Being the Body in the Pandemic
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Last November I read a prayer in Fort Langley’s Remembrance Day service. The most humbling moment was walking behind our veterans as the bagpipes led us through the crowd and to our seats on a platform. But during the prayers, the moment of silence and the flyover, my mind began to wander. It’s moments like that that you can’t help but imagine what this corner of the world felt like in 1940 near the beginning of the second World War. Though many parts of the world were untouched by the unrest in Europe, Canada was very much involved. Soon the conflict would spread the world over, to the warm waters of the South Pacific and the hot sands of North Africa. The turmoil was felt on the ground, under the waves, and for the first time on such a devastating scale, in the air. And it wouldn’t be long before the dread of nuclear destruction turned from a futuristic nightmare into a looming reality. In 1940 the world was plunging into darkness and uncertainty, underscored by the evils of genocide and what is now commonly and chillingly known as “collateral damage”. It was a time in which the future was in real question.
But here in the Fraser Valley 1940 held more than just catastrophe and people going off to war. There were also picnics and weddings and birthday parties, afternoons in the sun with a book or evenings spent listening to radio shows – which for those unfamiliar were a kind of ancestor to the Podcast. And there was church where people found happy community and prayer and sermons many wished could be a little more interesting. Some churches had been around for a while, like the Parish of St. George in Fort Langley, founded in 1859. Other churches in this area were just beginning to sprout, like this church. In 1940, eighty years ago this year, our church was born. They met in homes and focused on serving children especially. There was no building, no established congregation and little history to speak of. All that history was to be written by those who began the work. What a time to start a church! A time with an unclear future and much to fear, but also a time for hope, imagination and simple love.
Being the Body in the Pandemic
Over the next four weeks we’re continuing our series called “This is our Church”. It’s a time to regroup, to be refreshed and reminded of who we are, and it concludes on October 4th with the celebration of our 80thanniversary. The subtitle to this series is “Being the Body in the Pandemic”. Sometimes you’ve just got to state the obvious, and so we’ll discuss how to be healthy church in such a topsy-turvy time. We began by imagining the birth of this little church in an uncertain time near the beginning of World War II, and here we are today eighty years later facing another global crisis.
Being the body in a pandemic starts today with remembering some of the basics, which can easily be forgotten or minimized when the world feels out of sorts. But in a time like this we’re also reminded of the buoyancy of our faith as we’re drawn into deeper water and discover what really floats. I mentioned earlier what the church didn’t have going for it at the beginning – buildings, an established history, a certainly of the future – but I’d like to take a few moments now to consider what the founders of our church did have, and what we still have today in the lifeboat of faith. What did they have then that we also have now?
First, they had the character of Jesus
Many pictures of Jesus in paintings and such look little like how he probably really looked, often depicting him as more supermodel than suffering servant. Personally, I still find it helpful to have various renderings of Jesus around, ensuring he’s always in view. In a life of faith Jesus will always confront us as much as care for us. The founders of this church had the character of Jesus in full view – that is to say they had both the person of Jesus and the way of Jesus confronting and shaping them. As we heard in the passage earlier, Jesus says in John 14 “If you love me, obey my commandments.” Here is Jesus lovingly confronting us yet again.
How does Jesus confront us? Well, it’s Jesus who takes our unreliable ideas about God and shows us what God’s really like. So this church is grounded the person of Jesus, full of grace and truth. No matter what was faced in 1940 or what’s faced 2020, Jesus’ light shines in the darkness and the darkness will never consume him. Later in John 17 we hear Jesus tell his disciples that he has revealed God to us. With Jesus in view, our wacky ideas about God go out the window. So when it comes to being a church and wondering who on earth God really is, what on earth God is really like, we don’t have to guess, we’re not in the dark. We stick with Jesus, light of the world, God’s heart walking around outside of God’s chest.
