Politics and church unity

At one point during this provincial election campaign, I believe I saw some lawn signs for local candidates stuck in the ground in front of the church. And I must confess, at first, it didn’t sit right with me!

Indeed, should religion and politics mix? If someone asks you, “Should Christians be involved in politics?” “Should politics be preached from the pulpit?” What would you say?

I guess I’m the product of an age when it was taught that religion and politics don’t mix. My reaction, I guess, is based in the constitutional value of separating church and state; that is, the leader of the church should not simultaneously be the leader of government, right?

But does that mean Christians shouldn’t be involved at all in politics? The reason I question this is because God is interested in every detail of our lives. God is interested in what happens not only in church on Sunday morning but what happens in our lives from Monday through Saturday as well.

But not only is God interested in all aspects of our lives — including our political activity on an individual basis — God comes to us in community. You will notice in the readings over the next few weeks as we celebrate the Day of Pentecost and coming of the Holy Spirit that only when the disciples are together does the Holy Spirit descend upon them.

My neighbour told me this week that he found refuge in the words of a tour guide in a cathedral in Italy he recently visited. When his tour group asked the guide whether he was Protestant or Catholic, the guide said, “It doesn’t matter whether I am Protestant or Catholic; that’s just politics!” He practically spat out that word: politics!

It seems there is a growing appreciation that what is most important is not the label we wear — whether Protestant or Catholic — but what is the meaning of it all, and the unity we already share in Jesus Christ. And that is good!

At the same time, there is still something there that begs us to respect boundaries, respect our differences and not just white-wash them away. On the one hand, is respecting our differences; on the other hand, acknowledging – yes, even — celebrating our unity. The two tensions must be held.

I was always taught in school that there are no bad questions, only bad answers. I suppose this was told to young people especially to encourage us to be inquisitive and explore the meaning of things. What better way than to ask questions.

It would be a mistake for teachers to reprove anyone for asking a bad question; this would be seen as shutting someone down and discouraging them from thinking for or being themselves. Moreover, especially for grown-ups, we would take it as a criticism of our intelligence. And, normally we do not take too well to criticism, do we? Especially in front of others.

In the first chapter of Acts which describes the Ascension of Jesus, Jesus and the two heavenly beings appear to commit a pastoral care faux-pas, precisely when you would think the disciples needed some comfort and encouragement in anticipation of Jesus’ departure from them.

If we examine the dialogue in this biblical text (v. 6-14), we will see that first Jesus, then the two angels, reprove the disciples. First, Jesus reprimands the disciples for asking the wrong kind of question. It is not for them to know these things — referring to the timing and events surrounding the wished-for defeat of Roman occupation of the Holy Lands. This is the liberated kingdom which was anticipated by the coming of a Messiah.

Indeed, from our vantage point, this was a terrible question. It reveals a continued misunderstanding of the whole purpose of Jesus coming to the world in the first place. It wasn’t to be a political-military leader. And these disciples, after spending three years with Jesus, still don’t get it!

We may agree with Jesus’ reproof. But imagine being one of those disciples at the receiving end of their Lord’s censure. How would you feel getting criticized in front of your peers and colleagues — again?

And then, after Jesus ascends and disappears in the clouds, two angels appear standing beside the disciples as they are gazing into the heavens. The disciples of Jesus are on the cusp of a great mission and work; they will be the hands and feet of Jesus to the ends of the earth (Acts 1:8); they will be witnesses to the message of Jesus Christ. And what are the first words from the mouths of these angels? Another reproof: Why are you looking upwards? Stop day-dreaming! That’s not where it’s at! Get going. Do your job!

You know, I wonder if it were us 21st century Christians standing there on the mountain, how well we would take to being – pretty much – constantly barraged and berated with critical words from Jesus and the like. I don’t think we would take much of it, quite frankly. When the work of the church gets a little heated and stressful often one of our first reactions is to throw up our arms in frustration and say, “I don’t need this!”, “church politics!” and walk away.

How did those first disciples stick to it? How did they restrain themselves from fighting back: “You can’t talk like that to me!” Why didn’t we see more disciples quit following Jesus. Because — and I don’t mean any disrespect to our Lord, but — Jesus didn’t seem to be practising good leadership skills here by being critical of their questions. Or, perhaps, there is such a thing as a bad question….

