The word is very near you. It is on your lips and in your heart. It is near you when you confess Jesus with your mouth and when you believe in your heart that God has raised Him from the dead. Romans 10: 8b-9
These are fitting words for the feast day of Charles Simeon, who was one of the great stirrers up of the Church of England in the 18th century when it had been lagging for decades in a kind of over-intellectual torpor. He was a great preacher and a great teacher, and he inspired generations of lay leaders and clergy to revive in the Church of England a spirit, a fire and joy in the Lord.
Bishop Thomas E. Breidenthal gives his address to the 142nd annual convention. Photo by Tammie Vanoss
The words that we have just heard from Paul’s letter to the Romans lie at the heart of the meaning of the evangelical movement in Anglicanism. We don’t have to try hard to be saved. God has done that work in Jesus Christ. We don’t have to go far to find him. He’s already right here. He’s in our mouths and in our hearts.
The word of God is very near us. We don’t have to be afraid, and yet, for some of us, if we are honest, there may be a challenge in this passage. It’s that piece about faith. “If you believe in your heart that God has raised Jesus from the dead, you will be saved.” Well, I do believe that, but that’s sometimes hard for me and I bet for you as well, because we are Americans.
We often have trouble sometimes with this understanding of faith: just leaning into a truth for which there is no immediate evidence. We’re all brought up to think we need to figure out things for ourselves. We need to see things with our own eyes. We need to come to conclusions that we can own and be responsible for.
In the ancient world also, there was a problem with faith. If you pick up your Platonic dialogues, you’ll see that Socrates over and over again uses faith as a bad word. For him, it’s a synonym for gullibility. It’s believing things on the basis of hearsay. It’s utterly anti-philosophical. Paul was well aware of this theme in sophisticated, educated Greco-Roman society. He was aware that faith was not considered to be the sign of a philosophical and educated mind.
So in this passage, he’s doing something very interesting. He’s meeting that prejudice head-on. He’s saying, “Yes, faith is about believing on the basis of hearsay.” God will not turn away from those who call on him, but how can they call on him if they have not heard about him, and how will they hear about him if there are no preachers and witnesses? How will there be preachers and witnesses if they are not sent? But blessed are the feet of those who preach good news, who bring good news. It’s all about hearsay.
Paul isn’t saying we can’t have a direct experience of Christ. After all, he was converted that way. But the role of hearsay is a constant theme in his writing. We need to accept the fact that very often the way we know Jesus is by way of other people. Jesus seems to prefer a kind of indirection. He wants us to believe in Him by way of the community that surrounds us.
For most of us, our faith lies in the faithfulness and witness of people who have formed us in Christ. God doesn’t want us to come to him one by one. He wants us to come to him as we are today, all together, some of us weak and some of us strong. Some days I have great faith, some days I have very little faith, but I count on other people to carry my faith for me. Isn’t that true? Isn’t that why we have church? Isn’t that why we practice Sunday after Sunday after Sunday learning how to get along with each other – so that we we are dependent on others for our faith – even on the people that annoy us the most. We depend on holy hearsay.
But if we’re not careful, we will mistake what Paul is really trying to tell us here. We’ll try to use our dependence on one another to hide from the world. We’ll use each other as human shields, if you will, to keep a distance between us and what’s all around us. We’ll use church as a refuge rather than a launching pad.
This is what this convention’s motto, “Christ all around,” is all about. Our connectedness as human beings drives us ever outward into more and more community, more and more realization of the connection that God hardwired us for. We need to practice and take the risk of stepping out constantly, always stepping out further.
We’ve already heard lots of stories about stepping out, but there’s always more to do, isn’t there? But it’s scary, and if we’re not careful, we will resist it. But that is the future of the church right now. We have to reclaim our sense of the church not as a refuge, not as an inside, but as an exodus into God’s world.
