“Come Together: Community”

August 19, 2018

Pastor Lucas Bitter

Intown Lutheran Church (Atlanta, GA)

John 17:6a, 14-12

6  “I have revealed you  to those whom you gave me  out of the world.

14  I have given them your word and the world has hated them ,for they are not of the world any more than I am of the world.  15  My prayer is not that you take them out of the world but that you protect them from the evil one.  16  They are not of the world, even as I am not of it.  17  Sanctify them by  the truth; your word is truth.  18  As you sent me into the world,  I have sent them into the world.  19  For them I sanctify myself, that they too may be truly sanctified.

20  “My prayer is not for them alone. I pray also for those who will believe in me through their message,  21  that all of them may be one, Father, just as you are in me and I am in you.  May they also be in us so that the world may believe that you have sent me.

This world is not my home / I’m just a passing through
My treasures are laid up / somewhere beyond the blue
The angels beckon me / from heaven’s open door
And I can’t feel at home / in this world anymore.

These are the words of a classic, old-time gospel song, which has been covered by hundreds of singers over the years.   I think this song is popular not just because it has a catchy tune, but because it so beautifully expresses the Christian’s hope of heaven.   Especially at those times when life gets hard, what a blessing it is to know that this world is not our home!   We’re just “a-passing through,” on the way to our real home in heaven.

Our lifespan on this earth is only a blip on the timeline of eternity.   But it’s a pretty long blip!     Only God knows exactly how long each one of us will live, but I think it’s likely that some of youngest people in this room may still be living in this world for what?   60, or 70, 80 more years?   That is a long time to be living in a place that is not your home.

60, 70, 80 years is a long enough time to do something in this world.   But what should we be doing, exactly?     “What kind of a relationship are Christians supposed to have with the world in which we live?”   That’s the big question that lies before us this morning.   We’re going to look at a few possible answers to this question.   The first possible answer sounds like this:   Christians should hide from the world because it’s so evil.

What do you think about that?   Good answer or not so much?

Well, this answer is actually based on some solid Bible passages.   The Bible explains that this world is evil ““ it’s broken and flawed and corrupted by sin.   And it’s full of people who are broken and flawed and corrupted by sin.   People who think that Christianity is foolishness, people who are as just hostile to Christians as they were to Christ himself.   In our text for today, Jesus has this to say about Christians living in the world: “The world has hated them, for they are not of the world, even as I am not of it.”   This world is not our home.   This world is often a hostile place for Christians.   And for these reasons, over the years many Christians have chosen to hide from the world because it’s so evil.

People were already doing this in the very first centuries after Jesus.   As Christianity began to fill the great cities of the world, thousands of men and women chose to leave those cities and go live in the wilderness instead, like hermits.   Historians call these kinds of early Christians the “Desert Fathers” and the “Desert Mothers.”   Their goal was to lead a life of solitude, to separate themselves from the evils of the world, and simply wait for Jesus to bring them home to heaven.

By the time the Middle Ages rolled around, all these desert hermits had organized themselves into orders.   Now, they called themselves “monks” and “nuns.”   Now,  they lived in “monasteries” and “abbeys” ““ and yet they were still trying to do the very same thing: lead a life of solitude, separate themselves from the evils of the world, and simply wait for Jesus to bring them home to heaven.

There may not be many Christian hermits and monks and nuns in our world today, but their mindset is alive and well.     In 2007, David Kinnamon wrote a book called “unChristian,” based on a bunch of surveydata from the Barna Group.   The book basically looks at the question, “What does our unbelieving world think of when they think of Christians?”   One of the top observations was that Christians are “sheltered.”   Closed in. . .cut off. . . not interested in relating to the world.   Kinnamon wrote, “So many Christians are caught up in the Christian sub-culture and are completely closed off from the world. We go to church…Wednesdays, Sundays, Saturdays…small groups…Tuesdays…Sunday school advisory board…financial committee…welcoming committee…Even if we wanted to reach out to nonChristians, we don’t have time and we don’t know how. The only way we know how to reach out is to invite people to join in our Christian social circle.”   Ouch.   That quote may hit home for you, especially if you grew up in the church.   Depending what part of America you live in, you may be able to spend most of your life inside a Christian “bubble,” where your entire social network is made up of Christians, where your kids’ entire social network is made up of Christians, where if you keep your head down at work and volunteer enough at church you can practically make it through the whole week without ever having a meaningful conversation with somebody who doesn’t believe in Jesus!

