Being who we are: a sermon for the church on its birthday

9

May 24, 2015 by jmar198013

Preached today at the Central Church of Christ in Stockton, CA. Since we Campbellites aren’t bound to the lectionary, and we tend to get a lot of Acts 2 sermons, I chose a completely different passage from which to preach: Luke 11.1-13.


 

So maybe you didn’t know this already, but today is Pentecost. Of course, this passes by without much fanfare among our tribe. We in Churches of Christ don’t tend to pay much attention to the liturgical calendar. But other church traditions all over the world are celebrating today as the birthday of the church. And pretty much all of them will be hearing a sermon about the second chapter of Acts. Of course, about the last thing we in Churches of Christ need is another sermon about Acts 2. But I do think it’s appropriate to acknowledge the church on its birthday. And on this Pentecost, I want to offer something other than a flashback episode to Jerusalem ca. 33 A.D. Flashback episodes are what television writers do when they come to the end of a season and they’re fresh out of ideas. God is not finished writing the story of the church, and the Holy Spirit is not out of fresh ideas. Jesus still has dreams for his church. So this morning, I’d like you to join with me in reflecting on the church’s identity—who we are called to be, what we are called to do. The theologian Stanley Hauerwas is fond of saying that “the first task of the church is to be itself.” That means we have to learn to live in the world and serve the world not on the world’s terms, but the terms Jesus has given us. By the gifts God gives us. Through the empowerment of the Spirit. To offer some practical suggestions about what it might look like for the church to be itself, I want to go even further back than Acts 2. The lesson today is from Luke 11.1-13. And although we’ll be going way back, let’s not call it a flashback. Let’s call what we see and hear and feel in this passage guideposts and touchstones. Sisters and brothers, let us hear the word of the Lord this Pentecost.

Jesus was praying somewhere once. When he finished praying, one of his disciples said to him, “Lord, teach us to pray, just like John taught his disciples.” Jesus told them, “When you pray, say this:

“Father, uphold the honor of your name. Establish your kingdom. Make sure we all have enough to eat every day. Forgive our sins, because we forgive those who owe us. Protect us from the time of testing.” 

Then he told them, “Imagine you come to your friend in the middle of the night. And you say to this friend, ‘Friend, someone I know is passing through town and has just arrived at my house. I need you to loan me three loaves of bread, because I have nothing to feed him.’ What if your friend wouldn’t even come to the door? What if he said, ‘Leave me alone! The door is already locked and my children and I are in bed for the night. I can’t get up and give you anything’? Even if he won’t get up to help out of friendliness, I bet he’ll get up and get whatever his friend needs so he doesn’t look like a jerk. So I tell you: Ask, and you’ll receive. Seek, and you’ll find. Knock, and the door will be opened for you. For those who ask receive. Those who seek find. And the door is opened for those who knock. Let me ask you parents: would any of you give your child a stone when he asked for bread? Or if he asked for fish, would you give him a snake? Or if she asked for an egg, would you give her a scorpion? Evil as you are, you know how to give what is right to your children. So don’t you think your heavenly Father will be even more likely to give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him?

Teachings_of_Jesus_17_of_40._ask_and_ye_shall_receive._Jan_Luyken_etching._Bowyer_Bible

So I want to return to that Stanley Hauerwas quote: “The first task of the church is to be itself.” Hauerwas says that this means the church serves the world on its own terms, not on the world’s. Otherwise, the world has no way of knowing itself as the world. In other words, unless there is a vital, breathing, tangible, awake, involved people living in the world, embodying the way Jesus taught us, the world cannot know there is an alternative to how they are living. So that’s the vocation, the life’s work, of the church: to be that earthy, moving, living embodiment of the way of Jesus. That’s what it means for the church to be itself. So today, on the church’s birthday, let’s explore what the passage we just heard can teach the church about being who we are.

