Encountered by the Word
I write these words aware that this is my last column for Episcopal Life. The last nine years have flown quickly by and have left me with a vast store of memories and reflections that I will sift and sort for quite some time. And since I believe that my public ministry is far from over with the end of my term as presiding bishop, the experiences and insights I gained doubtless will inform what I may say and do in what lies ahead.
What most stands out as I look back is a sense of gratitude for how we as a community of faith have struggled to discern the mind and heart of Christ. Though this season has been far from easy, it has brought with it learnings and affirmations.
One of these is that discernment only can be accomplished when we are deeply grounded and available to God’s unfolding purposes. Essential to our grounding is a radical availability to Christ who is God’s Word. We must be truly rooted in the one who declares himself the Way, the Truth and the Life.
The risen Christ meets us in many forms, most obviously through Scripture. Through the words of Scripture, the risen Christ addresses us and, as he does so, like the disciples on the road to Emmaus, “our hearts burn within us.”
Within each of us is to be found what we might call, as in the Letter of James, “the implanted word” — that is, the dimension of the word that is worked in us by the Holy Spirit and that often takes the form of an unexpected insight or a deep knowing beyond any conscious reasoning.
Christ also meets us, as St. Ambrose tells us, “face to face” in the sacraments. Through the sacraments, the risen Christ encounters us and draws us into his ongoing life and work. The sacraments are the word enacted: an outward and visible sign of the reality of Christ’s healing and reconciling presence.
Even through the most ordinary circumstances of our life, Christ the Word manifests his presence. In fact, one might even speak about “the scripture of my own life.” Again and again, Christ comes to us clothed in the things that happen to us.
Often, as we struggle through the events of our lives, we find our hearts and minds broken open in new ways to the mystery of life and to God’s paradoxical and unexpected workings. We discover Christ as companion, not only in our joys, but also in our struggles and dark nights. There he comes to us, not to rescue us, but to share our burdens and declare them his own.
Just as God refused to remain an abstraction but pitched his tent among us in the flesh and blood of Jesus, so are we pierced again and again by the overwhelming reality of Christ present in the flesh and blood of the men and women “whose lives are closely linked with ours.”
Like it or not, we are bound together through baptism in union with Christ, whose tenacious love will not allow us to separate ourselves from him and therefore from one another. Baptism reveals to us that our lives are inextricably bound up with one another and that together we form one body, the body of the risen Christ.
And it is often through “the other” that we understand more fully the ways of God and come to see more clearly as God sees. This was the experience of Jesus, whose own sense of his mission was challenged and expanded by those he met along the way.
I am sure we all can recall times when our understanding of God’s ways has been expanded by “the other.” At such moments, we are obliged to let our previously held judgment or opinion be shattered to make way for the dimension of Christ’s truth represented by the one who stands before us.
An expansion of consciousness happens to communities as well. I give thanks that such an expansion has happened to us as a church and continues to happen. Corporately, we have been challenged again and again to enlarge the boundaries of our understanding, as we will continue to be challenged in the days ahead.
The Letter to the Ephesians tells us that we must grow up in every way into Christ. To do so involves risks and requires courage. To yearn for the day when strain and tension will disappear from our midst is to yearn for the full realization of God’s reign.
Until then, we are called to live the struggles that are part of life on this earth. We are called to a stance of availability to all that God most deeply desires for us and the world. Only by being united with Christ can we come into such a stance of receptivity. And it is only through prayer that the mind of Christ can be formed in us and become our own.
May we indeed be people of prayer, and may Christ the Word speak to the depths of our hearts. And may we as a church continue to grow into the full maturity of the one in whom all has been reconciled and made whole.