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It is no wonder that we Christians struggle. We are still in the world and thus we struggle with the evil in the world; we struggle with the evil within the church; and we struggle with the evil within ourselves. Though professing Christians, we are still part of a sphere of existence that is in enmity towards Christ. Evil divides us and separates us from each other and from God. Sometimes even how we speak about evil in our efforts to overcome it, separates us from each other.
I recall the very first time I preached at a sister Christian congregation. It was a Presbyterian Church and the worship leader for that morning, being a very good worship leader, took me aside in order to give me some instructions. He told me what parts of the liturgy I would be leading and when and from where I would be preaching. In all of his instructions, though, he said that the Lord's Prayer, which I would be leading, would be said in the Presbyterian way. That was to say that we United Methodists prayed about trespasses and trespassers, but Presbyterians preferred the language of debts and debtors. Not confusing people was an important thing ~ sin and evil were confusing enough without having an outsider come in and mess up the naming of it.
When I later came to be the pastor of that same Presbyterian Church, through an ecumenical shared ministry, I used to worry every Sunday that I would mess it up, throw off the liturgy, and confuse people in the praying of this prayer. One Sunday I concentrated so much on not making a mistake that I unconsciously skipped half the prayer leading the very confused congregation to a rather abrupt ending.
I pastored Presbyterians, United Methodists and a United Church of Christ congregation in that ecumenical shared ministry. A Mennonite Church also worked with us. I remember that when we prepared to have our first united service, we steered away from using the Lord's Prayer so as to not upset anyone. But the day came when we could no longer stay away from praying together our Lord's Prayer. I was genuinely concerned because not only would we be praying a common prayer held as sacred, with different words, we would even be praying it in both English and in Spanish. But do you know that when we prayed, our differences of words and language mattered little for it became obvious to us that we were all praying to God with Christ.
It is not surprising that we Christians continue to struggle. We struggle because evil is still in the world seducing us to trespass the bonds of love, and trapping us in indebtedness to each other and to God. Sometimes, however, in our well-intentioned efforts to overcome the evil, we sin that much more.
Often our zealousness in fighting sin leads us to believe that we can each more appropriately and more adequately name the condition of evil among us and so we call it out ~ debts...no, trespasses; racism...no, reverse discrimination; sexism...no, male-bashing; homosexuality...no, homophobia; denominationalism no, lack of doctrine and order; wealth...no, laziness ambition; patriotism...no, lack of national pride... and the list goes on and on. Like you, I have some very strong opinions on all these matters, but I worry that I all too often forget that at the other end of my opinion is a brother or a sister with a similarly strong opinion who, just like me, hold that opinion out of faith and conviction, a son or daughter of God whom Jesus loves and remembered to pray for.
There is evil among us. We are called to resist and overcome that evil, but in the process of discerning the evil among us, can we look upon each other mindful of the fact that it was for you, and for me, for each one of us; for that friend and that ally as well as for the one with the different opinion and even for the one who alienated us through their insistence of a different kind; that it was all of us that Jesus gave his life and for whom Jesus prayed God's power upon that we might all be one as Jesus and God are one.
Worry that we are all afflicted by evil, but do not doubt that we Christians, all of us, even in our imperfections, are seeking Christ. For more powerful is the name of God that has been prayed upon us by the One who is God.
Oh, but we agonize. Agonize that if we were to put our guard down for one minute the very Church of Jesus would be destroyed by all those other misdirected persons. Only we can save it. It's called modern-day martyrdom. It used to be called the "Savior complex." It's a neurosis that I find in every brand and branch of the Christian faith. We are a narcissistic bunch, we Christians! And oh, we do agonize. Take notice though, of Jesus. Jesus who on the eve of his crucifixion and imminent death does not agonize over possible destruction, but rather who stands above the shadow of death confident that victory will come in God's own good time and in God's own good way.
In prayer. Jesus, after having made promises of care and presence to the disciples, entrusts the future to God. In prayer, Jesus says, "I am not asking you, God, to take them out of the world but that you protect them from the evil one...that you sanctify them in the truth (vs. 15)...so that they be one as we are one. (vs. 11b)."
Jesus does not at any moment place the responsibility of the future of the Church in the hands of the disciples. Jesus calls the early disciples and calls us to be faithful, but just as He had depended on God's care and will, He reminds us through His prayer that the future of the Church ultimately rests with the sovereign grace of God.
And so our task is simply to be faithful. And if Jesus is truly the manifestation of the one who is completely and perfectly faithful to God, then evil and fear will be overcome not in knowing it or naming it, nor even in fighting it. Overcoming evil and fear will happen when we incarnate and live the love manifested in Jesus' life and death. It is the love that leads Jesus to say, "Father, for their sakes I sanctify myself, so that they also may be sanctified in truth." (vs. 19) It is a love that is difficult to live, but a love that can decisively change our lives.
I was reared on a small farm outside the South Texas town of Edinburg. There was an empty field directly to the east of our farm, in fact just beyond our kitchen window. One day a man bought the field. He had plans to put his cattle there. That did not other us. What was disconcerting was that he was a Black man. That made him different and we had heard many stories about what Black people were like. Well, my father, being the man of the house, would have to deal with him. There was one big problem, though. My father spoke no English and we soon discovered, as we had expected, that Mr. Johnson spoke no Spanish. My father would just have to figure it out.
The day Mr. Johnson moved his cattle next door my father went out to meet him across the fence that separated our properties. My siblings and I gathered at the kitchen window to see what would happen. We were amazed at the sight of my father having a conversation with a Black man who spoke no Spanish.
When my father returned to the kitchen he reported that Mr. Johnson seemed like a decent man. We were at that point more curious about knowing what my father had said to him and how on earth he had said it to him since he spoke no English. It was the beginning of an interesting and even more, a blessed relationship.
For the next ten years, Monday through Friday at 5:30 p.m. Mr. Johnson would come to feed his cattle and my father would arrive from his work. They would meet at the fence and visit for a half hour or so. This monolingual English-speaking independent Baptist, and this monolingual Spanish-speaking Catholic turned Methodist, became friends. Their daily 5:30 afternoon meeting at the fence was a time that these men both cherished for they rarely missed it. We pondered how it was possible.
The day Mr. Johnson died we went to his funeral. Having always been part of an all Hispanic congregation, I was in awe of what I saw. The church was filled with Blacks, Hispanics and Anglos. The entire town was represented. Many were the lives that this neighbor had touched. How my father and Mr. Johnson had become friends and how we had all come to love that Black man became clear to us in that culminating moment. Friendship and even love were possible in spite of the obvious barriers because Mr. Johnson was a man of God, an incarnation of Christ's love.
Being "one" as Jesus and God are "one" is not so much about who we are, the language we speak, or the color of our skin, or even where we've come from, where we are, or where we would like to go. Being "one" in the unity of God and Christ is about incarnate love of the kind that Jesus teaches and models for us. It is that divine love that decisively changes the lives of those who believe. And when we believe to the point of loving, then the world will come to know the love of God, and the work of Christ will be done. As Jesus would pray in a later verse, "...that they may become completely one, so that the world may know that you have sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me (John 17:23). May it be so, Lord Jesus. Amen.
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