Fourth Sunday in Lent
Being Church in a Post-Christian World 040311
(Sermon follows the week’s scriptures.)
1The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want.
2He makes me lie down in green pastures; he leads me beside still waters;
3he restores my soul. He leads me in right paths for his name’s sake.
4Even though I walk through the darkest valley, I fear no evil; for you are with me; your rod and your staff— they comfort me.
5You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies; you anoint my head with oil; my cup overflows.
6Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life, and I shall dwell in the house of the Lord my whole life long.
8For once you were darkness, but now in the Lord you are light. Live as children of light— 9for the fruit of the light is found in all that is good and right and true. 10Try to find out what is pleasing to the Lord. 11Take no part in the unfruitful works of darkness, but instead expose them. 12For it is shameful even to mention what such people do secretly; 13but everything exposed by the light becomes visible, 14for everything that becomes visible is light. Therefore it says, “Sleeper, awake! Rise from the dead, and Christ will shine on you.”
9As he walked along, he saw a man blind from birth. 2His disciples asked him, “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” 3Jesus answered, “Neither this man nor his parents sinned; he was born blind so that God’s works might be revealed in him. 4We must work the works of him who sent me while it is day; night is coming when no one can work. 5As long as I am in the world, I am the light of the world.” 6When he had said this, he spat on the ground and made mud with the saliva and spread the mud on the man’s eyes, 7saying to him, “Go, wash in the pool of Siloam” (which means Sent). Then he went and washed and came back able to see.
8The neighbors and those who had seen him before as a beggar began to ask, “Is this not the man who used to sit and beg?” 9Some were saying, “It is he.” Others were saying, “No, but it is someone like him.” He kept saying, “I am the man.” 10But they kept asking him, “Then how were your eyes opened?” 11He answered, “The man called Jesus made mud, spread it on my eyes, and said to me, ‘Go to Siloam and wash.’ Then I went and washed and received my sight.” 12They said to him, “Where is he?” He said, “I do not know.”
13They brought to the Pharisees the man who had formerly been blind. 14Now it was a sabbath day when Jesus made the mud and opened his eyes. 15Then the Pharisees also began to ask him how he had received his sight. He said to them, “He put mud on my eyes. Then I washed, and now I see.” 16Some of the Pharisees said, “This man is not from God, for he does not observe the sabbath.” But others said, “How can a man who is a sinner perform such signs?” And they were divided. 17So they said again to the blind man, “What do you say about him? It was your eyes he opened.” He said, “He is a prophet.” 18The Jews did not believe that he had been blind and had received his sight until they called the parents of the man who had received his sight 19and asked them, “Is this your son, who you say was born blind? How then does he now see?” 20His parents answered, “We know that this is our son, and that he was born blind; 21but we do not know how it is that now he sees, nor do we know who opened his eyes. Ask him; he is of age. He will speak for himself.” 22His parents said this because they were afraid of the Jews; for the Jews had already agreed that anyone who confessed Jesus to be the Messiah would be put out of the synagogue. 23Therefore his parents said, “He is of age; ask him.” 24So for the second time they called the man who had been blind, and they said to him, “Give glory to God! We know that this man is a sinner.” 25He answered, “I do not know whether he is a sinner. One thing I do know, that though I was blind, now I see.” 26They said to him, “What did he do to you? How did he open your eyes?” 27He answered them, “I have told you already, and you would not listen. Why do you want to hear it again? Do you also want to become his disciples?” 28Then they reviled him, saying, “You are his disciple, but we are disciples of Moses. 29We know that God has spoken to Moses, but as for this man, we do not know where he comes from.” 30The man answered, “Here is an astonishing thing! You do not know where he comes from, and yet he opened my eyes. 31We know that God does not listen to sinners, but he does listen to one who worships him and obeys his will. 32Never since the world began has it been heard that anyone opened the eyes of a person born blind. 33If this man were not from God, he could do nothing.” 34They answered him, “You were born entirely in sins, and are you trying to teach us?” And they drove him out.
35Jesus heard that they had driven him out, and when he found him, he said, “Do you believe in the Son of Man?” 36He answered, “And who is he, sir? Tell me, so that I may believe in him.” 37Jesus said to him, “You have seen him, and the one speaking with you is he.” 38He said, “Lord, I believe.” And he worshiped him.
39Jesus said, “I came into this world for judgment so that those who do not see may see, and those who do see may become blind.” 40Some of the Pharisees near him heard this and said to him, “Surely we are not blind, are we?” 41Jesus said to them, “If you were blind, you would not have sin. But now that you say, ‘We see,’ your sin remains.
