This morning, our reading from the First Letter of John basically tells us to seek the testimony of God over that of humanity. As I read the opening lines of this passage, I couldn’t think of a more timelier question than asking how to discern the testimony of God over that of man. Especially today, when we are bombarded with opposing view points as to what the will and the expectations of God are. I don’t think there has ever been a time when the Christian world has been so divided on what the will of God is.
In the Roman Catholic Church, since its inception, the apostolic teachings as interpreted through the Papal see has always been accepted as the true testimony of God. However, for many American Catholics that has been called into question. In recent weeks, the Pope has questioned the validity of many of the American religious who openly oppose the Roman Church’s teaching on human sexuality, and women’s reproductive rights. It’s hard for many to believe that a man who is shielded by guards and papal palaces has spoken out against the women who have sacrificially given up their lives to care for and tend to the needs of the poor, and to teach the love of Christ through word and deed.
This however, is not the first time the papacy and the religious of the Catholic Church have disagreed. If legend is true, St. Francis of Assisi was called by God to repair God’s church. God called St. Francis in a dream in which Francis saw himself holding up the crumbling Church of St. John Lateran, the home of the papal seat.
Here at home, denominations stand divided on many social issues. Just two weeks ago, I received a call from a pastor at North Syracuse Baptist Church inviting me to attend a pastors’ meeting in preparation for a rally they are planning for June 10th in defense of the American Family. Their keynote speaker is to be Kirk Cameron. With that bit of information it was clear to me how they were planning to define what a family is. And as I looked at the date, I realized their rally was to be held on the day of the Gay Pride Parade in Syracuse. ( A rally at which many Episcopal and other mainline clergy participate.) There is no doubt, they hope to have their opposing view point heard on Gay Pride Day in Syracuse, as the true testimony of God.
In our own church, we too have been a house divided. Our recent history tells the story of our own ongoing schism. Over these last twelve years we have struggled to arrive at a common understanding on human sexuality and three bordering dioceses of Western New York tell the story.
Here in Central New York, clergy have the full permission of the Bishop to officiate at gay weddings, while this is not the case in either the Diocese of Rochester or the Diocese of Albany. And again this summer, tensions will be high as General Convention works toward approving a rite for same sex weddings. And the question we must ask at this time is, “how will we know for sure what the will of God is on these matters?”
Disagreement within the institutional church is not unique to the modern church. It seems almost as if disagreement between the followers began the moment Christ ascended into the heavens. In the book of Acts, there are at least three documented occasions when the fledgling church had to come to agreement on different issues. In today’s reading, the Apostles had to develop a system for apostolic succession. The problem was. . . how to replace the vacancy left by Judas among the twelve. The solution was easy, establish criteria, and then cast the die to determine the will of God. And with this, Matthias became the new member of the twelve.
But not every issue they faced could be determined by casting lots. Later on, the early church was deluged with social issues that challenged the Laws of Torah as Gentiles swarmed the Church. Issues that included the eating of unclean foods, and the need for circumcision, these questions were as important to them in their day as the issues of women’s rights and human sexuality are to us today.
In order to figure out the will of God, the early church gathered its’ members together to pray and to listen for the direction of the Holy Spirit. Then as the church grew larger, its’ leaders would gather for prayer and discourse until the testimony of God was received. By the fourth century, as the church became integrated with the state, prayer and discourse was not accepted as the answer by those in power and the simple model of discerning the Holy Spirit could no longer hold the Church in unity as schism after schism took place.
So today we find ourselves in the same place our post-apostolic forbears found themselves as they struggled to follow the instruction of John’s letter and to discern the testimony of God as opposed to that of humanity.
As I look over our history, I believe the answer as to how to discern the testimony of God begins with personal responsibility and openness. It seems clear to me that the will of the Holy Spirit is meant to be discerned by both the individual and the community of faith. Since the day Christ commissioned the Apostles to go into the world and to proclaim the good news, the act of Baptism has always been meant as an act of empowerment and commissioning. The Church was never intended to serve as Karl Marx once noted, “as an opiate of the people.” We are not called to act as sheep, mindlessly following the lead of one person. Instead, we are empowered to be active participants in the discerning of God’s will for us as a community and as a church.
But this means we each have to know and grapple with the foundational teachings of Christ and what it means to integrate the vows of Baptism, not just in how we live our lives but how they influence our decisions. However, in order to be able to do this with integrity, we each must develop our own working understanding of what it means to . . . . Love God with all our heart and soul and to love our neighbor as ourselves. We each need to know first hand what evil truly looks like, what it means to seek and serve justice, and to respect the dignity of every human being. When we have developed working understandings of each of these core teachings or values through study and prayer, then we possess the litmus test with which to figure out what the testimony of God is. . as opposed to that of Man.
And, let’s not fool ourselves into believing the apostles had it easier than we do. The earliest followers of Christ were not commissioned to govern themselves until after they had devoted several years to following and learning what Jesus had to offer. It was only after Jesus told them he had taught them everything he could that they were commissioned, but only with the caveat that the Holy Spirit was being sent to guide them and that they were to continue to abide in the love of Christ.
Those seeking membership among the baptized during the first four centuries were only allowed admission into the church after three full years as part of intense catechetical study. Today we baptize babies with minimal parental preparation, and we confirm young teens as adult members of the Church with a smattering of knowledge. No wonder why the church now finds it so difficult to discern the testimony of God.
And so this morning, as we live in he midst of Christian tumult, disagreement and polarity, we are called to heed the instruction of St. John and to bear the testimony of God and not of humanity in our hearts. We are called to do this, not by mindlessly following the whims of the institution but by actively discerning the will of God by participating in the prayers, study and the discourse of the church in order to deepen our understanding of the love of Christ for the world, andas we seek to become the passionate presence of Christ in the world.