November 9, 2014

Community: The Context for Change

Passage: Joshua 24:1-3a, 14-25, Psalm 78:1-7, 1 Peter 2:9-10, Matthew 25:1-13
Service Type:

But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s own people, in order that you may proclaim the mighty acts of him who called you out of darkness into his marvellous light.

For most of my life Remembrance Day has been a time to remember the sacrifice of those who gave everything for the sake of the freedoms in which we live. This remembrance has been principally focused on what we call the two great world wars. There has been this underlying current of thought that if we remember we won’t come to such a place again; to a state of the world engulfed in the destructiveness of war. On October 7 of this year the Canadian parliament voted to join the US-led bombing mission against ISIS (Islamic State of Iraq). It can’t be easy to be a member of parliament and consider taking military action.

Last August Dr. Robert P. George, McCormick Professor of Jurisprudence at Princeton University, spearheaded a multi-faith petition calling for the international community to stop ISIS’s campaign of genocide and victimization of religious minorities. The petition notes that, “We represent various religious traditions and shades of belief. None of us glorifies war or underestimates the risks entailed by the use of military force. Where non-military means of resolving disputes and protecting human rights are available, we always and strongly favor those means. However, the evidence is overwhelming that such means will not be capable of protecting the victims of the genocide already unfolding at the hands of ISIS.”

It seems strange to us that people born in Canada would be drawn to the militant ideology of ISIS. Stories like those of former Calgary resident Farah Shirdon surprise us; he is seen in a video threatening Canada with destruction and then tossing his Canadian passport into a fire. We wonder why one would choose for the militancy of an organization imposing its ideology by force over the freedom and peace of Canada. The barbarism of beheadings shocks and dismays. How do we resist such evil? Is military action required? These are not easy questions to answer. Questions made all the more poignant on Remembrance Day as we remember the terrible sacrifice of past resistance of evil.

1. When we read the Bible and review the stories of Jesus and the Apostles’ letters to the churches they seem far removed from our questions about actualities such as ISIS. In our minds the stories belong to a different category—the spiritual life. It is good to remind ourselves that these first Christians lived under the power of an ideology enforced by military might. Oddly known as “Pax Romana”, Latin for “Roman peace.” The Romans were very good at crushing any opposition to their ideology.
Let’s go back to that night when Jesus gave his new commandment to his disciples. “I give you a new commandment, that you love one another,” said our Lord. “Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.” (John 13: 34-35) Within a few hours after saying this, Jesus would himself be crushed by the Roman machinery set up to enforce this “Roman Peace.”

Jesus believed that this vision of a people of his own who would profoundly and practically love one another was precisely for just such a world. Jesus expressed this same vision when he said to his disciples that he would build his church and the gates of hell would not prevail against it. Timothy Keller speaks about this vision under the title of community as the context for change. The church is to be a people who live an alternate way of living so the world may know that God is love and be turned to him and one another. We are to live in such a way that young people like those who are attracted to barbarous ideologies might see and come to know another way to live.

The Apostle Peter expressed the same vision of the church this way. “But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s own people, in order that you may proclaim the mighty acts of him who called you out of darkness into his marvellous light.”

In a world where people face the actualities of such troubling forces Jesus calls a people to commit themselves to him by loving one another; by a self-forgetful, self-giving for one another. For many in Western culture, church life feels like one more weekend leisure activity. I might get to it, if I have time. The importance of church, in the minds of many, is limited to the meeting of spiritual needs; and a person’s spirituality can be exercised in any number of ways. As Christians we have forgotten that our Lord sees the church as world shaping and world influencing activity. It is through his church that God is shaping the future.

On this Remembrance Day what I am saying to you is this; if you want to know what to do in the face of such life destroying ideologies; if you want to plot a course of action that will have a positive impact now and in the future; commit yourself to build the church of Jesus Christ. Let us organize our lives so that all can see our commitment to love one another as our Lord has loved us. It may not look like we are doing much, but that is not a measure of what God is doing in a through such a committed people.

2. You will often hear the word “nation” used to refer to those who are the fans of a particular sports team, i.e. Leaf Nation. The Apostle Peter used this word long before sports teams did to describe followers of Jesus—a holy nation. Holy mean to be set apart. Nation refers to something that unites us as people. But there is a difference between a sports nation and the holy nation Peter speaks about. I can be a fan of a sports team without joining the nation but I cannot belong to Jesus Christ apart from this “holy nation”, the church.

