Frank Tracy Griswold III

The 25th Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church.

Celebration of Full Communion

January 6, 2001
Frank T. Griswold

We have come together this morning as Lutheran and Anglican Christians, along with members of other households of faith, to celebrate the fact that, through baptism into the death and resurrection of Christ, we are limbs and members of Christ’s risen body, the Church. Knit together in the communion of the Holy Spirit, which is to share God’s own Trinitarian life, we are as unable to say to one another, as an eye is to say to a hand, “I have no need of you” (1 Corinthians 12:21), without doing violence to the integrity of the body.

“In the communion of saints we are all brothers and sisters so closely united that a closer relationship cannot be conceived. For in this fellowship we have one baptism, one sacrament, one food, one gospel, one faith, one Spirit, one spiritual body; and each of us is a member one on another. No other society is so deeply rooted, so closely knit.” Lutherans will doubtless recognize these words as those of Martin Luther.

As we are rooted and knit together by the Spirit in fellowship and full communion, we are called to common mission; and the mission we share is none other than the mission of Christ and the mission of Christ’s body, the Church. According to the Catechism in the Book of Common Prayer, “The mission of the Church is to restore all people to unity with God and each other in Christ.” (Here I would point out that for Episcopalians the Prayer Book is a compendium of doctrine cast in the form of doxology: of prayer and praise.) “How does the Church pursue its mission?” the Catechism continues, “It does so as it prays and worships, proclaims the Gospel, and promotes justice, peace and love. Through whom does the Church carry out its mission? Through the ministry of all its members,” all who have been baptized into Christ.

How easy it is, particularly as activist North Americans, focusing our pursuit of mission on the promotion of justice, peace and love, to overlook the centrality of prayer and worship, and to see the proclamation of the Gospel as directed toward others and fully accomplished with respect to ourselves. And yet we all stand in constant need of evangelization both personally and as ecclesial households. Reformation is not a past event, but a continual process whereby the Church is conformed in her members to the paschal pattern of Christ’s dying and rising over and over again. Reformation implies an ongoing encounter with the risen and living One in word and sacrament and common prayer which so grounds its members that, as they “grow up in every way into him who is the head” (Ephesians 4:15), they are able to act and to speak with the mind of Christ. Ecclesia semper reformanda means life long conversion, life long repentance: making room for “the boundless riches of Christ” (Ephesians 3:8) and “the wisdom of God in all its rich variety”(Ephesians 3:10) which, because of our stony, fearful and defensive hearts strain and stretch us to the breaking point, in order that the word of Christ may dwell in us richly in all its fresh and freedom-giving truth.

How right it is that as we come together to affirm our call to common mission as two households of faith within the One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic Church, we do so within the context of the Eucharist. “In partaking of this sacrament, all self-seeking love is rooted out. It gives place to that love which seeks the common good…In the sacrament we become united with Christ, and are made one body with all the saints,” observes Luther. All self-seeking love is rooted out. Is it? Or do we tend to emphasize our singularities in order to define ourselves over against one another — thereby feeding our ecclesiastical self-love — and cry out with the tax-collector in the Gospel, “God, I thank you that I am not like other people, other traditions.” Christ in the Eucharist says, “No,” as we “all partake of the one bread” and drink from the “cup of blessing,”(1 Corinthians 10: 16-17) which are the signs of Christ’s boundless and deathless, reconciling love.

“God’s word is a sacrament, no less than the sacrament his word,” declares Luther. Are we ready to hear what Christ, the lord of the Eucharist is saying to the churches as he meets us again and again in Bread and Wine: “This is my body…this is my blood…given and poured out for you and for all for the forgiveness of sins?” Pondering the Eucharist as word, the apostle Paul hears the Eucharist speak of reconciliation: “Because there is one bread, we who are many are one body, for we all partake of the one bread” (1 Corinthians 10:17).

