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Knoxville, TN, United States
Interim Pastor of Evergreen Presbyterian Church (USA), Dothan, AL.

Wednesday, May 02, 2007

Getting to Know: The Church

John 13:31-35

“Getting to Know: The Church”

James McTyre

Lake Hills Presbyterian Church USA

Sunday, May 6, 2007

The scriptures for the month of May all have one key concept in common, one word. And that word is, “know.” Not N-O, “no,” but K-N-O-W, know. And as I thought about the distinction between the two words, I realized that for a lot of people, these two words sum up what church is all about.

There are a lot of people who when they think about church, think of the word, N-O, no – and they like it that way. Church is the one place where you're consistently told, “no.” No drinking. No dancing. No running in the halls. No questioning – no questioning God, and especially no questioning the preacher. No loud children. No strange people. No salvation for anyone who doesn't do things our way.

What would you call a church that only says, “No”? How about, “The Church of the Big No's”? But we're all “Big No's” Churches to some degree, because saying “No” is an important biblical principle. Quick – the Ten Commandments start with what three words? “Thou shalt not.” Actually, that's not true. Only 8 out of the 10 begin with, “Thou shalt not.” Do you know which two don't? One starts out, “Remember” - remember the Sabbath and keep it holy. The other starts, “Honor,” - honor your father and mother so that your days may be long in the land. Twenty percent admonition – remember, honor – eighty percent prohibition - “Thou shalt not.” No wonder people associate the word, “No,” with church. And that's not always such a bad thing. In this culture, this 21st century American life, the only place some people ever hear the word, “no” might be church. So in that sense, church is “no” good.

And then there are people for whom church is about getting to know, K-N-O-W. Lake Hills is a church, “In the Community, Serving the Community of God.” That's our motto. You can't have a community if you don't know people. In this church, you can't know no people. You can try, but we make it hard. We do all this standing and greeting, and we share our prayer concerns, and we pray for each other, a lot. When church is based on “know” (K-N-O-W), it's like a laboratory, an experiment, sort of a Montessori school for the soul. And we know there are always times when a church has to say no - “No, we aren't going to do that.” Or, “No, you really shouldn't do that, for your own good, or for the good of those around you.” There are times when even this church needs to say, N-O, “No.” But I think we're a whole lot more likely to concentrate on K-N-O-W before we start telling people what to do or what not to do. In that sense of knowing, church is “know” good.

Which way is better? A church, the church, is always going to be a place where N-O and K-N-O-W have a feisty little marriage. The church is supposed to be a place where you learn what to say “no” to, where you learn – and hopefully learn why – we, as Christians, have to stand up and say “no” to certain things, certain behaviors, certain conditions. And -- the church is supposed to be a place where you learn to know God, and know other people, and know yourself. So, that's why there's this particular theme of “Getting to Know (K-N-O-W)” this month, with a little N-O-ing thrown in too. Today we're talking about the church, getting to know the church, getting to know who we're supposed to be and how we're supposed to be disciples of Jesus Christ. Are we supposed to spend more time telling people “no” or telling people to “know”?


Today's scripture starts this series about knowing with Jesus giving his disciples a lesson. He's teaching them what kind of people they're supposed to be, and eventually, what kind of churches they're supposed to build. And from the start he presses them to make a decision. In what we read today, he presses the disciples to decide whether they're going to be revolutionaries or revelationaries. (I made up that word, revelationaries, so kids, don't use that one at home.)

Think about it for a minute. Here's a group of followers of Jesus, trying to establish themselves as a distinctive new way of faith within the Jewish tradition. Remember, Jesus wasn't trying to do away with the faith of the past, the Ten Commandments and the prophets. Jesus never tried to start a revolution; Jesus was trying to be a revelation. (Revolution, revelation – very different concepts.) Here are these disciples trying to be faithful, yet distinctive – trying to honor their fathers and mothers, yet stay true to Jesus – what's the one word that's got to come to their minds when they think about defining who they are? It's got to be N-O, no. That's basic, human revolutionary thinking, saying, “no.” No, we're not like them. No, we don't believe that way. No, we aren't gonna take it anymore because... we say we want a revolution. We want to be different, we want to be new. If you're a disciple, trying to start the church, trying to be different, you're going to have to think about saying, “No.”

