Sermon: A Prayer for the Church

05.17.2015     Preaching Text: “They do not belong to the world, just as I do not belong to the world.” (John 17:16)

This past Thursday, the Christian church observed the Day of Ascension. This occurs every year on the 40th day of Easter and commemorates Jesus’ ascension into heaven following his many post-resurrection appearances.

Thus begins the 10-day liturgical period of “waiting” as the church anticipates Pentecost, the 50th day of Easter, itself a celebration (in Luke’s gospel) of the Holy Spirit first alighting upon the faithful gathered for Passover in the ancient city of Jerusalem.

It is in acknowledgment of the Ascension that our lectionary text from John’s gospel has been chosen. It is part of Jesus’ “High Priestly Prayer” offered in the Upper Room just hours before his arrest. It concludes his “Farewell Discourse” in which he prepares his followers for his imminent departure.

This prayer is of three parts. The first part consists of a petition to God for himself, that he might find strength and remain obedient in his “hour” of adversity and distress. Here he acknowledges the completion of his earthly mission of securing eternal life for all people.

The second part of his prayer is for his disciples, those he is leaving behind, those left in the world. He asks that upon his leaving they may find unity, know joy, be victorious over evil, and fulfill their mission of representing Christ to the world.

The third part is similar to the second. It is prayer for the church to know God and fulfill its mission of leading the world to belief.

This will involve clarity of purpose as the church goes about its difficult work in a place Eugene Peterson calls the “God-rejecting world.”

The Message presents Jesus’ words for the church this way: “They are no more defined by the world than I am defined by the world. Make them holy – consecrated – with the truth…In the same way that you gave me a mission in the world, I give them a mission in the world.”

And what is that mission? To bring the Word of truth to our “God-rejecting” world.

Such, however, is easier said than done. The lure of the world is powerful, seductive, perhaps especially so in our age. No longer characterized by Roman barbarism, the culture in which we live soothes us into a kind of complacency. It harbors elements born of God’s Word – due to centuries of Christianity’s influence – but it also betrays ways of being decidedly incompatible with the gospel. This is only accelerating in our increasingly secular age.

Thus the task of the church today is no different than in the past – to remain faithful to the countercultural claims of the gospel while living in the world – the very subject of Jesus’ prayer.

In early 1933, two days after Adolf Hitler became the democratically elected chancellor of Germany, Dietrich Bonhoeffer gave a radio address. In it he spoke of the church’s solemn responsibility to be obedient to God in the midst of the increasingly false demagoguery of German culture.

Bonhoeffer, as you’ll recall, was a Lutheran pastor who courageously stood against the Nazification of Germany and, more specifically, the church. As Germany’s churches moved inexorably to embrace Nazism, Bonhoeffer founded two illegal seminaries that stood defiantly and courageously for the countercultural claims of the gospel in direct opposition to the perversions of this newly emerging “German church.”

Eventually Bonhoeffer, a committed pacifist, took part in an assassination plot against Hitler which almost succeeded, resulting in his arrest and execution in a Nazi death camp just two weeks before its liberation by Allied forces on April 9, 1945.

But in this early speech, a broadcast cut short for reasons unclear, Bonhoeffer lays out the countercultural claims of the gospel. The difference between real and false leadership, he argues, is that real leadership derives its authority from God, the source of all goodness. Bonhoeffer’s clarion call was for the return to “discipleship” or radical obedience to God.

Now, obviously, our situation is radically different. Then again, the temptation toward “cultural Christianity” is timeless. Just as the Germans were tempted to see Christianity through a German lens, so too are we tempted to see it through an American one.

From their inception, the Protestant mainline churches in America have occupied a prominent place within the surrounding culture. And all too often we’ve been tempted to see the church and the culture as synonymous.

In an eye-opening article from the U.K.’s Guardian newspaper entitled, “Faith no more: how the British are losing their religion,” Andrew Brown writes, “Religion comes in at least two sorts: cultural and counter-cultural. The [latter] is all about belief. People who are religious in a counter-cultural way know what they believe, and could argue it out with people who disagree. This kind can be extremely strong, and it also draws strength from being in a minority.”

The other sort, he suggests, “is not about conscious belief at all, but about assumptions: the things that everybody knows are true without ever needing to think about them.”

The latter is reminiscent of the vagueness of our own contemporary, post-Christian culture, one similarly devoid of specific beliefs. The assumptions we carry around are but the residue of a once vibrant church culture going to seed.

“What’s interesting now,” Brown continues, “is whether religion will return. Counter-cultural religions will no doubt thrive,” he states categorically. “But it seems to be incredibly difficult to make the transition between cultural and countercultural forms.”

And here’s the kicker: “Institutionally,” he writes, “the Church of England is set up to be entirely embedded in the nation around it, from the parish system all the way up to the coronation service. The idea that it could somehow reinvent itself as a religion for outsiders and the marginal may be profoundly Christian, but it is sociologically incredible. The God that the English still more or less believe in is less and less likely to be found in churches, or at least in church services.”

So we must ask, is the American mainline church too imbedded in the surrounding culture? Can it still proclaim the gospel’s essentially countercultural message? Or is it devoid of specific beliefs, ones its members could articulate and defend?

Hear again Jesus’ prayer (from the Message): “They [the church] are no more defined by the world than I am defined by the world. Make them holy – consecrated – with the truth…In the same way that you gave me a mission in the world, I give them a mission in the world.”

And what is that mission? To bring the Word of truth to this “God-rejecting” world. It is that to which we must recommit ourselves as the church of Jesus Christ. Amen.