St. Augustine of Canterbury Anglican Church
Bishop Peter F. Hansen
Sermon for The 17th Sunday after Trinity, September 26, 2021
“...forbearing one another in love; endeavoring to keep the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace. There is one body, and one Spirit, one hope of your calling; one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all.”
GOD IS ONE. And God is Three Persons united by Love. If both were not so, then could there even be love at all? Unity is not solitary uniformity, identical equivalence. If we were exactly the same, you and I would disappear, and merely gray comrades would walk in a half-life, half death, lockstep into hell.
Whenever calls for Unity are the loudest, I wait for the big lie, the real wrong being pushed against our human nature. While sometimes being contrary can just show pigheadedness, a nay vote and dissenting voice can save us all from bad ideas cloaked in fine false words. Unity is a poor substitute for love. We can love those with whom we disagree. We can greatly enjoy people we debate with in courtesy and mutual respect. But Unity is demanded when love is not on the table, toward absolute compliance and loss of personhood.
And yet, unity is called for in scripture. What are we to do?
The Epistle today in Ephesians 4 has St. Paul in prison writing his church to abide with each other humbly, seeking to keep the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace. This is not mere unity for unity’s sake. If you read all that he wrote, to each of his churches he commends both their adherence to truth and love toward one another. Here is the key. Love and truth come together, and therein we find unity. Take one part out, and all falls away. You can’t have love without truth, or truth without love. Failing that, oppressors demand unity, by which they only mean obedience.
Love without truth isn’t love. A mad passion for something or some ideal eventually ends in perversion, intemperance, idolatry, and addiction and Not Love. Love only forms around a real other, in honest respect and a sharing of truths. Compatible people are not identical—they can’t be. But their differences fuel their mutual interest, and their similarities are enough to make a basis for relationship. Early Christians came to know Jesus Christ as He was taught them by the Apostles, eyewitnesses of all He did and said. His miraculous life validated His being God’s Son, and His words drew hearts and minds toward His unique teaching. The truth of the Incarnation of God’s Son resonated with the hopes and dreams of millions, and it was around this center pole of the Faith that the faithful were brought together. Around this truth, they learned to love Him, and eventually to love each other. That love, toward brethren, requires some consideration. High and low born, members of every race, those who had lived hard and sinful lives, were now joined with honest men and women in a new society, a redeemed humanity found in Christ. The Truth was required for them to be in love. Without that truth love is wayward, inconstant, flashing brightly for a moment, then burning itself out.
Can truth stand without love? In human terms, no it can’t. Truth without love isn’t even truth. For Truth is a Person. This world could be scientifically defined, without mystery, without a divine origin. The Cosmos just went boom, then sizzle, then cooled and finally oozed out life by itself. Eons passed. Early man stood on unsteady legs and grew brains. Violence yielded better men, for to kill was to survive. Tools and weapons made copper man better than stone man, bronze man better than copper man. Now in business suits and leggings, modern iPhone man is destroying the planet with hairspray and petroleum.
Truth when it describes only what we can see, hear and measure, leaves out the truth of what lies behind and beneath all we describe. We leave out why the things we see are visible at all, why it all works so well. Why this planet above all others sustains life and why we think thoughts of anything better. Truth without love isn’t true. Love runs underneath the waters, and fashions the granite cliffs, and breaths life into the redwood giants, and shapes the human body and soul. Truth is only true if love indwells it.
Jesus knew that He was controversial. Knowing who people are, He came with the knowledge that His words and deeds would attract many, change some, alienate others, and ultimately gather His enemies powerfully against Him. He knew He came to die. “I did not come to bring peace on earth but a sword. For I have come to ‘set a man against his father, a daughter against her mother, and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law’; and ‘a man’s enemies will be those of his own household.’” This enmity was not His goal, but an inevitable result of the truth He was bringing. Truth divides because not all people want the truth. They derive power from lies. Call a lie what it is and you have an enemy. Jesus further explained, “He who loves father or mother more than Me is not worthy of Me. And he who loves son or daughter more than Me is not worthy of Me. And he who does not take his cross and follow after Me is not worthy of Me. He who finds his life will lose it, and he who loses his life for My sake will find it.” Matt 10:34-39
This was not a sales pitch, not pretty words. He was warning His disciples of the opposition they were going to face, the sacrifices they’d make for the truth they now held.
To hold the truth without love is harsh, bitter and judgmental. It ruins the truth because it makes it a lie. Jesus loved His enemies, and forgave them even while they were crucifying Him. He got mad at the religious and powerful because they refused to hear the freedom He came to give them, and the fulfillment of their faith if only they’d humble themselves to it. And so they were leading people away from God.
If we hold a major truth in common, as we do, you and I, that major value unites us in common understanding and is a valuable key to deeper knowledge. But we are still different people. Love is required to gain unity, for we are still not so much alike. The differences are interesting, and could cause friction, but the truth we share is essential, life-giving and transformative, so the differences should be permissible, and are even sources of learning from one another. It’s why we have to love each other. Love overcomes differences. The Truth and divine Love make us one. Mere Unity only makes us slaves.
Now, knowing that, Paul’s words in Ephesians make perfect sense. We strive for the unity that comes from truth and love. Out of that new nature, we find patience as we bear the differences between us in love. There is only one body, the Church. And not this church only, but Christ’s one catholic, holy, and apostolic Church around the world. There is one Spirit of God that indwells it all. With them, we are all called to one hope of heaven. We seek the face of one Lord. We share a common faith. The one baptism is by water and the Name of the Trinity, no matter whose church is used for the sacrament. For there is one God, one Father of all. There cannot be more, or He would be less than God.
So, we can only be united if we share something true and regard each other in love. Fools and charlatans cry out for unity, and at the end is death and disaster. The unity called for in the Bolshevik revolution, uniting all workers in peace and mutual ownership clearly ended with slavery and death to over 50 million Russian lives. The unity demanded by the mad genius, Hitler, united his nation around a lie, with a passion and lust for world dominion that killed millions more. Unity in itself should be distrusted every time it’s demanded without definition, without a common truth, and without the love of people and respect for the individual and honestly held differences.
As St. Paul continues with the Ephesian letter, “We should no longer be children, tossed to and fro and carried about with every wind of doctrine, by the trickery of men, in the cunning craftiness of deceitful plotting, but, speaking the truth in love, may grow up in all things into Him who is the head—Christ—from whom the whole body, joined and knit together by what every joint supplies, according to the effective working by which every part does its share, causes growth of the body for the edifying of itself in love.” Do you see that? Don’t be fooled by fads and novel doctrines, lies and plots and deceptions. Rather, speak truth in love, so we may grow together in Christ, who is our head, from whom the entire body, made of so many colors and languages and backgrounds, fits together beautifully, each part supplying what is necessary for a new humanity found in Him.
Truth and love. That’s enough. Unity will come out of that duality. Don’t seek unity for its own sake. And accept nothing short of clear truth and complete love, for without one, the other fails and becomes deadly.
Opposition is inevitable. Welcome it. Jesus did. He healed the man of dropsy in a crowd of doubtful Pharisees. “Is it lawful to heal today, the Sabbath?” He asked them. Who would not do so even for his own animal? Choose out the lowest seat wherever you are. If people want to seat you in a better place, it will honor you. It was a wise parable for such proud people. Did they receive it? Maybe not, but the sick man recovered and went home happy.
If you don’t have enemies, you’re probably not speaking enough truth. If you only have enemies, you don’t love these people. Jesus had enough enemies and enough disciples: enemies enough to indict Him and have Him executed, friends who loved Him enough to bring the Gospel around the world and create a new human race united by truth and love for God’s heaven.