October 25, 2018; St. John’s Cathedral, Jacksonville, Florida
May God’s saints be helped by the reading and hearing of his word. In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost. Amen.
“Suppose ye that I am come to give peace on earth? I tell you, Nay, but rather division: for henceforth there shall be five in one house divided, three against two, and two against three.”
Each of us here knows something intimate about division in church life: division in a parish, division between seminary classmates, division in a diocese, division in an international communion, division within a national church, division among spouses, division in a workplace, division between lifelong friends. We have spent too much of our lives thinking about it, managing its after-effects, sorting the fragments and living within them. With Eliot, we can each say “these fragments have I shored against my ruins.” Jesus seemed to have known nearly two thousand years ago precisely what we would be experiencing in our own now and here.
But do take note that the arithmetic in Christ’s words is imprecise. There are three divided against two, and two divided against three. There is no indication of whether it is the same two and the same three in either case. The division seems to be a given—even for those of us who have already said that Jesus is Lord, and made our knees a place where he is honored. It is a very bleak weather forecast.
Is there still anything interesting to say about division after hearing this gospel?
My heart inclines rather to the idea that as we meet together today, with the names of our friends on our lips in this requiem, we focus instead if briefly on another kind of division Jesus has also known: the division of death. Love is strong as death, and each of the persons we will mention today has met it. Each of us shall meet it.
We name them not because we have any ability to change their state with God—because that would be arrogant folly—but because we ourselves need the light perpetual they needed, and because we ourselves need the rest they now enjoy. We name these names because this is how a Christian family cares for its own. Their names become little speech-icons we put in and on our hearts while we say them, and we turn them—as with every other care—to God for their good.
There is a leveling and an equality at this annual requiem, a manifestation of the epistle’s great hymn of gratitude:
That he would grant you, according to the riches of his glory, to be strengthened with might by his Spirit in the inner man;
That Christ may dwell in your hearts by faith; that ye, being rooted and grounded in love,
May be able to comprehend with all the saints what is the breadth, and length, and depth, and height;
And to know the love of Christ, which passeth knowledge, that ye might be filled with all the fulness of God.
Strengthened with might, knowing love which passeth knowledge, being filled with fulness.
I hope it is not gnosticism to suggest that the gospel and epistle may be talking to one another on this wise. The possibility of being known as we are known is there at the core of the letter to the Ephesians—knowledge beyond knowledge, love beyond loving, the comprehension of things utterly incomprehensible. Is it the solution of division, or its essence? Whatever it is, the answer to the riddle is the cross.
This is one of the best teachings of Christianity: that because of Jesus we are known as we know ourselves, and that Jesus has filled himself the human experience of everything we can possibly know. He knows that this one had a row with an old friend over something stupid. He knows that this one snores. He knows that this one thinks too much about clothing. He knows that that one struggles with anxiety or depression. He knows that the relationship with that one’s son is fraught for many reasons, and that that one never really sorted things out with his mother before she died. He knows that each of us hate people who are much more worthy of God’s love than we will ever be ourselves. He knows that we have been horrible stewards of his gentleness, and worse stewards of the children over whom he rebuked his own disciples. Jesus has been us, and there is no human difficulty or division outside of the wide arms of love stretched out for us in baffling freedom on the cross.
This is the strengthening with might from the epistle—his might, not ours but also ours. This is the love that passes knowledge—his love and knowledge, not ours, but also ours. This is the being filled with fulness: the sharing in Christ’s humanity by our natural birth, the growing toward sharing in his divinity through our baptism and death.
If I may speak as one American heretic to other American heretics in the words of another community of American heretics—in this case, the Shakers of late nineteenth century New Hampshire—I believe it is the seeking in Christ to know others in Christ as we are known in Christ that gives us our best shot at humility, unity, gentleness, mutual honoring, kindness, honesty, peacefulness, decency, good humor, eagerness for service and learning and teaching. As we pray for our departed colleagues and family, may it be places of division where we put love, both in our personal lives and in our working lives—and as we prepare ourselves to be happy sleepers in our own graves while the Lord tarries. May every celebration of the Holy Communion make us readier guests at God’s Board and more dreading aspirants at the Gate of Heaven.
May I see as I am seen and know as I am known
By one who judgeth all in righteousness.
For the light of his countenance in my soul hath shown
And left me no cause of my duty to guess.
’Tis to watch with care and pray without ceasing
Well improving each moment as it passes along
To keep the sword in motion which will slay every passion,
Bringing perfect victory over all that is wrong.
And now glory to God whose power, working in us, can do infinitely more than we can ask or imagine, according to the power that worketh in us: glory to him from generation to generation in the Church, and in Christ Jesus for ever and ever. Amen.