by Elaine Maust
April 23, 2006
I was lucky to grow up in a family that valued self-expression. Sometimes, however, this expression could be, well, let’s just say, a little noisy. Everyone got to talk, but sometimes it happened all at the same time. Well, okay, a lot of times it was all at the same time. Imagine my amazement when I joined Duane’s family. A family with twice as many children, eight, all of whom, appeared to me at least, to take turns talking quietly! In our family everyone expressed their opinion at the same time, cranking the volume up automatically as we went. Some people might say it sounded like a whole lot of racket.
Our poor mother also valued politeness, appearances and good manners. Now sometimes these two values, politeness and self-expression collided. Here’s what I mean.
Let’s say my three siblings and I were in the middle of a lively “discussion” and the phone rang. Mom would answer the phone, her voice dripping with quickly manufactured sweetness.
“Hellooooo.” Then a pause. “Pretty goooood.” That was our cue. Knowing that things weren’t “pretty good” at all we four bad children would begin singing a terrifying rendition of the old hymn, “Love at Home.” We would croon just loud enough for our poor mother to hear, but not loud enough (at least this is what we thought) to be overheard by the caller. “Love at Home. Love at Home. There is beauty all around. When there’s love at home.” We sang as horribly as we could. Then we would dissolve into fits of laughter which only made our desperate mother glare at us all the more. The topic of our previous discussion was long forgotten at this point, for the opportunity to make fun of my mom’s attempt to present a peaceful face on the family.
What impossible children! But let me reassure you that we all grew up to be decent human beings. I can only imagine my mother’s relief at this fact!
Love at home. Peace in the family. All of us know the feeling of things being tense or worse and wanting to present the best possible image to the rest of the world. Don’t we? Our Lectionary passages for today talk about peace in the family, specifically unity in the church family. Ps. 133:1&3b. I’m not going to teach us to sing some terrible version of “Love at Home” this morning. I’m sure you’re glad of that! But what can we do to enjoy the blessing of peace in the church family? Let’s take a look together this morning.
Jesus prays for Peace in the Family
Turn to John 17:20-26. Here’s the setting. In the first few verses of chapter 18, Jesus is arrested. And we all know what happens right after that, right? He dies. You’ve got it. So how do you think he is going to spend the last few moments as a free man? Planning his escape? Ordering his last meal?
No, in the last few verses of John 17, you might say that Jesus is expressing his last wishes. Jesus is praying for his followers. For us. Let’s see what Jesus prays.
And right after Jesus finishes his prayer (John 18:1) he gathers the disciples, goes on over to the olive grove, meets up with Judas, and you know the rest of the story. I am moved that Jesus final prayer was for us. That we would love each other. That our love would be the kind of love Jesus has for us. A love so powerful that we would be willing to die for a brother or a sister.
What? Die for somebody in this crowd? Some of us don’t even know each other that well. Can we even imagine loving each other that much? Okay, okay. Maybe we’re not at that point in our love yet. That’s okay. But what point are we at? Are we willing to take steps to get to know folks we don’t know all that well? To pray for each other? To help each other? To share, to forgive and to speak well of each other? This is starting to sound a little bit like Jubilee’s covenant, isn’t it?
These are strong words. But I already see you all living them out! I am proud every time I see any of you reaching out to each other, in huge and in small way. And imagine how Jesus feels about the love you already have for each other. Jesus who prayed that all of us would “be brought to complete unity.” (23)
Repeatedly in his prayer Jesus says that the purpose of peace among Christians is so that others will believe. Hey, I’m happy and proud to be part of a peaceful church family just because it’s nicer for me. But there’s another purpose Jesus prays for, “so that the wold may believe that you have sent me.” (21)
Everyone knows that true love for each other in a church requires professional help. I’m referring to the help of the Holy Spirit! Let’s face it, except for the call of God and the work of the Holy Spirit, all of us wouldn’t even know each other. But God is making us into a family. And even more remarkable, a church family that loves each other. What an amazing and powerful witness! Folks who don’t believe in God can say, “Whow, look at the way those folks love each other! This God stuff must be real after all!”
Jubilee has an outstanding reputation in this community. As I hear it, we are known for service to the community, cooperation with other denominations and welcoming all people. Amazing. Did I mention how proud I am of you all? Every chance I get, I describe Jubilee as the best church on this side of the Mississippi. But here’s one more thing to consider. What if Jubilee would also become known for how we love each other? What if that word would get out? What if folks would say… “Hmmm. Jubilee Mennonite… Yeah, I think I’ve heard of that church. Isn’t that the church where the people love each other? Yeah. I’ve heard about them.”
Jesus prayed that would become one. As one as he and God were one. (22) So that the world would believe.
I had fun this week, thinking about symptoms of a church that loves each other like that. What do you think they might be? A church that plays basketball together? Hey, ain’t nothing wrong with that. I’d love to hear your list of the top five ways a church live peacefully together. Here are three I thought of.