The New Revised Standard Version, copyright 1989 by the Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
Being Church in a Post-Christian World 040311
This morning’s message combines some ideas from Ephesians and from John into a discussion of what it means for us disciples of Christ to come together into what we call a church. There is a great deal of disagreement around the world as to what exactly ‘church’ means, and I think this has changed in the post-Christian world and we need to reconsider what it means to come together as disciples of Christ into a church.
First, maybe we need to consider what it means to be ‘disciples of Christ’. Well, I’m no expert on the subject, and as you may discover about me, there are many, many questions I refuse to try to answer. This is one of them. I don’t think it is my place or a church’s place to define your relationship to our creator God, or to Jesus. So I won’t try to tell us all what exactly our relationship should be. I do believe that if you begin to develop and grow as a disciple of Jesus, you will begin to grow and change your relationship to God and to Jesus, but it is you and God that will work that out, and I’m no going to try to jump into the middle of that.
Being a disciple of Christ, for many of us, does not mean that we can not and do not learn from other spiritual traditions and from cultures other than our own. I very much appreciate and continue to learn from Buddhism, and Taoism in particular and from Native American tradition, and many voices and traditions are honored by people within this group.
Once, I picked up a new copy of ‘The Mennonite’ magazine, and the cover story title read ‘One river, many streams’, and I continue to quote that saying as a way to approach the study of religion.
There are however (I think) many unique characteristics about Jesus, that cause me to call myself a disciple of Christ,. You may note that I do not call myself a Christian; I believe that word got ruined by televangelist, by child molesters and by rich people trying to own and sell the earth and each other. I am a Mennonite however, and a follower of Jesus.
One of the characteristics that I think are unique to Jesus is an emphasis on the uniqueness and worth of the individual being—-and that us individuals reach for spiritual growth and knowledge by banding together in community.
So, we come together as a community that are individual disciples of Jesus Christ. We learn together, we work together—as an old hymn sings—we plow the field together, but God causes the seed to grow. We are in community, we are in communion with Almighty God, and in community with dear sweet Jesus Christ and with each other.
There are many things this community of Christ can do together to grow as a community and to grow as disciples of Christ and we will talk about many of these things over the weeks but this morning I’d like to mention ‘accountability’ within a community of Christ.
People, including me, get nervous when a church talks about accountability. This word is usually taken to mean that the church or the elders of the church will be checking to see if you are drinking or playing cards or coveting your neighbor’s wife and things like that. Or it might mean that a church has rules about how many Bible verses you read a week and is keeping a tally of those numbers for you.
Instead, I would like us to think of accountability as our mutual effort, among ourselves, to tell an account of our own spiritual journey to each other. Thais means that as believers in Jesus we trust one another enough to tell our spiritual stories to one another. That means that we trust enough to tell the real truth about how each of us has been raised and taught or not about God, about how we have been terrified by the darkness of human life, and how we have perceived maybe some distant life to reach for…we can tell each other about how we have struggled spiritually and failed and also won…and we can tell each other the truth about what we need right now in our spiritual lives to grow further.
Accountability means we can ask each other the question ‘Where is your spiritual growth leading you right now?
I sort of want to change subjects in mid stream now. We’ve been talking about church and community and spiritual growth and accountability, and I want us to each wrap this thought up and place it a room all its own. In older times, when people did not have TV or radio or books evern, they enlivened and amused themselves by reciting stories, poems, myths, etc. They memorized these long selections, including the Bible, by using several tricks. One trick was to creat a mansion with many, many rooms. You have to imagine each floor, each hallway, each staircase in this big mansion, and then you have to imagine each and every room. In each room you can place a part of a poem, a Bible verse, or a paragraph of a story. So, if you would, create a mansion and in one room, place the ideas and discussions about ‘church’ in that room.
Now, I want turn and talk again about the Bible verses we read this morning. First, Ephesians, which ____ read. Ephesians is a book that was originally assumed to have been written by St.Paul, but now we don’t know. It a book full of instructions on how to live together as disciples in a community of Christ. How do we do ‘church’, and overall that is the topic of this morning’s sermon.
What I want us to look at again in Ephesians is ‘Sleeper awake!’ . This is basically saying that we disciples, and people not yet calling themselves disciples of Jesus are as if we were asleep and what we’re doing here together is trying to learn how to awake. So, wake up!
Then, we turn to John and we read the story, the parable of the man blind from birth. This story is a parable, it is a story. It is not necessarily history. That means that on April 3, Year 32 AD a man blind from birth was not necessarily made suddenly to see! That means that this story is not just true—it is super-true, it is hyper true, it is extra true. It is a parable, it is not necessarily a news story or an historical account.
What is the truth being told—(by the way, it is easier to memorize a story than to simple recite a ‘truth’. So, a parable also is a great device for memorizing very difficult and deep thinking. I think the truth being told here is that we all are like the man blind from birth, and Jesus Christ is the healer that can finally, totally, completely, open our eyes to the truth of life, the truth of the universe and the truth of our lives on this earth—the final, complete, humble, simple truth about each of our lives.
