Chapel of St John the Divine, Champaign--Luke 24:36b-48, Acts 3:12-19, I John 3:1-7
Episcopalians are accustomed to throwing around in-house jargon like “high church” and “low church” and “broad church” and the like, and that’s a sport that I have myself participated in many times. Usually, what we’re referring to with these terms is liturgical style, and, by that standard, the Chapel of St John the Divine certainly stands in the “high church” lineage. Incense, chanting, icons, holy water, a music program in the English cathedral tradition—it all adds up.
But this morning I’d like to offer you a different take on “high church,” one that doesn’t have anything to do with the accouterments of worship. Let me begin to unfold this for you by posing a simple question: Where did you first learn about Jesus? Now, maybe it was literally “in church”—it would surprise me if that were not the case for some among us here this morning. But, if it wasn’t precisely in a church building and in the context of worship, I would bet all the money in my wallet at present that, for the great majority of us, it was at least within the community of those who regularly gather for worship in the same building. Now, I suppose there might be some who would say something like, “I learned about Jesus at home, at my grandmother’s knee”—and I might respond, “How absolutely blessed you are for that.” But then I would go on to ask, “Where do you suppose she learn about Jesus?” And the answer would probably be, “In church, of course.”
So we have all these outward signs of “high church”—candles, vestments, liturgy. We even have bishops who, if you ply them with the right beverages, will talk about their “lines of succession,” which is just fancy language for “ecclesiastical pedigree.” But these things don’t exist in a vacuum. They have a purpose. They are ultimately about something, and that something is that the Church is not just an aggregation of individual believers who decide to hang out together. It’s not like the Rotary Club, or one of the Greek houses on campus here. It’s not a voluntary organization, a society or club for those who share certain beliefs or principles or tastes, which we can join when it suits our purposes and leave when it no longer does. Rather, the Church is an organism. That word has biological connotations, doesn’t it?—and rightly so, because the Church is all about life, the life of God that you and I share in by virtue of our common baptism. The Church is an organism also because it reproduces; it gives birth to new Christians in the baptismal font. As we prayed in one of the Easter Vigil collects, “multiply, by the grace of the Paschal sacrament, the number of your children…”.
We encounter Jesus—the Messiah, the Savior—in the narrative of the Acts of the Apostles today, where he is referred to as the “Holy and Righteous One.” We also meet Jesus, the risen Jesus, in Luke, where he comes among us and shares a meal with us. We encounter him in and through the community of the Church, and, to be ruthlessly honest, nowhere else—at least, not in his fullness. And, in that context, then, in the context of the community of the Church, we are moved toward repentance. We repent for not having seen Jesus, or for having rejected Jesus, in times past, like the people of Israel addressed by Peter as recorded for us in Acts. We repent for our lack of faith, for the laxity of our discipleship. It is the community of the Church that provides us with a framework, a context, the right kind of boundaries, that make it possible for us to repent fruitfully.
Then, as a result of our repentance, and our incorporation and participation in the people of God, the Body of Christ, the community of the Church, we receive “power from on high,” which is what Jesus told his followers to remain in Jerusalem and wait for as he took his leave of them according to Luke’s gospel. Of course, in this Paschal season, and on a day when we are administering Baptism and Confirmation, we would naturally be inclined to identify “power from on high” with the Holy Spirit, and we would not be wrong in doing so. This, in turn, this power from on high that we receive from the Holy Spirit—and, I will hasten to add, in the context of the community of the Church—the Holy Spirit enables us to see things and know things and do things in extraordinary ways, virtually as God himself sees and knows and does. And why? Because part of the package of our vocation as baptized disciples of the risen Christ is to be heralds of his kingdom and collaborators with him in the mysterious and wonderful ministry of reconciliation and redemption.
But none of this is an accident—something Luke is very keen on us understanding today, both in Volume I of his magnum opus, which we know as the gospel that bears his name, and in Volume II, which we know as the book of Acts. Luke wants us to see clearly that it’s all part of God’s plan. The coming of the Messiah—the Savior, the Holy and Righteous One—was long planned by God and foretold in scripture. It has been available to us all along, though we may not have seen it yet, just as it was with the disciples in the upper room when Jesus came and ate broiled fish and, as Luke tells us, “opened their minds to understand the scriptures.” One of the key ministries of each local Christian community is to be a place where the people of God come together to have their minds opened to understand the scriptures, to mine the treasures that are there, to drink from the living waters that communicate to us the very life of God. Anyone can pick up a Bible in a hotel room and read it randomly, and, by the mercy of God, sometimes perhaps get something true and positive out of it. But only within the community of the Church is the Holy Spirit present to open our eyes to see what God wants us to see when we crack open a Bible. The Bible is not a free agent; it’s the Church’s book. The Holy Spirit is, of course, at liberty to show up in other contexts, but the only guarantee we have that the Holy Spirit will open our eyes to understand the scriptures is when we’re reading them shoulder to shoulder with other members of the community of the Church, both those who are presently 98.6 and those who have gone before us under the sign of the cross.
Jesus tells the disciples in the upper room that they will be his witnesses “to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem.” Then, in Acts, we see Peter being exactly that—a witness—and eventually, according to tradition, fully so, because the Greek word that gives us “witness” in English is the same one that gives us “martyr.” A witness is a martyr is a witness is a martyr … you get the idea.
The Eucharistic Community of St John the Divine on the campus of the University of Illinois is a group of baptized disciples of the risen Jesus who stand among the company of witnesses, the throng of martyrs, in succession to Peter and the other apostles, the company of those who bear testimony to the One long foretold in scripture, the Holy and Righteous One, the community whose mission it is to announce and prepare the way for God’s own mission of making all things new, of bringing light out of darkness, truth out of error, health out of sickness, and life out of death.
As disciples of this risen Jesus, and part of the company of witnesses, our very lives become a living testimony put at God’s disposal for the redemption of a broken world and torn universe. And this is all because we are, yes, “high church,” which probably means a lot more than you thought it did!
Alleluia and Amen.