If baptism is the sacrament of our justification and conveys, according to Luther, “the grace of God, Christ in all his fullness, and the Holy Spirit with all his gifts,” then the Eucharist is the sacrament of our sanctification. In the Eucharist, we as churches and members of Christ’s body, are drawn ever more deeply into union with the One who is the Bread of Life “from whom the whole body, joined and knit together by every ligament with which it is equipped, as each part is working properly, promotes the body’s growth in building itself up in love”(Ephesians 4:16).

On this occasion, the Eucharist in conjunction with the renewal of our baptismal identity is not just an adjunct — an appropriate ceremonial addition to our call to common mission — but rather it is the ground of the communion we share. The Eucharist both summons us and sustains us as we face the future in all its challenge and complexity as well as its possibility.

This brings me to today’s feast, the feast of the Epiphany: one of the great days in the Church’s liturgical year. Epiphany, which comes from the Greek, Epiphania, means appearance or manifestation. In classical mythology the word was used to describe the visible manifestation of otherwise hidden divinity, either in the form of a personal appearance or through some powerful act by which it made its presence known. In this sense Paul in the Second Letter to Timothy speaks of “the appearing of our Savior Jesus Christ”(2 Timothy 1:10). As a feast, the Epiphany can be traced back to Alexandria in Egypt in the third century. In time it was taken up into the calendar of the Great Church of the East where it became a celebration of Christ’s nativity: the appearance in our flesh of God’s eternal Word. Eventually the church of the East and the church of the West appropriated one another’s feasts. In the process, December 25 became the celebration of Christ’s birth. January 6 then became the celebration of Jesus’ baptism — the manifestation of Jesus’ divine sonship — in the East, and the coming of the wise men, the manifestation of Christ to the Gentiles, in the west. Yet in the West, the baptism of Jesus, along with changing water into wine, the first of Jesus’ signs in Cana of Galilee, whereby he “revealed his glory,” remained part of the Epiphany celebration.

These moments of manifestation involving water harken back to pagan water rites observed in ancient Alexandria on January 6, which were then taken up into the life of the early Church and associated with the life of Christ. Early homilies, antiphons and indeed several hymns common to the Lutheran Book of Worship and the current Episcopal hymnal bear witness to this fuller and ancient complex of themes associated with the Epiphany: “Songs of thankfulness and praise, Jesus, Lord, to thee we raise, Manifested by a star to the sages from afar…Manifest in Jordan’s stream, Prophet, Priest and King Supreme…Manifest in power divine, changing water into wine”(Lutheran Book of Worship, 90; Hymnal 1982, 135). Our lectionaries as well proclaim this “triple mystery” of divine self-disclosure, as does the Epiphany blessing which will be given at the end of today’s liturgy.

Why do I set all this before you? Simply to point out that while Lutherans and Anglicans and many other communities of believers subsist within the western tradition and have much of our inheritance from the Church of Rome. We do not stand apart from the ancient churches of the East either, from which so much of our life and tradition have come, as the feast of the Epiphany makes plain.

It is, therefore, my prayer and earnest hope that full communion between the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America and the Episcopal Church in the United States will lead to ever widening and deepening relationships of shared life and mission with other churches of the Reformation as well as the Church of Rome and the churches of the East.

But let us return to today’s feast and, in the light of the Gospel we have just heard proclaimed, ask ourselves what word is being addressed to us as we formally enter into full communion. The first thing to note is that the wise men, the Magi, “a learned class in ancient Persia,” according to a footnote in the New Oxford Annotated Bible, are drawn away from all that is safe and familiar — their studies, their manuscripts, their instruments of observation — by a star. As in the case of the Patriarch Abraham, fidelity requires that they leave home and undertake a journey the destination of which is unclear and unknown and exists solely in the mind of God. What gives them the courage to venture forth is a deep restlessness and yearning worked in them by grace, an unsettlement provoked by sacred mystery which passes all understanding which we know as God.