So in the passage we just heard, I really feel for the disciples. Don’t you? I mean, think about it: they came to Jesus with one simple request. They asked him to teach them to pray. I mean, who better to learn prayer from than God’s Son? Seems like a smart idea to me. So they asked to be taught to pray. And what did Jesus give them? Well, first he tossed them a hand-me-down prayer. We’ll talk about that more shortly. But even though this prayer is commonly called “The Lord’s Prayer,” Jesus didn’t just make it up on the spot. Perhaps it more polite to say it was a re-gifted prayer. What else did he give them? A story about someone waking their neighbor up to ask for food. The disciples didn’t ask for any parables. What else did he give them? A back-handed compliment: You’re pretty rotten, but at least you don’t feed your kids scorpions. So there’s that. They certainly didn’t ask for that! It sort of seems like the disciples came to Jesus asking for bread, and he crammed a pile of rocks in their mouths. You know, if I had been there with the disciples, I’d be downright annoyed with Jesus. We asked you to show us how to pray. And what do you do? You start rambling on about snakes and scorpions and the Holy Spirit. Stop being weird, Jesus. Just tell us what we need to know. So that’s how I think I’d respond. But of course I’d be wrong. Because Jesus knows something about me, and about all of us. He knows that sometimes we think we’re asking for bread, but what we think is bread is actually a stone. I think that’s what was going on with the disciples. And I’m pretty sure we church-folk do it today, too. And it may just be that this second-hand-prayer and these crazy stories will help us see clearly what’s a stone and what is bread. And maybe having eyes to see the difference is essential to the church being who we are. To being who God means us to be.

So let’s talk about that heirloom prayer that Jesus handed off to his disciples. Here’s the thing: most of what is in the Lord’s Prayer could already be found in prayers thousands of Jews were already praying. On any given day in Jewish homes and synagogues, people were already beginning their prayers by addressing God as Father. There were plenty of popular prayers that asked God to uphold the honor of his name and establish his kingdom. There was even a prayer that said, Protect us from the time of testing. There was nothing especially new or revolutionary or sexy about the prayer Jesus taught his disciples. In other words, That prayer was not the prayer they were asking for. They wanted something cutting-edge, something chic, something impressive. Notice how they framed their request: Lord, teach us to pray, just like John taught his disciples. Did you catch that last bit? You know what it sounds a lot like? 1 Sam. 8.5, when the Israelites came to Samuel and said, appoint us a king to judge us like all the other nations have. Israel wasn’t okay with just being who they were anymore; they wanted to look like the other nations. Okay, I suspect that’s what was going on with Jesus’ disciples. See, all the cool rabbis—like John the Baptist—were teaching their disciples special prayers. And that’s really what the disciples wanted: insider information. A distinctive spiritual discipline. A simple plan that guaranteed success. A shortcut to God. These are exactly the things Jesus would not give his disciples. By handing down an heirloom prayer, Jesus is saying, The prayers you already know have what you need. I believe the church today is often caught in the same trap as Jesus’ disciples were here. For instance, in the last two or three decades, church architecture has changed. Houses of worship are now called “campuses” and look more like shopping malls and office parks than sacred space. Churches are expending more and more resources on branding and marketing and flashy web sites. There’s a litany of books and articles and seminars on church growth strategies, and no two experts say the same things. And don’t even get me started on hipster preachers with skinny jeans and perfect hair.* Like Israel wanting to look like other nations, many churches are adopting the ways of our consumerist culture. Indeed, people looking for a new church to join are often said to be “church-shopping.” So there’s this danger that the church is forgetting how to be itself. But we have this heirloom prayer, passed down from Jesus to his disciples to the church. And this prayer tells us who we are. It reminds us of our vocation. The church is here to glorify God. We are here to participate in a heavenly insurrection—what Jesus called “the kingdom of God.” Here’s something you may not have noticed. We don’t, as individuals, pray: give me today my daily bread. We pray: give us today our daily bread. So what we’re really asking is that everyone has enough. We’re asking that God will give us enough for ourselves and to share with those in need. And we pray that we can be vessels of God’s forgiveness. So this prayer is really about Jesus telling the church who we are and what we are called to do. This prayer calls us away from gimmicks and shortcuts, and gives us the church on God’s terms. When the church is focused on glorifying God and making his kingdom visible by feeding the hungry and being a peacemaking, reconciling people, we are being ourselves. So it turns out that this prayer is really about making us the kind of people God desires his church to be.

