And now I am no longer in the world, but they are in the world, and I am coming to you. Holy Father, protect them in your name that you have given me, so that they may be one, as we are one. (John 17.11)
It is clear from Jesus’ words above that he wants his disciples (including us) to be members of a unified community of faith. The intimate relationship he enjoyed with God is to be the model for our own relationships with each other. Discipleship is not to be something so internal and private that it can be practiced in isolation from others, but something that requires us to do it together. Unlike golf, video games or solitaire, Christianity is a team sport that can’t be played alone. Even with the ongoing help of the Holy Spirit at work in individual’s lives, he knew that his disciples would need each other for emotional support, for deepening and challenging each other’s faith, and for coordinating their efforts to express God’s love for others who were not part of their present group. Ultimately, he knew that it would be the quality and vitality of their relationships with one another that would communicate the presence of God’s New Creation far more eloquently than all the words, rituals and good deeds that his disciples might use to express it. Only a love that could survive conflicts, diversity, and hardships could satisfactorily convey the kind of love that Jesus demonstrated on the Cross.
But being that kind of visibly unified community of faith is not an easy task. Nowadays, many modern factors make it difficult to remain united – almost as difficult as the persecutions faced by the early church. While many of us still get together each week to worship and strengthen the spiritual bonds between us, others are finding it to be a major challenge. Illness, age and disabilities can isolate us from one another. Many people now work on weekends. Others find themselves torn between their loyalty to God and their responsibilities to aging parents or the needs of their children or grandchildren. Travel also complicates our efforts to be a unified faith community. Many of us are out of town for weeks or months at a time, and during the winter, weather conditions often make it hard to travel anywhere. As a result, even though many still want to see local churches thrive and prosper, the obstacles to the kind of unity that Jesus desires for us seem overwhelming.
Sometimes, I wonder if all of us who are trying to be Jesus’ faithful disciples should agree to prepare a short, one-page document in which we describe our current situation and how we are attempting to practice our faith in that setting. It would describe what we see God doing in the world today and how we seek to join in that activity. It would include the specific disciplines that he or she uses to keep their spiritual juices flowing. Above all, it would describe the personal ministry to which she/he has been uniquely called and equipped by God. For instance, a salesman might describe how he tries to enrich the lives of his clients, while an elderly home-bound woman might spend time praying for the church and writing notes of encouragement to those who those who may be struggling. A father who coaches his son’s athletic team might tell of how he prays for his players, and seeks to treat them with Christ-like sensitivity. Still another person might describe how visiting in nursing homes is an expression of Christ’s care for people who are marginalized. The ministries would be as unique as each individual.
These documents could then be collected and published, so that every member could know how every other Christian is trying to live out their faith, and gain new understanding of the particular challenges they face. Perhaps this might help us to feel more connected to those whom we don’t often see. It might encourage us to pray for the success of one another’s ministry. It might help us to join forces and work together on projects of mutual concern. But most of all, it would help us to feel less disconnected and alone in our efforts to be faithful disciples. Although we still might be separated by time and space, we might feel more united in our love for Jesus.
Would this work? Would people participate? I don’t know. But if it moved us even one step closer toward being the kind of faith community Jesus wants us to be, then it just might be worth a try!
He said to him the third time, ‘Simon son of John, do you love me?’ Peter felt hurt because he said to him the third time, ‘Do you love me?’ And he said to him, ‘Lord, you know everything; you know that I love you.’ Jesus said to him, ‘Feed my sheep. (John 21.17)
Nobody likes to have their loyalty questioned. Peter had denied that he knew Jesus three times after Jesus' arrest. Although Jesus had predicted Peter's denial, Peter didn't believe that he would ever do such a thing. When he realized what he'd done, he was devastated. His image of himself as good person and loyal friend had been shattered. His instinct for self-preservation stood in sharp contrast to Jesus' own sacrificial love for him. He couldn't explain to himself, let alone to anyone else, how he could have been such a coward in the face of danger. He couldn't forgive himself. He couldn't face himself in the mirror. No wonder he wanted to go fishing again, and try to take his mind off this horrible moment of weakness!
