Rev. Dr. John J. Lolla, Jr.
June 4, 2017
Text: John 17:11, O.T.: Psalm 68:1-10, N.T.: John 17:1-11
Memorial Day is about Christians making choices. How we use our time. Where we chose to go. What we chose to do. Who we are to meet.
These choices are about ethics and values. How we respond to different situations we face. Whether we choose to return evil for evil, or do we choose to return good for evil. We base our responses on values that are deeply embedded in our lives. They come from our relationship with Jesus Christ, and the remembrance we have of others’ relationship with Christ.
Today we remember the choices that were made in the intersection of the world with our lives and the lives of those we love.
What drove those choices? What principles lie behind those choices?
Years ago a social psychologist conducted a study on the campus of Princeton Seminary. A student was randomly chosen to lie on the sidewalk outside the Seminary’s chapel in the middle of morning classes.
Of the entire Seminary population who passed by this student that day, none stopped to see what was wrong with the student on the sidewalk.
The response of Princeton’s Seminarians was not unlike the response of surrounding by-standers on a street while a person is being mugged. Neither is it different from the response of many urban walkers passing a homeless person at a street corner.
It indicates just how committed are we to our relationship with Jesus.
Choices – Choices to be of the world, or to not be of the world.
We Christians live in the world. Jesus did not pray for us to be removed from this world. He prayed we would be protected so we would be one, as Christ is one, with the Father who is in heaven.
We live in the world. But we are to live as one with Jesus.
Jesus didn’t pray for Christians to be insulated from the world. The focus of His prayer was not for Christians as a group to conform to the ways of the world by ignoring what is happening in front of us, or acting as if it didn’t exist. Jesus did not pray that we be protected by God from having to respond to the dire situations of people surrounding us.
Jesus prayed that we would be protected from the evil one while we make our way through a challenging world.
There are congregations that unintentionally generate a culture of being a sanctuary from the world that is memorialized by bronze plaques to the past. They honor the faith of past Christians but are to live in the present. There are congregations where their leaders ignore the needs of the communities in which they worship. They don’t become personally engaged in the issues of saving the lost and growing the faith of the found that are in their neighborhoods. There are Christians who leave sanctuaries unconcerned about offering Christ’s Gospel for the broken homes of neighbors. These Christians blend into their communities and leave their Christian responsibility in the sanctuary.
Other congregations intentionally isolate themselves from the world around them. They hear a Gospel message that’s totally personal and private. They hear a Gospel that’s only concerned to provide care for their own members.
They and their children believe the church is only for the purpose of caring for them. Neither adults, nor children, challenge one another to reach into the world with the message of God’s hope in the name of Jesus Christ. They have tremendous fellowship with one another and offer tremendous pastoral care to each other. They can be great centers of worship. But they have no sense of being sent into the world by Jesus Christ with His mission.
This Memorial Day we can remember both types of congregations receive new members who share a similar outlook to the culture of the existing church members. Their sanctuaries stand on street corners without any intention of reaching others for Jesus Christ. The message of Jesus Christ they know and love remains secluded, hidden. It’s the choice they have made to be in the world, but not of the world.
There is a greater vision, however, a vision that more represents what Christ had in mind when He prayed for His followers. This vision is held by only a few members and even fewer congregations. They’re so consumed by who Christ is and what He taught that they can live no other way.
This vision is of a congregation that intentionally interacts with the people around it. Church members are united in seeking opportunities to bring Christ’s message of salvation to the unchurched. These congregations are not afraid of the challenges they will face when people in their neighborhoods get excited about coming to church with them. Neither are these congregations that are flamboyant or showy – superficially stimulating interest without the substance that reflects maturity in Christ.
These congregations are secure with the boundaries of discipleship Christ teaches. They welcome others to be transformed by Christ.
These congregations are united by common agreement among their church members about Christ’s discipleship, and how a prospective Christian enters into life with Christ inside those boundaries. From the oldest to the youngest church member, each can explain to a person how to become one with Christ.
These congregations aren’t put off by bringing in new Christians whose walk with Jesus Christ is beginning. They’re filled with church members who are beginning the journey of Christian discipleship. They are being lovingly mentored by others who have traveled the journey longer.
These congregations choose not to be conformed to the world. They are engaged in the world and take a stand for Christ that transforms the world. Their members choose to share their faith that Jesus can transform the world into the likeness of the kingdom of heaven. They are apostolic congregations – congregations that live like the apostles lived so long ago.
