identifying the Church

Topic: On the Church Passage: Psalm 80:1–19

**Please note: this manuscript is unedited and uncorrected; please be charitable!**

Over these periodic early services, as we move towards beginning our life together, we have been thinking about the church—how do we talk about what the church is, or at least how do we imagine it?

We began with the suggestion that to speak of the church we have to start by speaking about God—the church is a thing that God gathers to himself; it's not just a social club. That's really the foundation, and I know for some that will seem deluded, or a kind of wishful idea but like lots of claims in the world it's a reasonable claim insofar as it's true, and deluded if it's not. (That's true of lots of things.) And if God raised Jesus from the dead, then this is the kind of claim that is a lot easier to believe. God is at work in the world and in particular is at work gathering a people to himself.

And then we looked at how God does that—not logistics, but that God gathers a people to himself in mercy. God stretching out his wings, like a hen with her chicks (in Jesus' own imagery) is a function of God's mercy. It's not out of God's despising of the world or unbelief; it's not out of God's panic or confusion or loneliness. It is God having mercy, forgiving, having compassion for a world that is surrounded by death—and us though we contribute to that death. It is therefore  that God reaches out in mercy to gather a people to himself.

This morning we are going to use Psalm 80 as a launching point to think about another aspect of the church: that God gathers one people to himself. This isn't the main idea of the psalm (and maybe another time we will be able to spend time on the psalm itself). It comes to us from around the years 550 B.C. as a rough estimate. That's a long time ago, but was a very poignant moment in the life of Israel. I had the chance to be in Israel just a couple of weeks of ago during one of their most prominent fast days, Tisha b'av—the ninth of the month Av. It's a day of mourning, of fasting and prayer where they read the book of Lamentations together, where all work and business stops—not to rest and feast, like on the Sabbath, but in grief. It is a day that marks the destruction of the temple, which happened after the Babylonians made a breach in the walls of Jerusalem on the ninth day of Av in the year 586 BC.

In other words, this psalm comes on the heels of a moment that, down to this day, is marked out as a day of weeping in Jewish life.

Note that it was not just the destruction of a place they liked to go for worship; it was the violent and devastating end of that place which held in it the promise of God's presence. It was, in modern Christian langauge, a kind of sacrament all in its own: where God was really present; where he acted on behalf of his people. It had a throne at its center that was a visible sign of God's presence ruling in his kingdom for the sake of his people in the world.

There is a lot we could say here about the psalm—there is a lot of playing with language throughout. The three tribes named—Ephraim, Benjamin, and Manasseh—are the sons (or grandsons) of Jacob's wife Rachel, his favorite wife (Jacob is the one whose name was changed to Israel, and as such gave his name to the nation of his descendants). And then the emphasis on the "son of your right hand" later in the psalm—in Hebrew that's the word "Benjamin." The word for "son" is also the word for the tendril of a vine. So all of the language and imagery plays together.

It's not just a quickly scribbled out meandering prayer, it is a thoughtful and artful poetic lament—a cry for help.

But for all we could say I want to focus especially on the way the people of God are spoken of here, and especially the image of the vine. 

It's a wonderful, concrete image. God took a vine and planted it in the earth in a particular land. And, like well-tended vines, it spread and grew—rather impressively, to put it lightly, putting mountains in its shade; greater than the mighty cedars that even grow strong and tall in the north of Israel even today. It stretches from the sea in the west (the Meditteranean) to the river in the north (the Euphrates). That's the borders of Israel at its greatest extent, under the kings David and Solomon.

But from beginning to end you can see in the psalm that this vine is not its own independent thing. It has a shepherd, a gardener, a master. "Have regard for this vine, the stock that your right hand planted," he cries out. God is the one who gathers his church, and that work is the ground or basis for our prayers.

And to appreciate the imagery, we have to remember that it is one vine. It is spoken of in the singular:

"It sent out its branches... all who pass along the way pluck its fruit"

And on it goes. It is one thing that God planted, meant to spread and to be for the life of all the nations. That was what Abraham, from the very start, was told and we see it over and over again: that God chose this one family, one people, one vine for the sake of the whole world. Paul eventually will use the language of us Gentiles who believe in Jesus as grafted into the already-existing olive tree, another variation on the same imagery as the psalmist here. It remains the one thing into which we are gathered.

