Toward the beginning of her book Christianity After Religion, published in 2012, Diana Butler Bass shares part of a conversation she had with a seat mate on a plane who said, "'...I don't go to church anymore. I'm not mad at the church or anything - I appreciate what it gave me when I was young... But I just don't know where it fits anymore, and I just drifted away. My life is full without church; it seems kind of irrelevant. They don't care about my questions; there's no reason to go.'"
When she went on to ask what the questions that mattered were, he continued by responding, "Oh, doubt, life, making the world a better place. You know, questions. They seem interested in things that don't really matter. Church is disconnected from real life."
This anecdote-as-wake-up-call rang true for me and my ministry with young adults in Chicago back in 2012. It continues to unsettle me now, as I seek to help my congregation connect with Gen-X and Millennial households in Silicon Valley.
As Bass' example points out, a church that wants to capture the attention of people in today's world can't just continue parroting answers to questions that were interesting to people in Asia Minor 2,000 years ago, or in 16th century Europe, or even in 1950s suburban U.S. neighborhoods. We need to be interested in things that really matter to people who are not already in our churches! We need to learn their questions and give them resources to support them in wrestling their way toward answers that make sense.
The lectionary gospel reading for today obscures the true value of Jesus' teaching in addressing this challenge, because it doesn't include the question that prompts Jesus' answer. Now, it's not a particularly good question. Rather, we should notice the contrast between the question and Jesus' answer.
Verse 22 reads, "Judas (not Iscariot) said to him, 'Lord, how is it that you will reveal yourself to us, and not to the world?'" This is a quintessentially inside-the-church question!
"Jesus, how are we supposed to be different from the rest of the world?"
"Lord, how are you going to prove to us that we're going to be OK?"
"God, tell us more about how special we are!"
With this selfish and self-involved perspective in mind, consider again how Jesus responds:
"23Jesus answered him, 'Those who love me will keep my word, and my Father will love them, and we will come to them and make our home with them. 24Whoever does not love me does not keep my words; and the word that you hear is not mine, but is from the Father who sent me.
25'I have said these things to you while I am still with you. 26But the Advocate, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you everything, and remind you of all that I have said to you.'"
In response to Judas' bid to know that Jesus was going to continue his relationship with the disciples, Jesus declares that those who know that connection will "keep his word" - in other words, they will obey his commands, they will do as he has taught. Jesus wants there to be no confusion, so he says again, "Whoever does not love me does not keep my words."
In my Presbyterian tradition, we believe that the very existence of the church depends on its connection to Jesus. And, here, Jesus spells out what that connection is: to keep his words, obey his commands. He also goes on to say that the Advocate, or the Holy Spirit, will be the one who teaches and reminds us how to do this. Yet, these days, I often find that we focus very little energy on being attentive to the Spirit's leading in the world. And maybe that's exactly the reason why we have become irrelevant to so many.
German-born theologian, JuÌˆrgen Moltmann, contributed a great deal to Reformed understandings of the different persons of God. I turn to him in the context of this reflection because he was someone raised in a thoroughly secular family. He came to his faith as an adult, while held captive in a WWII Allied prisoner of war camp. In the camp he was tormented by thoughts of guilt, aware of the horrors being perpetrated by his own side in the concentration camps. He is someone acquainted with real despair and confusion, because of the state of the world. He had real questions about doubt, life, making the world a better place. And his faith in Jesus Christ gave him the courage he needed to face his own part in the evils perpetrated by his own country. It gave him the hope he needed, so he could work toward trying to address the messiness of the world.
Here's some of what Moltmann has to say about the role of the Holy Spirit in the life of the believer:
"True Easter faith," (by which he means faith in Jesus Christ as our risen Lord) "is the work of the Spirit, for believing in Christ's resurrection doesn't mean affirming historical fact, and saying 'Oh really?' It means being seized by the life-giving Spirit and experiencing 'the powers of the world to come' in our own living and dying."