From the very first of Jesus’ ministry he called a group of disciples to walk in company with him. He went everywhere with them. He did his best to hold them together praying, on the night before he gave up his life for them and us, “Holy Father, protect them in your name that you have given me, so that they may be one as we are one. … I am not asking you to take them out of the world, but I ask you to protect them front the evil one.” (John 17:11, 15) Jesus prays for them to be held together. As the story of Jesus and his church unfolds we come to know Jesus Christ always as with his Apostles. There is no Jesus apart from his Apostles and no Apostles apart from Jesus. The witness Jesus uses (scripture) to point us to himself is the witness of these Apostles. Every believer since has joined the same company of people that includes these Apostles.

There is something about the connection in this community that is deeper than simply the self-selection of people to join. I was educated with a mindset that championed the individual. For those with philosophical interest, the influence of Rene Descartes’s axiom, I think therefore I am, set western though on a trajectory that emphasized the individual. Church life came to be thought of as a commodity; people shopped for which church they got the most out of. Churches advertised themselves with emphasis on the spiritual niche they served best hoping to attract customers.

We now live in a postmodern era where this individualism is on steroids. As the Pew Foundation found in their research on religious adherence culled from 2500 different data sources across 232 countries; “Much of the western world is at the gates of a transformation, leaving behind religion in favour of more individualized spirituality.” In our world of Facebook “likes” and Twitter “retweets” people see themselves as crafting their our identity choosing from a smorgasbord of “nations” to identify with, including varying degrees of commitment. With technology I craft my own “community” so the idea of going to church to connect with community is considered optional at best.

The gospel offers such a different view of life. To be in union with Jesus Christ is to be in union with his people. Such union provides a place where anxieties can be calmed as we walk in company with one another. The love of God that is to be the guide of how we treat one another fosters life, heals the down hearted, treasures the lonely, esteems the other as better than themselves. Church is to be a vision—flawed yes, but a vision nonetheless—of what God has in mind for humanity. It is to be that place where people can come to know God through his son Jesus Christ. It is the house of encounter; encounter with the Saviour.

This is what Keller gets at in our small group study when he speaks of community as essential to this project God is undertaking for humanity in Jesus Christ. Community: The Context for Change, is the title of his talk on this point. It is what some of the early church fathers meant when they said that if God is our Father then the church is our mother in this faith. There is an essential aspect to this community of faith for faith because of how Jesus lived; he called people to himself to walk in company with himself.

When you read the New Testament the gospels are the stories of Jesus; the rest is the impact or application of what Jesus did and does in the lives of his people. In this application section of the New Testament the phrase “one another” dominates. There are at least 59 references that speak of this obligation we have for “one another”; obligation that arises out of our Saviour’s command to love one another as he loved us. These “one another(s)” are all positive assertions that call us to bless one another in some way. “Bear one another’s burdens”, “build up one another”, “love one another with mutual affection,” “outdo one another in showing honour,” “be kind to one another, tender-hearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ has forgiven you.”

I have always found that this aspect of the Christian witness—the essential nature of the community of Christ’s people—the hardest to preach. I have been so influenced by individualism that I often overlooked it. But as I look back over my faith life I observe that the company of his people has been essential to my knowing him, to my nurture in the faith. The church may be voluntary but it is not therefore optional. Instead of looking for what the church can do for me I need to come to it with the posture of contribution to the Saviour’s people. Always in self-forgetful self-giving God pours unasked his abundance upon us.

Jesus said the world would know we belong to him by our love for one another. In the terms of 1 Peter this is what is meant where it says, “that you may proclaim the mighty acts of him who called you out of darkness into his marvellous light.”

At Sunday worship we routinely sing hymns praising God for his love for us. It can be a soothing and transcendent experience. Some Researchers from the University of Gothenburg in Sweden decide to do study choirs as they sang. They monitored the pulse of high school choir singers and found that when the choir began to sing, their unified voices caused their heart rates to slow." But what really struck them was this; that it took almost no time at all for all the singers’ heartbeats to synchronize.

It is a beautiful picture of the church to think of it as the place where our heartbeats are synchronized by the Saviour’s love. But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s own people, in order that you may proclaim the mighty acts of him who called you out of darkness into his marvellous light.