Sunday, September 15, 2013

Phil Kniss: Thinking highly, thinking humbly: The church and its self-image

Holistic Witness: Incarnation
John 20:20-23; John 17:20-26; 2 Corinthians 2:14-17

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“Thinking Highly, Thinking Humbly: The Church and its Self-image”
Sermon title notwithstanding,
let me assure you, church, this will not be a counseling session.
I’m your preacher, not your group therapist.
Nevertheless . . . today I want you to work on your self-image.
You’ve been too down on yourself, church.
I want you to get up in the morning
and look at yourself in the mirror, church,
and say three times,
“I am special.”

Well, I’m being a little facetious,
but not completely.
Because I think there is a distinct parallel
in the way self-image works
in individuals,
and in churches.

When an individual has a low view of themselves,
when they don’t truly love themselves,
and have a clear, strong, self-identity,
they are likely to express that in ways
that hurt themselves, and hurt others.
They might do something they know very well
is hurting themselves.
With a low self-image,
they might subconsciously, or consciously,
think, what does it matter if I chain smoke,
or drive 100 mph without a seat belt,
or be sexually promiscuous,
or stay in an abusive relationship?
I don’t deserve health and happiness anyway.
And with a low self-image,
they might tend to be tough on, or even cruel to,
others persons in their lives.
Trying to make themselves look better,
by making others look worse.

All kinds of bad things come from a low self-image,
for individuals, and groups.
I think self-image even affects
how nations behave in the world community.
Does a world superpower, like the U.S. or Russia,
when its image is damaged in the world community,
have a tendency to compensate for that in unhealthy ways?
In light of the tensions between our two countries right now,
I’ll just leave that as a question.
I’m no expert in psychology of international relations.
But I have a hunch the answer is yes.

So let’s get back to the church, and its self-image.
I’m going to make what might seem like a provocative statement.
Some of you heard me say this, when I spoke at the recent
Virginia Conference Assembly.
I said,
“The problem with the church today,
is not that we think too highly of ourselves.
It is that we think not highly enough.”
It’s become popular wisdom,
in our current post-Christian, post-modern era,
where the church is being pushed to the margins,
to say that the church needs to learn a lesson,
eat some humble pie,
recognize its colossal failures throughout history,
and just back off.
Learn how to sit on the sidelines.

Actually, those are true statements, as far as they go,
for the church, as an institution.
The church of Christendom,
has made some colossal failures,
and it’s okay to sit quiet, to listen and learn.
As a church, we should not be striving for the social status
and political power we’ve had in the past.
That kind of power corrupts,
and we are right to walk away from that.
Of course, no one is offering us that kind of power, anyway.

But if, by “church,” we mean a community of Jesus followers,
disciples of Christ,
then yes, this real community of real people in the world
needs a boost in its self-image.
The church is more important than we imagine.
The church has a greater place in God’s plan for the world,
than we give it credit for.
And we need to stand up,
and realize who we are and what we have.
If we don’t, we will behave badly.

Let’s look at today’s scriptures, so I can explain what I mean.
Jesus had great plans for the church.
Jesus had, and still has, high hopes and expectations for the church.

In the Gospel of John, chapter 17,
we hear Jesus’ passionate prayer for his disciples,
which he prayed, according to John, right in their presence.
It comes right in the middle of a long teaching discourse,
after the Last Supper.
He was teaching them about all kinds of important things,
about the metaphor of the vine and branches,
about love,
about the Holy Spirit,
and then, right as he was speaking to them, John says,
he lifted his eyes to heaven and started praying for them.

I get the impression Jesus had a reason
for praying this out loud in their hearing.
This prayer was another way for Jesus to teach them.
We read part of his words this morning,
“[I pray] that all of them may be one, Father,
just as you are in me and I am in you . . .
I have given them the glory that you gave me,
that they may be one as we are one—
I in them and you in me—
so that they may be brought to complete unity . . .
I have made you known to them,
and will continue to make you known
in order that the love you have for me
may be in them and that I myself may be in them.”

We underestimate the significance of these words.
We often see this as nothing more than a wish Jesus had,
that we Christians would be unified, would be one in spirit.
We read the prayer,
and take it as a moralistic lesson,
to get along with each other better,
so that Jesus’ prayer will be answered.
Oh, a whole lot more than that is at stake.

