Matthew 13:24-30, 36-43
“Thus says the Lord…I am the first and I am the last; besides me there is no god.”
“For in hope we were saved. Now hope that is seen is not hope. For who hopes for what is seen? But if we hope for what we do not see, we wait for it with patience.”
“‘Master, did you not sow good seed in your field? Where, then, did these weeds come from?’ He answered, ‘An enemy has cone this.’”
On Ascension Day the college chapel was full and, as I was nearly late, I was self-conscious on entering. Except for soccer matches the English are seldom loud, and a college chapel at 7:30 in the morning is no exception. I found one of the few vacant places and sat down. Just opposite me sat a woman dressed as a priest: only this woman wore purple: the color of bishops—a sight I had never before seen in the Church of England. I recognized her as someone with whom I had exchanged e-mails years ago concerning John Henry Newman. In any case, she had become a bishop in New Zealand, and was in Oxford for meetings. A female bishop! I was astonished and, as I think her a fine church theologian, I was pleased—pleased for her and pleased for the church. Then, this past week, the Church of England voted to consecrate women as bishops. Most, but not all, were pleased.
“The church has left me forever.” So wrote a friend last Monday. His church, the Church of England, had made a decision with which he had publically and rather stridently disagreed, and (as a result) he felt abandoned. Never mind the substance of the decision (to ordain women as bishops), a decision with which I happen to agree. But never mind that. Think instead of the assertion that “The church has left me,” and worse still, “The church has left me forever.” Can the church leave us, leave us forever, and still be the church?
I do not find fault with my old friend. In the fullness of time, he may be revealed as correct in his rather subtle and strongly held views. He is a traditionalist in some of the best (and perhaps most fervent) senses of that word. And, it must be said, the one holy catholic and apostolic church must (in order to be itself) bear the burden of Tradition. After all, it’s by Tradition that the Apostle Paul hands on the Gospel, even as by Tradition Judaism handed on (and hands on) the Law and the Prophets, without which there can be neither Gospel nor Church. Thus, arguments over Tradition (whether large T or small) take on greater or lesser weight depending on whether or not one believes the issues at stake lay claim to capital T authority.
I, for one, do not believe that the question of women as bishops rises to the level of “capital T” authority—the non-negotiable elements of faith referenced, for instance, in the Creeds, the sacraments, the judgment and grace of Christ himself. But I could be wrong about this, as I have often been wrong about other things, both factual and intellectual. If there’s one thing about which I’m certain it’s my own uncertainty in relation to tradition beyond Christ himself, his sacramental presence within the life-work of the Holy Trinity. What this means in relation to a whole host of issues, I cannot with certainty say. But I hope and pray that such change is both good and holy, and those for whom such issues pose disaffection might be given the patience to endure them in hope.
Of course, I should like to speak with certainty concerning many questions, issues, and uncertainties beyond the elemental truths of the Trinitarian-Christ tradition. But the hard truth is I cannot. This, among other things, is what Paul struggles with in the 8th chapter of his Letter to the Romans. In today’s Second Lesson, Paul writes, “For in hope we were saved. Now hope that is seen is not hope. For who hopes for what is seen? But if we hope for what we do not see, we wait for it with patience.” These hopeful assertions follow Paul’s distinction between “the flesh” and “the Spirit.” He exhorts us to live not “to the flesh,” but “by the Spirit.” Paul assures us that in Baptism we have been adopted as “children of God,” and that as God’s children we are “heirs of God and joint heirs with Christ—if in fact we suffer with him so that we may also be glorified with him.”
I’m not entirely clear what Paul means when he juxtaposes suffering with [Christ] and being “glorified with him,” but he seems to link suffering (or perhaps struggle) with hope. He goes on to speak of suffering in connection with the whole creation’s waiting “in eager longing” for the revealing of the children of God. He says the creation suffers in “futility” in the hope that it will be set free from bondage to decay, and then obtain the glorious freedom of God’s children—that is, I think, freedom from sin and death.
What’s all this have to do with Tradition, uncertainty, and hope? Just this: our struggles to make sense of life and faith, our yearning to have now what is not yet, our longing for the end of suffering and the fulfillment of joy—these struggles are elemental not only to Christians, but to creation itself. Such struggle is elemental to us and to all. Baptized, we’re joined to and reveal the struggle of Christ’s death and resurrection. We can’t have one without the other. Christ’s life bears no perfection apart from the perfect imperfection of his wounded life; no fulfillment without longing; no joy without sorrow, no life without struggle, pain, and death.
Death, of course, is certain. We know for certain we must die. We do not baptize Benjamin Lawrence because he thereby avoids death, but because the Christ who has died and been raised, promises to raise Benjamin and us from the futility of death and decay.
“Now hope that is seen is not hope. For who hopes for what is seen? But if we hope for what we do not see, we wait for it with patience.” We are impatient for fulfillment. We do not yet know Christ’s resurrection as certain. Without the certainty of sight, our hope remains uncertain. Our lives are fraught with the certainty of suffering and death. The whole creation writhes in pain. Yet the Spirit gives hope. By means of water, bread, wine, and the sight of struggling people like ourselves sharing in Christ by simple sacramental means, we have hope. In this hope we baptize Benjamin Lawrence. In this hope we eat bread and drink wine. In this hope we await the restoration of all things, the glorious freedom of the children of God—adoption, the redemption of our bodies, the sight and certainty for which we long. Christ has died, Christ is risen, Christ will come again. Neither he nor his church will leave us. Amen. Come Lord Jesus. We wait with patience.