May 24, 2020

Sunday Worship – May 24, 2020

Posted by FirstPresbyterian Regina on Sunday, May 24, 2020

1 Peter 4:12-14; 5:6-11
John 17:1-11

“Holy God, Protect Them”

“Holy God, protect them.” That was part of the prayer that Jesus prayed in the days leading up to his death and resurrection. It was part of the prayer that he prayed for his disciples and for those who would come after them. The fact that Jesus prayed for us so intently in those days, rather than simply praying for himself and his own needs, and the idea that Jesus continues to pray for us even now have often been an encouragement to Christians.

When we’re feeling worried or afraid, when we’re tempted to give up or give in, when we are doubting God’s presence or love, or suffering from various trials, we are reminded that Jesus prays for us. The prayer assures us that we belong to Jesus as his followers, and therefore we also belong to God and are under God’s care. Jesus acknowledges that he will no longer be in the world (at least in a physical sense) but that we will be here and we will need God’s protection.

Jesus talks about giving us the gift of eternal life. But as I suggested a couple of weeks ago, that doesn’t just mean a promise of life after death. It’s a promise of life that begins now and never ends. Jesus defines it, saying: “And this is eternal life, that they may know [God], the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom [God] has sent.”

Jesus’ prayer is not that we will have material comforts, or riches, or an easy life. But he prays for our unity – that we may be one as God, the Holy Trinity, is one. He prays that we may live in loving relationship with one another, united in heart and spirit and purpose. He prays: “Holy Father, protect them in your name that you have given to me, so that they may be one as we are one.”

Most of us have enough life experience and have taken note of the experiences of others to know that the Christian life does not necessarily free us from the struggles of life or from suffering. It was no prosperity gospel that Jesus was preaching, and in fact, following his way is pretty likely to lead us into some struggles. That’s what the concept of “taking up our crosses” is all about. It’s a willingness to accept burdens, to risk suffering, and to give ourselves in love for others. That’s what it looks like to follow Jesus.

But some suffering just comes at us without any decision on our part to accept it. The circumstances of life change and we are struck by illness, loss, failure, or need. Most of us would say that the last few months have been a struggle with the pandemic, though perhaps not the most difficult times for some of us who have been through deep suffering in the past.

The early Christian communities in Pontus, Galatia, Cappadocia, Asia, and Bithynia were suffering greatly when one of the Christian leaders wrote to them around the year 90 CE with a letter of encouragement in the name of the Apostle Peter. One commentary explains that “In the early years of the Christian movement the situation had certainly gone from bad to worse. In the last decade of the first century, official persecution under the emperor Domitian had become more intense and intentional.

“The fourth-century Christian historian Eusebius recounted a story that Domitian interrogated Jesus’ relatives as a way to extinguish the Christian movement. As emperor, he liked to be addressed as dominus et deus (“lord and god”). As a result, he found Christians’ resistance to proclaim him as such -because they reserved that title for their God and Saviour alone – to be, frankly, treasonous.”

The Christian community of that era “found themselves to be a tiny minority, often intensely disliked by the surrounding pagan and imperial world” and suffering from intense persecution. So the writer of the letter attempts to give them some instructions for how to survive through suffering and trials – advice which we also could heed in so far as we also experience some struggles in life, especially when there is a global pandemic taking place.

For many of us, our struggles are real and anxiety-producing. So we are invited to hear the message of the letter: “Cast all your anxieties on God, because God cares for you.” That means holding on to your faith that God is with you, and God loves you. It means talking to God about what is troubling you, praying to God and asking for help. Sometimes it means allowing other people to help you too – other people whom God sends to assist you through prayer, encouragement, or practical help.

The next instructions are to “Discipline yourselves; keep alert. Resist evil. [And] be steadfast in your faith.” Remember “discipline” does not mean punishment. “Discipline” comes from the same root as “disciple.” It has something to do with continuing to learn from and follow the way of Jesus. It means staying on the path, and not giving up when things get tough.

What kind of discipline is required when we are dealing with suffering? How might the evil one be trying to trick us and get us off track?

It seems to me that the obvious temptation would be to become discouraged, to lose our faith in God and hope for the future. Another might be to begin to look inward too much, focussing only on our own struggles and forgetting our mission as God’s people. The devil might try to scare us into selfish ways of living – frightening us into hoarding, or guarding our resources, or simply ceasing to be generous towards others.

And perhaps most seriously, we could forget that our siblings throughout the world are undergoing the same kinds of suffering. The author of the late first-century pastoral letter encouraged the struggling Christians by letting them know that their situation was not unique. Their brothers and sisters in other communities were also being persecuted.

Of course, we, with our television and internet and advanced communication systems know very well that we’re not the only ones struggling with COVID-19. Indeed, we can keep our situation in perspective by remembering that people in other communities are struggling much more than we are.