We may do well to notice that, using Lutheran language, the “Law” here has not the last word. Recall that the ‘Law’ is anything that reminds us of our failing, of our weakness, of our sin and inability to do that which only God can do. In contrast, the “Gospel” is the good news of promise; it focuses on the action of God.

In this case, the ‘Law’ can be these words of criticism, from the lips of Jesus and the angels. But there is more, here.

We will notice what follows both these statements of reproof are also words of promise. In the first dialogue, immediately following the reprimand is Jesus promises the disciples that they will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes upon them. After the second question when the angels criticize the disciples for looking up into the heavens, comes the promise that Jesus will return one day.

Words of promise and hope, comfort and empowerment. And maybe, just maybe, because of this good news of hope, the disciples didn’t abandon their community, they stuck to it, they believed the promise, they expected great things from God.

But they were able to see that the power given would only be realized in the community, not apart from it. They had to get over themselves; they had to get past their own, individual, pride, and embrace the bigger picture of God’s vision. They had to understand that being in community didn’t mean, on the one hand a bland, idealistic masking of all differences between them; and, on the other hand, quitting the community whenever anyone didn’t get their way.

When the disciples returned to Jerusalem, they waited in the upper room, together. And while they waited for the day of Pentecost to come, they prayed together. In prayer, then, they experienced a real connection with the living Lord. They remained united, in the prayer of Jesus now re-united with his Father. And what a great reunion that must have been: Imagine, since the birth of Jesus, God the Father had been separated from his Son. And now, at the ascension of Jesus, Father and Son are reunited once again.

This is the foundation of prayer — this unity between Father, Son and Holy Spirit. The disciples praying together in the upper room must have sensed this real connection with God by waiting for God’s action, and paying attention to the movement of the Holy Spirit, together. They must have finally realized tat their discipleship wasn’t about themselves, individually; it was about something much greater than them.

They had a real sense of the community, that they were part of the body of Christ. The meaning of religion is to be in communion and in unity with God. As followers of Christ, this unity is realized in the Body of Christ, the church on earth. Christian unity is a profound witness to the power of God in the world today. Especially today, when sadly structural fragmentation and division describes the church more than anything else.

The Holy Spirit still blows today among people of Faith. The church continues to be re-formed and renewed. It is a work that is experienced corporately, not individually. Author of the book, “Introducing the Missional Church” (Baker Books, Michigan, 2009), Alan Roxburgh, writes: “We are being formed as the people of God, not simply individuals using God for some process of self-development in the midst of trying times” (p.158).

We are changed into God’s people, together. That doesn’t mean we are conformed into like-minded robots marching to the same tune. That also doesn’t mean we splinter into another church whenever there is a disagreement. It means we celebrate our unity within the diversity of the church.

I think if the church would have political lawn signs in front of it, there should be a lawn sign from every political party campaigning in this election. Because that would say some very important things about the identity of the church: First, we take seriously our calling, as Christians, to be concerned and involved in the well-being of the wider community; that is to say, we are interested in what goes on in the world, and therefore we vote and are politically active. We are interested because God is interested in every aspect of our lives, not just what happens here on Sunday mornings.

Second, the church is much more than political divisions, because sitting in this room are people representing the vast array of political orientations anyway. We are not here because we share the same political mind-set but because what unities us is greater than what divides us.

And finally, what holds us together is not that we agree on everything, but that God loves us all despite our differences. This is the basis of our unity in Christ, a unity for which Christ prayed (John 17:11):

Holy Father, protect them in your name that you have given me, so that they may be one, as we are one. Amen.

God doesn’t play by the rules

Reading the Gospel text for today (Luke 16:1-13) may very well leave us feeling as flabbergasted as ripping up money. I felt appalled for the implication that we ought to be as dishonest as the shrewd manager who swindled profits from his master.  I admit at first I felt offended that the manager wasn’t playing by the rules. And he’s commended for this unruly behavior!

If anything is clear in this text – is that the Christian life and the nature of the God we follow in Jesus Christ are not bound and contained by the rules of our economy. Value, truth and righteousness are not dictated by the dollar, nor by any worldly measure for that matter.

What God is about here is not adherence to any theory – whether that theory is about how the economy works, or following any laws. What God is about, is something far more precious to living.