So let’s talk about the story Jesus told. You go wake up your friend in the middle of the night. You kind of have an emergency on your hands. Some guests from out-of-town have arrived unexpectedly in the middle of the night. You’re out of bread, and you need something to feed them. Can you borrow some bread? A few things we need to note about the social context. First, in that culture, night-time travel was not uncommon. Especially if you were traveling during the warm season. Second, there weren’t a whole lot of what we would call hotels. And what hotels there were, you might not want to ask too many questions about the sheets, if you know what I mean. So visitors showing up without warning wasn’t uncommon, and it wasn’t considered rude. It was just a fact of life. And when a guest showed up, you were expected to offer them food. That’s just an ancient rule of hospitality. But what if you were out of food? Well, here’s a third important thing to know about this story. In a small, working-class village, not every household had its own oven. Bread ovens were community property. So everyone would know who had baked bread that day and would have some extra. And so you’d go over to their house and ask to borrow a few loaves. What I’m saying is that this story seems pretty extreme to us First World Christians today, but in Jesus’ day, no one would have been shocked by it. What would have shocked them is if you had an unexpected guest, and you went to your neighbor to borrow some bread, and that neighbor had given you a bunch of lame excuses about why he couldn’t give you any bread. That would have been unthinkable. Remember, this was an honor-based, community-focused environment. Villages would place a high priority on hospitality to visitors. Someone who refused to help his neighbor be hospitable would not only shame himself and his neighbor, but the whole village. The village could get a reputation for being unwelcoming. This background will help us understand a common problem with translating this passage. You may have noticed something in how I translated this passage that’s different from your Bibles. I have it that the neighbor who is asked for bread will get up and get whatever his friend needs so he doesn’t look like a jerk. See, there’s this Greek word that’s used here that literally means “no-shame.” And it’s not clear if it should apply to the guy who asks for bread or the guy who gives him the bread. Most translations apply it to the guy who asks for bread. They say that the neighbor will give him bread because of his boldness or his persistence. But in that culture, it would not have been bold to ask for bread to feed a traveler in the middle of the night. And we have no indication that the guy is persistent. He comes and asks for bread and gets it. Okay, well apply the word to the fellow who gives him the bread. He does so because of his “no-shame.” He does it so that he can avoid shaming himself, his friend, and the village. And that’s the point of the story. This story is a commentary on the prayer Jesus taught his disciples. You go to a neighbor’s house in the middle of the night to ask for bread. Even if it is inconvenient to him, and even if he doesn’t like you, you know he’ll give you the bread so he doesn’t violate his honor, or the honor of the village. It’s the same with God, only more sure, because God loves you. When we pray the prayer Jesus taught us, we ask for our daily bread. Like I noted above, that’s enough for us and our neighbor in need. Enough for us and the unexpected guest. And God will do this to uphold the honor of his name. He will do this to establish his kingdom, because where God reigns, the hungry are fed. Church, that prayer and this story tell us who we are, and what we’re about. More importantly, they tell us who God is and what God is about. We First World Christians have so much to learn. Some of us are giving God the glory for getting the parking space we prayed over. But at the same time, there are people in war zones praying. There are people in crack houses praying. There are starving people praying. There are people in prison praying. There are people being trafficked praying. There are children being abused praying. And we’re praying over parking spaces. How is God’s honor being upheld and his kingdom established in that? Maybe God wants us to be the answers to the prayers of others. Maybe if we focused more on praying that everyone has enough and praying that we can be agents of God’s forgiveness and reconciliation, our souls will be nurtured away from First World problems. Maybe we’ll come to God asking for bread for others in need. And we will rejoice when God gives us enough to share. We will rejoice that God has gifted us with the grace to uphold the honor of his name and establish his kingdom. That’s what it looks like when the church is being itself.

So Jesus says that even a neighbor who might not like you will help you out; so surely you can count on God who loves you. And he makes this same point again. Even rotten people can be good parents. You wouldn’t give a rock to a child who needed bread. We know how to give our children what they need. So we can trust our heavenly Father to know what gifts are good for us. This is important to understand. Like I said earlier, sometimes we ask for a stone because it looks like bread to us. Father God knows the difference. But here’s where it gets a little confusing. Jesus concludes his jag about prayer by saying that, your heavenly Father will give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him. That seems completely off-topic. So far, Jesus had been talking about tangible things, the stuff you can see and feel and experience: bread and forgiveness and temptation and deliverance. Who said anything about the Holy Spirit? But that’s because Jesus isn’t just talking about prayer. He’s talking about the life that prayer sustains. The way of life that depends on prayer. The way of life spelled out in the prayer he taught his disciples to pray. He’s talking about the church being itself—being the people God made us to be. That means our first task is to work with God to uphold the honor of his name. Our worship, our lives, our life together as the church in the world is all about showing people God. We are given the privilege to partner with God in establishing his kingdom by stepping into broken situations and making them right. We work to ensure that our neighbors have their daily bread, knowing that people are hungry for much more than food. We work to provide safe space and shelter and community and a future with hope. We are vessels of forgiveness in an unforgiving world, because that’s the only way forgiven people know how to live. Moreover, we will need to be protected in the time of testing. Because we will be vulnerable. We’ll get hurt. We’ll suffer compassion fatigue. We will be tempted to take shortcuts. That’s where the Holy Spirit enters the conversation. If you recall, in Luke 3.21-22, Jesus receives the Holy Spirit at his baptism. And just after his baptism, we are told in Luke 4.1-13, Jesus was led by the Spirit into the wilderness. And he was tempted by the devil for forty days there. And you know what it was the devil tempted him with? Shortcuts. Ways to be victorious without having to suffer. Hungry people will follow a man who can turn stones into bread. They will feel secure with someone who can leap off tall buildings and land unharmed. Or let’s say Jesus had bowed to Satan. Satan would have given the world to him, but at what cost? Because the devil runs the world with violence and fear and mistrust and oppression. And those weren’t Jesus’ terms for overcoming the world. That’s not how the church serves the world. It was the Spirit who led Jesus to the wilderness, and the Spirit who empowered him to withstand the temptations of the devil. The Holy Spirit is God’s continued presence within and among his people. And we will not be able to be the church God made us to be without the Spirit’s presence. So if the Lord’s Prayer teaches the church who we are, God’s gift of the Holy Spirit is what enables the church to be itself. And so, sisters and brothers, on this Pentecost—on the church’s birthday—let’s go out and be the church. On the terms set out in the Lord’s Prayer. Trusting that our God is eager to give us what we need. In the power of the Holy Spirit. Let’s go be the church.


