Sermon Sunday May 16, 2021
A DISTINCTIVE COMMUNITY
Stan Hauerwas and Will Willimon were both Methodist theologians at Duke Divinity School when their book Resident Aliens was first published in 1989. It was re-published in 2014, commemorating its 25th anniversary. It is a penetrating, yet somewhat overly-ambitious and one-sided critique of the mainline church’s cozy and comfy relationship with American culture and politics. However, in this book they are simply calling for the church to be the church “A Distinctive Community” of faith.
Go with me now to the Upper Room, where Jesus is giving his “farewell discourse” to a tiny, fledgling community of disciples. Our text today has Jesus praying what is called his “High-Priestly Prayer.” We and those initial followers are privileged to “over-hear” Jesus’ prayer on our behalf. A primary concern in this text is the ongoing life of the Christian community, and Jesus prays for at least four things: that the community be protected from evil; that it be unified; that it fulfills Jesus’ joy; and that the life of the church be distinct from the life of the world. This fourth petition will be our focus.
Jesus uses the word “world” or “kosmos” 13 times in this portion of his prayer. “World” as used here does not refer to the universe or planet on which we live. Rather, “world” is used here to refer to the totality of life that is at odds with God, has rejected Jesus, and lives in the grips of the evil one. It portrays human society as a system warped by sin, tormented by beliefs, desires and emotions that surge blindly and uncontrollably. The witness of Scripture is that every human culture is warped and twisted by the impact of sin. The perceptions of each generation, the basic desires that move human beings, the injustices institutionalized in every society, testify to sin’s warping power. This is how Jesus is using the word “world.”
Our churches have undeniably imbibed the intoxicating elixir of the 18th century Enlightenment’s hyper-individualism and the dominance of dispassionate reason; we have sold our souls to the gods of the market and to excessive consumerism; we have pledged our allegiance to the imperialism of our country in its continuing quest for world-dominance; we have worshipped at the altars of entertainers, athletes, and corporate moguls – most of whom are financially rewarded exceedingly beyond any person’s economic worth as an individual human being. We have traded our Christian values for those of “the world” – unbridled competition and a craze for winning; getting ahead in the world – at any cost; acquiring wealth and power; being successful; a narcissistic obsession with the elusive perfection of beauty and fitness, and so. To state it more bluntly: The problem is not so much that we Christians are “in the world,” but that too much of “the world” is in us.
Where is this radical distinctiveness for which Jesus prays? Is the church really distinguishable from “the world” at all? Jesus says that we do indeed live in this world, but that we do not belong to it. “In the world, but not of the world.” The church’s radical other-worldliness, or as I prefer it, non-worldliness, should be obvious and observable to the watching “world.” But you may be silently asking, or I hope you are asking: “How do we become this distinctively Christian community of faith?” Well, an initial, yet profound answer comes from Jesus’ fourth petition when asks the Father to “sanctify them in the truth.”
Sanctification in no way implies sinless perfection. “Sanctify” means “to set apart for sacred work or duty.” Jesus is asking God to do for his disciples what God has already done for him: to set them apart for God’s work in the world. He adds: “Sanctify them in the truth; your word is truth.” “In the truth” refers to the truth of God revealed in the life and ministry of Jesus. God’s word, as John has already told us, is Jesus himself. Therefore, for disciples both then and now, to share in Jesus’ distinctive revelation of God is to be “set apart” or “consecrated” for our work “in the world.” Paul states it more tersely in Romans 12:2 – “Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds.”
It is of upmost importance for us to remember that it is God who does the sanctifying, consecrating, and transforming, and not we ourselves. Yet, it remains our responsibility to respond to God with open hearts and minds to receive and to personify his sanctifying, consecrating, and transforming grace. A “Distinctive Community” – is the Church for whom Jesus prays. Thanks be to God. Amen.