But even as he desperately wanted to forget about what he had done, the Risen Lord seeks him out and forces him to confront the fact that their relationship has some unfinished business. Three times Jesus asks him directly: "Do you love me?" Each time, we can feel Peter shudder, as if he himself is being nailed to a cross. And each time he professes his love, Jesus invites him to embrace the task that will define the remainder of his life. Three difficult, painful questions, and three love-filled expressions of Jesus' unwavering forgiveness and love. Not even Peter's betrayal of Jesus' trust could diminish Jesus' confidence in the person he could become.
But Jesus was asking Peter for more than just a verbal pledge of loyalty. He was asking Peter to act in a new way. He was asking a fisherman to become a shepherd. He was asking an incompetent follower to now become a leader. He was asking someone who had failed repeatedly to not give up, but to try one more time.
And he did it. He accepted the pain of his previous failures as the necessary preparation for the ministry that Jesus wanted him to fulfill. It was his own brokenness that made him capable of becoming the kind of merciful, compassionate caregiver that Jesus required.
And so it is for us. Our past failures and inadequacies don't disqualify us for Jesus' service, but are exactly the things that make us sensitive enough to minister to others with similar wounds. Although we may have given up on ourselves, Jesus hasn't. He forces us to look him in the eye, to see reflected there our own deepest sorrows, and to find the love that transforms it into a ministerial asset.
Jesus doesn't call us because of our successes, but because in our failures lie the seeds of new life that he can bring to birth. He can find in the dirt that clings to each of our souls the perfect soil for the garden that he desperately wants to plant. And as we all know, the world can never have too many fruits and vegetables and flowers!
And we speak of these things in words not taught by human wisdom but taught by the Spirit, interpreting spiritual things to those who are spiritual. (1 Corinthians 2.13)
Throughout the gospels, Jesus is repeatedly described as a teacher. Given the number of references to his teaching activity, you might be tempted to think of him as a college professor leading his students through a graduate-level degree program – something beyond the grasp of the ordinary man or woman on the street.
But such an image would not do justice to his teachings or to the nature of his students. For the most part, his primary audience was made up of people from the lower socio-economic classes. Those from the richer, more highly educated classes were usually his most vigorous opponents – the one’s primarily responsible for putting him to death. His message was basically quite simple: “The Reign of God is arriving, even as we speak!” The rest of his teaching involved illustrating that fact with down-to-earth stories, and demonstrating to people how they could recognize, experience and participate in that new way of life that God makes possible for everyone. He didn’t need a classroom, a textbook, or an expensive curriculum, but only the time necessary to get to know him and to engage him in some in-depth conversation. His goal was to offer people a richer relationship to God, not an intellectual body of knowledge – a changed life, not an academic degree.
Today, we tend to turn his profoundly simple approach into something much more complicated. We make his way of life into an education program – something we know about, rather than something we practice. Instead of coming together to talk about the opportunities and challenges of living each day in response to God’s love, we offer courses for acquiring information about the Bible.
The Church’s job is not to run programs and provide answers to unanswerable questions, but to share our unique adventures on this life-long journey into the Mystery of God’s love. It’s to invite others to let Jesus lead them into the heart of each moment, discovering God’s redeeming presence in even the most painful or demanding situations. We can’t explain all God’s ways to everyone’s satisfaction, but only acknowledge the miracles of mercy and resurrection revealed even in the somber tragedies we may have to endure.
The Church’s gift to the world isn’t knowledge or information, but joy and wonder. That’s what Jesus is still trying to teach us. And no matter how old we are, those are lessons we never stop needing to learn.
Great crowds came to him, bringing with them the lame, the maimed, the blind, the mute, and many others. They put them at his feet, and he cured them, so that the crowd was amazed when they saw the mute speaking, the maimed whole, the lame walking, and the blind seeing. And they praised the God of Israel. (Matthew 15:30-31
When Jesus walked the dusty roads of Palestine, he had a profound impact on those he met – especially those whose lives were a disaster of one kind or another. If a person was sick, mentally ill, or a despised social outcast, meeting Jesus made a dramatic difference. The person’s life was changed! He or she was never quite the same again. In the midst of desperate circumstances, Jesus made people’s lives healthy and whole.
