Monday, April 25, 2016

Raising the Bar - 5th Sunday of Easter

Acts 11:1-18
Revelation 21:1-6
John 13:31-35

“When you lower the definition of success to such a level that any person can reach it, you don’t teach people to have big dreams; instead you inspire mediocrity and nurture people’s inadequacies.”  Shannon L. Alder

In more than one instance, Jesus proclaimed – or instructed His disciples to proclaim – that “the Kingdom of Heaven has come near”.   Yet we have been taught by tradition that when Messiah returns, the age of the Eternal Kingdom will be upon us.  Until then, we are instructed to “go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, teaching them to obey everything I’ve commanded you” (Matthew 28:19-20). 

We should also understand that the emphasis on this Commission is in teaching – not in telling these new disciples what they must believe but, rather, showing them what is worth believing and how believing and trusting it can truly change one’s life. 

The Great Commission is the marching order of the Church.  It is the basis and the foundation of our very existence, that being our mission, and it has everything to do with how the Church is to order its daily life.  If something is being done within any particular church that does not meet the criteria of the Great Commission, that practice or policy must be revisited, adjusted, or outright eliminated – if there is no evangelistic component to the practice. 

Evangelism is the heart of the Great Commission, the task of the whole Church rather than a few individuals.  It is not about preaching from the pulpit or in the street.  It is entirely about living the Message we have been entrusted with – that “the Kingdom of Heaven has come near”.  Anything short of this is a betrayal of that which we claim to know, to trust, to believe.

I’ve always been curious about the nearness of the Kingdom.  Does this mean “close but no cigar”?  Or does it, can it mean the Eternal Kingdom is entirely within our grasp in the here-and-now?  What we choose to believe has everything to do with how we will conduct ourselves, how we will go about our evangelistic mission to make that very declaration.  Or we will continue to believe “our” church to be our own private club to which only a select few are invited or even welcome - and a hobby we attend to as time allows.

If the Kingdom of Heaven has “come near” – and this must be true if Jesus is Messiah – what does this mean for us?  For the Church?  For society in general?  It does not change the nature of the Revelation, of course, because we are being told about a time in which the reality of the Kingdom will leave no doubt.  What we see in The Revelation, I think, is the fulfillment, the perfection of The Lord’s desire.  This perfection, however, is not quite yet.

So … what do we do until that time?

I think our clue is in Jesus’ encouragement to His disciples.  It is a strange thing that Jesus would deem His commandment to be “new” in any sense of the word since the Great Commandment requires that we “love our neighbors as we love ourselves”. 

Easier said than done, to be sure, especially when said “neighbor” is not quite loveable, but the principle is a necessity for the well-being of the whole community, the whole congregation, the whole ekklesia.   

In this regard, then, there is nothing “new” … unless we consider that the standard of “love” has not quite changed but, rather, perhaps shifted; and the bar has been raised.  It seems clear that in a most general sense, we don’t really know what “love” is; hence our Lord’s “new” commandment.  It is “new”, perhaps, to us.  We have allowed the word to be hijacked by force and redirected against its own nature.  We think “love” is an emotion, how we “feel” about any particular thing or person.  So if we ain’t feelin’ it, we ain’t doin’ it!

Christians cannot take this position, however, without denying Christ altogether.  We cannot claim to “believe” in Him or “love” Him if we are unwilling to listen to Him, unwilling to trust Him enough to follow Him in daily living and interactions with even what we deem to be the worst among us – however we may define “worst”.  We cannot claim to be disciples ourselves – let alone “make disciples” – if we cherry-pick only those portions of Jesus’ life and teachings that please us as individuals.

