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From time to time we feature "Keeping The Faith in Babylon: A Pastoral Resource For Christians In Exile", a weekly set of comments and reflections on the Revised Common Lectionary texts by Barry Robinson (Lion's Head, Ontario, Canada). Barry describes his resource this way: "Keeping The Faith in Babylon... is a word of hope from a pastor in exile to those still serious about discipleship in a society (and, too often, a church) that has lost its way". Contact Barry at firstname.lastname@example.org to request samples and get further subscription information. Snail mail inquiries can be sent to Barry at the address at the bottom of this page.
KEEPING THE FAITH IN BABYLON
A Pastoral Resource for Christians in Exile
Barry J. Robinson
The Seventh Sunday Of Easter - Year B
Acts 1:15-17,21-26: Psalm 1; 1 John 5:9-13; John 17:1-26
I have made known your name to those whom you gave me from the world... they do not belong to the world, as I do not... I am not asking you to take them out of the world, but I ask you to protect them... that they also may be sanctified in truth. It is helpful to remind ourselves from time to time that Jesus did not start a church. He started a group of friends living in the world the way he lived. William Stringfellow, the radical Christian activist and lawyer, tells a story that seems to me to be a parable about this in his book A Simplicity of Faith. While living on Block Island, he was invited by some parents to give confirmation instruction to their children, in the absence of an Episcopal priest on the island. Because all of the material he was asked to use had been produced by "the established churches", Stringfellow said he knew that "the stuff was theologically untrustworthy". So, he decided to spend the ten sessions doing a Bible study of the Book of Acts with the group of eleven- and twelve-year-olds, since Acts is the clearest example of the attempt of Jesus' first friends to live in the world. At the end of the ten sessions, Stringfellow asked the students "whether or not there was any reason for the church to be on Block Island, in view of what the class had discovered the church to be from reading in Acts. They were unanimous, some rather strenuous, in the opinion that, because the community as a whole acted so much like the church, there was no special cause to have a seperate institution on the island that professed the name church..." Nevertheless, in due course, the teenagers were confirmed in the Episcopal Church on the island, a curious little congregation called St.Anne's-by-the Sea. After the congregation was first organized, a small building, featuring a sanctuary, was constructed. The congregation flourished for many years "until the great hurricane of 1938, which was devastating for Block Island. In that storm, St. Ann's-by-the-Sea literally blew away. Ever since, island wags have referred to it as St. Anne's-in-the-Sea. The congregation remained moribund in the aftermath of this hurricane, which, after all, was officially designated as 'an act of God'." Then, during Stringfellow's tenure on the island, St. Ann's started to revive. Initially, people started meeting in each other's homes, reciting the daily offices, celebrating communion, doing Bible study, and discussing the news on Block Island and in the world. Free of the encumbrances of institutional life, it attracted more and more people, until, finally, it gathered the attention, once again, of the Episcopal church. It wasn't long before a priest was visiting weekly and plans were underway to rebuild St. Anne's-by-the-Sea. "That may have been a fatal decision. Since then, the congregation has been canonically recognized as a mission of the Diocese of Rhode Island, the traditional polity for missions has been instituted, and, predictably, the sentiment for rebuilding has steadily increased. We do not do Bible study any more; we do not seriously consider the mission of the Church in the world, including Block Island; we seldom ask any ecumenical questions. We are into raising money, which we will likely spend to embellish the social life of Episcopalians and their kindred in the summer colony. Has anyone ever heard this story about the Church before?" - William Stringfellow, A Simplicity of Faith, 1982, pp. 100-103 Has anyone ever heard this story about the Church before? + Whether or not John, the fourth evangelist and author of this morning's gospel had heard it, he was certainly aware of Stringfellow's point: it is not easy for Jesus' friends to be in the world and, at the same time, remain not of it. This week's text is in the form of a prayer in which Jesus is presented as praying not that his friends be taken out of the world, but that they be guarded from the power of the world. It is a prayer that was written many, many years after Easter. The first generation of Christians had already died; a second generation had received the testimony of the first friends of Jesus; and they were having trouble remaining faithful to the vision in the wake of threats to its life both from without and from within. What John wants us to know from this morning's text is that Jesus prays for us, prays for the continued witness of his friends. But that is not all John wants us to hear. Eventually, this farewell prayer of Jesus became enormously influential in the church's attempt to distinguish itself from other people of faith. More important, in fact, than The Lord's prayer, or as I prefer to call it The Disciples' prayer. There was a time, for instance, not long after this prayer from John was written, that it was used against other believers - used, in other words, to do the very thing from which Jesus' friends need protecting - "from the evil one"(verse 15); for what surer sign that Christians have abandoned the way of Jesus and have begun to engage in the evil that is rampant in the world than when they turn their hearts against even one of their brothers and sisters. So much for the church's record of interpreting the biblical witness! The point is: if we are the society of Jesus, whether