Let’s see the principle characters in this parable – the master, the manager and the debtors – in a different light. Let’s substitute them for God the Father, Jesus, and all of us. That is, the master is God the Father, the manager is Jesus, and the debtors are you and I.

And I want to focus on the main character here – the manager from whose perspective we read most of this story. Jesus, like the manager, has a higher purpose for doing what he’s doing. On the surface, his actions don’t make sense.

God doesn’t play by the rules. Just look at the Christmas story: Jesus was conceived in a girl who was not yet married. The good news of Jesus’ birth was first announced to the low-life shepherds occupying the bottom rung of first-century Palestine’s economic and social order.

If Jesus claims he is the Son of God, the Messiah, it doesn’t make sense that in order to fulfill his destiny, he must die a criminal of the state on the cross. It doesn’t make sense. It doesn’t fit the expectations, the formulas, for success that any aspiring leader would meet. God doesn’t play by the rules.

There’s something here way more important for us to pay attention to, than ‘the rules’. The manager understood how to use what was entrusted to him to serve a larger purpose. Jesus, the Son of God, was given human life – a life he knew would serve a larger purpose by his sacrifice of love.

The manager forgave part of the debt owed to the master. We, as the debtors, owe God so much for our life on earth and eternal life. But we can’t do it all by ourselves. We cannot pay back to God what God did for us. We cannot earn our salvation by our good works. That is why Jesus, for our salvation, forgave us – and as a result opened to us the way of eternal life.

The master saw what his manager had done, and forgave him. Following his resurrection and ascension, Jesus returns home to sit at his Father’s right hand. Jesus is reconciled to his Father, as the manager is commended and presumably keeps his position working for the master.

What motivates the manager more than following the rules, is his relationships with the debtors. Anticipating the end of his career, he would do anything for the sake of establishing good rapport with the debtors. His motive is not snow-white, because it comes from self-interest, for sure. Yet, other options were open to him that did not involve his friendships as much. Instead, he valued his relationships, above all else.

Jesus values his relationship with you. More than making sure the rule-book is complied with. More than being a law-abiding citizen who is ‘nice’ and meets all the expectations. He is shrewd, in the sense that his passion for us will take him to the most extreme expression of absolute love and forgiveness of us.

Martin Luther regarded the Holy Communion as a most profound expression of God’s forgiveness of us in the real, true presence of Jesus. Again, Communion is not theory. It is experiencing God’s forgiveness in the love of Jesus. It is tasting, feeling, digesting. It is a most unremarkable yet remarkable meal, to which we come forward – as is the only thing we can do in response to God’s loving offer – we come forward.

That is why Martin Luther advised congregations to celebrate God’s action of forgiveness each time the assembly gathers. Who are we, to deny this wondrous act of love from anyone? – to withhold this gift anytime we meet to connect ourselves to a forgiving and gracious God? – A God who loves, forgives, believes in us and sees in each of us priceless worth?

Praise be to God!

Impossible demands Incredible love

Mark Wahlberg is known for his acting prowess in films like “The Perfect Storm”, “Italian Job”, “The Fighter” and will star in next year’s “Transformers” sequel. He recently gave an interview with CNN’s Piers Morgan about the transformation in his life – from being a brawler and coke addict as a teenager to being a faithful Christian who now starts each day going into a church to pray.

Piers asks Mark Wahlberg, “What do you pray for?” He basically answers by saying he wants to be the best person he can be – responsible, a good neighbor, father, son, and servant to God.

On one level, I appreciate very much when popular, culture icons like Mark Wahlberg give public testimony to the Christian faith. His example gives a positive impression to the power of prayer, especially among younger people. “What do you pray for?” seems to strike a chord, since it is fashionable for skeptics who question God’s loving existence to point to unanswered prayer. Have they considered the very goal of prayer?

In the Gospel of John, one of the first words recorded out of the mouth of Jesus when he meets up with a couple of his disciples are: “What are you looking for?” (John 1:38). Apparently Jesus, too, recognizes the significance of, first off, identifying what it is we want, or expect, from God.

We may feel like the early disciples of Jesus did, then, when they asked Jesus: “Teach us to pray” (Luke 11:1). Jesus responds by instructing them to say what has become known as the “Our Father” or “The Lord’s Prayer” – the paramount prayer of Christianity.