They are filled with memories of the disciples and honor their memory by choosing to be like the Apostolic Church in the Book of Acts.
The Book of Acts says the earliest Christians were of one mind and one spirit. Each member submitted to Jesus Christ’s teachings. Each member believed Jesus Christ possessed the power to transform the world. Each member dedicated his or her life to transform the world in Jesus’ name.
They did not count their opinion as more worthy than Christ’s. They held up for each other the power of the living Christ to transform their lives.
I have watched Christians faithfully leave sanctuaries to transform the world by taking on the difficult role of peacemaking in a dangerous world. They have served the cause of peace as Christians in our armed forces.
But there is another form of service that I have seen fewer Christians undertake. They have been reluctant to share their faith with their neighbors. We remember and honor those who have served the cause of peace in our armed forces this Memorial Day weekend. But we should also remember and honor those who are doing Christ’s work in His sanctuaries around our country. They are choosing to remember Jesus Christ’s power to transform the world.
On this Memorial Day weekend, I remember a young member of a congregation I served leaving the security of his mother’s home for Afghanistan and the war on Terrorism. He was a nurse anesthetist who was assigned to a field hospital in the Tora Bora Mountains on the border with Pakistan, where Osama Bin Laden was hidden. His name is Alan Long.
Alan went to Afghanistan on the heavenly mission of bringing peace to that God forsaken land. He went with the intentions of binding up the wounds of American men and women who had left their sanctuaries in our land to be peacemakers overseas. What he discovered was something quite different.
Alan found the people he tended were primarily not Americans. They were Afghani men, women, and children who were devastatingly wounded while walking through mine fields. Alan said, “I went to Afghanistan to serve our soldiers and discovered the humanity of the people I really came to help – the people of Afghanistan. I discovered a greater mission of salvation because of who God sent to my field hospital.”
This is what the Church needs to hear. There’s a greater people to serve than our own. There’s a whole world that needs salvation.
On this Memorial Day weekend, I remember studying at Princeton Seminary for my doctoral degree. One of the members of my colloquium was an African American woman from New York City, Suzanne Johnson. She led a congregation of less than 70 members on the edge of Chinatown, on Manhattan. Its name is the Church of the Mariners.
I remember the grand Federal-style sanctuary that was built in 1845. It was surrounded by high rise apartment buildings. Life exploded around this house of God. Cars, trucks, people crowded the street corner outside its’ walls. But life was ebbing away within those walls.
The congregation remembered earlier years of vitality that were gone. Jesus Christ called His people at the Church of the Mariners to reach into the community and make disciples through Rev. Johnson. She and members of her church council began to visit people in the surrounding apartments and talk with them about Jesus Christ. They invited their neighborhood to worship with them on Sundays. They began to offer a free mid-day lunch for people in the neighborhood.
One by one, the surrounding neighbors left their apartments for the old sanctuary. The building needed millions of dollars of repairs. But the church’s members kept their focus on reaching the unchurched with the message of salvation in Jesus Christ, and inviting people to worship with them. The lunches they offered to their neighbors showed interest in the needs of the poor community.
Gradually, over the course of several years, that 70-member church grew to over 1,200 members. When I worshipped there one hot summer Sunday, the sanctuary was full. There was no air conditioning. The carpet was worn and threadbare. I remember the organ was unable to sing God’s song. But plans were being completed to make a proposal to the New York historical society to seek funding to restore the building.
The sanctuary was alive with excitement and hope! An old piano led the congregation in song! During the offering, each member of the congregation personally came forward with white gloves to place his or her offering in the collection plate. The neighborhood believed this congregation stood as one against the world. The transforming power of Jesus Christ within the church’s message had entered the world!
This is one memory that stirs my heart this Memorial Day weekend. But Memorial Day isn’t just about remembering the faith of those from the past. It’s about making memories of faith in Jesus for people in the future.
Friends, we at Bellevue U.P. are being called by God to remember that faith in Jesus transforms the world. We are called by Christ to remember to be in the world, secure within the boundaries of Jesus Christ’s message, yet choosing to reach our neighborhood, our community, with the saving power of Jesus Christ.
We are being called by God to remember we are surrounded by families who are unchurched. We are surrounded by homes that are in need of hope. We are surrounded by young and old who need a life savor.
Remember, we have that life savor! Let us honor Him and choose to be His disciples of transformation in this world!