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Anniversary Message: Prayer for Abiding Peace

A sermon on John 17:6-19

[for an audio recording of this sermon, click here. Photo by Guillaume de Germain on Unsplash]

The gospel we just heard is the appointed gospel reading for the seventh Sunday of Easter, but it is also particularly appropriate for this anniversary celebration. For one thing, other than the first couple of verses, this gospel was read as the gospel for the “organizing service” of this congregation fifty years ago. Since I was obviously not part of the decision-making for the day’s liturgy, I don’t know why the first public worship of this congregation highlighted this gospel. The current lectionary was not introduced until several decades later, so it’s not just a factor of the calendar. I suspect, it’s because it’s just a great text to reflect on when initiating a new community for the work of God’s mission in the world.

And that’s also the second reason this is an appropriate text for our 50th anniversary.

Because, grateful as we are for the last fifty years, the purpose of today’s worship is not to look backward; it is to look forward. The ministry begun in this community half a century ago is still continuing. And so, Jesus’s prayer for his friends and followers on the night of his arrest, the prayer he prayed to equip them for their ministry, is just as fitting now as it was when it was first spoken to this congregation.

But my primary reason that I am glad to have this text on which to preach today, is because it is a prayer. It’s not a story about Jesus. It’s not a report of his teaching. It is the cry of his heart for the people he loves, and the work to which he is calling them. It is a word addressed not only to us, as the inheritors of their calling, but first of all to God. It is a reminder that the work of the church, even 2,000 years later, still starts not with our efforts – not with our charters, or ministries, or even members – but with God.

And so, for my sermon today, I don’t want to talk to you about the past of this congregation. I don’t even want to exhort you about our future. I want to pray for you, for us. I want to be drawn into the hearts-cry of Jesus as he spoke to the nurturing heart of God, and asked God’s blessing on the people who would carry on his mission: naming their identity; acknowledging the challenges they would face; and asking for the gift of truth to guide and guard them in their task.

So, as Jesus did with the disciples on his last night with them before his crucifixion, I invite you all to listen in, as I talk to God.

God of all Grace,

This congregation exists because of you. It was your idea to create the church in the first place, to call fallible, broken, beautiful people to the task of telling your story. To give people to Jesus, who then gave them you word and called them to share it with the world.

You sent your Spirit to those first disciples, who had no idea about starting a new religion, but just wanted to give witness to the life-changing love and power they had experienced. And you equipped them to spread the story, beyond their in-group, beyond their nation, to the ends of the earth. And you have fostered faith in so many different contexts; in different languages, on different continents, with the help of theologians, and Sunday school teachers, and artists, and hymn-writers, and everyday people living out their faith in conversations around the dinner table and in acts of care for their neighbors.

And despite all the ways that we humans have abused your gospel – twisting it to preserve our own power, and wielding it as a weapon of judgement, and convincing ourselves that it demands of us no transformation – you have never given up on your church. You keep calling us. You keep making yourself known in, and through us. You keep inviting us to be your hands, and feet, and mouth, and heart in a world that is longing for your love.

So, I guess, what I want to say first is “thank you.” Thank you for creating the congregation of Abiding Peace. Thank you for choosing this imperfect but beloved, fluctuating but committed group of people to be part of the powerful work you are doing here in Budd Lake. They are such a blessing. And I am so grateful for the chance to share your mission with them. They are your people, and so, when I pray for them, I know that I am praying for those whom you already long to bless.

But I am praying anyway, because I know that they are up against. The call to be your church is not any easy one. Jesus had to pray for unity when there were only a dozen people in the room… and it’s only gotten harder. There is so much division. Not just in our culture, but also in your global church. Disagreements about who you call, and how you save us, and what it means to fulfill your command to love.

And that’s before our various conflicting allegiance get involved; before we start talking about who is to blame for violence, or racial inequities, or children going bed hungry in the richest country in the world. And we can’t not talk about these things, because this is the world in which we are supposed to be doing your work. This is the world with which we are supposed to be sharing your love. And we don’t belong to this world, but we do belong in it. It’s where you have put us. Jesus didn’t want you to take us out of the world. He just wanted you to protect us while we do our work here.

So, I am praying for protection. Protect us from division. Protect us from the lures that will draw us away from our shared identity and tell us that other commitments and loyalties are more important.

Most of all, protect us from the lies that surround us, stealing our peace, and shredding our joy, and distracting us from the Truth that you want us to know.

You are Truth. And so, if we have any hope of knowing truth, it comes from you. There is an enemy, a father of lies, who has been at work in this world since before Jesus prayed for those first disciples 2,000 years ago. But you have been at work, in love, even longer.

And you sent your truth into the world as your Word. And then you sent your church into the world with your word.

So that’s what we want to share. We want to share your word, your truth. We want it to guide our lives. We want it to show in our actions. We know we will make mistakes. And we don’t always understand.

And we sometimes get distracted. But that’s why we pray.

Because we need you. And we need to remember that we need you. Because you are the one who created this church, and you are the one who sustains it, and you are the one who will lead us forward into future ministry that we cannot yet imagine.

And as we pray, we ask along with Jesus that you will make his joy complete in us, as we carry on the work that you have given us.

Thanks be to you, God. Amen.


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