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In Christ – Br. Mark Brown

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Br. Mark BrownEph. 2:11-22/Psalm 85:8-13/Luke 12:35-38

Paul speaks elsewhere of being “in Christ”. “In him we live and move and have our being.” [Acts 17:28] “…we must grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ…” [Eph:4:15] The phrase, “in Christ”, has often fascinated me, so I’d like to ponder what it may mean. Being “in Christ” may be one of those mysteries best comprehended without words in contemplation.  But it of our nature to attempt to contain ineffable mysteries in our poor words. A poet [Alexander Pope] once said, “Fools rush in where angels fear to tread…”  But I’m undeterred.

So what does it mean to be “in Christ”?  I’d like to explore this in reference to the passage from Ephesians we heard this evening and also in reference to an extraordinary document produced by the recent Synod of Roman Catholic bishops: the “Relatio post disceptationem”, specifically, the first draft version that came out about a week ago.

Perhaps you’ve heard about this document that has become so controversial in the Catholic world.  That controversy among the prelates is being made so public is extraordinary in itself, an indication that Pope Francis is going about things in a more open and transparent way.  The Synod was called to discuss marriage, the family and sexuality in the contemporary world.  If I were to summarize the first draft report it would be something like this: the Catholic Church affirms its traditional doctrines on marriage and the family, but, in imitation of Christ’s merciful gaze, affirms what is good in irregular unions and offers welcome and the ministry of accompaniment to all her children. Or, to put it another way, the Roman Catholic ideal and standard is still a life-long, indissoluble marriage of a man and a woman that is always and completely open to the possibility of procreation.

Of course, many, even most, peoples’ lives do not fully meet that standard, either in heterosexual or same sex relationships.  And yet, the document calls the Church to affirm what is good in these relationships and avoid condemnation of what is lacking or irregular. The report is astonishing for its pastoral tone, especially in the first draft.  A later version pulls back from the generosity of spirit of the first draft.  Whatever comes of this, it is a signal moment in the history of the Roman Church. John Allen’s commentary in Sunday’s Boston Globe may be very helpful if you haven’t been tuned in to these developments.

Paul to the Ephesians: “But now in Christ Jesus you who were once far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ. For he is our peace; in his flesh he has made both groups into one and has broken down the dividing wall, that is, the hostility between us. He has abolished the law with its commandments and ordinances, that he might create in himself one new humanity in place of the two, thus making peace, and might reconcile both groups to God in one body through the cross…” [Eph. 2:13-16]

What Paul seems to have in mind here is the layout of the great Temple compound in Jerusalem. It was a magnificent thing rebuilt on a colossal scale by Herod the Great. There was a vast rectangular platform (still there today) held up by a retaining wall built with dressed stones of enormous size. Toward the western wall, more or less in the center, stood the Temple itself.  The Temple and the surrounding areas were marked off in zones by walls and barriers.

The very central focus was an inner sanctum, the Holy of Holies. Only the High Priest could pass through the great curtain and enter the Holy of Holies, and then only once a year on Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, and with a blood sacrifice.  The regular priests had access to the area outside the Holy of Holies.  Then there was a zone to which Jewish males had access. Beyond that there was a zone for Jewish women. Beyond another barrier was the Court of the Gentiles.  High Priest (all the way in), regular priests (almost in), Jewish males (sort of in), Jewish females (less in than that), then everybody else, everybody else in the whole world (definitely out).

In Paul’s vision, all these separations, all these dividing walls, all these categories are obsolete: “There is neither Jew nor Greek, neither slave nor free, neither male nor female, but all are one in Christ.” [Gal.3:28-29] In Christ, all human beings can go with the High Priest (Christ himself) into the Holy of Holies (Christ himself) with a blood sacrifice (Christ himself) any day of the year.  Even women can enter the Holy of Holies.  In Christ, all are priests—even uncircumcised gentiles. The barriers have been broken down; all have access to God through Jesus Christ, in Jesus Christ. Those who were literally far off, way out there somewhere beyond the dividing wall, are now brought near, into the very inner sanctum, into the Holy of Holies, which is Christ himself.  In Christ there is a new undivided humanity.  To be in Christ, to be in the Holy of Holies, is to inhabit a reality in which there are no boundaries of inclusion and exclusion.  All are in—to some degree or other.  In some way or other.

The “Relatio”, the document from the Roman Synod, uses a word and a concept that I find very helpful.  It’s awkward but helpful: gradualness.  The idea in the context of the ideal and standard of Roman Catholic thinking about marriage and the family and sexuality is that even when the standard is not met fully, there can be something about a relationship to be affirmed and valued.  For example, two unmarried people living in life-long fidelity to one another could be recognized as meeting the standard partially.  Or, a man and woman united in holy matrimony but not always completely open to the possibility of procreation (i.e., they may be using contraception)—they may meet the standard, but only partially.  The Church’s role is to accompany all people (especially the most fragile), affirm what is good, and help them move gradually in the direction of more perfect, more complete relationships.

By the way, I’m not suggesting I agree with Roman Catholic doctrine on marriage and the family or that it fully expresses the mind of Christ, but I’m using this as an illustration of  “gradualness”, that is, that what is good is to be affirmed, even though it is only partial.  Which is a helpful concept when it comes to thinking about our being “in Christ”. All human beings are “in Christ” in one sense by virtue of their very existence [Col. 1:17; John 1:1-9]. Baptized Christians are “in Christ” in a fuller way. Those who live lives characterized by mercy and loving kindness are “in Christ” in some fuller way.  There is greater proximity to the fullness of the Divine Life and lesser proximity to the fullness of the Divine Life–but there are no dividing walls of inclusion or exclusion.  We live in a fluid, organic reality that is constantly in flux, sometimes more, sometimes less in full alignment with the Divine Life.

No one in this world is in perfect, complete alignment with the Divine Life and its energies; all participate to some degree or another, some more, some less.  There are gradations, there is a “gradualness” to being “in Christ”. In Ephesians Paul speaks of growing into Christ, becoming Christ, as we mature in Christ. [Eph. 4:13-15]  And some days are better than others!  Some days we seem to be more “in Christ” than others.  Although this remains ineffable mystery and can neither be quantified by any human measure, nor controlled by any human means, least of all any humanly constructed barriers.

But, stay alert! The gospel says today. “Be dressed for action and have your lamps lit.” [Luke 12:35] Be ready for Christ to come knocking, even in the dark night. Be ready for Christ to fasten his belt and lay before us and within us a sumptuous feast: a feast of kindness and mercy, a feast of patience and generosity, a feast of gentleness and humility, a feast of his own body that invites us into his body, a feast of rich food and fine wine that makes us his body and blood.

And being that body, being in that body, becoming that body, may we look upon the world with the merciful gaze of Christ himself, affirming all that is good in ourselves and in one another.  For all that is good is of him.  All that is good is of him and by him and through him and in him.

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