May 24, 2009
Inheriting a name can be serious business. Today, many couples who marry go through a big quandry about what to do with their last names. Should they adopt the husband’s name as the family name–the traditional response? I did that 34 years ago today. At the time, I was so glad to stop pronouncing, spelling, and explaining the nationality of my Finnish last name. Should couples keep their own names, hyphenate their names, or combine syllables? Some we know create a new name entirely, as Rachael Wylie and David Reese recently did when they became Rachael and David Weasley.
What does a name mean, though? If you are a Kennedy (I date myself with my examples here), it may mean that you have power and influence by virtue of your family heritage, or that you might have a better crack at making it in politics due to both name recognition and inherent connections. If you are a Presley, you might stay in the media spotlight just because your father is Elvis. You might even be known just by a first name–like Princess Diana or Prince Charles. Diana what? Charles what?
If we bear the name “Christian,” we have another name to live up to and into. What does it mean for us to claim this ‘family name’ as our own?
In the extended prayer discourse recorded in the Gospel of John, Jesus lifts before the throne of grace those who will remain after his death, those who will bear his ‘family name’ in the generations to come. He claims these followers as ‘kin,’ and he turns the family inheritance over to them.
Today, we are exploring only part of this much longer prayer in the Gospel of John. We are party to the intimate relationship Jesus experienced with the God he called Abba, a name whose endearing closeness is better translated “daddy” than “Father.” Like the disciples of old, we are ‘listening in’ on this prayer for both them and us.
What does Jesus pray for? What are his heart yearnings for those friends and followers who traveled with him, whom he taught, loved, and argued with for three years? In our passage for today, Jesus gives them three charges and has three expectations that speak so fully to our setting and celebration this graduation weekend.
First, the three charges: Jesus calls his followers to unity with their fellow pilgrims, to a oneness akin to that which he experiences with God. That’s a tall order, especially as we look around 2,000 years later and see a church fractured, divided, parceled out in its own fiefdoms, sometimes incapable even of dialogue, what alone unity. I guess that prayer hasn’t been answered yet. Nevertheless, it is a yearning and vision of Jesus’ heart, and he prays that his disciples will commit their lives to this cause.
Secondly, Jesus charges his followers neither to define themselves by the world nor to join in the world’s ways. This, too, is a tall order, because the disciples aren’t taken out of the world but left right smack dab in the middle of it. The temptation to place a myriad of tantalizing options before God’s Reign can be very subtle. One of Oberlin’s great temptations is incessant activity, no quietness and space for the listening heart to stop and hear rather than “do, do, do.” Endless preoccupations, multiple distractions, and simple inattentiveness to the ways of the Spirit can derail us; never mind the more obvious temptations catalogued so often in the scriptures. Jesus charges us to remain vigilant and attentive.
The third charge is to pick up Christ’s mission and continue it in his absence. Another tall order. What is that mission? [Congregational reflection]. To offer healing, welcome, prayer, and service, especially– but not exclusively–to the least of these. To proclaim the Reign of God and share that vision with others. To discover one’s spiritual gifts and use them faithfully. To find one’s place in the community of faith. To cultivate a grateful heart.
There are some expectations that come with these charges, this passing of the inheritance from one generation to the next. The first of these is beautiful, gentle, and lovely–that Jesus’ disciples will complete his joy! Imagine that! Completing the joy of God! I don’t reflect enough on God’s pure delight in relating intimately with me–it’s too easy to focus on my own inadequacies in relating to God. As my Spiritual Director would say, “That is ego talking.” Consider the joy and delight of God in loving us, my friends! Feast on this!
The next expectation is not for the faint of heart. Jesus indicates that the world will hate his disciples for not following its ways. While this hatred is not something I’ve experienced very often in my adult life, I am well aware of the many brothers and sisters in the faith who have been maligned, imprisoned, tortured, and killed over the centuries. We should not be surprised when we face persecution, whether in subtle or overt forms.