Remember your teenage years? Some of us would rather not. Some of us were teenagers in the sixties and physically can't remember them. Some of you are IN your teenage years, God bless your little hearts. What happens during most people's teenage years? If you're going to learn to say, “No” (and I mean really say no), you're going to learn it when you're a teenager. Do you listen to your parents' music? No. You listen to the stuff your parents can't stand, as loudly as possible. Do you fall in love with the person your parents picked for you at birth? No. You fall in love with the one person your parents don't want you to. And you can't help it. It's like it's instinctual, and part of it may be. Part of it's that driving your parents crazy is fun. But part of it's that you're trying to distinguish yourself, just enough that you don't get grounded. You're trying to be a revolutionary, or at least a little rebellious because your goal is to define who you are over and against who you used to be. You're saying “no” to being a clone of your parents – which is illegal, anyway - and scientifically impossible, unless you're a sheep. You think, “All my parents ever say is, 'No',” which, ironically, is all they think you ever say to them. Ah, teenagers. Can't wait.

It's the same with the church. We're not Roman Catholics because 500 years ago a group of revolutionaries came to be known as Protestants. What's the root of that word? Protest. Revolution's built into our very name. Church groups are often worse than teenagers, because we thrive on an identity based on saying, “No.” No, we're not like them. No, we're doing church the “right” way. No, we're going to split off and become the Church of the Humongous No's.

In today's scripture, look what Jesus calls his disciples. “Little children.” He didn't call them teenagers, because in their culture, by the time you were a teenager you were middle-aged. Jesus calls them, “little children,” maybe because he knows people, and he knows how easy and natural it is to think like a revolutionary, to want to define yourself by saying, “No.” Jesus didn't have a lot of time, so when you think about what might have been on his To-do list, teaching his disciples how to say “No” was, like, Number 800. The disciples, and the churches they founded – the church – in its persistent humanity has never needed Jesus to teach us how to say, “No.” We're pretty good at that one all on our own. Churches set up theological base camps and lob excruciatingly crafted No's at each other all the time. While that's always fun, I'm guessing a lot of people who aren't here on Sunday mornings think the church just sounds like what Jesus said, a bunch of “little children.” Jesus taught his disciples not to stay “little children,” not to be a revolution. He taught his church to grow up, to be a revelation.

Verse 35 says it simply, “By this everyone will know (K-N-O-W) that you are my disciples: if you have love for one another.” Verse 34 says, “I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another.” This is THE crucial distinction. This is what makes a church really a church. When the world looks at the church, Jesus doesn't want them to see revolutionaries; Jesus wants the world to see revelationaries. Jesus wants the world to know who the disciples are, not by what the disciples say “no” to, but by their love. The old camp song gets it right: “They will know we are Christians by our love, by our love.” Yes, they'll know the disciples are Christians by their love. And it's not just because love is “nice.” Jesus wants us to love one another because he loves us. Just as he loves us, that's how and that's why we should love one another. When we love, we become - the revelation - of the eternal love - of Christ Jesus our Risen Lord. When we love, we show people God. When we love, we show who we are as Christians, as disciples. When we love, we change the world, just a little bit – not by revolution, but by revelation.

When people are thinking about joining our church, they ask, “How can I learn about the church?” And I give them more books and pamphlets than a Jehovah's Witness. I tell them to go to the web site, where you can find links to a pretty comprehensive understanding of this church and the PCUSA's history, doctrine and beliefs. Some of this stuff is wonderfully revolutionary. I'm proud to be a part of this tradition. It's good to read these resources and learn the distinctives of Presbyterian and Lake Hills culture. On good days, we live up to all that theology and doctrine and governance. But as the Apostle Paul said, none of that means diddlysquat if we don't have love. If you're ever going to know anything about any church – you've got to feel the love. You've got to see the love in action. You've got to hear the love in worship, and Sunday School, and Youth meetings, and across the dinner table. You've got to experience the love in homes and hospital rooms and gravesides. Those are the revelations of Jesus Christ. That's God. In person.

For too long, we've thought of the church as an institution. The Presbyterian Church, or the Lutheran Church, or the “Church of the Humongous No's.” N-O, no! The church is disciples loving each other because Jesus loves them, just as Jesus loves them. If all you know about the church is the person sitting near you in the pew, if you love them as Jesus loves, you know the church.

I'm going out on a limb, here, but I think that when Jesus comes back, he's not going to ask us how well we defended our doctrine against heresy. He's not going to ask us how many committees we formed, or what our average attendance was on Sunday morning. I even don't think he's going to ask us if we followed all the Ten Commandments 100% or 80% or 20% of the time. I think he's going to ask us if we loved each other. I think he's going to ask us if we loved each other as he loves us. I think he's going to ask us if we made ourselves known by that love. The answer's up to you.