Jesus was asking his heavenly father to give his disciples
the same character of relationship,
that Jesus himself had with his Father.
Did you hear that one phrase?
“I have given them the glory you gave me,
that they may be one as we are one.”
This is not a “getting-along-together” kind of unity.
Jesus is asking that in the disciples’ relationships
with each other, with him, and with God,
that they experience the same quality of oneness,
that exists in the triune Godhead.
“Just as you are in me and I am in you.
May they also be in us,” he prays.
“I in them and you in me.”

Jesus is praying, you might say,
for a blurring of that sharp distinction
between himself and his disciples.
He knows he is about to leave.
And he wants his disciples to know, clearly,
that he is inviting them into something
beyond the usual relationship
of master and disciple,
of teacher and learner.
He is inviting them to replace him.
To take on the same character of relationship with God,
to take on the same purpose and mission,
in other words, to keep the Jesus thing going.

We cheapen this prayer,
if we think it’s just a simple prayer that God
will help us get along better.

That becomes even clearer a couple chapters later,
in the other section of John that we read, chapter 20.
This takes place during the scene in the upper room,
where Jesus’ disciples were hiding out in fear,
after Jesus’ crucifixion and death.
And Jesus appears to them, in his risen form,
and reiterates his expectations for them.
V. 21 . . . “Jesus said to them again,
‘Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you.’
When he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them,
‘Receive the Holy Spirit.’”

There is no place in the church for a low self-image of ourselves.
We have a divine calling, divine mandate,
even . . . (dare we say it?) . . . a divine identity.
God intends to continue the Incarnation, in us.
We incarnate, that is, en-flesh,
the real presence of God in the world,
just as Jesus did.
I’ve said it before, I’ll say it again,
Jesus was God Incarnate (capital “G,” capital “I”)
in a way that we cannot duplicate or repeat.
But we do incarnate (small “i”),
or put into flesh, God’s real healing and saving presence.
Jesus commissioned us to do so.
Jesus sent the Holy Spirit to empower us to do so.
Jesus expects us to do so.
We continue the ministry Jesus began.

If we really get that about ourselves—
if we get our divine calling, divine identity,
divine Holy Spirit empowerment—
then we have the right self-image,
and we will be appropriately humble.

Because here’s the thing.
Here’s the paradox.
A high self-image, can lead to greater humility.
A low self-image, can lead to pride.

That’s right.
As we truly embrace the divine nature of our identity,
we’re made aware that it is only by God’s power,
only by the resident breath of God, spirit of God, within us,
that we can fulfill our calling,
and we realize that we are not, nor can we ever be, self-made.
It is only by the grace and gift of God,
that we can do like Jesus did,
that we can represent God’s presence in the world.
It’s all God’s doing.
It is God taking broken and weak vessels,
and displaying his power through them.
Just as God has always done.
Read the Bible, and you’ll discover very quickly
how fragile and broken are the “heroes” of our faith.
So knowing our high calling and identity
leads us toward deep humility, deep gratitude,
and a profound awe and reverence toward God.

But the lower our self-image, that is,
the more we reject this notion
that God is partnering with us for the salvation of the world,
the more we neglect our calling and identity
as the true body of the Christ in the world,
the more likely we are to commit the sin of pride.

You see, if we don’t see ourselves
as God’s appointed and anointed in the world,
if we sees ourselves only as a good,
socially significant humanitarian and religious entity,
with the job of making the world a better place,
then we will get too proud of our accomplishments,
or, when we fail, too discouraged.
Because we take too much credit, or too much blame.

For almost 2,000 years of Christendom,
society put us on a pedestal,
put us at the center of town,
and asked us to be God’s spokespeople for society,
to bless and pray over whatever civil society was doing,
and we turned out to be very good at doing that,
and everyone appreciated it,
and rewarded us with their offerings and church attendance,
and we built bigger buildings.
And pride became our deadly sin.

Then, in more recent years, things started to go downhill,
we got ignored, or pushed to the margins,
our numbers started dropping,
we lost much of our social and religious influence,
so we got anxious and discouraged and coveted the power
that we used to have, and others now have.
And envy became our deadly sin.

So to avoid both the sin of pride, and the sin of envy,
the church needs to think more highly of itself.
We are not just an institution
created by civil society to serve civil society.
We are the very body of the Christ in our world.
We are the dwelling place of God.
We are the instrument God is choosing to call all creation
back into fellowship with the Creator.

And we cannot do that, without the very breath of God in us.
Alone, we are powerless.
But with the breath of God in us,
we stand in the very presence and power of God.

