“Beloved, do not be surprised at the fiery ordeal that is taking place among you to test you, as though something strange were happening to you.” 1 Peter 4:12
A couple of weeks ago, my sermon dealt with perspective. We all like to think that whatever difficulties we are facing are unique and worse than anything anyone else has ever had to deal with. The reality is life is hard. It always has been and it always will be. Some times are harder than others, but even then it is not equally difficult for all individuals at the same time. The true test of our character is how we respond.
Last Thursday was the day we remember Jesus’ Ascension. It has been a wild six weeks for the followers of Jesus. In less than the time we have been “sheltering in place” Jesus’ closest friends, and in a sense his employees (they dropped their secular careers to follow him) watched his triumphal entry into Jerusalem with the people screaming “Save Us” (that is what Hosanna means), Jesus redefined the Passover (one of the most defining acts in their faith tradition) instituting what we call the Eucharist. One of their own turned traitor and handed Jesus over to the authorities and later committed suicide in remorse. Jesus was publicly tried, tortured, and executed on a cross. His tomb was found empty just days after his burial. The same day his tomb is found empty, Jesus shows up, materializing in a locked room like something out of a Star Trek episode, then de-materializes. He shows up again, hangs out with them for 40 days, and then once again says good-bye and disappears into the clouds with the promise that he will send a Comforter. PTSD, interrupted grief processing, vocational confusion and I am sure a host of other diagnosable emotional disorders were certainly possible if not actually present.
We too are in the midst of difficult times. Serious health concerns, and while fortunately we here in the Coastal Bend have been spared the devastation seen in other areas, we have been impacted through shelter in place, social distancing, shortages of supplies, school and business closures, job losses for some and overwork for others, social and political unrest, disruption of business as usual. Peter tells his followers “the God of all grace, who has called you to his eternal glory in Christ, will himself restore, support, strengthen, and establish you.” Cling to this promise. Be comforted in knowing that this too will pass in time.
It is no wonder that in Jesus’ long prayer before his crucifixion he prays to his Father to protect his disciples, not in the way that we typically ask for protection, but perhaps the prayer we should be praying.
“Holy Father, protect them in your name that you have given me, so that they may be one, as we are one.” John 17:11. What Jesus prays for these people whom he loves is not protection from hunger, or sickness, or cold and homelessness, or enemies who threaten their lives or imprison them. Many of them will experience these very things. This is part of the fiery ordeal to which Peter refers. Jesus prays that they may be protected from divisiveness. “That they may be one, are we are one.” Jesus is well aware that the most dangerous enemy is not the one from outside, but the one from within. You don’t have to get very far into the book of Acts to see that Jesus knew exactly what damages the church. In no time, a couple pretending to be more pious than they were lied about their income so they could shortchange their tithe. The Greek speaking members of the congregation began complaining that their widows and orphans were being neglected in the distribution of food. The conservatives and progressives began fighting about whether Gentiles had to convert to Judaism to become a Christian. Paul and Barnabas argued over re-hiring John Mark after he abandoned them on an earlier missionary journey. Paul writes the Corinthians, in what has ironically been labeled the Love Chapter, chewing them out because those who speak in tongues are lording it over those who don’t, implying that the others do not have the Holy Spirit. And the list goes on. What keeps the church from being effective is not the trials and temptations brought on by the outside world, but the internal conflicts that distract and disrupt the mission of the church.
You, the members of the churches that made up the Coastal Bend Partnership are about to be in a similar place as Jesus’ disciples at the time of his Transfiguration. Not that our situation is anywhere near the magnitude of what Jesus’ disciples faced, but you are about to be in a place where everything has changed. How we worship has changed and is continuing to change. Who is in charge is changing. You will have to re-evaluate your priorities, your methods, and your expectations. When Jesus ascended into heaven the last thing he told them was you don’t need to have all the answers, you need to wait for the indwelling of the Holy Spirit and then you need to be my witness in Jerusalem, Judea and the whole world. I would encourage you to use this time between now and next week to pray together that the Holy Spirit will descend upon these congregations much as happened on the first Pentecost. I know that we cannot gather together physically, but we can be together spiritually and pray for one another.
The conditions that Peter writes under, the persecutions of Christians by both their own religious establishment and their government cause them to scatter, but in doing so also pushed the gospel into a wider and wider areas. Peter reminded his followers, “Humble yourselves therefore under the mighty hand of God, so that he may exalt you in due time. Cast all your anxiety on him, because he cares for you. Discipline yourselves, keep alert.” These challenging times may put some of us in new environments. Take advantage of that opportunity. I have several pots of aloe vera, a pretty common plant in these parts. My pots are crowded because the plant keeps making more plants in close proximity. As a result, they are all stunted in their growth. If I spread them out a bit, they will all grow larger and also continue to make new plants in close proximity filling those pots. Be like the aloe vera. Take advantage of this space to grow more yourself and while doing so, add more disciples in close proximity as well.
Next week is Pentecost. God willing, it will the first time since the pandemic lockdown that we have gathered together to worship in person and it will also be the last time we gather together as the partnership to worship. It will be tempting to stand around looking to heaven saying, “What just happened?” It will be tempting to slip into old habits and patterns, but I hope each of you will look at this as a fresh start, a new opportunity. Take this week to wait and pray, then begin again fired by the power of the Holy Spirit.