The creed says that we believe in "one... catholic church"—that is, one church that is universal. One vine that spreads through history and around the world, in different languages, sometimes strong and sometimes weak; sometimes beautiful and sometimes ugly. But it is one thing to which we belong. To say that the church is "one" and to say that it is "universal" is, in this sense, to say the same thing: I belong to a single thing that is countless generations deep and is all over the city and the world.

Our cultural moment encourages us to cut ourselves off from deeper, generational kinds of identity. We have practices in our culture that work towards cutting off one generation from the next, institutionalizing a kind of endless treadmill where each generation is expected to push off the one before, and we think of that as a kind of freedom (until we find ourselves on the wrong end of the treadmill).

We are trained to build our group identities around momentary things: what is the hot button issue now; think "for yourself" becomes code for rejecting ancestral ways of thinking; a social interest or political allegiance is about what is happening now. Even churches can form an identity around what this generation needs, both celebrating and reinforcing that treadmill. We are, in the West, unique in that push; and I don't think most onlookers find it succeeding.

Here's another way to think of it: you've maybe heard of wedge politics. You find an issue that presents a wedge between sections of the population—where you can rally people to one side of something divisive. I'm told there's a lot of chatter that Critical Race Theory will be one of the central wedge issues in the upcoming election cycles. And a wedge, by its nature, divides and only finds a unity through that division.

Whatever we say of the political usefulness, you can see that to speak of the church as a single reality means we have to stand against wedge politics—at least here. And we don't stand against it by declaring, "get on the correct side of everything!" We stand against it by identifying ourselves differently. We have a different kind of banner that binds us together: we are a single vine that God has planted, that God tends, that God wants to flourish for the sake of the world. And in fact, as the Gospel reading makes plain, that vine into which we are brought, is Jesus himself. We are made members of his body.

Paul is making the same point in the Galatians reading, with a different image: in your baptism God has clothed everyone of you, Jew or Gentile, male or female, slave or free, with one thing—Jesus Christ. As one writer puts it:

Flesh divides. In baptism, fleshly identities—national, ethnic, familial, educational, economic—are submerged. All the baptized wear the family name of 'Father, Son, and Spirit,' relativizing all other names—'American,' 'Smith,' 'Yale law grad.' [Peter Leithart, Baptism: A Guide from Life to Death, 46]

Everything gets submerged in the waters, and what comes up is something new. I belong to Jesus, to that vine planted and tended by God. And that's true of every single believer. We are not united by our shared beliefs, experiences, and convictions; we are united by the work of God bringing us into one body—into Christ's body. That is the fundamental reality out of which we are bound to love God and neighbor, to believe rightly, to be faithful and remain in the vine.

You've seen those tourist groups who all wear the same shirt so no one gets lost, so they can be identified in the world. Those shirts don't erase particularity, as if the shirt means you are not John or Dennis or whatever. You are Dennis who wears that shirt in the world. We are, all individually, made into a single body.

The language I want us to have for this is the fullness of the church: we believe  in and we love the fullness of the church. It is one of my guiding convictions and one that I pray will shape the life of Resurrection Anglican. The fullness of the church, in all of its complexity, is worth celebrating. It is one church, through time and history.

I am devoted to our finding ways for us to embody the fullness of the church in our own context. You've all heard that the most segregated time of the week is Sunday morning in churches; and that's true, but not always true in the way imagined. On the one hand, the history of our country is such that the segregation in churches—especially around white and black churches—stands as a memorial to the failure of our ancestors to reckon rightly with the fullness of the church. They failed to appreciate baptism, and erectd an identity of "white" for themselves and imagined that was something that did not have to be submerged in the waters of baptism. That is a failure of seeing the vine God has planted and tends.

But there is another side to it as well: People love to worship in their "heart language," and that has always been the case. A Hmong church or—right across the street here, a Korean church—is not violating the fullness of the church by having a service in their own tongue with practices they've loved from their cultural setting. Imagine all the various ways right now, this very morning, in our city, that people are singing and praying and preaching and worshipping God. How many languages do you think are part of it just here in the Cities? How many cultural peculiarities?

Would I be able to participate fully in all of these? Probably not. But why do I think everything has to be made around my own language, convictions, or cultural tastes? I love remembering the fullness of the church and the riches of the cultural expressions of it, even if some of that richness comes as God making good what was done out of evil. That's not an excuse for isolating ourselves; it's an invitation to join with—as well as have here among us—the riches of all that already is the case: the one vine stretching into all kinds of nations and peoples and languages.

