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Called to Serve in the World

May 15, 2021

On the night he was betrayed, He took the bread, blessed it, broke it, and gave it to them… saying, do this in remembrance of me. With these words from 1 Corinthians 11, the liturgy for the Sacrament of the Lord’s Supper invites us to join Jesus at the table with his disciples. For me, this invitation to join the Lord at the table is a blessing and an honor. As a pastor and chaplain, it has been my sacred honor to celebrate the Lord’s Supper with people around the world for thirty-four years. What continues to amaze me is the fact that Jesus gave this gift to his disciples on the night he was betrayed! Instead of focusing on himself, he was focusing on his disciples and giving them the gift of this sacrament. He was preparing them for the road ahead that would come following his resurrection and ascension.

The Gospel of John offers a different perspective on the last night of Jesus’ life.  The last night began with Jesus washing the disciples’ feet in chapter 13. Jesus showed the disciples what love was supposed to look like. He even washed the feet of his betrayer, Judas. In chapters 14-16 Jesus offered the eleven remaining disciples some final words of guidance and instruction.  After the lessons, Jesus began to pray what is often called Jesus’ “High Priestly Prayer” in chapter 17. In it, he prays for himself (verses 1-7), his disciples (verses 6-19), and for those who will believe in him through the words of the disciples (verses 20-26).

This Sunday’s focus is on the prayer Jesus offered for his disciples. The rhythmic language of this prayer can be mesmerizing. The language is rich in symbolism and metaphors. Two focal points in the prayer strike me. Realizing that he would no longer “be in the world,” Jesus prays that the disciples would be protected as they continue Jesus’ ministry “in the world.” The second point for me is the fact that despite the dangers, the disciples were being charged, commissioned if you will, to take Jesus’ message of radical love and forgiveness into the world.

What does that mean for us today? I remember having a good discussion with a friend of mine who was a leader of one of the Campus Christian groups at the University of Wisconsin at Eau Claire. The discussion was about the tension between always hanging out with the “saved” group and not spending any time getting to know the “unsaved” people who were supposed to be evangelized by members of the group. If we spent so much time setting ourselves apart from the “world,” how would we ever be able to share the gospel with them. 

Isn’t that the tension that we find in this prayer in Chapter 17 and in the life of Jesus itself? Jesus was always getting in trouble with the religious elite because he hung out with the “sinners” instead of the religious “insiders.” While the religious elite worked so hard to preserve the established way of being religious, Jesus chose instead to think outside of the box and reach out to the very people whom the establishment ignored.

As I consider thinking outside of the box, I find myself being challenged to look at ministry differently. When church buildings closed in March of 2020, the church was forced to examine who it was and what its mission was going to be in the new environment. I challenged my congregation’s leadership in Colorado to look at the church in a new way. People kept saying that the church was closed due to the pandemic. I kept reminding the people (and myself) that despite the physical facility being closed, that the church and its mission was still very much present and alive. This gradually turned into the mantra “The building might be closed but the church is still open.” Doing the work of Christ means that we must venture outside of the comfortable and the familiar. “As you have sent me into the world, so I have sent them into the world.” (John 17:18) 

Just as Jesus prayed for his disciples before they ventured out into a life of ministry without his physical presence, he prays for us as we seek to be the church outside of the walls of a building. These words of Thomas Merton remind me that as we continue to work in the world and think outside of the box, we must return again and again to be nourished. Action is the stream, and contemplation is the spring… It is for us to take care that these living waters well up in our own hearts. (No Man Is an Island, p. 70) This is especially crucial as we seek to be the body of Christ in new ways in the world.  As we seek to serve in the world, may we return again and again to that source of living water.

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