Monday, April 21, 2008

Into the Full Stature of Christ

“Will you by your prayers and witness help this child to grow into the full stature of Christ?”

“I will, with God’s help.”

In just a few moments, we’re going to hear that astonishing question and, I trust, we’ll also hear that breath-taking answer. We’d better, or else Fiona Claire won’t taste the water of baptism trickle down her cute little cheek.

Do you hear how stunning that question is? “…help this child to grow into the full stature of Christ.” Utterly amazing. The Church’s question is not, “Will she go to Sunday School?” or “Will she be a good Episcopalian?” The question is, “Will she grow into the full stature of Christ?”

Today we hear the Gospel promise, “If in my name you ask me for anything, I will do it.” So we might make it our prayer, “Jesus, help Fiona grow into your likeness.” But that would miss the point that today we hear Jesus asking Aaron and Chrissie and Ali and Bill to do that helping, to help Fiona grow into the full stature of Christ.

And, without an operator’s manual, each of them is expected to say, “I will do that, God being my helper.” Before long, it’s clear that we too are being asked by Jesus to do that helping. “Will you who witness these vows do all in your power to support this person in her life in Christ?”

I did a little digging, since this goal of Christian growth, this hope to bear the very likeness of Christ, always startles me. I learned two things. One is that the question wasn’t part of the baptismal rite until this 1979 Prayer Book—though it appeared in German baptismal rites at the time of the Reformation, and came close to being included in the English Prayer Book of 1552.

And I was reminded where the language comes from, the Letter to the Ephesians in the fourth chapter, and I’ll select a few verses: “But each of us was given grace according to the measure of Christ’s gift… The gifts he gave were that some would be apostles, some prophets, some evangelists, some pastors and teachers, to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ, until all of us come to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to maturity, to the measure of the full stature of Christ…. Speaking the truth in love, we must grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ, from whom the whole body, joined and knit together by every ligament with which it is equipped, as each part is working properly, promotes the body’s growth in building itself up in love.”

Hear how an individual’s call to grow is simultaneously the congregation’s call, and the call of the whole Church, to grow.

That had to be a favorite text to the Protestant reformers. No wonder they worked it into their baptisms, insisting on a high vision of God’s call to each person. This is the priesthood of all believers, the ministry of Jesus Christ entrusted not to a few prominent men sealed away from the world in temples made with hands, but the very life of Jesus Christ invested in every baptized child, woman, and man whose place in the world, whether high or low, rich or poor, is the meeting place of humanity and divinity, the holy place where love transforms fear, anxiety gives way to freedom, and truth works its healing way. And it requires “all of us”, as it says in Ephesians, “each part working properly”, promoting the growth of the Body of Christ in love, in the world.

This was the early Church of the first century, which spread like sunlight in a dark valley because the world wanted the powers of love, freedom, and healing demonstrated by those who in time became known as Christians.

Here we are in the 21st century, standing at the end of a week when great attention has been drawn by two religious stories and by what they represent.

One is the visit of Pope Benedict XVI. He’s showing that there’s more to him than we thought, back when he was Cardinal Ratzinger, before he started wearing red patent leather shoes. Anglicans do color and ceremony, but there’s no question that our bling factor has been reined-in and toned down by our Reformation training. We do have prominent Anglican leaders, women as well as men, and we want them to represent not so much the ascended and glorified Christ (we tend to believe that he can do that for himself so much better than bishops can), but believe rather that they should represent the servant Christ. That, as we know, is the purpose of the papacy, for the pope is called “servant of the servants of God.”

And we saw Benedict be this do this when he sat, one by one, with three recovering victims of sexual abuse at the hands of pedophile priests. That these victims and the abuse that damaged them deserve more than 25 minutes of attention was suggested by the number of times Benedict spoke to the subject.

And he represented the servant Christ when he addressed the United Nations and called on the world’s few major powers—called on us—to disavow war and violence and recommit ourselves to a powerful defense of human rights.

He represented the servant Christ when he gathered the faithful in eucharist and so strengthened their trust, their hope, and their love. That elected public officials asserting freedom of conscience about abortion, and favoring the right of women to decide, that these lawmakers were asked not to receive communion drew a clear battle line that may have represented both consistency and an imperious spirit.

Conditions under which children are brought into this world also figures in that other story of the week, 416 minor children being separated from their parents by the State of Texas, while the appropriate agencies investigate charges of physical and sexual abuse within the closed community of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints.

I can’t find any red slippers to chuckle about in this story. I feel embarrassed for having failed to realize that polygamy was still such a potent force, and I feel confused over why it has been allowed in a nation—and a state—that prides itself on law and order. In Texas, for heaven’s sake.

I’m spooked by the silky smooth voices of mothers content with their heavenly Zion on earth, and I’m jarred by realizing that they themselves were born into this hierarchical world in retreat from the world, bred in captivity, bred for the captivity they describe as freedom, bred to breed future generations of loyal, devout believers. It’s chilling. It’s a story that forces us to think hard about what limits are needed for freedom, in particular religious freedom.

How is this story being heard in other nations of the world? How does it represent America? How does it represent Christianity?

Meanwhile, 416 smaller stories are being written as this country’s most bizarre courtroom scene plays out, 416 lawyers defending the rights of these children as one judge determines what next steps are in their best interest, while the investigation goes on. Perhaps this is a story about the demise of a renegade sect. But don’t our hearts tell us that the destiny of these children is the central story?

“Will you, by your prayers and witness, help this child to grow into the full stature of Christ?”

In the second chapter of the Gospel of Luke, we hear the tag end of yet another story. It reads, “And Jesus increased in wisdom and in stature, and in divine and human favor.”

Do you remember the story that had to come first, before he grew into his full stature? He was twelve. His parents, Mary and Joseph, had taken him to Jerusalem to keep the Passover festival (which falls on this very weekend). Back then, Jesus was separated from his parents. They didn’t notice this until they’d gone a day’s journey, during which they thought he was among relatives or friends. Imagine their panic, as every effort to find him failed. They retrace their journey all the way to Jerusalem, and you know what that was like, each minute an eternity, no face mattering but his, their minds racing to keep terror at bay. Three days later they find him in the temple, debating religious questions with the elders. Tension uncoiled right past relief and back round again to anger as Mary asked him, “Why have you treated us like this? Didn’t you know we’d be searching?” Only to hear her son question her, “Why were you searching? Didn’t you understand that I must be here?”

Aaron, Chrissie, Ali, Bill: be warned! The full stature of Christ requires freedom, requires that Fiona keep knowing this God who counts her essential for the world’s healing, and that she keep hearing the call to find and respect her freedom and its limits which will in time limit you as well, free you as well. “By your prayers and witness,” it says. The God of your praying must be this one we hear about in John today, who has no limits to the interest that meets us, the commitment that meets us, the faithfulness that meets us when we open ourselves to all that is truly God.

Aaron, Chrissie, Ali, Bill: As you respond to that call of God, and as you grow up into all that is truly God, giving yourselves to the servant ministry of Christ in the world, Fiona will learn from your witness, as she will from ours, from the community that keeps knowing God and hearing the call.

At the heart of that call is God’s perfect freedom. Each of us is to be centered in freedom, so to move with God in the world—like dancing.

Do you watch “Dancing with the Stars?” I do.

God is the pro, the effortless dancer, the trainer. Fiona, you’re the celebrity partner. Baptism shows us that we all are God’s partners. We bring our limits. God includes them in the dance, training us in the freedom and faithfulness already given to us.