This is the beginning, I believe, of the spiritual gifts Jesus brings to us, and brings us to….
So, Ephesians tells us to awake, and throughout exhorts us to walk from the darkness into light, and John tells us to open our eyes. Both talk about the same sort of idea, that Jesus brings us to a new reality, a new vision, a new understanding and consciousness of what is going on in the universe and in our minds and souls. Neither talks about what will happen if we die or if we go to heaven or not or if we are saved or not—they talk about a change in our vision and awareness of life, right now and right here.
Now if we walk back in our memory mansion to the first room we used—the one where we stored the idea of ‘church’ and community—what a community of Christ does is what the second idea promises—we use a community of Christ and together we seek the truth of what Jesus promised—that we would be cured our blindness, and would finally open our spiritual eyes.
How does a church do this? Every month or so I talk with Clarence Rempel, our Western District Conference minister. We are a church development project, associated with the Western District Conference which is associated with Mennonite Church USA, which in turn is associated with the Mennonite World Conference. Clarence asks me questions sometime such as ‘what is the church’s average attendance?’ and ‘how are decisions made in our church?’ and ‘dare we having board meetings?’ These are questions we naturally assume could arise from the need of the church’s organizational structure to organize, and they are important for WDC to understand how we are growing, and if we are growing.
But these questions also arise from the tendency of us all to ‘run the church as a business’. But the church is not a business and a better set of questions for a church is to ask these questions, which come from Dallas Willard’s book ‘The Divine Conspiracy’:
1. Does the gospel we preach and teach have a natural tendency to cause people who hear it to become full-time students of Jesus?
2. Would those who believe it become his apprentices as a natural next step?
3. What can we reasonably expect would result from people actually believing the substance of our message?
So we have two sometimes conflicting ideas of what ‘church’ is. One view emphasizes church growth, the church organization, the future of the church. The other emphasizes your growth, your future and your spiritual life.
For the first view, there is a goal of becoming something bigger, more successful, maybe buying a church building someday and so forth. For the latter view there are goals for the church aside from your and mi spiritual growth as disciples. There is no there, there, and what we are on any given Sunday is what we are.
There some reasons for becoming a larger, more organized church however. We can’t argue with that. On Thursday I think, on the Evening World News with Roger Williams, if I got his name correctly. He talked about that when he and his news crew and the Federal Emergency crews arrived on the scene of a natural disaster like Hurricane Katrina, they found a group of people already there. It was the Mennonites, he said, and the news story showed a group of young people up on a roof, the girls in long skirts, with hair bonnets, and rubber boots, using long pry bars to tear off an old damaged roof, and replacing it with new metal roofing, using hammers and nail guns. It was a group of Old Order Mennonites who declined to give their names or allow their photos to be taken because of the vanity of excessive individuality.
Someday, when we a re a larger church we may be able to do as larger Mennonite Churches do—-outfit a special trailer with chain saws and tools and be able to send crews to work a week or two in disaster locations with MDS—Mennonite Disaster Service. Within hours of a disaster churches are preparing to drive their trailers to a new location, and they take turns until the job is done. MDS has built 96 homes in New Orleans, and is still there after 5 years.
We may be able to support church members also in MCC assignments. MCC is Mennonite Central Committee which provides development assistance on projects worldwide and was the model for the Peace Corps. You or I or any of us can ask to be assigned to an MCC assignment if we have a year or two, or even a month or so. It is sort of like a Mennonite vacation, I guess, and people whose children have grown up and away, or young people just out of college can serve short or long term as they can, either in North America or worldwide.
So, there are advantages we realize in becoming a larger church, but we have to remember, that the purpose of this church must remain focused on Jesus and focused on helping the poor and helping those in need. Getting to be a larger church just means that work is easier or done better, but what we are as a church right now, is all we will ever be.
To be a church of Jesus, a community together seeking Jesus, we have to recoil from the things of the world and reject them—wealth, status, power, possessing plunder taken from the poor—when Clarence Jordan, the preacher from Georgia was visiting some rich Christians, seeking to raise money for his ‘Houses for the Poor’ project which became ‘Habitat for Humanity’ he said ‘I’m happy to be out here in the suburbs seeing all the plunder you all have stolen from the poor’.
We have to remain focused upon beginning to see, even though we were blind from birth, that the truth of the world—based upon money, greed and false security is not the world of God. We may, as a community seeking Christ, begin to see that Jesus is always in our presence. Jesus, God, or the Holy Spirit is always right here, right now, in our midst. May young children and animals can see this. Children are taught to look away maybe, and we all forget to see perhaps. But Jesus is still with us here always, and there is nothing greater for a church to do than to help us to see once again.