Welcome to Level 7

The famous painting of the signing of the Declaration of Independence
The famous painting of the signing of the Declaration of Independence

“My fellow Americans, ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country.

My fellow citizens of the world, ask not what America will do for you, but what together we can do for the freedom of man.”  That quote by President John Fitzgerald Kennedy is perhaps one of the most famous quotes in history.  And it challenges us, both as Americans and as members of the human race to question what is going to be our contribution to the world.  There is an expectation there we do more than simply take up space on this planet.  This concept of citizenship, of having both rights and responsibilities, goes back to the very founding of our nation.  In an early draft of the Declaration of Independence, Thomas Jefferson used the word “citizens” to describe the people of the newly formed colonies.  Nothing exciting there.  Except that he had written the word over another one he had obliterated – the ONLY word that had been obliterated in the entire draft.  That word was “subjects.”  Using the most advanced spectral imaging equipment, scholars have been able to determine what word got changed when Jefferson wrote his draft of what would become the most defining document of American history.  That word was “subjects.”  No longer would we be under the rule of someone else, we were charged with forging our own destiny.  As one writer put it, “No longer subjects to the crown, the colonists became something different: a people whose allegiance was to one another, not to a faraway monarch.”[1]  We belong to something bigger than ourselves, something in which we are all invited to participate in, something that requires us to be willing participants in the process.

But how many of us actually contribute to that effort?

After the age of 18, we have the right to vote yet only a little more than half of us do.  Since 1920, out of the 24 races for the presidency, only 4 had over 60% turnout, and even that only reached a high of 62.8%.[2]  Midterm elections for senators and congressmen are even worse with no election ever turning out more than 48% of the vote.  And the mayors of major cities are sometimes elected with less than 10%.[3]  For a people who have fought and died for their freedom, we don’t seem to appreciate or value it very much.  The same thing is true about our faith.  Our freedom from sin was bought and paid for by the death of Christ on the cross and yet even among professing Christians, many do not participate in the life of the church.  An astounding 73% of Americans claim to be Christian.[4]  Astounding because the reality is about 52% so 21% of Americans claim to be Christian but don’t belong to any organized faith group.  Consistently about 40% of people report coming to church on any given week, yet in actuality only 17.5% actually do.  Of the 52% of Americans who are on record as BELONGING to a church, 29% of them never enter the door and another 27% come less than once a month.   Of the 52% of Americans who belong to a church, 29% never enter the door and 27% attend less than once a month, sometimes only on holidays.[5]  Is church attendance the only indicator of faith?  Of course not.  But how many people do you know who regularly attend Bible study who don’t also come to church?  How many people do you know who regularly even READ the Bible without coming to church?  That’s because if you know your Bible and you believe it is God inspired you can’t help but read the passages that tell us we need to be in a community of believers to experience and understand faith.  “No man is an island, entire of itself.” – John Donne.

The point is simply many of us have become passive in our faith, but that is not the way it should be.

Jesus talks about this in very plain terms with the disciples in the reading we are going to share this morning.  If you have a Bible or a Bible app on your phone, please go to the Gospel of John 15:9-17.  This passage follows Jesus’ teaching about the vine and the branches.  Jesus talks to his followers about how he is the vine, the part of the plant that connects all the others and provides for them, and we are the branches.  For us to thrive, we have to remain a part of the vine; we have to stay connected to God. Jesus is trying to help them understand why this is important and what it means to remain in Christ when he shares these closing words to this passage.

“As the Father has loved me, so have I loved you. Now remain in my love. 10 If you keep my commands, you will remain in my love, just as I have kept my Father’s commands and remain in his love. 11 I have told you this so that my joy may be in you and that your joy may be complete. 12 My command is this: Love each other as I have loved you. 13 Greater love has no one than this: to lay down one’s life for one’s friends. 14 You are my friends if you do what I command. 15 I no longer call you servants, because a servant does not know his master’s business. Instead, I have called you friends, for everything that I learned from my Father I have made known to you. 16 You did not choose me, but I chose you and appointed you so that you might go and bear fruit—fruit that will last—and so that whatever you ask in my name the Father will give you. 17 This is my command: Love each other.

Jesus has just called the disciples into a higher level of responsibility. 

