Sunday, May 12, 2013

Pray the Church

 John 17:20-26

In light of what Jesus is praying for, it is incredibly ironic that what typically unites people is not love for a common thing but rather disdain for, and fear of, a common enemy.  It seems human nature is such that we can get much more excited about whom we can hate - and get others on our "side" to help us hate - than we are about the opportunities our Lord offers to us to minister to the world at large ... to give the world a viable alternative to hatred and fear.

That dreadful day of September in 2001 is only one example.  Though the attack was inconceivable to most of us and was genuine threat to all we hold dear, it was good to see the many throughout the nation initially flock to the churches.  They were seeking answers, seeking safety, seeking mercy, and the Lord alone knows what else.  It was not long, however, before this new-found spiritualism gave way to patriotism.  Worship attendance dwindled back to "normal", and faith gave way to anger - however "righteous" our anger may have been.  I still think, however, that "fear" was probably the more accurate term rather than "anger".

This is what is commonly referred to as the "mob mentality".  I remember a few years ago when Ohio State fans were in the streets celebrating that school's win (I think it was football season), and the man who ran our trucking terminal in Columbus feared for his safety when the crowd turned ugly and began destroying public and private property.  What began as a celebration in common love for the Buckeyes and excitement for a championship turned into a melee of destruction and disdain for one's neighbors.  Given that roughly 80% of the American population claims a Christian affiliation, it is safe to say a significant portion of this OH "mob" probably attended worship services the Sunday prior and maybe the Sunday after this "party"!

It is essentially because the Church has, over time, learned to turn our faith off and on according to appropriate "time and place"; and we have relegated faith to almost a level of superstition because we simply do not get that we are either "always" disciples of Christ - OR - we never are ... just as we cannot say at particular times we are married as it suits us or deny our marriages when another opportunity presents itself.  Or for those who are not married, it is claiming to be a child of the Most High God when it feels good or when we feel a need for self-justification - AND - denying that better part of ourselves when we deem such expressions of faith to be "inappropriate" or inconvenient.  And contrary to popular belief, such "inappropriate" times and places ARE NOT defined or determined by the US Supreme Court, the US Congress, the White House, or the state legislatures!

One writer states, "I am convinced the only way we will impact our culture significantly is for people to SEE the Truth, not just hear it.  And the Truth is that the way of Jesus is a better way to live" (Robert Renfroe, "Good News", May/June 2013, pg 2).  It is good to see that this brother in the faith is "convinced" because his statement is a precise reflection of Jesus' prayer "not only on behalf of these [who are with Me now], but also on behalf of those who will believe in Me through their word, that they may all be one ... so that the world may believe that You have sent Me" (John 17:20, 21).  Our Lord's prayer for the Church.

It is true that the current secular culture "perceives Christians as judgmental, angry, self-righteous, and defined by a political agenda" as this writer states because on a very grand scale, this is what the Church has become - primarily because we have discovered it is much easier to support a Political Action Committee (though we Methodists prefer to call it the "General Board of Church and Society") that will go to our institutions of government in our behalf and try to force political solutions to what are clearly moral problems.  Abortion, homosexual marriage, and prayer in public schools are just a few of the issues we see as "very significant"; and the only solution we seem to be able to find to these problems and many others is to shake our collective fist angrily at whomever we have been told to blame - and then blame it on the devil.

If only it were that easy.  Because we should be able to see through Jesus' prayer that He is not praying that the devil be contained - rather our Lord is praying that the CHURCH NOT BE CONTAINED!  He is praying that His disciples - then and now - will come together in common love and common purpose to do much more than to simply point out the things that are wrong.  The prayer of our Lord is that the purpose of His Church - the "Church" being defined as true, full-time disciples - will work to build up rather than to tear down.  In light of Jesus' prayer, then, we should be compelled to ask: How are we doing so far?

How we are doing depends entirely on how we understand the "way of Jesus".  Many Christians understand the "way of Jesus" as a strict moral code.  Well, there is IMHO always a strict moral code; however, there is not only a strict moral code.  The "way of Jesus" cannot be strictly defined by what we can or cannot do.  The "way of Jesus" is not strictly about "grace" for forgiveness of sins from which we refuse to repent.  The "way of Jesus" is not strictly about proclaiming the Gospel - but is also about helping others to make that Gospel make sense in a world that is, in fact, hostile to the Gospel.  One of the most profound statements I've heard in a long time stated this very clearly: "We face a danger; as we seek to 'make the Gospel relevant', we may overlook the fact that it already is" (Pujic, "Ministry", May 2013, pg 14).

This hostility, however, is not strictly a 21st-century problem; and it was not a problem that started only when Jesus began His ministry.  This hostility goes back to ancient Israel and the Exodus and extends through the kings of what soon became a divided - rather than a united - people in God, continued through the prophets who faithfully - and at great personal risk - tried to draw Israel and Judah back to the Holy God, and finally came to a head in the Exile when they lost everything.  It was at this time when the people who constantly rebelled against the Most High God finally got exactly what they were asking for the whole time: the shackles and chains of hostile cultures rather than the God-given freedom they had previously enjoyed.

The truth is we will get it wrong more often than we will get it right whenever we try to force or coerce allegiance to God through Messiah with the threat of hellfire.  And if we offer the Gospel of our Lord without the mutual accountability of discipleship (that is, doing the work necessary for unity in Christ), we will still get it wrong even with our noble intentions to make our Lord known to the world - because to only proclaim the Gospel is giving the world something to hear.  To fail to follow this up in the mutual accountability of discipleship and fellowship, however, is giving them nothing to see.  

Has our Lord's prayer been in vain?  Was He asking for the impossible?  Was He asking the Holy Father to "force" disciples to be united in the Word; that is, united in Messiah?  No.  Jesus was then, and still is now, praying that we live according to what we claim to believe "so that the world may believe".  He is praying that we work harder to more fully understand the "way of Jesus" - the way that goes all the way to the Cross not with fear but with compassion for those who will persecute us - AND - with the sense of purpose that there will be those who will come to believe because we are united with them in discipleship - not merely "in spirit", sharing their burdens at great personal risk - THAT is the "way of Jesus". 

It is a pretty tall order, and we should not fall into the false promise that it will somehow become easier over time.  There will always be those hostile forces who do not want to hear it, those hostile forces that will sometimes go to extreme measures to try and silence us.  If we allow these forces to manipulate us in doing their bidding and keep silent, then yes - Jesus' prayer was, and is, in vain.

If we persevere in discipleship and a common sense of purpose in Christ, however, something greater will come sooner or later: Eternal Life revealed in the hope of the Resurrection.  This is our Lord's prayer.  Let it be as You will, O Lord our God, in the name of the Father, the Son, the Holy Spirit.  Amen.     

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