I’ve got some news for you ““ we’re not going to be able to create that kind of a Christian subculture here in the center of Atlanta.   But I also don’t know that we should.

Because the fact is, Jesus hasn’t called us to hide from the world because it’s so evil.   He’s actually called us to the very opposite!   Before he went back heaven, Jesus instructed his followers “go into all the world and preach the good news to all creation!”   He told them to “Go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit!”   How can Christians do that if we’re living in a cave in the desert?   How can we do that if we’re locked up in a monastery?   How can we do that if we’re hunkering down in a Christian bubble, trying to avoid all relationships with people who aren’t Christians?   We can’t!   If we want to do what Jesus has called us to do, hiding from the world is not an option.

So now we go back to our question.   “What kind of a relationship should Christians have with the world in which we live?”   Let’s take a look at a second possible answer:   Christians should fight a war against the world because it’s evil.

What do you think about that one?

Well, once again, this answer is actually based on some solid Bible passages.   The Bible explains that we are in a war.   Every single day we are under attack by the devil and all his legions of demons.   The weapons that those demons use against us include the temptations and the lifestyles and the mindsets of our world, which don’t stand in line with God’s Word.   The Christian life is a life of spiritual warfare.    So why don’t we fight back with some physical warfare?   Over the years, many Christians have tried to do exactly that.

The night before Jesus’ death, some soldiers came to arrest him in the Garden of Gethsemane.   As this was happening, one of Jesus’ disciples (named Peter) pulled out a sword and started swinging it around, and he ended up cutting off a man’s ear.   Peter thought he was doing something noble – defending Jesus ““ and so he was as surprised as anybody else when Jesus shouted at him, “Put your sword back in its sheath!   Shall I not drink the cup my Father has given me?”   And Jesus knelt down with his bound wrists, picked the ear, and miraculously re-attached it to its owner.  And then he went off to his trial. Clearly Jesus believed that physical violence does not solve spiritual problems.

And yet Christians have tried to do just this at many different times in history.   The Christian church was persecuted like crazy for the first few centuries of its existence, but once Christianity became the majority religion of the Roman Empire, many Christians thought ““ like Peter ““ that it was time to start defending Jesus with the sword.   A particularly bad example comes from the Roman Emperor Charlemagne around 800 AD.   According to the history books, Charlemagne lined up a defeated army of Saxon pagans and basically told them, “You have two options.   Either convert to Christianity. . . or die.”   I don’t know how many Saxons were “converted” that day. . . but I do know that about 4,500 of them were killed.

It got worse.   In 1095 AD, Pope Urban 2 announced that there was goingto be a Christian military expedition to the Middle East, with the purpose of “taking back the Holy Land” from the Muslims.  It was just the first of a series of Crusades which would devastate Europe and the Middle East, and result in the death of perhaps as many as 1 million people, Christians and Muslims alike.

There may not be many Christian armies today who are trying to fight physical battles against unbelievers. . .but this mindset is still alive and well.   Many Christians do think that the church is supposed to be fighting some kind of earthly battle.   You know, maybe Intown Lutheran Church should charge into politics, and begin a crusade against all the evils of society.   Maybe we can take over the government and pass laws that will outlaw every kind of filthy and immoral and ungodly behavior.   Maybe we can pass laws that will outlaw all other religions, so that America can finally be a Christian nation!

If this is what you’re hoping for out of Intown Lutheran Church, I’ve got bad news for you.   We’re not going to do it, you guys!   We’re not going to become a political organization!   And what’s more, I don’t think we should.

Because Jesus hasn’t called us to fight a physical war against the world.   He tells us, “My kingdom is not of this world!”   Our battle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the spiritual powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms.   Yes, Christians do have a battle to fight but it’s not a battle against people ““ it’s a battle against the devil and his demons, who have filled our world with its ungodly temptations and lifestyles and mindsets, and who are using them to lead many people astray.   Christians are not fighting a battle against the people of our world ““ we’re actually fighting a battle for the people of our world!  We’re fighting to relate to them, to build trust with them, to build friendships with them, to show love to them, and ultimately to share with them that God so loved the world he gave his one and only Son, so that whoever believes in him doesn’t have to perish, but shall have eternal life.