Call it “the inner circle,” call it “the circle of trust,” call it whatever term you want, but Jesus has just included the disciples into this higher level.  And because WE are disciples of Christ, we are included as well.  He tells us, “I no longer call you servants, because a servant does not know his master’s business. Instead, I have called you friends, for everything that I learned from my Father I have made known to you.”  Welcome to level 7. At one time or another, you’ve probably had an experience where you could relate to what the disciples must have felt like in that moment; where your perception of a situation, your ideas about something changed because you were given new information, new insight, or new knowledge.  That’s what’s happened here.  Jesus changes the dynamics of their relationship because he’s preparing them for what’s to come.  He wants the disciples to realize that they have been equipped to continue the work.  They have all they need.  They know why Jesus has come and they know his purpose.  He wants them to be assured that he believes in them.  He even tells them, “You did not choose me, but I chose you.”  That is a powerful statement because it tells the disciples that Jesus has confidence in their ability to do what needs to be done and what needs to be done is simple: Love each other.  Love each other.  He says it twice in this one passage alone.  And his whole life has been a model for how to live that out – show mercy, take care of the poor and the sick, stand up for the disenfranchised, forgive, and share the Word.  We are supposed to give our lives to this mission not because we are servants but because we are friends.  That’s why Jesus says in verse 13, “Greater love has no one than this: to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.”  Jesus LITERALLY gave his life for us, but he challenges us to give our lives in another way – to devote ourselves to his teachings and example.  That is the challenge we have been given.

But how many of us live up to that challenge?

Too often we become complacent in our faith as we do in our responsibility as citizens of our country.  Too often we settle for what is comfortable and we don’t challenge ourselves to carry on God’s mission.  But that complacency is dangerous because complacency leads to complicity.  Complacency leads to complicity.  When we are complacent in our faith we are complicit the failure to lead people to Christ.  It’s like Genovese Syndrome.  Genovese Syndrome.[6]  You’ve probably heard about the famous case of Kitty Genovese, a woman who was sexually assaulted and murdered outside of her apartment building in New York.  Onlookers and witnesses who saw the event did little to intervene and although the initial reports of 38 witnesses was found to be inaccurate, it brought to light this social phenomenon – when multiple people are involved, the diffusion of responsibility is greater.  When multiple people are involved, the diffusion of responsibility is greater.  Meaning that the more people who are part of an event, the less responsibility we each feel individually to make sure something is being done.  In the case of Kitty Genovese, this meant that nobody felt compelled to get involved.  Witnesses either reported feeling inadequate to do something, felt someone else would do something, felt uncertain about helping while others were watching, but none of them went down to see if Kitty was alright.[7]  None went to make sure she was safe.  And unfortunately, this isn’t the only incident where this has happened.  Ten years later, another woman, Sandra Mahler, was killed near the same place Kitty was murdered and again cried for help and again, no one intervened.  In April 2010, long after this case was made known, a homeless man lay dying after being stabbed and although many people saw him suffering, no one stopped to help.[8]  One person even stopped to take a picture.  But are we suffering from this same apathy, this same reluctance to get involved in the mission for Jesus Christ?  We feel that others are better equipped.  We don’t want to get involved.  We are sure someone else is doing the work.  We end up standing by and doing nothing while people are dying every day without knowing the love of God.  President Kennedy once said in a speech, “The only thing necessary for evil to triumph is for good men to do nothing.”  The only thing necessary for evil to triumph is for good men to do nothing.

President John F Kennedy
President John F Kennedy

What are YOU doing for God’s mission?

Jesus told us exactly what we are supposed to do, but are you contributing to that effort with all that you have or like those witnesses and bystanders are you passively letting the world go by?  Are we like the citizen who shouts at the top of their lungs that we have rights in this country, but then shirks his duty to it at the same time?  We are more than simply servants of Christ.  We are friends.  And as friends we have a deeper responsibility to this mission than someone who has no choice in the matter, because we do have a choice.  God has given us the freedom to choose.  We can follow him or we can turn our backs on him, but if we DO decide to follow him, we have to do so in more than just name only.  Challenge yourselves to get more involved in the mission of God in this world.  Challenge yourselves to get out of your comfort zone and find a way to share your love of God with others.  Dig deep into the creative wells of your mind to come up with ways you can be a witness for Christ, but it is within each of you to do so, because God has “equipped you for every good work” through his Word (2 Timothy 3:17).  You are already ahead of the majority of Christians who claim Christ as Lord because you showed up today.  But it is within all of us to do more.  We are citizens not subjects of Christ.  We are friends and not servants of the Living God.  And we can do more.  In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.  Amen.

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