(This sermon was preached at Disciples Christian Church on May 25, 2014)
SBNR. Anyone know what acronym stands for? Even if you don’t know it off the top of your head, I’d almost guarantee you’ve heard it. If you’ve ever invited someone to church (who doesn’t already go). If you’ve ever found yourself in a conversation when you’re talking about involvement in a church, in a group of people who are not. You’ve heard this answer: I don’t need to go to church. I’m spiritual not religious. That answer can be as simple as finding a quick way to change the subject. But sometimes there’s real substance to theanswer. People are turned off by church. People know of abuses in the church’s name. People don’t see the relevance of church. People will tell you that they can believe in God all by themselves. They can see the beauty of God’s creation in a sunrise, feel God’s energy in a mountain breeze, be at peace with God sitting in a boat in the middle of a quiet lake, see God’s goodness in a baby’s smile.
Yes. They can. So can we.
For generations now — social scientists would say beginning with Baby Boomers who mistrust organizations and aren’t joiners, perhaps especially organizations that were important to their parents and continuing through the Busters, generation X, and now millenials — church has suffered a great loss of interest, participation, attendance, financial giving, etc. Each of us knows fewer friends and family members who attend.
SBNR as now an actual category in political polling. Sometimes dubbed the Nones– as in they have no religion to claim. But only 7% of the nones claim to be atheists. They love God but not the church. That sentiment goes back a ways, as it was Gandhi who said, I like your Christ, but I do not like your Christians. They are so unlike your Christ.
Ouch. In that spirit, our detractors’ acronym for us might be RBNS! We’re religious, but we’re not spiritual. Not spiritual enough. A comatose religion, it’s been said. I’m just not feeling it – to quote one of our young disciples just a few weeks ago! But I’m not preaching to the SBNR this morning. I’m preaching among us religious folks. We’re here in a church on a Sunday morning. Some of us are here every week. Some of us have been here – or another church – since we were babies in the church nursery.
What does it mean that we’re still here?
Jesus was prepared with an answer for us. It’s right there in the passage from John’s gospel. It’s part of a much longer passage often called the Farewell Discourse. Jesus is preparing the disciples for his death and departure from him. But from the perspective of those who were being left behind, it’s more accurate to call this a farewell situation. Jesus was leaving – the disciples were the ones being left. Good-byes are hard, especially when it happens suddenly, when we don’t feel prepared, when we don’t know how we’ll act, when we don’t know what we’re supposed to do. The disciples must have been asking themselves – and asking Jesus –if you’re leaving, then what will become of us?
Asking honest questions like: Will we still love you, Jesus? And even if we still love you, how will the next generation and the next after love you without ever having a personal relationship. Jesus honors their feelings and he answers them …
Yes. Yes, you can and you will still love me. Yes, even those who will come after you will love me. It will even be possible to still see me, Jesus says. But (here comes the hinge moment) – don’t look for me only in the past, however cherished those moments were. Don’t remember me only by retreating into your own personal experience of me, however precious those moments were. Love me by doing my works. Love me by keeping my commandments – the greatest of which is to love God, love yourself and love your neighbor. Don’t keep that love hidden. Love me out in public.
Because if you think about it, Jesus’ union with God wasn’t private, it was public. His relationship with God was first revealed at his birth and repeatedly revealed through his words and his works. Yes, Jesus got off by himself to rest and to pray, often on a mountain top vista, only to come down from that mountain to return to feed the hungry, heal the sick, to preach the peace, to be public about his relationship with God. Jesus’ promises are made to us plural – our union with Christ is less private than it is communal. And when it is communal, it assures that the next generation will know and come to love him too, from our modeling of his behavior.
The question is how? Another question Jesus was prepared for. He respected the disciples’ situation – he knew it would be tough-going without him. He likened their situation to being orphaned. A tougher life situation than that we’d have trouble imagining. Jesus would triumph over death, but he will not continue his ministry as usual. His friends can no longer count on his comforting presence. His on-the-spot wisdom. They will have to navigate the world, the same world that crucified him. A tough world then. Tough still.