So we cannot pretend Jesus was referring only to that particular gathering, that particular crowd.  And it may be less than honest to think Jesus was suggesting this depth of love can only be extended to those we claim as our own – whether it be family or members of the same church or close personal friends whom we choose while keeping others out.  And the reason we cannot make that claim is because the depth of Jesus’ love is measured not only in what He taught – but in what His teachings led to: The Cross.  His Cross, of course; but no less our Crosses.  Those who mocked Him, those who spit on Him and even cursed Him; even these Jesus lifted up to the Father in His final moments: “Forgive them; they don’t know what they’re doing”.

 It has occurred to me lately, however, that even this profound depth of love can come to mean even more to us as The Body of Christ, the Church.  I used to work with a guy who was a master picker, a teaser who took great joy out of just trying to get rise out of people.  He was a good, hard worker, but he also loved to play with people.  He would do anything he could for anyone he could (call this “love”), but he also enjoyed his life and his work because he enjoyed people by his active engagement in these people.

He came to mind as I listened to a eulogy this Sunday past about a dear lady who fully “enjoyed” life.  She “enjoyed” her family, she “enjoyed” her church … she “enjoyed” her husband and her life with him.  Honestly, how many of us can say this?  That we “enjoy”?  I don’t mean “patiently tolerate” – because “enjoyment” means active engagement.

I have no doubt we love our spouses and we love our friends and we love our church, and we find enjoyment with them here and there, but can we honestly say we always find enjoyment?  Because it seems to me that any relationship lacking this component – pure enjoyment – is lacking in something else altogether; something that can degrade the relationship or enhance it. 

It is possible to become a little too “comfortable” in any relationship to the point that we begin to take that relationship for granted.  We assume too much and, consequently, neglect the better part of those relationships.  This is true not only of our human relationships but also of our relationship with Christ and His Church.  These are not mutually exclusive, for one cannot claim to “love” Christ Jesus while regarding His Body the Church with disdain! 

It is written in the Proverbs (27:17 NRSV): “Iron sharpens iron, and one person sharpens the wit of another.” 

What this means for us – for the Great Commission, for “loving one’s neighbor”, for enjoyment of all that is before us – is not merely “patient tolerance” but active engagement.  If we are not happy with our spouses, perhaps it is we have somehow disengaged at least on some level and stopped trying.  If we are not content with our church and we find more reason to cast blame than to look inwardly, we have disengaged.  If we are not getting from our friendships all we hope or expect to get, perhaps we’ve placed too great a burden on them – on all these, in fact – to somehow make us enjoy them more fully.  We have removed ourselves from the dynamic and placed the blame for our lack of enjoyment on others.

It has been said that, “The greatest sweetener of human life is friendship.  To raise this to the highest pitch of enjoyment is a secret which but few discover.”  Joseph Addison

So how do we “raise the pitch”?  By demanding more?  By expecting more?  Or by giving of ourselves more freely?  When we consider that Jesus was speaking to everyone equally by issuing this “new” commandment, we have to consider that our Lord would say the very same thing to us today.  And this “commandment” cannot be construed to mean we should raise our expectations.  Rather we are to raise our level of engagement, for this is the very heart, the essence, of Christian love; not to expect or demand but to give … and to give freely and fully.

This is the life we are called to, not the life that is called to us.  We have to make these things reality not so the Kingdom can come near but because the Kingdom already has come near.  And those who are invested in the reality of the Kingdom are invested in the reality of human relationships.  And if we are not enjoying those relationships fully, it is because we are not invested fully in those relationships.

This, I think, is the “love” that seems so “new” to us because we have forgotten what it means to truly and fully love.  Love has nothing to do with what we can expect or what we think we can demand; it has everything to do with what we are willing to give.  And give according to what has been given to us.

We must therefore love freely and fully in order to find that elevated standard of enjoyment our Lord has intended for us.  There is no reason for us to be miserable, and there is no biblical call for us to not enjoy discipleship and the relationships encumbent to that life of devotion.  So we must resolve to “give, and it will be given.  A good measure, pressed down, shaken together, running over, will be put into your lap.  For the measure you give will be the measure you get back” (Luke 6:38).

Glory to You, Lord.  Amen.

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