That's not to say everything is a free-for-all, as if there is not more or less faithful, or as if there is not compromise. I have opinions and views, like to be deliberate, and some things others do might drive me crazy.

But thank God I am not the one determining faithfulness or appropriateness for every church everywhere. We just have to do that here, and can give charity everywhere else. The fullness of the church is a way of imagining ourselves within a huge reality that stretches all over the globe and all throughout history.

Now, it's worth remembering that this a complex, not a romantic thing. Because being universal or catholic means, by its nature, that I don't get to pick and choose. I have to remember that the whole of the church's life and history is part of my identity—the good and the ugly. It is as much mine to claim the heroes who stood up to injustice—Mother Theresa, Dr. King, Polycarp, or so many others; and mine to claim those who make me shake my head in shame and humility. The pastors who were members of the Klan; the judges in the South who turned a blind eye to so much hatred and disgusting violence justified by racial fear, yet were elders or deacons in their church. 

It's much like my own personal story: I wish I could pick and choose which parts of my story got to count as the "real" me. But the backbone of the church is not her own faithfulness to God; it is God's faithfulness to her in spite of her. Just like me. I wish I could disown my struggles with addiction that led to my crash and burn, but it is my whole story that God redeemed, and the sobriety of life that came is no more or less a part of what God redeemed than the ugliest moments that I hate. I don't pick and choose. Believing in the catholic, universal church as the one body of Christ means I don't pick and choose; it means I believe in the fullness of God's grace for his people.

Again, it's not to say all who are in the vine in any way remain there no matter what; Jesus says the opposite here. I know that God will sort out those who are faithful as part of his vine from unfaithful. That's not my job. For my part, I want us to see ourselves as a part of a single thing that God has planted, that God has redeemed out of bondage; a vine, or temple, or flock, or family, or body, or bride—all of these images of the church as the single, unified reality. And unified by the act of God, which is then to be lived out.

My favorite book on the church that I've read the last year or two was by a scholar named Grant Macaskill, a Scotsman of Scotsmen. He was a friend of ours while we lived there and is a wonderful scholar and even better man. The book is called Autism and the Church. It is an area of the fullness of the church not often talked about, but I love that he does so. It's that context where he writes:

Every person who is baptized wears the same single item of clothing: Christ. [Grant Macaskill, Autism and the Church, 108]

The church is not defined by intellection, by emotional experience, by abilities to sit through long sermons; to control all of your behavioral impulses; it is defined by everyone being clothed by God with Christ.

He even points out that this imagery from Paul might be more fully grasped in light of the experience of many with autism around sensory struggles. 

Everyone who wears clothes can comprehend or visualize without difficulty the image of clothing one reality (ourselves) with another (Christ)... For those with autism, whose sensory issues might have caused them to experience clothing as something that feels strange, it is an image that might be suggestive on multiple levels, or in relation to multiple sense. [ibid, 107-08]

Most of us don't pause to notice what it feels like to have a new item of clothing put on us. That it might constrict, that sometimes we just want to throw it off and be free; that it rubs against our flesh, that it takes practice and maybe never in this life feels like it's fully comfortable.

There is a gift in listening to the fullness of the church, embracing it even when we don't always know how to embody it. One of our loves here at Resurrection is the fullness of the church. It is why I want diversity here, and why I want to partner with churches that don't look or sound like us. I don't think there is any easy way to accomplish it, but I believe we need it and even more than that, it is a thing worth loving.

When Jesus announces that he is the true vine, he is declaring himself the fullness of the people of God and we are branches, tendrils, leaves—whatever you want to say—bound to him. We find our unity as a thing given to us, or rather we find our unity on  the grounds that God has gathered us to himself in mercy, binding us to himself and so to one another whether we like each other or not. Vines need a lot of care; they need attention; they need water (especially in the land of Israel); they are sometimes pruned with branches being cut off. And this vine is no different. But our part is to celebrate the fullness of the vine as a way of recognizing that every person who is baptized puts on one thing—every person everywhere in the world, and all through history puts on one thing—Christ. And then living our life together delighting in that fact.

More in Identifying the Church

October 3, 2021

A Feasting Community

September 5, 2021

The Community of the Washed

June 6, 2021

Church as a Community of Mercy