I write this post in the midst of preparations for Maundy Thursday. These sacred days recounting our Lord’s last acts, betrayal, passion and burial are a time held sacred by all Christians. In the events of this week are all of the ministries of the earthly life of Jesus brought to their conclusion, and the church universe continues that work into our present reality.
What does it mean to follow a dying Lord when it comes to renewing and empowering our congregations? In a world saturated with messages that reinforce that it is “all about us”, how do we find the stories of our congregations in the midst of death?
For many of us, it is not death that is a mystery, but rather life. As I write this there are untold people who struggle to lead their churches into new vitality and life. In some of these churches, there are unhealthy family dynamics. In still others, age and privilege have yielded a new, uncertain standing. Our lives reflect the one we serve, the Lord Jesus who calls us all to have new life.
But before we can find new life, we must meet death. Squarely and realistically, we must recognize that there is but one path to life and that is the Cross. While to individuals, that message is clear, “repent and be baptized”- live anew as one born again. But for congregations, there is no obvious parallel. The church is understood in scripture as enduring to the end, but what does that mean for the ‘local’ church, where Dad was baptized and confirmed and where all of our family members were married. We face decreasing numbers. Where is life?
This is the same question that the disciples were asking in these sacred days. And then, as Passover preparations were being made, Jesus takes everything that these ragged uneducated folks knew to be the sacred story and writes it anew. Somewhere, in the midst of these words, we find our congregations:
“Having loved his own who were in the world, he loved them to the end.” John 13:1
Did you get that, he loved them- to the end. This is referring to his own end, but it might also be understood in its contemporary application with the seeming ends of our congregations. We see red ink and large bills. We note that people, even very seriously spiritual people, simply do not attend as often as they once did. We ask ourselves the hard questions like, “Where is faith”, “Is there any purpose to this”, and these very questions were the same things that the disciples wondered as well.
“You do not know what I am doing, but later, you will understand.” John 13:7
I often marvel that what seems to be the worst times in our congregations experience are often, in retrospect, where we find his provision and promise most mighty. When God is busy writing our story, we wait for it to clear the desk of the publisher. That takes time, and we are impatient. Into this questioning and perplexity, Jesus takes a basin and fills it with water, one by one, he washes our feet, for we are his modern day disciples. Sure, the hands and feet of Jesus are different now simply because we are those hands and feet.
Often, when God is working, we totally misinterpret it. Peter is no different. He sees the washing and the servanthood, but misses the bigger idea – HE is to serve. He wants the washing! He wasn’t to be an even fuller recipient. In the uncomfortable times in our ministries we often want the role of recipient, but Jesus is clearly saying that in those most difficult times, the Gethsemane of our congregations’ lives, we are to serve.
“And you are clean.” John 13:8
All that is needed for you to excel in doing the work of God is already in your grasp. We often look for the next gimmick. We are not unlike the secular press that lives to find the one “lost” book of the Bible or provide the one “lost” gospel account. We scramble for the next study, the next conference, or the next program. We have exactly what we need. What we lack is the vision and the faith to put it into practice.
“A new commandment I give you, that you love one another.” John 13:34
Love in the midst of what we perceive to be death is difficult. The old self chronically asks, “What is in it for me.” As congregations, tragically, we see new recruits and new membership to be key in dealing with decaying properties or unfunded budgets. We instead must look to the giver of every good gift for all of those things. As we “consider the lilies of the field, how they are clothed” we find that our worrying about scarcity of resources is choosing poverty when God always sees abundance. If we “seek first the Kingdom and his righteousness, all these will be ours as well” and that includes the daily needs of people AND congregations.
It is in this Upper Room that two ancient things take new meaning, a washing with water – an act of service to humankind, and then the giving of oneself. Jesus even models this concept in the Eucharist. This completed act of Passover, where new meanings are ascribed to old actions, where the resurrection of Job, the priesthood of Melchisidek, and the lamb of the Passover have their confluence. And we see our congregations here too.
“Then he took a loaf of bread, and when he had given thanks, broke it, and gave it to them saying, take and eat it, this is my Body” and “This cup that is poured out is the New Covenant in my Blood.” Luke 22:17, 19
Broken – poured out – given. Those words are not those of one who wished to possess, but to set free. The Old Covenant sought to maintain by strict adherence to a code of law, the new covenant is lavishly given, poured out, and uncontainable. When we look at our churches, how often have we sought to our out, give, and break ourselves for the sake of another. Have we simply asked “what is in it for me?” When we find scarcity of resources, perhaps it is because we have not seen the lavish giving of the one who sees resources in abundance.
Ten precious pints of blood, shed to prove the love of one who can and does make every drop count. Ten precious pints to demonstrate redemption to a people that are constantly holding back and counting the costs. If Jesus paid it all, why do we say we wish to be more like Jesus, but then manage our resources as miserly as Judas. If we cannot outlive God, why do we hold back?
When all of these things had taken place, Jesus goes out to pray. In his words and instructions we find our response.
“Why are you sleeping? Get up and pray that you may not come into the time of trial” Luke 22:46
In north America, we have for too long been a slumbering church. We wait for more resources when we have not used those we have. We pray for people in our congregations to serve, but have not served the least of them that surround our churches daily. We are, much like the disciples in this seemingly hopeless night, and it would seem that tomorrow we die.
So tonight, let us take into account the actions of one who is among as as one who serves. Let us recall the saving acts which are not just ours, but belong to the entire world. Watch, wait, pray.
(More to come tomorrow)