I understand how scary that is. It’s scary for me, personally. My staff knows very well that if I have to go to a reception with a bunch of businessmen, I take somebody with me to protect me. I’ll tell you a story about myself that I’m still embarrassed about, but it happened 35 years ago, so I’ve gotten some distance from it and I think I’ve learned from it.
It happened during the first week after I was ordained a deacon. I had my collar on, but I was staying indoors. I was at St. Michael and All Angels, Portland, Oregon. I was staying inside with that collar on.
Not long before I was ordained, just before I graduated from seminary, I was standing on the platform of BART, which is the rapid transit in the Bay Area, and thinking, “What am I going do if I’m going to have to work outside in a clergy collar? How will I ever be able to wear a collar on a platform like this?” Well, as grace would have it, my old car – which was really old – broke down during that first week in Portland. I had been invited to lunch downtown with a parishioner, which meant that I had to actually go outside the church to the bus stop, wait for the bus with my collar on, and get on the bus and sit down. Well, I managed to do that much.
So I sat there, looking neither to the left nor to the right. This very seedy looking guy, with kind of long, dirty hair, sat down next to me, and he said, “Are you an apostle of Satan?” I just shook my head “no”. He said, “What’s the matter with you? You can’t speak?” And I just shook my head “yes.”
So that’s sort of my ur-narrative for what it means to follow Jesus into the neighborhood.
I understand that going outside is scary for us as a church, and so there is a general hunger in this diocese for a master plan, a formula that will help us all do it right. We want instructions.
The problem is that we’re all in different neighborhoods. They all overlap, but every congregation, every intentional community is in a specific and unique neighborhood. They’re all different, so there isn’t any one master plan. There’s no strategy that can help us all get this right.
What we need is a spirit of collaboration, so that we’re asking each other for help all the time and seeing where we have neighborhoods that are similar to each other. We need to develop tools and methods, a whole array of them, that can be helpful to us as we try to figure out how to be the church in exodus. And we need metrics. We need to figure out ways to measure how we’re doing individually, as congregations and collectively, so that we can be sure that we are being honest about our progress.
What we need most of all is the courage in Jesus Christ to see the opportunities for risk-taking, relational work – and to take those opportunities. It’s very scary to do, but we all need to take the first step and the rest will follow. All we need to do is walk into that school superintendent’s office across the street. Or go find out what’s happening in the place that’s looking after people who’ve just gotten out of jail. Or walk around the neighborhood and see who’s there. Or, God help us, maybe pray with somebody.
It’s not evangelism. It’s just being present. The problem with evangelism, apart from the fact that it terrifies us even more than getting to know our neighborhood, is that it sounds like it’s a gift that we have to give to other people. But we can’t go at it that way. We have to step out into unfamiliar territory, and sometimes the very street our church is on is unfamiliar territory. We have to step out into that territory as guests.
I worry about us placing so much emphasis these days on hospitality, as if that were the ultimate virtue, or inclusion, as if that were the ultimate virtue. Literally, the word inclusion means to invite people into your closed circle. So when we talk about hospitality as Episcopalians, very often what we’re saying is this is our sacred space and we invite you into it with us, but it’s the opposite that’s called for.
What’s called for is for us to go into the spaces that are owned by other people – into systems and communities that are different from ours, and to sit at their feet and learn from them. That is what will change our hearts. That is what will redeem us. That is what will save us. “Christ all around!”. We have to really believe that even the people that don’t believe in God, even the people that belong to a different party from us, even the people who are completely unlike us, are Christ.
That’s the meaning of the Incarnation. God’s word in Christ entered the human race, which is one body, and nothing can stop Christ from spreading out to every piece of it. All people bear Christ, whether they know it or not. If we approach our neighbors with humility and kindliness, we will, in the end, turn out to have been those whose feet are blessed because they bring good news.
So remember, the word is very near you. It is on your lips and in your heart, for if you believe in your heart that God raised Jesus from the dead, you will be saved, but the heart is Christ, all around. Amen.
See the video here: https://dsoconvention.org/2016/11/15/bishops-142nd-convention-address/