or not we give ourselves the name church, we live in the world the way Jesus did, which is to say at one with all our brothers and sisters - which is also to say, distinctively, at odds with a world which is forever forgetting, it seems, how to live humanly. + Recently, a retired United Church minister and his wife, whom Susan and I have come to know and love, invited us over for dinner and conversation and, in the course of the evening, began to talk about the local church where they now attend, a church not unlike many congregations you and I have probably known. The minister is a hard-working man who just happens to be married to a woman who is also a minister of a neighbouring church. The congregation has been in the community for many, many years and has seen all the ups and downs of church life. The people, by and large, are the kind of people who might be our next door neighbours, good, decent folk, many of whom have a lot of years of service to their Lord and who have nothing but the best intentions for their church. But, of immediate concern to my friend and his wife was the fact that a crisis had occurred in the congregation which was threatening to get out of control. The minister's parents had both been seriously ill in recent months, requiring him to spend a significant amount of time in an effort to insure adequate medical care for them, so much time that, according to my friend, he was unable to give the kind of leadership the congregation needed to handle the crisis that had developed. "What crisis is that?" I asked. "Where the choir should sit for communion," said my friend. "In the choir loft or in the congregation. Some people have got so worked up about it that they won't speak to some people and have left the church over it." "That's it!?" I asked. "That's the crisis!? That's what' causing some people to leave the church and to blame their minister!?" "Yep?" said my friend. "Has anyone ever heard this story about the church before?" William Stringfellow and his friend Anthony Towne eventually left St. Anne's-by- the-Sea rather than continue to participate in the institutional church's pre- occupation with property and pretense. Precisely because they were Christians, they decided that they could not conscientiously belong to a church that had become so indistinguishable from the world. + We suppose that God is indefinitely patient. I have no doubt that God is duly patient, but there is no scriptural basis that God's patience is inexhaustible. On the contrary, the witness is that God eventually gets ticked off when we do not take him seriously. That includes the church. Jesus did not come into the world so that we would end up being indistinguishable from people who have lost the ability to be civil and human with one another. Whenever that happens, it is a travesty of everything Jesus stood for. Jesus' prayer was that we would be in the world in a different way - with hearts that are truly open to every last one of our brothers and sisters so that we might have joy in ourselves and so that the world would see what it is missing. It doesn't matter what you call that different way. --------- Acts 1.15-17, 21-26 - The community that first gathered to remember Jesus was an unusual one. It included women, a fact that caused significant impact upon everyone living at such a time. It was thoroughly Jewish, and so felt bound by the traditions and culture of Israel, needing to find a twelfth apostle (the twelve tribes of Israel), feeling able to establish themselves as a community now that there were 120 of them (the number of Jewish males required by law to form a synagogue). It was made up of eye-witnesses: people who knew Jesus and experienced the resurrection. It was a community that had been betrayed: a traitor had been among its most trusted leaders. These were the very first distinctive qualities of the Christian community. 1. What place and influence do women have within your religious community? 2. How much are you bound by the traditions and culture of the past? 3. In what sense does your church have no reason to be conceited in the way it views the world? 1 John 5.9-13 - The Easter faith of the church is what is at issue. At least a generation removed from Easter, some began to question the validity of the church's witness. It was important that people knew that this faith was passed on by people who were witnesses: John the Baptist and the apostles of the early church. God's revelation was based on observable human fact. It had been "seen and heard" in the river Jordan where Jesus had been baptized and in the cross on which he had died. 1. When did God become more than just a name to you? 2. How and why did you eventually come to believe in Jesus? 3. In what ways do you still struggle to believe? John 17.6-8 - The words of this prayer, put in the mouth of Jesus, are the words of John. Nothing in it can be traced back to the aphorisms, parables or sage retorts of Jesus remembered and recorded in the other gospels. All the key phrases, words, formulations are characteristic of the Gospel of John. The author wants us to know that Jesus prays for his friends and that they will carry on his distinctive witness in the world. 1. What is distinctive about the way people in your church behave compared to people in the surrounding community? 2. If you couldn't find a church that was able or willing to embody the distinctive way of Jesus, would you still be a Christian? How would you do it? 3. What seems most significant to you about William Stringfellow's parable of St. Anne's-in-the-Sea? A PRAYER OF THE GANG THAT GATHERS - Lord of picnics, summer itself is an invitation, and so we gather, a band of friends, bound together, no doubt by our white-hatted virtue, no doubt by our head-turning looks, but if these should ever fail us (and when have they not), we might fall back on the truth as unobtrusive as ground: that we are yours and that your son washes the feet of people who dance in the dust and calls them not slaves, but friends. - A prayer by Fr. John Shea
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