Listen to the sermon:
Sermon for May 17, 2015: The “In Crowd”
The excitement and joy I feel about my upcoming ordination has got me thinking about what it will mean to serve the church that has nurtured me all of my life – and I have come to the conclusion that I will never actually serve as an ordained minister in the Episcopal Church I grew up in -because that church no longer exists. And sometimes that makes me sad – because my church memories are deeply intertwined with my home and family life – baptisms, marriages, deaths – even first love. In many ways the church was my home – in the truest sense of Robert Frost’s famous quote, “Home is the place where, when you have to go there, they have to take you in.” To me, that’s church.
I imagine some of you may have the same feelings about church. And I would bet that just as many of you have had some pretty negative feelings about “church.” And I would suspect that whichever way you feel has a lot to do with your understanding of what it means to be a member of a church and, even more broadly, what it means to be a Christian. Whether it means having a spiritual home or being told what to think, how to act, and who to be. Whether it means finding a place where you feel fulfillment or one of rejection. Whether it means you are “in” or “out.” For many of us, as we grew up church was simply a natural part of our lives – and for us it was good and we didn’t want to change it, so for a long time we have been known as a people who wouldn’t change. Question: How many Episcopalians does it take to change a lightbulb? Answer: Two – one to call the electrician and one to talk about how much better the old lightbulb was.
Change is hard for us. But there are reasons for that – and the most important one is that there is value in those old light bulbs. Traditions are about more than what looks nice or sounds beautiful or smells “like church.” They are about family. They are about community. They are about love. And if the church you know gives you those things, then changing that church is not just irritating – it’s downright frightening. I don’t believe our communal reticence to change is really about old vs. new language, or about whether a woman or a man stands behind the altar, or whether we use wafers or bread at communion. I believe our reluctance to change is based on a fear of loss. It’s the kind of fear facing someone whose spouse dies after 50 years of marriage. It’s the kind of fear experienced by a person cut off from their family because they’re gay. It’s the kind of fear every parent feels when they turn around in a crowded store and they can’t see their toddler. It’s the kind of fear that can paralyze you.
It’s also the kind of fear the disciples felt after Jesus died. They didn’t know what they were supposed to do without him. They didn’t know who they were without him. They were paralyzed with fear. But Jesus did not leave them comfortless, or weak, or without instructions. He left them with the Holy Spirit – the same Spirit in whose name, along with the Father and the Son – we baptize. A Holy Spirit that is consistent. A Holy Spirit that does not change. A Holy Spirit that does not go away –and knowing that is a big part of what makes us Christian. But it’s not the only thing. The only thing, according to the gospels, is belief in Jesus Christ. “Whoever has the Son has life; whoever does not have the Son of God does not have life,” says the author of John’s letter.
That’s a very troubling statement. Can you imagine going out into the world and carrying that message to strangers? Telling them that need to join the Jesus followers if they wanted a shot at salvation? That’ s what the disciples had to do – because after
Jesus’s death his followers went from being “disciples” – “students, learners” – to being
“apostles,” – “messengers, teachers.” No wonder they were afraid. No wonder Jesus felt moved to pray for them.
What we heard in today’s gospel is called, “The High Priestly Prayer.” Scholars tell us that it has a similar structure and content to the prayer that the Jewish High Priests of Jesus’s time said on Yom Kippur asking God to forgive the people their sins. But in his prayer, Jesus does not ask God to forgive the sins of his people; he prays for God to protect them. Because, he says, his followers are not of this world. They are different.
They are separate. They are special.
But are they better? That’s the question that the new apostles had to face. They had to be able to convince people that following the way of Jesus was better than what they already did. And they couldn’t do that without identifying how they were different than other religious movements. They had to clarify what the rules were. They had to set up proper boundaries between those who were “Christians” and those who weren’t. And it was the author of the Fourth Gospel that made those divisions perfectly clear. Salvation could not be achieved by obeying Jewish law. It could only be found by following Jesus. Jesus was the Way, the Truth, and the Life. It didn’t matter what kind of “human testimony” you heard; that was nothing compared to “the testimony of God.” If you wanted to be “chosen” – if you wanted to be “in” – you had to believe – you had to profess
your belief in Jesus as the Son of God.
If you’re starting to feel uncomfortable, you’re not alone – because we both know that when someone’s “in,” a lot of other people are “out.” And I don’t know about you, but having experienced being in the “out” group more than once in my life, I don’t like the idea of being the bouncer for the “in” club. And neither did Jesus. Time and again Jesus was asked to shut someone out of his group – a woman who had committed adultery, a blind man, a tax collector, a Roman soldier, a criminal – and every time he refused to do it. So why did the apostles think that shutting people out was a “Christian” thing to do? That they were “right” and everyone else was wrong? That they were saved and everyone else was – not.
I would propose that it was for the same reason 21st century Christians do – because they were afraid. Jesus was gone and they had to go out into a hostile, alien world and convince people that a first-century Palestinian peasant was the Son of God – so they clung to what Jesus had promised them – that whoever believed in him would be safe. But
Instead of recognizing Jesus’s prayer as one for unity and love, the apostles decided that Jesus was telling them that could only be unified by separating themselves from others. They were going into battle and they were afraid – so they made Jesus’s priestly prayer into their armor – and his promise of eternal life became their weapon. The apostles turned Jesus’s promise into a threat.
And Christians have kept doing the same for two thousand years. Jesus offered human beings the opportunity to transcend the world, to belong to God, to find truth and joy and peace. And he gave his apostles the opportunity to be messengers of this good news, but instead many of them have sowed division and hatred in his name. Because they were afraid. And many of us are still afraid – Christians who talk about belief in Jesus as if it is some kind of private salvation club and if you don’t follow the rules – all the rules, all the time- then you are not saved – and Christians who don’t talk about Jesus at all because we are afraid that people will think we are like those other Christians. But that’s got to change.
Because the church is not the same – not because we have women priests or gay bishops or pray for the “church” AND “the world” instead of just “the church.” The church is not the same because at some point many Christians got to be so promoting
“Christian” values that we forgot how to be “followers of Christ.” Many Christians forgot how to be “messengers of Christ.” And most Christians – at least in this country – have been in the “in” group so long that we have forgotten what it feels like to be “out.” But we’re beginning to know again. Recent surveys tell us that we are becoming the minority – that most people don’t know what to believe – that we are no longer unified in Christ. The reality is that we are divided both without and within. And we, like the first apostles, face a cynical, disbelieving, hostile world – and like them we are afraid.
But we need not be paralyzed by our fear and we won’t be if we just keep reminding us of who we are. We are those who have promised to proclaim by word and example the Good News of God in Christ. We are those who have agreed to seek and serve Christ in all persons, loving our neighbors as ourselves. We are people who have vowed to strive for justice and peace among all people and to respect the dignity of every human being. And we can do these things – but not without making a few changes – not without tearing down a few walls – not without figuring out how to carry out our apostolic mission. We need to find a way to go out into the world without fear to witness to the glory and peace and fulfillment of the Holy Spirit. It will be hard, and it will be frightening, but it must be done – and when it is done, then will our joy be complete.
Click below to download this sermon: