Sunday, June 01, 2014

7th Sunday of Easter: Divided but [not quite] conquered

John 17:1-11

In John's chapter 16 Jesus' discourse can be summarized as "final" instructions.  In chapter 17 Jesus is offering a prayer for His disciples and the future Church before the final events in chapter 18 begin to unfold.  In this context Jesus is asking the Holy Father to bless His disciples (and not the world, vs 9b, but those who choose to follow Him) because the world is going to do what it will do.  These disciples who were gathered with Jesus were going to be soon sent to call people out of that world and into the fullness of life in Christ, into The Church; so they were clearly going to need all the help they could get.  And surely Jesus did not want His coming death to be all for nothing!

To begin this enormous task, then, the one thing that seemed to concern Jesus was not the theology or the doctrines they might share, or the "talking points" they might use.  His primary concern was for the "unity" of this group - and ultimately the "unity" of the Church for the sake of future seekers and disciples.  Why such concern?  Because a fragmented Church is a fragmented Body and can only produce fragmented, incoherent, and completely subjective messages.  When this happens, no one gets it - and as a result, evangelism as the means of sharing the Good News becomes moot.

Reading several books these past few weeks on evangelism, it has occurred to me that we are not losing people because of a lack of "programs" no one wants to do but everyone expects someone to do, and it is not primarily because of the preacher or the music or the ushers or the greeters.  While it is true these things (and many others) are indicators of the general condition of life in The Church, the one thing The Church is lacking overall is our "core memory".  We have forgotten who we are as a Body.  Individually maybe not so much a problem, but as a Body a huge and paralyzing problem.

But what is our "core memory"?  Israel's "core memory" is the Exodus and deliverance into the Promised Land.  Part of that "core memory" also includes the Exile which came because Israel had forgotten its own story.  The people of YHWH had lost their "core memory" and had forgotten who they were - or had freely surrendered that memory in favor of abundance, affluent prosperity, and "subjective individualism". 

So during the time of Ezra and Nehemiah and the rebuilding of Jerusalem and the Temple, the people of YHWH sought to regain their "core memory", learn from their collective mistakes, restore their relationship to YHWH AND to one another, and move forward once again as a "priestly nation" - not as a bunch of individual priests.  Yet we also notice that by the time of Jesus' ministry, the religious authorities had somewhat "overcorrected" to the point of oppression.  Religion became more about rules than about righteousness.

Maybe it is this way today except that during all the changes over the past centuries before and after the Reformation, the Church has not so much "overcorrected" as it has "understated" what discipleship and living in faith are really about.  This is to say, discipleship has been cast aside in favor of "subjective individualism".  While that "personal" component of faith is necessary and present especially when we read the Scriptures and have our own times of devotion, "subjective individualism" has led us not TO the Church but away from fellow disciples. 

Faith has become an "every man for himself" proposition to the exclusion of corporate worship, fellowship with other disciples, mutual accountability for spiritual growth - AND - perhaps worst of all, no one is evangelizing because it's "someone else's" job.  Individually it's not "my" problem.  No one is telling The Story, frankly because very few know or even care what The Story is, being much more concerned with their own story.  While this is important, it is not "core memory" which belongs to the collective Body.

So Jesus' prayer for unity in John is compelling for us in that we are left to wonder if this is one of those prayers for which the answer was "no".  YHWH answers the prayers of the faithful, as it is written in the Scriptures, and there would be no one more faithful than Jesus.  We are often painfully aware that sometimes the answer to our prayers is "no", but this is all the more confusing because clearly the will of Messiah (who is 'in the Father') was that unity be protected and maintained.  Sadly, unity is probably the furthest thing from our minds - unless by unity we mean that all must agree with us.

The most poignant speech ever delivered in the US (in my opinion) was Abraham Lincoln's second inaugural address.  It was given as the Civil War was beginning to wind down and about a month before President Lincoln was assassinated.  While Mr. Lincoln was clearly talking about the unity of the nation, his words can easily speak to the state of the Church in the US as well.

In part Mr. Lincoln said, "Both parties deprecated war, but one of them would make war rather than let the nation survive, and the other would accept war rather than let it perish, and the war came."  

Further he states, "Both read the same Bible and pray to the same God, and each invokes His aid against the other." 

And as a result of the utter conflict within the whole body of the nation Mr. Lincoln offered this: "The prayers of both could not be answered. That of neither has been answered fully. The Almighty has His own purposes. "Woe unto the world because of offenses; for it must be that offenses come, but woe to that man by whom the offense cometh ... and so [the Almighty] gives to both North and South this terrible war as the woe due to those by whom the offense came."

In other words, both were offenders - and both suffered for it.

The destruction of disunity during this awful war also affected what was then the Methodist Episcopal Church, resulting in what became known as the Methodist Episcopal Church South.  Methodist Christians were willing to part company and tear the Body asunder over the issue of slavery and states' rights rather than to work more diligently toward that for which Our Lord prayed.  The Church became entirely too embroiled in national politics to the exclusion of unity in faith - both trying to convince the other they were truly following the Lord when, in reality, probably neither were.  Not entirely.

Today it is not so much the issue of slavery to man as much as it is slavery to ourselves and the sin which envelops us, the sin we have come to embrace individually.  Whether we are talking about the sin of "subjective individualism" in which we create our own personal doctrines or the sin of inappropriate physical intimacy, we are nevertheless talking about the collective sin of a Body which would much prefer "war" (schism) over unity.  This great sin, such as it is, is offensive to our Holy Father and an affront to everything our Lord and Savior prayed for.

"And now", in the paraphrased words of Mr. Lincoln in his Gettysburg Address, "we are engaged in a great civil war, testing whether [that Body] or any [Body] so conceived and so dedicated, can long endure."

We are not sure where we go from here.  When Mr. Lincoln delivered The Gettysburg Address, it seems clear no one knew where to go from that point.  What is equally clear is that the War was far from over, and thousands more young men would die needlessly.

It is not so different today within The Church.  Even in light of Jesus' clear prayer for the unity of His disciples and thus His Church, there are many who would rather fight over their own ideas and notions of "rightness" than to agree on the ideals and righteousness of the Savior of the World.  Our "subjective individualism" is about to choke the life out of the Body of Christ because we are, individually, more concerned with being "right" than with being "righteous" - and Christ our Lord will have prayed for nothing.

Yet we know this cannot be true, for our Lord did not pray in vain, did not die in vain, and was not resurrected strictly for "subjective individualism".  Such was done and such is proclaimed for the Body that is The Church.  Individually we must draw near so collectively we can work to regain and embrace once again our "core memory" and lift up our Holy Lord who did not pray for the "rightness" of what we would choose to believe individually but for the "righteousness" of the Holy Church.  For every time someone withdraws or withholds or is harmed, the Body is weakened further and the destruction will soon be complete.

Let His will be done, now and forever!  Let us repent of our own personal desires and pray fervently for the unity of the Body which is the Church - for Christ cannot be divided within or against Himself.  He is One with the Father; thus we must be one with each other.

In the name of the Father, the Son, the Holy Spirit.  Amen.

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