So, Jesus is sending relief to their bereavement. He’s sending energy for their lethargy. He’s sending wisdom in their confusion. He’s sending the Holy Spirit. A Spirit so large that it’s tempting to confuse it with some sort of invisible super-hero. A Spirit that swoops in and makes it all come together. But there’s a problem with that imagery because it implies that the Holy Spirit isn’t already here – that we must wait for some grand entrance, some ecstatic experience. And that’s not what Jesus says. Not really. He says the Holy Spirit is already here. It always has been. It always will be. It’s up to us to rise up to meet it.
How do we know it’s here? What does Spirit look like? Today’s text has two very helpful clues in identifying spirit. Clue #1. The Holy Spirit looks like an Advocate. The one who stands up for you when you most need it. The one who speaks on your behalf. The one who lends you a helping hand. The one who takes your side. The one who doesn’t leave you when you’re down. Friend. Counselor, comforter, helper, intercessor.
The second clue is the Holy Spirit – the next Advocate because Jesus was the first – looks like Jesus. The Spirit comes in Jesus’ name. The Spirit reminds us of what Jesus taught. The Spirit keeps promises. The Spirit comforts us when we feel orphaned and alone. The Spirit causes us to feel as if we are meeting Jesus again for the first time.
Have you felt that Spirit? Of course you have. Have you seen and known that Spirit? Yes you have. You’ve seen it in others, and this Spirit has also at one time or another looked a lot like you. Because you have stood up for others. And you have tried to be more like Jesus. You have been his love in the world. If we were to put up a mirror in the back of the church – then you could see in your reflection the Spirit being sent out into the world. We could be a part of the renewed movement of Spiritual and Religious!
Religion is important because it gives us an identity. We need to know who we are before we can change the world, a young Christian writes. A young Christian who is present in church and passionate about Jesus. A young Christian who believes that the kingdom of God is not about the next world – it is about life in this world. Heaven’s in great shape, he says – it’s the earth that needs us. Religion is about believing and behaving and belonging. Believing that the Spirit of Truth gives us the habits and tools for our actions and that our actions matter. Thriving by belonging to a people who practice their religion in worship, both an act of praise and an act of justice, reclaiming time for us to rest from our labors. Religious practice is a way of behaving that can improve the lives of God’s people. I include myself in that improvement.
What does it mean that we’re still here is an important question to consider any time. But at this particular time of year here at Disciples Christian Church, it is especially so. Because we are the ones who will be making a promise to give from our hard-earned money to help fund the general budget of our church. And for as critical as these financial promises are to the life of this church, the giving of precious time and unique talents, just as much. Many of you are being asked – and some of you have already agreed – to leadership positions for the year ahead. Saying yes to giving and giving by serving means you’re feeling it. The Spirit, that is. And through your giving and your serving, you and those you serve will have the opportunity to meet Jesus again for the first time.
This morning’s message is my one opportunity to preach during the stewardship campaign. I haven’t forgotten that it is also Memorial Day weekend. And so I want to close with this 3 minute video. Just to set it up, the woman you hear speaking is Dr. Rita Nakishima Brock, a leader in Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) who is the Co-Director and Founder of the Soul Repair Center. As segue between this message and this video:
Jesus loses his life, and he is not the only one to suffer loss. Those he leaves behind lose him, and without him, they lose whatever security they might have felt in the world. We rarely think of what happened to Jesus as an experience of combat, but the story of his arrest includes soldiers, weapons and at least momentary hand-to-hand combat as Peter draws a sword to slice off the ear of one of those sent to arrest Jesus.
Be sure to listen for a description of religious community helping to answer the question: What does it mean that we’re still here.
Rev. Kristine Eggert
Disciples Christian Church
May 25, 2014