If the Church survives in the West as a tiny and despised community, let her attend to the authenticity of her own life: Let her cultivate Eucharist and its associated practices of mutual care, with the world viewing this strange body. God may bless such witness, as he did that of the Irish and the Benedictines. And we should remember: Pagan antiquity did not exclaim, “See how they love us,” but “See how they love one another.” — Robert Jenson, First Things May 2014
Wil Willimon, and Stanley Hauerwas wrote a now classic book back in the early 1990s: Resident Aliens. The days of the culture accepting Christian Faith as normative was over, they said, and on the horizon was a time to come where Christians who had remained true to the Faith would again be in the minority and would again have to explain themselves and live a life “alien” to the world around them. Hauerwas’ own response to that new reality was: “Good for us! We should have been living that way all along anyhow. God is killing the church and it serves us darn right. We have made too many compromises.” (overheard in a lecture in 1993)
Jesus gets to ascend and I get to toil here. I can lament my toil or rejoice that Jesus is at the right hand of God pleading with the Father on my behalf. I am already of the kingdom of Christ but I get to dwell here among the temptation of the flesh, the world, and the Evil one. Actually, in Jesus’ speech in John 14 through 17 the world and the evil one are kind of the same. The world is reigned by evil. Judas has been lost to him.
But the world is not in charge somehow. Peter gives in to the temptation of the flesh. He, Peter, must do something and save the situation. He must draw a sword and defend Jesus. (John 18:10) Jesus dissuades him and it is clear he is in charge of the situation and of the world in which it happens. Those who would arrest him must be coaxed to do their work by him. They faint at his self disclosure at first. He further confesses to Pilate that his armies are standing at the ready. (18:36, Matt 26:53) They have been told to stand down so the Father’s will can be carried out. To make the point of the power of heaven clear, when the angels came to open the tomb, the soldiers all faint in fear at the sight of the heavenly warrior. (Matt 28:2-4)
No, this “world” has no power. The “Evil One” has no power. Legions of warrior stand behind Jesus. And, they stand behind the church — unless the Father ignores Jesus’ high priestly prayer. The church has been clothed with power from on high.
But that power is not directed by her or controlled by her as it seems to be only meant for and is exercised only when it is used to do the Farther’s will. Aside from that we can do nothing. John 15 has reminded us of that last week. We abide in Jesus’ word or we wither, Holy Spirit or not, we wither. Annanias and Sapphira are a stark reminder of this. (Acts 5:1-11) Demas is a reminder of this. (Phl 24, Col 4:14, 2 Tim 4:10) He walks away from the mission with Paul and in love of the world and vanishes. She can give up, this church. She can give in. She can compromise herself out of existence. Which is the real problem: If she compromises, she will head for oblivion.
In a way, Ascension and the last Sunday of Easter are mission festivals. The church has looked at the glory of the Resurrection and it is now time to do something about it. Jesus Christ did indeed rise. It is not a story cooked up. It is a report made by witnesses. They, literary critics note, did not write in the genre of myth but in the genre of report. He rose. Set aside your scruples. This is how God wants to be known: The one who sent his Son and who raised him from the dead. You now know all that. So, what are you going to do about it? God did. You have had 7 weeks to get used to the Good News, now maybe you could share it or — gasp — live according to it. By your life and by your living with your brothers and sisters will there be a hint that something irresistible is standing behind you?
Hauerwas had a colleague who had hung a poster on his office door. “A Modest Proposal: What if Christians decided no longer to kill other Christians?” Hauerwas reports that the good professor was soundly chastised because it was just so exclusive. Why just single out other Christians to live at peace with? “Well, that’s why it is only a modest proposal,” was his reply.
There is great temptation before the church in mission. She is excited about the possibilities of the Kingdom of God. But, the world is a mess. “Let’s start at the top and fix it all the way down.” It is not too long before most programs and mission plans hit rocks, not because they were bad plans but because they were badly aimed and just plain grandiose. It is well and good to want to save the world. Good News: Someone already has done that. That someone also had a plan to follow up with. John writes that the world shall know we are Christians by our “love” in community. The world is to be jealous of our life with God. Matthew adds: Teach and baptize; enter people into that community, one by one. Luke adds: Be witnesses to Jesus. Mark adds: Preach the Good News to all Creation and never be afraid. Mother Theresa would say: "Don't look for big things, just do small things with great love.” It is in the little things done with great love that things get interesting and that love is an attitude, it is the power of the Holy Spirit all other “powers” must bow and serve it or remain silent. (1 Cor 13)
It is my favorite season: The Honey Locust trees are beginning to bloom. A gentle honey like smell fills the morning air. Locust trees are not exactly what folks plant in the their yards. They come with the yard and most folks try to cut them down. After all, their shade is light and incomplete. The branches and saplings have thorns. Once you have one, you will have dozens. And they are relentless. I love them for all those reasons. Yes, they defend themselves against the angry gardner and the hungry deer. Yes, their shade is light but that lets other plants, including their saplings, have a chance to live. Yes, they throw seeds and more trees result. Yes, if you cut them, the stump will regrow and not only that, the tree or its remnant will take a root and send it on to cut through the dirt some yards away and there a new tree will pop out of the ground. They give up on branches that do not work any longer and shed them. Annoying, but they make the greatest firewood ever. They burn with unmatched heat. They are a feisty tree with many sprouts and seedlings. They give the yard a whiff of subtle beauty. They stick to it like no other thing as if to say: “Life belongs to life. Let me prove it to you.” I love my little Locust grove. I love my church.
For the video nuts among you, two Thai commercials, by an insurance company no less, that might inspire and a hymn text long forgotten but somehow hauntingly proper to remember.
1 Once to every man and nation,
comes the moment to decide,
In the strife of truth with falsehood,
for the good or evil side;
Some great cause, some great decision,
offering each the bloom or blight,
And the choice goes by forever,
’twixt that darkness and that light.
3 By the light of burning martyrs,
Christ, Thy bleeding feet we track,
Toiling up new Calv’ries ever
with the cross that turns not back;
New occasions teach new duties,
time makes ancient good uncouth,
They must upward still and onward,
who would keep abreast of truth.
2 Then to side with truth is noble,
when we share her wretched crust,
Ere her cause bring fame and profit,
and ’tis prosperous to be just;
Then it is the brave man chooses
while the coward stands aside,
Till the multitude make virtue
of the faith they had denied.
4 Though the cause of evil prosper,
yet the truth alone is strong;
Though her portion be the scaffold,
and upon the throne be wrong;
Yet that scaffold sways the future,
and behind the dim unknown,
Standeth God within the shadow,
keeping watch above His own.