The City of God
Jerusalem. The Eternal City. The Psalmist calls it a city “that is at unity with itself.” Daily newspapers tell a different story of course. After a quick read through the paper, or a long walk through the streets of Jerusalem, you might ask, “What place on Earth could be further divided and at odds with itself, than this place?”
With the Psalmist, we pray for the peace of Jerusalem, that there be peace within her walls and quietness within her towers. Yet, again, we know that this prayer has not yet been fulfilled. For what great city appears further from inner peace than Jerusalem?
To be at once built by God, blessed by prayer, and still divided and at odds is a dichotomy that reminds me a lot of us. As individuals, as human society, and, even more sadly, as the Church itself.
In Christ, we are a chosen people: created, redeemed and sustained by God. As the body of Christ, we are the resurrected Temple Mount – holy and acceptable unto God, called into place, living stone by living stone, by Jesus Christ – himself the Chief Cornerstone of the New Jerusalem.
But … yet … are we not still people who fear, who hunger, who doubt? Do we not still nurse wounds, harbor anxieties, brood upon resentments, feed into jealousies, and seek our own retributions? Do we not still yearn a little bit for our own glory? Do we not secretly crave that Our will was done, and that it be done?
Reminds me of Paul’s letter to the Romans which we heard last Sunday. He says, “I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate.” “I delight in the law of God in my inmost self, but I see in my members another law at war with the law of my mind, making me captive to the law of sin that dwells in my members.” “Oh,” Paul says, “Wretched man that I am! Who will rescue me from this body of death?”
Have you ever been there with Paul? Wondering: who will save me? Who will bring me back to God’s peaceful company? I have.
An interesting thing happened last Halloween. After nearly 500 years of mutual condemnation, the Roman Catholics and the Lutherans signed a joint declaration about the core Teaching of the Christian faith – the Doctrine of Justification, or “how God saves us from ourselves.” On the most important matter of Christian faith, Lutherans and Catholics have made a big first step closer to home, a big first step closer to the Jerusalem that God calls for: an undivided city of God, a city of peace, the once-and-future Kingdom of God.
For the first time since the Reformation, Catholics and Lutherans sat down and jointly confessed that:
we are all sinners, bearing an inner hunger which causes us to separate from God,
we are all incapable of overcoming our sinful nature by our own power,
and the only way we can bridge the separation we make with God is to take a leap in the dark – responding boldly to God’s tickling invitation to faith in the Grace of God through Jesus Christ.
Wow! After 500 bloody years of division and condemnation over why the Good News is Good (of all things!), these long separated sisters have taken a step toward unity.
In a similar vein, something very big happened last Sunday when the Bishop of Rome, John Paul the Second, went to the Western Wall in Jerusalem and prayed for unity between Christians and Jews. A prayer which required first that the pope asked forgiveness on behalf of the Church, for Christian violence against ‘God’s Children,’ the people of the Covenant, the Jews.
I found the image very powerful of that aged Christian priest, patriarch of a billion people, leaning his head against the only remaining stones of the Temple, hunched and hobbled, fitting his prayer of a thousand years onto a slip of paper, and attaching it to the Temple’s one foundation.
And the writing is definitely on the wall my friends – the prophets, saints, Scriptures and now even Peter and Luther are in one accord: God’s will is for
unity, not only within our sinful human hearts, but between all things under heaven. As Cyrus decreed 27 centuries gone: “the God of heaven, has given me all the kingdoms of the earth, and he has charged me to build him a house at Jerusalem.”
As Paul writes in Ephesians, God’s plan for the fulness of time is to gather up all things in him, in heaven and on earth, and through the richness of his mercy, and out of the great love with which he loved us even when we were dead through sin, God has made us alive, together with Christ. God has given us the spirit of himself, to fill the inner void, to sate the human hunger, and offered us the bread of eternal life, so that we might sit down together, as brothers and sisters, and be one with God.
That is God’s will for us my friends. Like Jerusalem, we were built to be a city at unity with ourselves and with our God. “Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord!” Who makes this possible.
So … what do we do when we find ourselves at odds? What do we do when, as the Chronicler says, “the leading priests and the people also” are unfaithful? What do we do when our leaders and also ourselves pollute the house of the Lord?
It’s hard to be united when there are just so many reasons to be divided, isn’t it? We say: “Oh I could forgive him only if he could just acknowledge his fault …”. “Oh I could tolerate a lot of strange behaviours, but there is one thing I will never tolerate …”. “Oh why won’t he talk to me?”
It has been tough to be us these days. It is tough to be like Christ, when there are so many compelling reasons not to. Oh, if only we knew the hearts of others as God knows our own – then we could forgive more easily. Do you know what I’m talking about? I’m talking about feeling let down – big time – by someone who we wanted to do things right! In the name of God.
Oh it really hurts doesn’t it? All that’s happened in the last six weeks. Let us let that out. It hurts. It’s sad. It makes us angry. It’s just such a blow to us all. “Oh wretched man that I am!” “Who will rid me of this body of death?”
Can’t you hear the inner dialogue? “What? Wait? No. I am not ready, Lord. I am not ready to give it unto you, who gave it all for my sake. I need to nurse these wounds Lord, I need to harbor anxieties, I need to brood upon my resentments and feed into my jealousies. I need revenge Lord.”
But, the Lord says, “I forgave you all that you did. I reached out to you when you would not speak to me. I forgave you everything before you even knew what you had done. I gave my only Son to die for your sins. I gave my only Son to bring you out of your slavery to sin and death. And, I have bought your soul by my own suffering, and I command you to sit down, eat with one another, and live.”
“For I have saved you from your old self: the bitter, divided, angry and wounded self. And I have saved you for my sake, not because of your own good works. For you were dead to sin, but I give you life. So forgive yourselves as I have forgiven you, and come with me and live as the undivided City of God.”
This is our calling my fellow St. Jamesers. We have done well to follow it this far, and we will be tested — again and again. The church burnt down, but we grew in unity through the power of the Risen Lord. Our rector brought us through that painful episode to new heights. And now he has in a sense burned down – but we will grow, if we are alive together in Christ.
Yes, we must feel our dismay, and feel our hurt. But just as Christ knew that he was suffering on Calvary, and just as the Pope left his prayer on the Wailing Wall, we too must nail our pain and indignance on the cross – and leave it there by Easter.
We must try to overcome what ails us, for dischord between us will only lead to death. But the Bread of Life, which we have tasted here for so many years now, and have continued to grow and be fruitful from, is beckoning us today, and in these difficult days, to sit down, eat of God’s Grace, and be alive together. Amen.