A Community of Strangers

In last week's blog post, I wrote about the work of the Holy Spirit among the early church.  In Acts 10 we see the outpouring of the Holy Spirit upon Gentile believers.  As Peter said, "I now realize how true it is that God does not show favoritism but accepts from every nation the one who fears him and does what is right" (10:34-35).  Peter continued, "You know the message God sent to the people of Israel, announcing the good news of peace through Jesus Christ, who is Lord of all."  The Holy Spirit came upon all those who heard these words about Jesus.

In this week's lectionary text from John 17, we find what many call the "high-priestly prayer" of Jesus.  You can read the full text here, but I'd like to focus on the final part of Jesus' prayer, which reads as such:

15 I am not asking you to take them out of the world, but I ask you to protect them from the evil one. 16 They do not belong to the world, just as I do not belong to the world. 17 Sanctify them in the truth; your word is truth. 18 As you have sent me into the world, so I have sent them into the world. 19 And for their sakes I sanctify myself, so that they also may be sanctified in truth.

It's clear from Jesus's words that being a disciple means that we are sent into the world.  When we become Jesus followers we are not immediately taken up into heaven leaving this sinful world behind; rather, following Jesus means that we follow him into this world--the world God so loves (John 3:16).  If we are Jesus' disciples then we are to go where Jesus goes, doing what Jesus does.  If you've read the gospels, the last sentence should make you uncomfortable.  Jesus is constantly going to places he's not supposed to go to, doing things he's not supposed to do.  Jesus was always getting into trouble with the religious leaders (read: Us!) because he was crossing boundaries as part of his sentness.  Likewise, we too, are sent into the world because God loves this world and longs to redeem all of it.

Jesus' prayer reminds us that as we are sent into this world, we are not to be of this world.  One commentator defined the "world" like this, "'World' of course signifies not the universe or the planet on which we live, but the totality of life that is at odds with God, has rejected Jesus, and lives in the grips of the evil one" (Texts for Preaching, 344).  For Christians, to live in this world but not be of this world means that we take our cues from Jesus.  We are to be aligned with the ways of Jesus.  We become aligned with the ways of Jesus through time with Jesus, through prayer, through silence and reflection, through service, through study, and through other spiritual disciplines and practices.  I'm fearful that all too often we let cable news personalities and political pundits shape the way we view the world and each other.  Their goal is to attract viewers so their company can make money, not to form you in the way of Jesus.  

I don't think it's an accident that the Holy Spirit fell upon the Gentile believers when they heard the message of Jesus, because the work of the Holy Spirit among us will look like Jesus.  If we want to know if the Spirit is at work among us as a local body of believers, then we need to ask ourselves if we're doing the sorts of things Jesus did, among the sorts of people Jesus encountered.  Sometimes I think we believe that if the Spirit is present among us that it happens (1) during a Sunday morning worship service, (2) where we get very emotional, and (3) we are briefly relieved of our present, material worries and concerns.  I've been in enough church and chapel services to learn that a movement of the Holy Spirit is supposed to lead to a private moment between me and Jesus.  This is how we've come to understand the work of the Spirit.  But if Scripture is right, then being a Spirit-filled follower of Jesus means that we are sent headlong into the world just as Jesus was.  We are to take up the boundary-crossing ways of our resurrected, crucified Lord because God so loved the world.  Because of this radical love shown by God toward humanity, we are also to extend that love to our world.  It is love that will make the church distinctive.  As Jesus says in the prayer above, it is our connection to him--love incarnate--that will form our identity.  One author summed it up as follows, "The sanctification of the church has to do with its distinctiveness in the world.  In a sense, it is a community like many other communities in society, distinguished by neither its virtues nor its moral perfection.  Its separateness is the gift of God, who assigns it a special role to play and who calls it to live as a community of strangers, which, like its Lord, does not belong to the world" (Ibid, 345).