With fidelity to the person of Jesus naturally comes the way of Jesus in our lives. That is to say, the more we hone in on Jesus, the more we begin to live as God lives and love as God loves. I think that probably had a lot to do with why our church first began with the critical mission of serving children, who Jesus saw as especially vulnerable and worthy of service. And I think that’s why Living Waters continues to give special attention to children and others in our community who are vulnerable or marginalized, many people whom our society tends to forget about. Jesus shows us who God is and exemplifies for us how we can live like God. So not only is Jesus the way, he shows us the way to live like God. That means that if we are a church that wants to be faithful to Jesus, we must take him seriously in how we live. It means we stay humble, we stay generous, we serve, we commit to one another, we stay hopeful, not becoming negative or defeatist in our outlook – because Jesus has already won the victory over sin, death and evil through his death and resurrection.
But as I said earlier, it’s easy in a time like this to get turned around and subtly pledge ourselves to other things, especially as we aren’t able to physically gather as often as we’d like. It’s tempting to start think that this church is united by things other than Jesus. Things like our own specific opinions or tastes, or even our particular views about the Bible. When we’re not physically together as often in the fleshy hodgepodge of church community, we’re in danger of losing sight of ourselves as a body and can begin to individualize or privatize our faith. We can begin to judge one another rather than join one another. That’s something to be cautious of.
My encouragement and invitation for us this fall is to be faithful to the character of Jesus by being faithful to each another as a body because we are told in scripture that we are Christ’s body. That means we major on the majors of our faith and minor on the minors as precious as they are; we turn up for one another in Life Groups and various Networks; we look out for one another and reach out to one another as best we can. And most of all we don’t turn inward, meaning we don’t presume we can be Christian alone. Instead we recommit ourselves to the roomy, beautiful, often frustrating life of being the Church. “If you love me, obey my commandments.” The commandment John says that Jesus talked about the most was that we should love God and love one another. To love something is to give it priority. So it’s healthy to remind ourselves that we can’t be Christian without a robust devotion to the body of Christ, even if we differ or disappoint one another from time to time. That, after all, was Jesus’ prayer for us also found in John’s gospel, that we would all be one, bound together by more than taste or opinion. What’s left to join us in a global pandemic if we can’t physically gather as much as we’d like, or if we discover we don’t agree with one another all the time? Turns out a lot joins us. The character, person and way of Jesus joins us. The Church is the body language of God, and part of being a body is paying attention to one another’s movement, making room for one another’s voices. The health experts tell us we should listen to and prioritize our body, and the same goes for Jesus’ body, us together, the Church.
Second, they had the Truth of the Holy Spirit
Often in this church I have a real sense that those I talk with are people who have “been with Jesus”.And that’s something we should never take for granted, but thank God for, welcoming more of Jesus’ character to seep into our character. The founders of our church not only had a deep fidelity to the character Jesus, but also to the truth of the Holy Spirit.
There’s an old story about two young brothers in a small village who were always getting into trouble around town. One day their mother had enough and asked the local rabbi to sit them down and set them straight. The rabbi decided to see them each alone in an attempt to divide and conquer. He met with the first brother, about seven, and wanted him to understand that God was everywhere and saw everything he did. The rabbi asked him in a deep voice “where is God”? The boy didn’t answer. The rabbi stood up from his desk, leaned over and asked again “where is God?” Still the boy was silent. A third time and with even more gravitas he asked “where is God?” Frightened the boy jumped up, ran home, and burst into the bedroom where his brother was waiting: “We’re in big trouble this time! God’s missing and they think we have something to do with it!”
There have probably been days and nights in the last number of months when we’ve asked ourselves about God’s whereabouts and wondered if he was planning on turning up anytime soon. Has God gone missing and who is to blame? Maybe we’ve felt disconnected from God or forgotten by God, or by the church, or by me. But t he truth is, Jesus assures us, that God’s not fallen off the radar and you’ve not fallen off God’s radar. In the passage we read earlier Jesus calls the Holy Spirit a helper. He says he won’t leave his people as orphans, but will be with them through the Holy Spirit. He tells his disciples that the Spirit is already with them and in them. Of course we read elsewhere that Jesus tells his disciples to wait for a drenching of the Holy Spirit, giving them the words and energy for a life of faith. Jesus also says the Holy Spirit will lead his followers into all truth.