It’s pretty hard to share that message in a meaningful way if you’re holding a person at gunpoint.   Or if you’re afraid to come close to them because you’re so horribly offended by their ungodly lifestyle.   Or if you’ve just finished annihilating them in the Comments section of Facebook.

And so we’re back to our question yet again. “What kind of a relationship should Christians have with the world in which we live?”  Neither hiding or fighting is going to cut it.   But in our gospel lesson today, Jesus gives us a 3rd option.

By the way. . . can we just talk for a minute about the context of our gospel lesson?   John 17 is one of the most amazing chapters in the whole Bible.   The reason it’s so amazing is that John 17 is the last big prayer Jesus prayed the night before he died.   And in that prayer, Jesus is praying for you and me.   Yes, he prays for Peter and the other disciples who were with him back in 33 A.D., but he goes on “My prayer is not for them alone.   I pray also for those who will believe in me through their message.”   Jesus is praying for all the people of all time who will be touched by the message of the gospel.   Jesus is praying for you and me.

What’s he praying about?   Basically, Jesus is praying about the question we have been struggling with this whole sermon.   He’s praying for us to have the right kind of relationship with the world in which we live.   And fortunately for us, as he prays, Jesus describes exactly what this relationship should look like.

It starts with remembering where we came from.  Jesus prays, “Father, I have revealed you to those whom you gave me out of the world.”   That’s is an important reminder of where Christians came from, isn’t it?   Yes, we are the redeemed children of God.   Yes, we do have our real home waiting for us in heaven.     But it wasn’t always this way.   Our story began the same way everybody else’s story did.   Paul writes in Ephesians, “As for you, you were dead in your transgressions and sins, in which you used to live when you followed the ways of this world and of the ruler of the kingdom of the air, the spirit who is now at work in those who are disobedient.”   In other words, you and I were not born God’s children.     We were born God’s enemies.   We were, by nature, “objects of wrath.”   But “because of his great love for us, God, who is rich in mercy, made us alive with Christ even when we were dead in transgressions ““ it is by grace we have been saved.”

So when Christians look at the world with an attitude of humility. . . when we understand that we were born just as far away from God as anybody else on this planet . . .when we understand that we were so unwilling to reach out for God that God had to reach out for us, and send his own Son to die on the cross to be the atoning sacrifice for our sins. . . when we realize that without Jesus we would have NOTHING and yet with Jesus we have EVERYTHING. . . now we understand what grace looks like.   And now we understand what our mission looks like.   It’s a mission to go find people just like us, and tell them the truth ““ that they may be “sanctified” by that truth just like we have been, and adopted into the family of God just like we have been.

When we look at the world around us and we see a little bit of ourselves in every single person. . . now we’re doing it right.   Now we’re looking at the world the way Jesus wants us to look at it.   Now we’re having the type of relationship with the world that Jesus wants us to have.

This is why we’re here!   Yeah, it’s dangerous living in a place that is flawed and broken and corrupted by sin.   Yeah, at times it is very uncomfortable to be a Christian living this world.   And yet as long as life and health permits, this world is exactly where we want to be, because this is where the people are.   Jesus says, “My prayer is not that you take them out of the world, but that you protect them from the evil one”““ and why?   “So that the world may believe that you have sent me.”

Jesus has put us here for the people.   Not to hide from them.   Not to fight against them.   But to live among them, and listen to them, and understand them, and love them ““ and tell them not only with our lips but also with our lives that Jesus loves them too.

Do you think it’ll work?   Do you think it’s worth the effort?   Do you think God can really make a difference in the world through people like you and me?

Well, it worked for the Early Christians.   Remember our first reading today from the Book of Acts?   “All the believers were together and had everything in common.   They sold property and possessions to give to anyone who had need.   Every day they continued to meet together in the temple courts.   They broke bread in their homes and ate together with glad and sincere hearts, praising God and enjoying the favor of all the people.   And the LORD added to their number daily those who were being saved.”

The very earliest Christians were kind of like a brand-new mission church.   They didn’t have a lot of resources.   They didn’t have a lot of money.   They didn’t have a lot of people.   But they had the message about Jesus.   They had a clear understanding that their entire reason for existence on this earth was to share that message with other people.   And as a result the gospel of Jesus exploded in that first century like no message ever has before or since.

What if God put a church with that kind of vision, with that kind of clarity, with that kind of message, in the center of Atlanta today?

He has.   It’s you.

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