Nehmt einander an
Dear congregation, just like last Sunday, I have chosen a text from the Letter to the Romans. We heard it in the 2nd reading.
I chose it, because the text fits very well into my personal life. It pretty much reflects what I have been dealing with in the past two weeks. It reflects what I’ve been thinking about. Where I am active. Or will be active or want to be active. And today I will try to build a bridge between Advent and this text too.
To put it into simple language the passage from the Letter to the Romans that we heard today is about the behavior of Christians toward one another, on the one hand. And on the other hand, it is about the relationship or connection between Jews and Gentiles.
In relation to my work, the first reference would be the preparations made for the service which will be held on the Day of Judaism. The week before last I met with the members of the Committee for Christian-Jewish Cooperation. The aim of this service is to remember our roots in Judaism as Christian churches. The background to this is, that for a long time the Christian churches saw themselves as the victors, as the superior religion to Judaism. Even today, in some Styrian churches, we find pictures of this theme showing the church in form of a young woman with a sword and of the fallen synagogue in form of an old woman with a broken staff.
One of the main tasks of the Christian-Jewish Committee is to raise awareness and provide information. And the best way to describe the basic understanding in the preparation of this service is probably the following quotation from the Letter to the Romans: "You do not carry the root, but the root carries you."
So when I hear verse 4 in the text we read today, "And everything that the Scripture says, and yet was written down long ago, it says for our sake," it makes something resonate in me. Can this be said so unreservedly? Is it not a presumption completely in the sense of the victorious church over the synagogue? With what unabashed right does one refer all the texts of the Jews to Jesus? Is one allowed to do that?
The members of the Committee would have had a longer discussion at this point - I am quite sure of that. Because already my poster draft triggered a longer email debate. After we had agreed on Noah's covenant as the title of the service on the topic of the preservation of creation, I suggested 4 animals because of the reference "God made his covenant with all that lives".
4 animals that we humans do not find so sympathetic, such as a mosquito. Normaly we humans do not like mosquitos. Yet another animal was a sweet sow - a female pig. My thought on this was a symbol for the animal factories - and I wanted to show that God has made his covenant with these animals as well. But 3 members of the Committee said: pig, that is not a kosher animal. So that is unthinkable. Kosher means that the Jews are allowed to eat it. Now it is a Christian service and Christians are allowed to eat pigs if they want - but on a poster - that is unthinkable. So I suggested a jellyfish instead.
But this shows how difficult it sometimes is, to find a common consensus, meaning to accept each other.
This brings me directly to another statement, namely verse 7: "Therefore honor God by accepting one another as Christ accepted you."
More references to this statement come to my mind regarding my work over the past two weeks.
For example, the preparation of the service mentioned, has triggered an extensive debate about the participation of the Russian Orthodox Church. At this point, one must know that the representatives of the Russian Orthodox Church who are in the ecumenical forum here in Styria have spoken out very clearly against the war. But who knows that? And what does one has to explain in what way to make that clear for the people attending this church service? Isn't that much too political? Doesn't it miss the point of the service? And so on and so forth. Several phone calls and emails later, I hope that we will let the Russian Orthodox Church, if they want to participate at all, read an intercession as normal. Just like the other churches.
Accept one another.
Accept one another comes to my mind when I think of our Central Conference. I have now had to look our new bishop in the eye a hundred times. At least. Because I have printed out and folded all the church NEWS. Over 100 times Stefan Zürcher and his interview on the front page. I have translated it into English as well. So I know his answers almost by heart.
It is another topic raising the same question. The question of how we can accept each other in a good way, because Christ accepted us all. What will happen with our Eastern European brothers and sisters now when they return home? Will we succeed in staying together, as was voted at the Central Conference?
In connection with these questions I decided not to put the article of the German Methodists about their opening towards homosexuality on our Austrian homepage. And my superintendent agreed with me. One should be careful now. And not pour oil into fire. Accept each other - this has very concrete effects.
And my last reference arises when I choose another translation of verse 7: Welcome one another, just as the Christ has welcomed you.
There is something very practical about welcoming one another. Invite one another into your churches into your home communities. Invite one another to meals and open your homes. Be there when you are needed and actively look for your neighbor.
Of course, this is easier if you have a pastor's bonus. I am used to inviting myself and this is accepted and appreciated by many people.
On the other hand, the phrase "Would you like to have lunch together sometime?" or "Would you like to come over for lunch?" is not that difficult.
Just as it isn’t realy difficult to suggest, „Would you like to go for a walk sometime?" or the question "Like to go running with me?"
Our communities are often more impenetrable than we realize. Especially for those who are new. Or are alone. I noticed this more intense during my time in Vienna, because I had no real home of my own. I only had an appartement and much fewer friends than in Graz.
When I personally think church, I always think community. When I do it, I try to live up to the image of the body with the many limbs, that Paul uses. When I think about church I wonder how people can find a good place for themselves. What do they need to expierience church as their home.
In my opinion, this arrival, this coming home, is also what Advent is all about. Arriving in a special time that prepares us for the arrival of Christ. In the stable. In Bethlehem.
But of course I know, that it is not that simple. It is not so easy because Christmas is highly charged with expectations. Highly charged with rituals. And for all those who work, also or often, connected with summing up the year. Everything needs to be finalized. And everything needs to be finished before the Christmas vacations.
Where does one find the silence in this situation? The peace we need to be able to get involved into Christmas?
And as if that were not difficult enough in itself, this year we have a whole series of topics that are difficult and burdening. The war in Ukraine, the climate crisis, inflation, the effects of the pandemic, diseases, unemployment and so on and so on.
I would like to share two thoughts or reflections on this problem with you.
My first thought reminds me of the fact, that Advent is a time of fasting. And the way I understand fasting, fasting is not simply doing without something. Rather, fasting has a purpose. That is, that by fasting I gain time for something else. So if I fast for lunch, meaning I don’t take time to eat, I can open the Bible during that time. Or read a Christmas story. Or sit in the park, look up in the air, and think about God. I can also fast work time or sleep time - the important thing is, that it creates a new space. A new freedom.
And my second thought revolves around the theme of hope. It is anchored twice in the text we heard today. Verse 5: "For from God comes all encouragement and endurance." And verse 13: "that God, the source of all hope, may give you full joy and full peace, so that your hope may become more and more steadfast through the power of the Holy Spirit."
Dear congregation, what is written here, why not take it exactly as it is said or written. It says: We do not have to worry about our hope. Hope comes from God. God is the source.
No matter how dark the world may seem, how dark it may seem today, as Psalm 139 says: "If I were to say, 'Let darkness cover me, and night instead of light be around me,' even darkness would not be dark with you, and night would shine like day. Darkness is as the light."
That's a promise. And I want to hold on to that promise. I can’t imagine that there is something more comforting - than this promise.