So, what does Jesus tell us to ask for? In Luke’s version of the Lord’s Prayer (Luke 11:1-4), the first thing we ask for is “Thy Kingdom Come”. Perhaps this can give us a clue to the aim and nature of our Christian prayer.

In the interview, Mark Wahlberg says that he would rather give favours than receive favours. It is natural, is it not, to want to believe that our redemption and transformation will happen as a result of our good efforts? Even prayer becomes about telling God what we want and desire, about actualizing our dreams for a better world and life by our energy and efforts and eloquence.

There is much in this Gospel text to suggest that our growth and maturity rests with our initiative: “Ask, and it will be given to you; search, and you will find; knock, and the door will be opened to you. For everyone who asks receives, and for everyone who knocks, the door will be opened” (v.9-10). We resonate with those words, don’t we? They roll off our tongues easily enough! And we tell ourselves to buck up!

Yet, how many times have we given up on prayer because what we asked for so diligently hasn’t come to pass? We may have prayed and prayed and prayed for release from some kind of bondage or for someone else’s well being. And whatever it is continues to burden our lives. The issue remains unresolved.

This conundrum might be best described with forgiveness. In the Lord’s Prayer we ask God for forgiveness. But this forgiveness, it seems, is conditional upon our ability to forgive ‘everyone’ indebted to us! “Forgive us our sins as we forgive those who sin against us.”

That’s a tall order! Yikes! Have I forgiven – truly forgiven – others who have hurt me? And not only the one person that first comes to mind – but everyone who has ever hurt me? If not, will God forgive me?

Right after the Lord’s Prayer Jesus tells a rather weird story about going to a friend in the middle of the night to ask for three loaves of bread. Notwithstanding the awkward position in which you would be putting your friend in the middle of the night, why on earth wouldn’t you have something as basic as bread in your house at any given time?

Why would you be all out of bread in the first place? In a culture devoid of corner stores and open-all-night Seven-Elevens, you would think folks in Jesus’ day would plan ahead and have food stored up. Obviously a subtext of Jesus’ story here is the irresponsibility, laziness, short-sightedness, and sinfulness causing you to go to your friend in the first place.

How many times have I withheld grace or forgiveness from someone because I have felt they haven’t done their part enough to deserve my help?

On one hand I admire the person going shamelessly and boldly to the friend. It takes guts to interrupt someone, especially at night. Perhaps we can learn from this the trust and confidence you have in your friend to help you. Similar to the trust and confidence we are called upon to place in God.

Elsewhere in the New Testament the writer John expresses it this way: “I write the truth to you because you already know the truth” (1 John 2:21). We receive these words of Scripture and the word of God in Jesus Christ not because we don’t know it or don’t have it. We receive the words telling the truth of Jesus today because the truth and presence of Jesus already resides within us – at that deep level, in our hearts. The bible’s message is given to us to remind us, to help us re-member, what is already living within us.

And so with confidence, boldness, and shamelessness, we approach the “throne of grace” (Hebrews 4:13) with our pleas for help – even when those requests are misguided, selfish and born from our own weaknesses.

And this is the point, I believe, of the Gospel. Ultimately it is not about our efforts to make something of prayer and our relationship with God. Rather, it is about a God who will help us, no matter what. Jesus reminds us that God is always willing to offer us the help we need in order to live out the truth of Christ within us for the sake of the world which God so loved (John 3:16). Such is the incredible love of God even in the face of impossible demands.

While God receives all our prayers, however tainted with our ego compulsions, fears and neediness, the power of prayer resides in ‘thy kingdom come’ – which some ancient transcripts translated as “Your Holy Spirit come upon us and cleanse us.” Such a rendition is worth considering, because it is consistent with the last verse (13) of the text: “If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will the heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him!”

I wonder about the positive changes we desire for our lives. I wonder about how we shall pray for the good things we seek for ourselves, those we love, the church, and the world around us. What do you pray for? – the Holy Spirit? – the deep yearning for an experience of God’s love and grace and forgiveness? – that our lives be transformed according to love of God for us and for the world?

Will we pray for, and in, God’s will?

When we pray, “Thy kingdom come” are we willing to let ‘my kingdom’ go? (Richard Rohr).

What do you expect from God?

Good things! Good things, for the sake and love of the world, in Christ Jesus.