We remember that there are serious outbreaks in Ontario and Quebec, and especially in seniors’ residences and among care workers. We remember that people in Nova Scotia have their suffering intensified by multiple tragedies and losses at the same time as the pandemic. Our hearts break for the people of India and Bangladesh impacted by the terrible cyclone, and for people in East Africa dealing with a plague of locusts. We long to do something to help our two refugee families stuck in Africa and Pakistan respectively. We know that their circumstances were already very difficult, and now they are compounded by the COVID-19 situation.

The discipline we are called to is not simply to feel bad for those whose suffering is so severe in these days. And it’s not simply to encourage us to put up with our situation because there are others who have it worse than us. But we are called both to pray and to give of ourselves for our siblings who are suffering deeply in these days.

No, I didn’t just come up with those two things on my own. It seems to me that those are the things that Jesus taught us to do. Throughout his life and ministry, and even in his final days, he disciplined himself to pray for us and to give himself completely for our sake. That’s the Jesus Way that we are following – the way of praying and giving.

Some of you will have already seen my posts about this on Facebook or on the Moderator’s page of the Presbyterian Church in Canada’s website, but this summer I’m going on a pilgrimage of prayer, and I’m inviting you and Presbyterians across the country to join me.

It’s called “Walk and Pray with the Moderator,” and starting on June 1st I’m going to walk about 10 km each day while praying for the congregations and other ministries of our church. Starting with ministries on the West Coast and moving East throughout the summer, I’ve committed to walk 1 km for each one. Congregations are submitting specific prayer requests if they wish, and the daily schedule of prayers and requests will be posted online for all who are praying to access.

Some of our congregations are struggling to survive, and others are struggling to adjust to new ways of doing things. Some need inspiration for how to engage in mission and to support their communities. Some need encouragement to keep the faith and grow in their generosity. I’m going to walk and pray for them all, and I hope that some of you will join me.

Then there’s the second discipline which is the giving. I must say that I’m so grateful for the faithfulness of First Church folk in continuing to support our ministry through this time of not meeting together in person. You’ve made extra efforts to get your offerings to the church, and some of you have made extra sacrifices in giving despite reduced personal income or uncertainty about your future finances.

I want to encourage you to keep on doing that if you can. Our revenues have dropped, mostly due to the loss of rental income from the building, and our offerings in April were slightly down as well. Since our commitments remain mostly the same, it is going to be a bigger stretch than usual to meet our obligations and continue our ministry and mission.

At the same time, we are called not to become a church that looks inward during a struggle, that hoards our resources, or prioritizes only our own congregation’s needs. Our giving must go beyond ourselves too, as we remember our siblings throughout the world who are undergoing the same kinds of suffering, and indeed greater suffering than we can even imagine.

Thank you for your gifts to our refugee sponsorship. We are still waiting to get the news that the Mathiang family is able to make the journey from the refugee camp in Africa to join us here in Canada. It likely will be delayed by the pandemic, but when the message does come, we want to be ready to welcome them. We’re still raising funds for that project, and your generosity is greatly appreciated.

Finally, I want to mention the work of Presbyterian World Service & Development. In my Friday email to the church, I shared a short video update from PWS&D’s Director, Guy Smagghe, in which he shares about the ways that PWS&D is supporting our partners around the world in responding to the COVID-19 crisis.

While we are struggling here in Canada, the pandemic has only worsened the inequalities that exist for so many around the world. The United Nations is warning of the potential for famine and estimates that the number of people suffering from acute hunger might double in 2020, potentially reaching a quarter of a billion people. As a member of the Canadian Foodgrains Bank, PWS&D will respond to hunger needs as much as they are able.

PWS&D is also responding through the ACT Alliance where rapid response projects have started in 14 countries. Projects are initially helping affected people with access to food, sanitation and hygiene, protective equipment and psycho-social support, with a focus on gender justice and the protection of highly vulnerable populations. PWS&D partners in three countries (Afghanistan, Malawi, and Ghana) are implementing COVID-19 relief projects through the ACT Alliance.

Adjustments have been made to programs in every country where PWS&D works, repurposing funds for planned activities which are not currently possible. In Malawi, personal protective equipment has been purchased to enable health programs. Food security projects have been modified to ensure people don’t go hungry. Take home packages for students will allow education programs to continue in Afghanistan. Radio messages in Guatemala are raising awareness about the spread of COVID-19.

As Jesus prayed for us and gave himself generously and completely for our sake, we are called to pray and to give for the sake of our siblings throughout the world who are undergoing great suffering. “Holy God, protect them,” we pray, and let our lives and our gifts ease their suffering in these days.

As we discipline ourselves to pray and to give, we are invited to remember and to trust in God’s promise to us. As the author of 1 Peter wrote to the early Christian communities: “After you have suffered for a little while, the God of all grace, who has called you to his eternal glory in Christ, will himself restore, support, strengthen, and establish you.” Thanks be to God.