Paul’s words in 2 Corinthians 2, which we heard a few minutes ago,
says the same thing in a different way.

Paul has a high view of the church,
and thus, a lot of humility about what we can do.
He writes that Christ “leads us in triumphal procession,
and through us spreads in every place
the fragrance that comes from knowing him.
For we are the aroma of Christ . . .”
So does saying that make Paul proud?
No, it makes him ask,
“Who is sufficient for these things? . . .
Who is sufficient for these things?”
It’s not us, he says.
We are not peddlers of God’s word.
We can never do a sell-job
and convince people on our own power.
But, and I quote Paul, “in Christ we speak as persons of sincerity,
as persons sent from God and standing in his presence.”

Paul sees no contradiction, and neither should we,
between the strong affirmation that Christ is leading us in triumph,
as people sent from God,
standing in God’s very presence,
and . . . the humble acknowledgment that we are in no way,
sufficient for these things.
Paul says them both in the same breath.
And so can we.

So where does this leave us?
I want to tie into my sermon last Sunday,
where I invited us to find and become part of,
communities of disciples
who together practice the way of Jesus
in concrete ways.
I said, being a disciple is never a solo act.
We form practice communities,
demonstration plots for the kingdom of God.

And that’s essentially what I’m saying in this sermon, as well.
If we want to be holistic witnesses,
we must accept our high calling
as communities that incarnate the Gospel.
We don’t just invite people to give
verbal, mental, intellectual assent to a set of beliefs.
We invite them into life with a community of people
who together are seeking to do what Jesus asked them to do,
proclaiming him as Lord,
following him in life,
learning to be disciples,
and putting flesh on, incarnating, the kingdom of God.

I believe the possibilities are endless,
for how this might take shape for us . . . today . . . here at Park View.
I encourage us, I challenge us,
to examine how we are giving ourselves to life in
an incarnational, discipling community.

The alternative is to do like most of us are tempted to do—
live our lives in the way of our culture.
Our culture rewards over-achieving, over-reaching,
super-sizing, out-sourcing,
out-running, and out-performing . . .
measuring success by how big we’ve gotten,
how much we’ve risen above the competition.
And we end up isolating ourselves—
protecting our privacy and our possessions,
and sacrificing the joy and risk of deep community.

But the way of Jesus is the way of risk, and self-giving,
and love, and openness, and vulnerability.
It is people going deeper with each other,
and moving closer to the wounds and needs of the world.
It is people actually helping each other, in real, tangible ways,
to figure out how to live better lives,
that look more like Jesus.
Doing some group experiments.
Trying radical hospitality with neighbors and strangers.
Trying more economic transparency and accountability.
Trying acts of reconciliation and justice.
Just spending time together,
asking, in all seriousness,
what would Jesus be doing here, and now,
and what would it mean for us to try doing that?
And then helping each other when we fail.

I call us, today, to more conversations with each other here at Park View,
about how we might encourage this to happen among us here.
How might we have the guts to opt out of the rat-race
of frenzied activity,
of conspicuous consumption,
of anxious self-isolation . . .
and choose, together, to slow down,
get more real with each other and with God,
not just “going to church”
but “being church” in a deeper way?
How might we help create a counter-culture here,
to nurture a better, more joyful, more sustainable
way of living today?

It will take spiritual imagination and creativity, for sure.

But as we move more in that direction,
we open the channel for the Holy Spirit’s breath
to blow in and through us,
and we become an incarnational community of witness.
We incarnate the presence of God,
we embody the peace of God.

It’s holistic witness.
It’s opening ourselves to those who don’t know Jesus, or the Jesus way,
and inviting them into a community of the kingdom,
inviting them to join a group of imperfect human beings,
who think highly of themselves,
and think humbly of themselves.
who have had the Holy Breath of God blown into them,
and who are being transformed by that breath,
even as they know how frail and broken they still are.

Can we be that kind of people?
A new creation?
A new society?
A people of God’s peace?

But “can we” is the wrong question.
The fact is, we are!
God has already made us that.
We are a new creation.
We are people of God’s peace.
The question is, will we choose to live into that reality?
Or will we, suffering from a low self-image,
say no, we don’t deserve that, or can’t do that,
and settle for a cheap imitation of life.

God help us embrace the rich life for which we were created!
God help us live it fully, and with great joy and abandon.

—Phil Kniss, September 15, 2013

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