January 16, 2011

… you were called into the fellowship of his Son

Passage: Isaiah 49:1-7, Psalm 40:1-11, 1 Corinthians 1:1-9, John 1:29-42, 1 Corinthians 1:9

God is faithful; by him you were called into the fellowship of his Son, Jesus Christ our Lord.


My interest in the writings of J.R.R. Tolkien began because of his relationship with another writer I admire—C.S. Lewis.  They were both English professors at the University of Oxford in England; they were also members of the “Inklings”—an informal literary discussion group.  This group met on Tuesday mornings during school term at “The Eagle and Child Pub” in Oxford.  (I once visited this pub, my only interest—of course—was to see the “Inkling” memorabilia there.)  Tolkien, a devout Christian, was influential in C.S. Lewis’ coming to faith in Christ.

I find Tolkien’s trilogy The Lord of The Rings a compelling read on so many levels that it is hard to put a finger on exactly what it is that makes it so compelling for me; it may be the sheer magnitude of his imagination to create so many characters and story lines weaving them together into a powerful overarching drama.  Perhaps I marvel at the massive talent that is able to, in some measure, see that whole story in their mind before they set out to write it.

Tolkien’s trilogy was made into movies which I also enjoyed.  The movies do accurately follow the novels’ story line, however, given the time constraints for movies there is much rich detail that can only be found in the print version of these stories.

The first novel is titled The Fellowship of The Ring; it is the story of how a disparate group of nine travellers come together to join in a fellowship committed to a task in relationship to a powerful ring.  The rest of the story—so to speak—centres on this fellowship and the unfolding drama of their quest.  I am not sure exactly what it is that compels me but something resonates in my heart—in reading the book or watching the movies, it is as if I too have somehow become a member of the fellowship; when they make their solemn commitment to the quest I also make mine.

You could call my heart’s resonance with this story a response borne of the human desire to be connected to something greater than ourselves; call it what you will, I simply know I want to go with them; it seems I am being compelled to join.

1. I wonder if people, generally speaking, pay much attention to what is written in the smaller print on their graduation diplomas.  I confess that it is the large print that is usually what I see—school name, my name, and the programme title.  Do you ever wonder what the “honours, rights, and privileges” are “which appertain to this (or that) degree”?

I read the smaller print on one document from my most recent round of studies; I learned that I am “a Fellow in good standing of the Graduate Theological Foundations.”  (Perhaps, like me, some of you are also Fellows of academic institutions and don’t know it.)  There is a significance we sense—we might even say something compelling—about belonging to a fellowship of people who have graduated from a particular school.  In some measure graduates carry the purposes of the institution with them into the world—we sense we are part of something that is greater than our individual contribution.  Such significance gives rise, in some measure at least, to the very existence of school alumni organizations.

Of all the images that the New Testament uses to depict or describe the nature of the church of Jesus Christ, I am particularly fond of the one Paul uses in the opening lines of his first letter to church at Corinth. “God is faithful; by him you were called into the fellowship of his Son, Jesus Christ our Lord.”  I am not sure if it is the quest we are called to join or the idea of the huge alumni and current student body, but I find the compelling power of belonging the “the fellowship of God’s son” empowering for life.

At our church council meeting last Tuesday Rev. Burden cited a January 10 news article; the article offers encouraging news for Christians who are accustomed to discouraging news depictions of the church.  “U.S. political scientist Walter Russell Mead observed in a celebrated essay last year, Christianity is now "on its biggest roll" in its 2,000 year history. Many Christians, though, are only dimly aware of the faith's phenomenal advance. You could call it the greatest story never told: the epilogue. In his essay on the spread of Christianity, he ... declares that it is on the rise in virtually every country of the world except "the EU and the Islamic countries that forbid proselytization."  ... All together, Christians now outnumber Muslims two to one.”

I invite you to reflect with me about being called by God “into the fellowship of his Son, Jesus Christ our Lord.”

2.  The study of history generally centres around those we consider the movers and shakers of any given era.  Some of that is driven by the fact that the only historical records we have centre are about these people; it was those with power—sometimes military—who could afford to commission the writing of a record about themselves.  The invention of the printing press significantly changed our access to history; the more affordable print technology means that a much higher volume of knowledge is available to us from periods after the printing press.  Today with our electronic technology the amount of data available is astronomical; it would seem that we have way too much information.  So much so that an article in the New York Times said that the year 2010 was the year that technology replaced talking.

Still, most of our news focuses on people the editors consider the movers and shakers of our day; prime ministers and presidents, actors and sports personalities, criminals and financial fraudsters, corporation leaders and scientists, artists and authors—along with the obligatory weather forecast.  The gospel declares that above or alongside or woven throughout the way we humans mark or speak of the unfolding history of people, places, and events in another history; salvation history.  It is a history that reaches back to the beginning of time and foresees an end when all things will be put right.  It is a history Jesus spoke of when he said, “I will build my church”; the church being a people he is gathering together to himself.

C.S. Lewis’ book Screwtape Letters is a collection of letters written by a senior demon named Screwtape to a junior demon named Wormwood; in the letters is advice given to the junior demon about how to tempt his patient—a Christian who Wormwood has been assigned—to give up on or weaken the patient’s faith.