Finally, with Jesus gone, his followers will be on display for the whole world to see. We will be the standard for and against which people will judge the credibility of the claims of Christ.
We are facing in our nation and world a gaping credibility gap between religious faith, of all kinds, and compassionate, inclusive, loving practice. Recent studies by the noted Pew Research Center’s Forum on Religion & Public Life indicate that the more religious a person is, the more likely that person supports the use of torture on behalf of national security. The less religious a person is, the more likely that person sees torture as a moral issue that is non-negotiable.
How twisted and tragic is this? If we start with the Golden Rule, “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you,” torture doesn’t pass the Golden Rule test. If we move to the two greatest commandments, “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, mind, soul, and strength, and love your neighbor as yourself,” torture doesn’t pass the Great Commandments test. If we compare torture to the manifesto of virtues found in the beatitudes located in Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount, torture doesn’t pass that test either.
These are times of great peril for the Church and for religious faith in general. We must raise a clear voice that represents the life and teachings of Jesus of Nazareth well. To be true to the One who leaves us here to represent his name, we can accept no other call.
Wherever you are, wherever you go, take the vision you have received at this church and run with it. Do not, I beg you, do not hide it under a bushel. If you leave Oberlin, don’t be tempted to search for “the perfect church” and opt out of church altogether if you can’t find it.
Years ago, we visited married alums who were very active at the church while students. The wife confessed, “I realized how little we have practiced our faith at home when we all were invited out to dinner and our hosts said, ‘Now we will say grace,’ and our 9-year old son said to them, ‘What is grace?’”
As she and I talked, it became clear that this couple had never settled into another church after their experience here in Oberlin. “Why?” I asked her. “We just couldn’t ever find anything like First Baptist” (the previous name of Peace Community Church). I was horrified to think that these beloved alums, in the pursuit of a replica of this place, had not raised their children in the life of faith nor had they nurtured themselves spiritually for many years.
My heart yearning and prayer is that each and every person who comes through this place will catch a vision for the church that will fuel and flame their passion, give them a reason to stay involved, and give them a hope that the body of Christ can indeed be ‘Christ present in the world today.’
With new urgency, this couple began looking again for a church home, found a good place, and did, indeed, become involved there. But this story is frightfully repeated again and again, I say with sadness in my heart. We dare not leave our light under a bushel.
On the other hand, for those who stay here, I urge you not to let rich, deep Christian community substitute for strengthening your own personal relationship with Christ. You need both. We all need both.
These are perilous days, and it is our charge in Christ’s prayer that we continue this journey we have begun. We must water the seed that Christ has so lovingly planted within us. We must honestly and boldly struggle with our faith questions, put them out on the table, share them with others, pray through them, and wait with them in patience and care. Sometimes–not always, but sometimes–we need to leave them in God’s hands, consign them to mystery, and just keep moving.
Recently, Steve and I were invited to share about our faith at the Atheism/Agnosticism EXCO Class on campus. I knew the drill about the usual criticisms of Christianity—the problem of suffering; religious violence; questions of rationalism, scientific inquiry, and faith. Regarding the problem of suffering, I can only go back to the Hebrew scripture story of Job. With Job, I consign much to mystery while proclaiming the importance of faithfulness in the midst of the Dark Night of the Soul.
We need the strength of Job, the suffering saint; the courage of Mary, the mother of Jesus; the tenacity of Paul, the traveling apostle; but most of all–we need the voice, conviction, and faithfulness of our own unique selves–of Danielle and Linden, of Jesse and Steve, of Brenton, Emily, and Anna-Claire–of each one of us here.
After we receive the offering, Steve and I invite the graduates to come and stand with us as the congregation recognizes your diligent efforts and persistent pursuit of knowledge. We will send you off with our love and prayers, and fortunately–this year–not far at all, as everyone is staying in Oberlin for this summer or coming back in the fall. We join Jesus today in praying for you…