Symptoms of a loving church
Okay, okay. Maybe this wouldn’t be first on your list. Maybe it wouldn’t make your list period. But I think laughter is a great way to create and maintain peace in the church family. When our Sunday morning service erupts in laughter, I smile and think to myself, we just never got the message that church is not supposed to be fun! Hurray for us!
In a fascinating study results of which are recorded in his book, Natural Church Development, Christian Schwarz surveyed 1000 churches in 32 countries on 6 continents and asked the question, “What church growth principles are true, regardless of culture and theological persuasion?” Well, he came up with lots of material, but here’s one thing that caught my attention.
68% of respondents in churches described as both healthy and growing (now remember these were folks from all kinds of churches in all kinds of places) 68% reported, “there is a lot of laughter in our church.” Schwarz writes, “…there is a significant connection between, ‘laughter in the church’ and that’s church’s qualitative and numerical growth. It is interesting that such a significant factor… receives almost no mention in church growth literature.”
I love to hear you all laughing; in the hall before the service, while discussing children’s escapades during mom’s group or during a drama on Wednesday night Bible Studies. Our laughing sounds as good as our singing to me.
I decided maybe we need to do more laughing so I got out this book of religious cartoons this week. Here’s one that made me laugh out loud. A preacher is sitting at his desk. His sermon notes and a Bible are in front of him. The preacher’s hands are folded and he is praying, “And Father, I ask thee now for a good text to accompany this fantastic joke.”
Laughter. A way to promote peace in the family.
Maybe I chose this one because I think nothing kills peace faster than refusing to forgive. “So and so hurt me and I’ll never speak to them again.” Resentment is a peace killer. Saying words like these are like spraying round up on roses.
Oh, don’t get me wrong. A loving church is not a place where no one ever gets offended. I often say about Jubilee, “They are the best hearted bunch of people you will ever find anywhere. Good hearted to a person! But, we’re pretty ordinary. Hang around long enough and someone will hurt your feelings.”
I am tremendously encouraged when I hear that when you all get your feelings hurt, when someone does something that upsets you, you go to that person and talk to them directly. That’s the hardest thing to do. It is so much easier to go to someone else first instead of the person who needs to hear from you.
This is what Jesus teaches us to do in Matt. 18:15-17. Check it out. Go to that person first. If the problem can not be resolved, take someone else with you. Your mentor, a friend… If you still can not resolve the matter, go to the elders. You get the picture. A loving church works toward resolution of sin, problems and misunderstandings.
Another form of forgiveness is making allowances for folks who are going through a difficult stretch in their lives. I’ve had seasons in my life during the past 25 years that I’ve been part of this church family when I felt I had nothing to contribute to Jubilee. During those times others stepped in, assumed I was worth investing in and did for me.
A loving church forgives members who sin. Demetra Velisarios Jaquet tells this story from her Eastern Orthodox tradition.
An ancient story about two Orthodox monks makes the point. The monks had to leave the monastery to travel to the town on some monastery business. When they arrived, they had to part ways t accomplish the business, and prayed for each other that they might be kept in purity of heart. While in the town, the first monk fell into fornication. Upon returning at the end of the day to the meeting place, he met the other monk with sorrow and much groaning. The second monk asked him, “What is the trouble brother?” and the first monk admitted, “When I went into the city alone, I fell into fornication, and now must return to the monastery having sinned, bringing with me this sorrowful sin for which I must confess.” The second monk, who had fallen into no sin during the journey, but feeling compassion for his brother, said to him, “Do not weep, for I too fell into fornication. Let us rise up together and go and confess to our spiritual father, and be in repentance together.” So they returned to the monastery and both confessed, and the spiritual father directed them toward prayers and works in repentance, which they undertook together. Although the second monk had in fact not fallen into sin while in the town, he pursued his penance together with his fallen brother as if the sin were his; and so, for the sake of the second monk’s love for his brother, God forgave the first monk.” (The Living Pulpit – October-December 2000).
If peace in the church is a rose bush, then forgiveness is miracle grow. The Bible says, “Forgive one another, even as God for Christ’s sake, has forgiven you.”
Sharing was one of the symptoms of the Holy Spirit in the book of Acts. (Acts 4:32-35). We have been fortunate to experience one of the greatest examples of Christians sharing ever. And it has happened in our lifetime. It rivals the sharing of the book of Acts. It is the outpouring of care by Christians following Katrina. That witness has had a powerful impact on our whole country. Just this week, I heard another story of a church on the coast that is bursting at seams with new people who have reconsidered their relationship with God because of the generosity they have experienced from Christians.
Peace in the family. Jesus prays for it and the Holy Spirit empowers it. It doesn’t come by pretending to get along or by singing some dreadful version of Love at Home. But we can begin to create peace in our church family by laughing, forgiving and sharing. May Jesus’ prayer for us be answered. May God help us. Amen.