Is our entering into full communion an act of expediency or is it a response to a yearning and a restlessness worked in us by the Spirit who, in our polarized and divided world, not to mention our own nation, seeks to reconcile us to God in Christ and to one another? If the Church in its many parts is to be an active sign and minister of reconciliation, it must live as a reconciled community; otherwise its preaching will be totally in vain. And so it is that we must leave home and follow the star. To be sure there is room in our saddlebags for the Augsburg Confession and the Book of Common Prayer, but a great deal will have to be left behind, particularly attitudes and self-perceptions which keep us from joyfully welcoming one another as brothers and sisters in the communion of the Holy Spirit, and from opening ourselves to the gifts of grace and truth to be found in one another’s church.

Our formal declaration of full communion is just the beginning of the journey. Where we will be led God alone knows. There must have been times along the way when the wise men rued the day they had left home and yearned for the familiarity of their libraries, just as the costliness of full communion as we live it in all its concreteness and incarnate awkwardness, along with the various anomalies and contradictions that attend every human venture, no matter how inspired, may make us yearn for the safety of our old singularities. And yet the star led the wise men on, on to Jerusalem, the “city of the great King”(Psalm 48:2), the logical conclusion of the journey. All reasonableness and good sense pointed them to the court of King Herod, but they had not gone far enough: God’s ways are not our ways, nor are God’s thoughts our thoughts (cf. Isaiah 55:8). The divine imagination exceeds all our efforts to comprehend and contain it, and what use God will ultimately make of our ecclesiastical arrangements or where they will take us, or require of us in the days ahead, may surprise us all.

It is the word of the Prophet Micah confirmed by the star that orients the wise men toward Bethlehem. Christ who is the Word is also the Way. Christ leads them on beyond themselves; beyond their comprehension into the very heart of the “mystery hidden for ages in God”(Ephesians 3:9): the mystery of God’s profligate, unbounded and ever amazing grace.

And so it is that the wise men, overwhelmed with joy, kneel and pay homage and present not only their gifts, but also their very selves to the One “who became for us wisdom from God, and righteousness and sanctification and redemption”(1 Corinthians 1:30). In the sea of technicalities we have to navigate as we live into the reality of full communion, we may find ourselves in danger of losing our focus who is always the risen Christ. How important it is, therefore, at the beginning of this journey to kneel together with the wise men and offer all that we are, including our sins and failures, our fears as well as our hopes, to the risen and living One in whom all things are reconciled, healed and made whole.

“Having been warned in a dream not to return to Herod,” we are told that the wise men “left for their own country by another way” (Matthew 2:12). “By another way.” Monastic preachers of an earlier age pondered this phrase and saw in it a reference not simply to another route, but to an altered and transformed consciousness. The wise men were changed by their encounter with the Word made flesh: They were, in the words of the Anglican poet, T.S. Eliot, “no longer at ease…in the old dispensation.”

It is my further hope and prayer that as we follow the star, attending to the word that is sacrament, and the sacrament that is word, we will grow beyond a pleasant parallel existence with moments of interchangeableness, and find that the grace and gift of full communion transforms us both as Lutherans and Episcopalians. I pray also that we have the courage to make the journey that leads beyond the logic of Jerusalem to the mystery and truth of Bethlehem where, in the words of Martin Luther, “we can still open to Christ our treasures and present them to Him, as the wise men did. And how? Behold, His word is written (Matthew xxv.40): ‘Inasmuch as ye have done unto the least of these my brethren, ye have done it unto me’.”

May our full communion so stretch and transform us that we become an epiphany, a manifestation of reconciling love and service to the least as well as the greatest, remembering always that “whoever serves must do so with the strength that God supplies, so that God may be glorified in all things through Jesus Christ. To him belong the glory and the power for ever and ever. Amen (1 Peter 4:11). 

The Most Reverend Frank T. Griswold
XXV Presiding Bishop and Primate
The Episcopal Church, USA