January 15, 2023 Reflection and Worship Link

Living in the Light

“Bold Discipleship”

Scripture Reading: John 1: 29-42    

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The inspiration for our worship service today comes from the National United Church’s newly launched strategic plan.  Based on commitments to right relationship with Indigenous Peoples, becoming a church that is Anti-Racist, Inter-Cutural, Affirming, Open, Accessible, Barrier Free and Functionally Bilingual and living the principles of partnership in relationship to global and Canadian solidarity, the new strategic plan proposes a call to Deep Spirituality, Bold Discipleship and Daring Justice.

Of the many objectives laid out in the plan, one has to do with strengthening our capacity to invite others to join us and doing that with humility and confidence. In other words, being bold in our discipleship.

If you, like me, were raised in the United Church or if you grew up or have spent time in any other mainline protestant church in North America, or even if you grew up in the Roman Catholic church, you might feel like being bold in your discipleship and inviting others to come to church is not in your DNA. Even those of you who have backgrounds in the evangelical church but have left that tradition behind might be hesitant to invite others to join you on a Sunday morning.

So this call to be bold in our discipleship might sound a bit challenging.

Like many people raised in the United Church, when I became a teenager and left home to go to University, I stopped going to church.  But obviously God’s call on my life was pretty strong, so it’s not that surprising that not long after I graduated, I found myself spending time with a group of friends who shared an interest in the Christian faith.  We came from various church backgrounds but none of us attended church regularly anymore. The institution was leaving us feeling pretty uninspired. So we decided that we were going to form our own little church with a total membership of 5 people. We  purchased a bible study curriculum, met regularly every couple weeks and faithfully started to make our way through reading and discussing the scriptures.

Because we were all young career women living and working in the greater Toronto area, we travelled to our places of work on Go-Trains, Street Cars and Subways.  Often the only time we had to do our bible reading and complete our homework was when we were commuting back and forth to work.

I can’t tell you how many gatherings of “our church” eventually made their way around to confessions about how hesitant we were to let anyone know that we were studying the bible.

Our fear of being labelled a Christian was so great that a number of us actually  made false covers to go over our Bibles so that no one on the streetcar or Go-Train would know what we were reading.  We scheduled gatherings in our calendars using code words so that anyone who might happen to glance over our shoulders and see what was written in our daytimers wouldn’t guess what we were up to.

Looking back at this now, you’d think we were in the era of the early church where being labelled a Christian literally meant you could be persecuted. But we weren’t in any physical danger, we were just painfully aware of the damage the church has inflicted on society over the years, it’s oppression of women in particular and we didn’t want to be associated with it. And this was years before we knew anything about residential schools.

Our confessions to each other about how shameful we felt about studying the Bible and being part of a church, even if we used that term loosely, were always heightened whenever the scriptures we were studying talked about being disciples, going into the world and spreading the Good News, inviting others to come and see what compelled us about being a follower of Jesus.

It was as if we thought that even though we had been drawn to come and see who Jesus was and what this path was all about, no one else we knew could possibly be feeling the kind of yearning that we felt to be part of the life changing aspects of this tradition. So we hid what we were doing.

The National’s church’s objective to strengthen our capacity to invite others to join us out of a place of humility and confidence may at first glance seem like a good survival technique. If we don’t invite people to join the church then how will the church survive into the future. This call to bold discipleship however, is in fact deeply biblical, deeply rooted in our tradition.

In today’s scripture reading which takes place right after Jesus has been baptized, we hear three separate invitations.  John the Baptist invites his followers to turn and follow Jesus. Two who respond are invited by Jesus to come and see where he is staying, to remain with him for a while.  Then one of those two, Andrew, goes home and invites his brother Simon to come and see what he has seen and experienced. 

From the very beginning of Jesus public ministry, there’s a sense that with him there is something to be found that is worth sharing with others. A pattern of growth through invitation is set.

Jesus doesn’t begin his ministry by asking people to believe in a set of doctrines or statements about him. He doesn’t begin by telling people how to behave or by laying down a bunch of rules and regulations.  He begins by responding to their curiosity and their yearning for something more.  He invites them into a relationship. Ultimately, he invites them into a way of life. It’s intimate, its abiding, it honours our individual experience and our autonomy to respond or not respond to the invitation. It’s not coercive.

The thing about this invitation is that if we don’t accept it for ourselves, if we don’t commit to the deepening of this relationship and the maturing of our spiritual lives, if we actually do invite others to come and see what we have come and seen, our invitation won’t be very compelling.

Compelling invitations come from people living compelling lives of faith.

The invitation John the Baptist extends to his followers might not sound very compelling on the page.  It’s an invitation to encounter the Lamb of God, the One who takes away the sin of the world.

I need to tell you that the image of Jesus as the Lamb of God is one of my least favourite biblical metaphors.  When I hear those words what comes to my mind is a poor helpless victim about to be sent to the slaughterhouse.  It’s not very compelling for me.

That’s because I am not a 1st century Jew to whom the writer of John’s gospel was speaking when he used these words.  When a 1st century Jew heard those words about the Lamb of God taking away the sin of the world, the writer of John’s gospel knew that what they would hear was a reference to the Exodus, a reference to the lamb’s blood smeared on the doors of the Hebrew people to protect them from the wrath of Pharoah when Moses was leading them out of slavery and into the promised land.  In other words what they heard was a reference to a God, a life-force that protects and delivers people from bondage.

Now the invitation sounds a bit more compelling.  According to John’s gospel, a relationship with the living Christ is an invitation to be delivered from whatever bondage we are in, whether that be the bondage of personal sorrow, or the fears that keep us up at night, the bondage of a world caught up in power struggles that lead to war and patterns of inequality, or the bondage to the conventional wisdom that enslaves us to a life of achievement, affluence and appearance and the destruction of our planet.

John’s Gospel would also say that to have a relationship with the living Christ, to give ourselves over to the way of radical love and care for those on the margins, is also an invitation to be accepted and loved for who we are no matter how messed up or broken we may be. It’s an invitation to experience God’s compassion and grace.  Here is the one who takes away the sin and brokenness of the world.  Here is the path to justice and peace.

We are living in a world that needs a lot of grace and a lot of healing. If we have experienced a presence and found a pathway that we believe leads to grace and healing and emboldens us to live our lives for the sake of others, why wouldn’t we want to share it with others?

I never want to diminish the hurts and the harms that have been inflicted on generations of people and on our environment in the name of Christianity, but inspired by the National church, I wonder if it isn’t time for us to reclaim the call to be bold in our discipleship and to invite others with humility and confidence to come and see what we have seen and experienced in this place and in the world beyond.