In one letter Screwtape writes: “My Dear Wormwood;
One of our great allies at present is the Church itself.  Do not misunderstand me.  I do not mean the Church as we see her spread out through all time and space and rooted in eternity, terrible as an army with banners.  That, I confess, is a spectacle which makes our boldest tempters uneasy.  But fortunately it is quite invisible to these humans.  All your patient sees is the half-finished, sham Gothic erection on the new building estate.  When he goes inside, he sees the local grocer with rather an oily expression on his face bustling up to offer him one shiny little book containing a liturgy which neither of them understands, and one shabby little book containing corrupt texts of a number of religious lyrics, mostly bad and in very small print.  When he gets to his pew and looks round him he sees just that selection of his neighbours whom he has hitherto avoided.  You want to lean pretty heavily on those neighbours.  Make his mind flit to and fro between an expression like “the body of Christ” and the actual faces in the next pew.”

The visible church is sometimes discouraging to us—so much so that the words “organized religion” is currently a euphemism for something distasteful.  (I personally find “disorganized religion” more problematic).  The view of the Church as heaven sees her—spread through all time and space and rooted in eternity—that is a view that can compel even the most discouraged heart to be part of the visible church; what we do here is connected to God’s salvation history.  I love the image that writer of the Hebrews uses of the visible church as runners in the stadium and the stands are filled with a great cloud of witnesses—the church in heaven—cheering them on.

3.  There are some exceptions—like the Yoido Full Gospel Church in Seoul, South Korea that has around 1,000,000 members—but for many Christians the size of their congregation or people in the pews does not inspire a sense of grandeur.  On most Sunday’s we Canadians are not tied up in traffic jams of people on their way to church.  The visible church often doesn’t look like much; some congregations are tiny, finding volunteers to take on the various tasks is a challenge.

Speaking of not looking like much consider our gospel lesson; John the Baptist was standing talking with two of his disciples—Andrew and John (gospel author). The text tells us “as he (John the Baptist) watched Jesus walk by, he exclaimed, ‘Look, here is the Lamb of God!’  The two disciples heard him say this, and they followed Jesus.”  (John 1:36-37)  I am sure there were bigger gatherings that day in the Roman Coliseum at Caesarea.  At the local farmers market in Jericho a stone’s throw from where Jesus was there were more people gathered around the fruit stand.

I was reading an article about what were considered the top news events of 2010; another article had what was considered the most memorable pictures from the decade that concluded at the end of 2010—does anyone remember the Y2K scare; its fizzle was how the decade began.  It is interesting to consider what we humans describe as epic historic events and place that against what the gospel declares God considers history being made—salvation history.  Our eyes are often drawn to the size of the event measured in numbers of people; the natural disasters we note are those that devastate the greatest numbers of people; events we take note of are those that draw the largest crowd of people.

The gospel says that history was made when a fiery preacher identified Jesus as the Lamb of God and two people—just two—followed Jesus.  What happened that day was God calling these two disciples into the fellowship of his Son; because God is faithful to his commitment to love people and bring salvation these were joined in fellowship with Jesus.

The story of Andrew and John following Jesus is a parable of the story of every believer.  Somewhere along the line someone pointed out Jesus to us and we followed Jesus.  Someone pointing us to Jesus was the human side of the history and it doesn’t look like much significant is happening.  What is unseen to us is that this occurrence is an action of God’s faithfulness who is relentlessly moving history to the great culmination when all things will be put right.  We are called into this same fellowship with Andrew and John.

4.  It's amazing how much excitement can be generated by having a particular person simply walk past you; people will line up along a red carpet just to catch a glimpse of certain celebrities walking by.  We often tell stories to one another of various celebrity sightings.  Valerie and I were at an event when Prime Minister Stephen Harper and his wife Laureen walked past us; we were close enough that Valerie remarked on how struck she was by Laureen Harper’s attractiveness. (I concurred with Valerie on that point being careful, of course, not to be first to notice)

There has never been a more important celebrity on this planet than Jesus; yet John makes clear that on this day only two cared to follow.  I think that for Jesus it wasn’t the number lined up to catch a glimpse but the individuals who would follow.  What does leap off the pages of the New Testament is that those, like Andrew, who got to know Jesus were thrilled to know him—so much so that after just one day he tells his brother Peter he has found the Messiah,

The book of Corinthians was written to a church with lots of internal problems; the kind of place that would turn you off organized religion.  Yet to these very people Paul says that it was God who called them into the fellowship of his Son, Jesus Christ our Lord.  If there is one thing that helps me keep my ability to be petty about many things in check it is to remember the one whose fellowship I have been called into; when I consider that it is Jesus, crucified for me, with whom we keep company it seems to put small matters into proper perspective.

5. The fact that the church is the fellowship of Jesus also inspires service; to serve the church is to serve this great fellowship Jesus is committed to forming; our collective witness makes possible Jesus’ invitation to be heard by many more.

I am grateful for all who serve this congregation is a wide variety of aspects; you have given financially so that in 2010 we ended with a small surplus.  You gifts of time and talent are hard to quantify like the balancing of the books; yet their value is in many respects immeasurable. Right now we need some folks to serve on church council for 2011—if you would consider such a leadership position I would love to hear from you.  I would encourage you that to serve the fellowship of the Son, Jesus Christ our Lord, is to make history, a history that spans eternity.

Friends: God is faithful; by him you were called into the fellowship of his Son, Jesus Christ our Lord.