For Moltmann, relationship with Jesus Christ is only possible for us when we live in attentiveness to the Spirit. Accepting the reality of Jesus' resurrection as a fact is not faith. Instead, living a life seized by the Spirit - as if the world that Jesus promises is already a possibility toward which we can commit ourselves - this is what matters. Moltmann makes the importance of the abiding presence of the Spirit abundantly clear, saying, "There is no Pentecost without Easter. That is obvious. But there is no Easter without Pentecost either."
According to Moltmann, for those of us who were not there to receive the blessings of Jesus' presence in person, we cannot achieve real relationship with him without the help of the Holy Spirit - unless we are seized by it, and willing to live as if its promises were true.
So, what does that look like?
One of the Presbyterian confessional statements that I turn to often is one that was adopted in 1991. I especially like the section that outlines what we believe when it comes to the Holy Spirit. It says:
We trust in God the Holy Spirit,
everywhere the giver and renewer of life.
The Spirit justifies us by grace through faith,
sets us free to accept ourselves
and to love God and neighbor,
and binds us together with all believers
in the one body of Christ, the Church.
In a broken and fearful world
the Spirit gives us courage
to pray without ceasing,
to witness among all peoples to Christ
as Lord and Savior,
to unmask idolatries in Church and culture,
to hear the voices of peoples long silenced,
and to work with others
for justice, freedom, and peace.
In gratitude to God, empowered by the Spirit,
we strive to serve Christ in our daily tasks
and to live holy and joyful lives,
even as we watch for God's
new heaven and new earth,
praying, "Come, Lord Jesus!"
A church "seized by the Spirit" is one that has courage not just to pray and to witness to Christ;
it will also unmask idolatries within and without,
it will hear the voices of those silenced by oppression,
it will work with others for justice, freedom, and peace.
A church seized by the Spirit is connected to Jesus because it is in the world, doing as Jesus has commanded.
"People who ask for the Holy Spirit to come to us - into our hearts, into the community we live in, and to our earth - don't want to flee into heaven or to be snatched away into the next world. They have hope for their hearts, their community and this earth. We don't pray 'Let us come into your kingdom' either. We pray 'Your kingdom come on earth as in heaven.' The petition for the coming of the divine Spirit to us frail earthly people implies a great, unbroken affirmation of life."
The church has always lived in the in-between times, waiting for Jesus' return. But, far too often, we have used that time to sit around staring off toward heaven, passively looking for Jesus.
If we want to be a church that attracts new generations in - that inspires them to seek a relationship with Jesus in our midst - then we must be a church that invites the Spirit to dwell in us as an affirmation of the life that is all around us.
We need to:
Care, deeply, about the questions that troubled the disaffected Christian we heard from at the beginning of the sermon;
Acknowledge people's doubts about church teachings when it comes to sex and marriage, about our connections to political and economic systems that create division and oppression;
Be open to the messiness of life in your communities, where children suffer from crippling anxiety, women still face violence at work and in the home, and people struggle to find housing and work because our systems place profit above human dignity;
Prove that we are committed to making the world a better place. Host gun buybacks. Organize advocacy campaigns for refugees. Offer parking lots to homeless service employees sleeping in cars, and land for community gardens and low-income housing efforts;
Be empowered by the Spirit to be vitally and compassionately connected to real life.
Then we will surely be connected to the God who, for the love of the whole world, was revealed in Jesus.
Let us pray.
Loving Savior, you have called us to be your church, your servant people for this world that you love. We give you thanks that, in this calling, you provide us all that we need - gifts, energy, and a vision of hope for all creation. On top of this you offer us the presence of your Holy Spirit. Give us courage to connect to its holy power. Help us to follow its teaching even when it is hard or we feel like we are giving up our own ways. By our dedication, renew this world according to your will that it might reflect your glory. Amen.
Christianity After Religion, Diana Butler Bass
Source of Life, JuÌˆrgen Moltmann