The news of these encounters spread quickly, and people came from miles around to seek his help. No problem seemed too difficult for him. Rather than charging for his services, his help was free and unsolicited. And people spontaneously praised God for what was happening.
Today, things are different. We have hospitals, doctors, therapists and social workers to turn to when our bodies are broken and our lives are in chaos. A wealth of information and advice are available at our fingertips via the internet. We are infinitely better equipped to manage or personal crises than the people of biblical times. It’s no wonder that so many people nowadays are asking themselves: “Who needs Jesus (or his church) anymore?” It’s a good question, and one those of us in the church need to answer.
In order to understand Jesus’ significance today, we first need to understand that the miraculous events of his ministry were not the focus of his work, but the byproduct of it. His message was that God’s reign was at hand, even now being revealed among us. God, he insisted, was already at work restoring and renewing the world -- within us and around us - to reveal God’s original design for Creation. The brokenness and injustice of our world was giving way to the loving and compassionate ways of God’s New Creation – a new world order that governments, armies, or even death itself could prevent from being victorious. This was the “main event” that Jesus’ life and ministry were all about. His miraculous healings were simply ripples that radiate outward from the tidal wave of God’s love washing over this world as we know it.
Consequently, Jesus is much more than a primitive faith healer who has been surpassed by medical science. Medical science, for all its majestic accomplishments, is ultimately a matter of technique and skill. It is about managing and manipulating our bodies and minds to bring about certain predetermined outcomes. But while it can significantly limit the ravages of disease and promote healing, it cannot provide us with scientific evidence that we are loved or loveable. It cannot give our lives meaning or purpose. It cannot inspire us to lay down our lives for a noble cause. It cannot convince us that we are now forgiven and free from the wounds and mistakes of our past. It cannot surround us with the loving arms of a caring community of imperfect people who have been transformed and made new by the power of God’s Holy Spirit.
For that reason, Jesus and his church, will continue to have a place in the world. He can do what no other person, group, or organization can do: demonstrate to us how deeply and unconditionally we are loved – despite our less-than-admirable track record. He is the only one who will always be able to look at us with a smile, embrace us, and assure us that he has a special place for us in his community. It’s one thing to know certain things about Jesus, but it’s another thing entirely to know Jesus and experience God’s love personally through him.
That is the experience that Jesus keeps alive at the heart of the church’s life. Despite our human fallibilities and the encrusted nature of our traditions, that is the wondrous mystery that not only keeps us going, but which makes us long to share it . . . especially with those for whom it seems impossible and much too good to be true. If that describes you, then I invite you to come to Jesus, like those so long ago, who came to discover for themselves what nothing less than their own experience could teach them: the power of the love that God has for you . . . now and always.
But speaking the truth in love, we must grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ, from whom the whole body, joined and knitted 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 4:15-16)
The Gospels are quite clear that those who want to be Jesus' disciples are to love God and serve others. Each of us is called by God and empowered in some way for ministry in Christ's name. We all know this, but most churches don't know how to promote, coordinate and support this process.
Over the past year, I have had many conversations with the Deacons about how we might do this more effectively as a church. Our goal is to help people (members or non-members) to: 1) Recognize God's presence and activity in their lives, 2) Identify the ministry for which God has uniquely called and equipped them, and 3) Coordinate the encouragement and support for their ministry through the resources the church has to offer them. We also believe that this process should be as enjoyable, encouraging, and individualized as possible – not burdensome, discouraging, or rigid. We recognize that God calls most people to ministries outside the structure of the institutional church, and for that reason, the focus must be on each person's spiritual energy rather than on institutional considerations.
After much deliberation, we think that we may have found a way to do this. The process involves an individual 1-hour consultation to discuss three simple worksheets designed to sharpen the awareness of God's presence in one’s life, to help decide how to respond to that divine activity, and to explore ways the church may be able to help. There will be no pressure to think or act in any preconceived way, nor any assumption that a person is doing anything "wrong" or isn't doing "enough." There will be no attempt to teach something you aren’t interested in, persuade you to do something you don’t want to do, or to critique your life in any way. Instead, the emphasis will to discover, explore and affirm the motivations and resources that are yours already. We intend it to be an exciting opportunity for growth, and not a burdensome or irrelevant obligation . . . and certainly NOT a waste of your precious time!