The thing is the Holy Spirit, whom Jesus says is his Spirit, has come into the world like Jesus came into the world, to some degree, a little under the radar. Jesus often spoke of his Kingdom as something that starts small and grows larger, working from the inside out. In other words, the presence of God in the world is often less obvious than we might expect. Jesus says the Spirit, his presence, is in us, and not usually in a bombastic or showy way in order to demand attention. He said that the world tends to miss the Spirit’s presence and movement. But the helper is here, buoying and blessing us. The fact is we’re not home alone.
Jesus also promises that the Holy Spirit leads us into all truth. I know one pastor who likes to say that these days we’re suffering from serious problem of truth decay. I’ll admit the truth about the truth in the news has at times has felt a little precarious. Who’s telling the truth and who should we trust? Who’s right and who’s wrong? The truth Jesus spoke of, the truth the Spirit leads us into, is a deeper truth about more resonant and eternal realities than what’s often discussed in the media. A truth that undergirds the universe and gives grounding to our lives, no matter how murky things get. A truth about who God is, and how we’re growing more like him as we discern how to respond as God’s people. We need, maybe more than ever in the history of this church, to welcome the Holy Spirit’s underpinning of our lives, in order to find the energy, words, actions and reactions for the time in which we’re living. Jesus never intended his followers to change the world by sheer intellect, opinion, force or grit, but through a bottomless reliance on the renovating influence of the Holy Spirit. That, after all, is part of the prayer Jesus teaches us: “Your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven”. If heaven is defined as the space where God lives, our job is to welcome heaven to do it’s renewing work in us as little bits of earth. In the words of the prophet Zechariah, God’s way of changing the world doesn’t depend on human effort or force, but through his Spirit acting in ways we’re still being schooled in.
So my second encouragement today is to remember the presence of Jesus through the Holy Spirit in your everyday life this fall. To believe the good news that the world doesn’t change through our exertion or organizational prowess or getting it right all the time. We are not Christian alone. In St. Paul’s words we are co-creators with God. Being a healthy Christian or church is not rooted in trying harder for God, but in welcoming more of God to invigorate and nourish us. To that we pray: welcome Lord Jesus, through the fullness of your Holy Spirit.
What a Time to be the Church
Fifteen years ago when I joined Living Waters the church looked very different. There was about sixty of us, and our activities and traditions weren’t what they are now. I remember attending a Christmas banquet and there were a couple of customs I didn’t see coming. Probably the most dramatic was the tradition of parading in the turkey, and I do mean parading. Once everyone was seated, the back doors of the Fort Langley auditorium would swing open and the cook would carry in a big bird with an entourage – striding ahead of the turkey was a bagpiper. Bagpipes, of course, were designed to be played outside and to carry over great distances. Inside, they can be deafening. Like a boxer theatrically entering an arena under a theme song, each Christmas everyone eagerly anticipated the tradition of “piping in the turkey”. That was probably one of strangest, and loudest, of our traditions, but we loved it.
Traditions, seasons and even pastors come and go in the history of a church. But in order for that church to be healthy and keep moving in the direction God wants it to go, a few things have to stay the same. Change is a gift from God, but what can’t change if we’re to be a truly faithful church are the roots. And our roots are dug into the character of Jesus, and the truth of the Holy Spirit. In such a topsy turvy time let us not be fooled into thinking it is more complicated or spiritual than this: The residue of Jesus is humility and joy. The birthmark of the Spirit is harmony and kindness. Let us be people who have been with Jesus through his Spirit.
What a time to be a church. A time with an unclear future, but also a time for hope, imagination and simple love. We’re not living in 1940, we’re living in 2020. Now is our time to be the church God invites us to be. In the words of St. John, “Little children, love one another.”