Redeemer, Cairo—John 17:11b-19, Acts 1:15-26
What a great day! We’re still basking in the afterglow of yesterday’s festivities. This is a time of new beginnings. Yesterday we celebrated the relationship between Father Muriuki and the people of this congregation. Today we celebrate new promises made, new vows taken, and new relationships established as we baptize and confirm an impressive group of people! And all of this happens within an environment among the Christian community of Cairo and the surrounding areas that has seen a lot of stress and a lot of change over the last several years. I am aware that there are those among us today who have, in effect, lost their church home, and while I rejoice that you are finding a new one here at Redeemer, I nonetheless also share your grief over what you have had to let go of. In an environment like this, where lots of difficult choices and decisions get made, one could be forgiven for assuming that the Church—any particular church, and the whole Church in general—we could be forgiven for concluding that the Church is a voluntary association of like-minded individuals—that the Church is a religious club, a faith-based version of a fraternity, or service club, or an athletic league, or a professional or trade association. If the purposes and activities of the organization appeal to you, you can decide to join it. Of course, once you join, it’s only fair that you pay your dues, and support the group financially. A few really enthusiastic members take on leadership roles, and become officers. And, if you get disenchanted, or burn out, or have a tiff with another member, you can find another chapter or club, or maybe even just quit the whole thing entirely. And when we allow ourselves to think this way, of course, then we have a hard time escaping the notion that the Church is an institution, the ultimate goal of which is simply to perpetuate itself, to continue to exist. We may have lots of concrete and measurable goals; we may have elegantly crafted mission statements hung up on banners in the parish hall, as some churches do—but as long as we think of the Church primarily as an institution that is concerned with perpetuating itself, all these goals and mission statements are simply practical means to an end. They become sacramental signs, not of the gospel, but of articles of incorporation and by-laws and policies and all that technical, lawyerly stuff. Now…if that doesn’t inspire you to go out and die the death of martyr, then what will, eh?!
Well, there’s this biblical text that the scholars call the “high-priestly prayer” of Christ, and, in a way, it reins us in from thinking of the Church too much in institutional terms. This prayer takes up a long portion of John’s gospel, and, within that sequence, it takes place at the Last Supper, on the eve of our Lord’s crucifixion. It was a sort of farewell address, a valedictory invocation. God the Son was interceding—as a high priest—Jesus was interceding with God the Father, petitioning the Father for the sake of his followers—not only the twelve who were with him in the upper room, but all who would come after them, including us. Jesus is asking the Father to preserve us and protect us and guide and direct us.
Holy Father, keep [the ones you have given me] in your name, which you have given me, that they may be one, even as we are one.
Jesus knows the hostile and challenging environment into which he is about to send his disciples, and he wants a blanket of divine protection to cover them and inspire them and call them to be all that they are meant to be.
I have given them your word; and the world has hated them because they are not of the world, even as I am not of the world. I do not pray that you should take them out of the world, but that you should keep them from the evil one.
In this high-priestly prayer, Christ reminds us that it is God who writes the Church’s mission statement. It is God who sets the Church’s goals and mobilizes her resources. Jesus prays,
As you sent me into the world, so I have sent them into the world. And for their sake I consecrate myself, that they also may be consecrated in truth.
It is God who casts the vision for His Church; it us God who incites His Church to a passion for that vision, and it is God who delivers the marching orders. God energizes and sustains His church-in-mission.
This is itself a lofty vision. It is not for the faint-hearted. It invites us to change our thinking. It invites us to change our attitudes in some very fundamental ways. The most important of these attitude changes, I would say, you all have, for the most part, already begun to work on. So keep it up! What I’m talking about here is getting rid of the idea that the “people in the pews” are the “consumers,” and that the clergy—and in the case of Redeemer, his family!—are the “providers” who try to please their constituency, the consumers. This, my friends, is the picture of a community that is way too interested in technicalities, and is not availing itself of the blanket of providential care that Jesus prayed for. That’s the image of a cruise ship, where the crew members serve the passengers. In fact, though, if the Church is a cruise ship, there are no passengers. You’re either a crew member … or a stowaway. And the stowaways are always welcome to join the crew!
Ultimately, when the details are boiled down, the mission of the Church—and the mission of each individual member of the Church, is to be a witness-bearer. We are witnesses to the world that Christ is risen from the dead, that death and evil are conquered, and that life has meaning. We are witnesses to the good news that God’s love has the last word in every situation that a human being can face. The Church is a sign that there is never a lack of witnesses to the resurrection of Christ. This is what the election of Matthias to replace Judas in the company of the twelve apostles is about. On a smaller scale, the election of any bishop is a token of this assurance that the risen Christ will never want for witnesses—which means that there will always be a consistent message of healing for those who are sick, deliverance for those who are addicted, forgiveness to those who are regretful, relief and freedom for those who are enslaved to work or wealth, companionship for whose who are lonely, and fidelity for those who are wounded by betrayal of trust. Whatever we do or say as the Church—locally, nationally, or globally—it is our faithfulness to this witness-bearing mission, not whether we adhere to our by-laws, that is always the standard of our success.
Alleluia and Amen.