During the coming year, I invite you to meet with me to engage in this process of support and discovery. This process can take place in the comfort of your home, or in my office, whichever is more convenient for you. A sign-up sheet will be available in Steele Chapel during Coffee Hour, or you may call or email me to set up an appointment. The more people that participate, the more effective the results will be – for individuals, and for us as a church. I look forward to all the exciting conversations that I will be having in the year ahead!
Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled, and do not let them be afraid. (John 14.27)
Like people all around the country, last month’s shootings in Newtown, Connecticut have raised a lot of troubling questions for which there are no easy or obvious answers. No one wants to see such tragedies repeated, but how to prevent them seems elusive. Many are calling now for more stringent gun control legislation, banning assault weapons, better mental health screening, and beefing up school security. And while these steps are long overdue and will probably help to some degree, no one is suggesting that they will provide the ultimate solution. A few have argued that the solution lies in allowing more people to own and carry weapons for self-defense, but it seems to me that only encourages people to become more suspicious, fearful, and prone to violence than they already are. If we intend to take our faith seriously, we can’t ignore the fact that Jesus rejected retaliatory violence in favor of turning the other cheek (Matthew 5:38-39), despite the extremely violent society in which he lived.
So in the shadow of these recent events, I find myself asking what other insight’s Jesus’ life and teachings deserve our renewed attention. Several come to mind:
Nonviolence – War, terrorism, injustice and violence were as much a part of 1st Century life as they are today. But nowhere in Jesus’ ministry do we see him engage in, advocate, or endorse violence as a solution to the problems of life. His strategy was to combat these harsh realities with love, not force. Even when his own life was threatened, he refused to resort to violence, or to let his disciples do so. It was a costly choice, but one that was vindicated afterwards. In his life, death, and resurrection lie the seeds of an alternative to the violent culture of our world – the seeds of a new way of life that God is introducing to us through him.
Today, we tend to regard nonviolence as a naive approach to the harsh realities of life. We accept war and armed conflict as inevitable necessities for which there are no alternatives. We accept without question the violence idolized in our televised entertainment and on the video games that our children grow up with. Our country has always had a Department of War (renamed in 1949 as the Department of Defense) but has never had a comparable Department of Peace. Perhaps if we are to change our violent culture, the Church must offer a kind of leadership that secular governments are unable or unwilling to provide.
Security – It’s only human to want to feel safe and secure. Most of us tend to measure security in terms of our homes, our bank accounts, our jobs, and our nation’s military. Jesus teaches us that God is our only real source of security. God is there when all the other forms of security collapse. For most of us, that's hard to imagine. But given the turbulent state of our world today, perhaps we need to explore that alternative more seriously.
Reconciliation – Conflicting interests happen all the time between individuals and groups. When conflicts occur, they often become power struggles, in which one side wins and the other side loses. Jesus shows us a different way to deal with our conflicts. He defines victory, not in terms of which side gets what they want, but in terms of the quality of the relationship that results from their interaction. Even when his enemies killed him, he forgave them, rather than let hatred divide them. Not even his own death could stand in the way of Jesus’ willingness to be reconciled with them. I wonder how our world would be different if relationships, not outcomes, were the results we cherished the most?
Self-interest – The most remarkable thing about Jesus is his ability to put God’s will above his own self-interest. That stands as one of the greatest mysteries his life reveals to us. Over and over again, he put his own welfare aside in favor of God’s will for others. In my experience, that's amazingly hard to do! It takes an openness to God’s Spirit that few of us even try to cultivate. Our own inner wounds often interfere with our openness. Maybe that’s why Jesus spent so much time in prayer. Maybe that’s how he overcame his own resistance, and in doing so, offers us hope that we can too.
These are not meant to be a list of quick-fix, easy answers. There aren’t any. They are only meant to be some of the things I’m reflecting on as I try to hear God’s voice in the midst of this recent tragedy. As this new year begins, let’s all commit ourselves to spend some time listening together for the words of Peace that God is speaking to us.