* Says the hipster preacher with the handlebar mustache and the collection of arcane music. Who knows, maybe I’m just bitter because the skinny jeans and perfect hair ships both sailed for me a LONG way back. Actually, the skinny jeans ship never floated for me at all.

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9 thoughts on “Being who we are: a sermon for the church on its birthday

  1. Xyhelm says:

    Will you do a post on Jewish prayers that had the same phraseology as the Lord’s Prayer? From everything I’ve seen, Jesus’ model prayer was new.

  2. jmar198013 says:

    Andrew:
    For resources on the Lord’s Prayer and its relation to the Kaddish and other Jewish prayers of the time, see:

    http://www.patheos.com/blogs/jesuscreed/2005/08/03/the-lords-prayer-1/

    http://virtualreligion.net/iho/prayer.html#qaddish

    The second link has the long form of the Kaddish. Also, check the 18 Benedictions there (Kaddish is 120, Benedictions are 122).

    • Xyhelm says:

      Thanks! Can you find any evidence that the Kaddish existed in or before Jesus’ day?

      • jmar198013 says:

        Andrew: The popular form of the Kaddish that is used today didn’t originate until the 9th century. However, we do know it was composed in Aramaic, so that gives it a much older time frame for composition. Obviously, it has changed over time. I would suggest–and I think this is a safe assumption–that in light of Jewish/Christian hostilities from the 1st century onward that it is incredibly more probable that the elements the Kaddish and the Lord’s Prayer share in common are from Jesus using common Jewish prayer parlance than Jews appropriating a prayer from Christians. I would also note that the 18 Benedictions, to which I also referred you, are pretty constant in referring to God as Father. That’s important, because we know the 18 Benedictions pre-date Christ. How do we know that? Because after the fall of Jerusalem, a section was added to the Benedictions that cursed “the Nazarenes” (Christians). I’d also note that most scholars take the Kaddish as a sort of expanded commentary on Ezekiel 38.23: “I will display my greatness, show my holiness, and make myself known in the sight of many nations. And they will know that I am the Lord.” Those same elements are obviously embedded in the Lord’s Prayer, which almost seems to be a prayer for God to do just what he said he would do in Ezekiel 38.23.

    • Xyhelm says:

      Fair conclusions. The earliest time I could find for the Kaddish was second century AD. But I admit, I didn’t look too hard. My conclusion is, if anything, the Kaddish was created by the Jews to compete with the Lord’s Prayer. But yes, I agree, the Jews were already calling God Father before Jesus came.

      • jmar198013 says:

        Why would the Jews construct the Kaddish to compete with the Lord’s Prayer, though? I’m pretty bent on underscoring Jesus’ Jewishness. The savior of the world comes in the form of Israel’s particular Messiah.

    • Xyhelm says:

      Yeah, I don’t have a good motive behind it. But it reminds me how the Jews manipulated the Hebrew Scriptures because they hated how the Christians were using them to prove Jesus was the Messiah. So I don’t think the Kaddish being based on the Lord’s Prayer is a crazy stretch.

      • jmar198013 says:

        If you were a Jew, you’d hate how the Christians were manipulating scripture to suit their ends. Be gracious, brother, so that your comments don’t stink of Auschwitz.

    • Xyhelm says:

      No worries there!

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