The Right Connections

May 12, 2024

    Series: March 2024

    Speaker: Rob McClellan


    Today's Sermon


    "The Right Connections"


    Acts 1:15-26
    15 In those days Peter stood up among the believers (together the crowd numbered about one hundred and twenty people) and said, 16‘Friends, the scripture had to be fulfilled, which the Holy Spirit through David foretold concerning Judas, who became a guide for those who arrested Jesus— 17for he was numbered among us and was allotted his share in this ministry.’ 18(Now this man acquired a field with the reward of his wickedness; and falling headlong, he burst open in the middle and all his bowels gushed out. 19This became known to all the residents of Jerusalem, so that the field was called in their language Hakeldama, that is, Field of Blood.) 20‘For it is written in the book of Psalms,

    “Let his homestead become desolate,
       and let there be no one to live in it”;
    “Let another take his position of overseer.”

    21So one of the men who have accompanied us throughout the time that the Lord Jesus went in and out among us, 22beginning from the baptism of John until the day when he was taken up from us—one of these must become a witness with us to his resurrection.’ 23So they proposed two, Joseph called Barsabbas, who was also known as Justus, and Matthias. 24Then they prayed and said, ‘Lord, you know everyone’s heart. Show us which one of these two you have chosen 25to take the place in this ministry and apostleship from which Judas turned aside to go to his own place.’ 26And they cast lots for them, and the lot fell on Matthias; and he was added to the eleven apostles.

    John 17:6-19
    6“I have made your name known to those whom you gave me from the world. They were yours, and you gave them to me, and they have kept your word. 7Now they know that everything you have given me is from you; 8for the words that you gave to me I have given to them, and they have received them and know in truth that I came from you; and they have believed that you sent me. 9I am asking on their behalf; I am not asking on behalf of the world, but on behalf of those whom you gave me, because they are yours. 10All mine are yours, and yours are mine; and I have been glorified in them. 11And now I am no longer in the world, but they are in the world, and I am coming to you. Holy Father, protect them in your name that you have given me, so that they may be one, as we are one. 12While I was with them, I protected them in your name that you have given me. I guarded them, and not one of them was lost except the one destined to be lost, so that the scripture might be fulfilled. 13But now I am coming to you, and I speak these things in the world so that they may have my joy made complete in themselves. 14 I have given them your word, and the world has hated them because they do not belong to the world, just as I do not belong to the world. 15I am not asking you to take them out of the world, but I ask you to protect them from the evil one. 16They do not belong to the world, just as I do not belong to the world. 17Sanctify them in the truth; your word is truth. 18As you have sent me into the world, so I have sent them into the world. 19And for their sakes I sanctify myself, so that they also may be sanctified in truth.” 

    The Right Connections

                A friend of mine was doing campus ministry when his small Presbyterian group became the recipient of a number of secular humanists.  The secular humanists had not been able to sustain their own group, but were really seeking community.  They turned to the Presbyterians.  From time to time they expressed dissatisfaction with the Presbyterian offering, but not for the reason you might think.  They complained whenever the group didn’t feel Christian enough. If the group went too long without engaging the Scriptures, too long without articulating and living into the vision of Jesus, if they, well, forgot to be Christian, the secular humanists would call them out on it.  They wanted the Christians to offer their particular gift to the world.

                We are to be in the world but not of it. You’ve likely heard this description of Jesus’ words in John.  As for how to do this, various Christians have answered this question differently.  On one end, some have chosen almost total separation from the outside world, intending to preserve spiritual purity.  On the other, Christians live entirely integrated into the world, but hoping by some different values.  This is where we tend to fall.  There are advantages and disadvantages to every point across the spectrum.

                Learning to live in the world without totally losing your commitments is a challenge.  You may know the language of differentiation, a psychological term.  Differentiation is about knowing where you stop and the other starts, knowing what you stand for even as you evolve through interactions with others.  When you are well differentiated, you are healthily and helpfully connected and engaged, yet appropriately distinct and not unhealthily enmeshed.  It’s about knowing what is mine to take on and what is not.  There is a legal phrase for this, what is our burden and what isn’t.  That’s not to go against the commandment to bear others’ burdens, but to know the difference between offering oneself in service and completely losing oneself, particularly when it won’t ultimately make a difference. Jesus was incredibly present to people he encountered.  He also went away a lot to pray and reorient, recalibrate.  He was in touch with the plight of others, but he didn’t get whipped up into others’ drama.  Do you remember that story when Jesus is told Lazarus is dead and he must hurry?  Jesus in waiting an extra day to arrive essentially responds, well he’s dead so there’s no need to hurry.  It sounds harsh, but there’s wisdom in it.

                Sometimes well-intended Christians, trying to be like Jesus, miss half of the equation.  They go all in on caring for someone but do so in a way that isn’t sustainable and actually doesn’t truly benefit the other.  Those of you who have been faced with that awful predicament of loving someone in addiction know this tension.  Maybe your faith has made you feel as though you failed.  That’s us not having taught you well.

                This differentiation in relationship flows from a differentiation of values.  Jesus’ followers are to remain in the world--whether that means fully integrated or more cloistered isn’t really addressed—but they are to live by a distinct set of values and way of being in relationship.  We can assume this way was distinct enough to cause some problems for his followers, for as Jesus says “the world has hated them” Jn. 17:14).  Don’t take them out of the world, just protect them in it from evil personified (17:15).  It can be treacherous out there.  Remember middle school.  

                Don’t worry. We are in good company when we get it wrong from time to time.  The passage you heard earlier from Acts may be an example of the early apostles not getting it right, giving into their own internal institutional conformity, taking the easy way, rather than stepping out, going against the grain, and acting bravely, not for the sake of nonconformity, but for the sake of the ever-expanding work of the Spirit.  The story sounds like a fairly straightforward account:  Judas, the one who betrayed Jesus, is dead.  By one account in scripture, he hangs himself, by another he just falls dead—so much for the Bible conveying a singular historical account.  The remaining 11 have to choose another so they maintain the 12 which corresponds, of course, to the 12 Tribes of Israel.  To select a successor, they cast lots, a game of change, or if you are of faith, a game that reveals the divine will.

                We often have it read to us as if this is a faithful response. That’s not how historical theologian Justo Gonzalez reads the episode.  A Cuban American, Gonzalez is particularly attuned to the ways in which power structures and dynamics inform the life of the church in all facets including biblical interpretation.  His read of this story is that by opting to cast lots to determine Judas’ successor, the disciples are effectively abdicating their responsibility to enact daring gospel values in the world.  If you notice, the only candidates they’ll consider are ones who were with Jesus from the beginning.  Gonzalez takes this to mean, they will only allow God to choose someone like them.  It’s an exercise, then, not in faith, but in maintaining the status quo, a form of the world’s values creeping into the early church. 

                You can quibble with Gonzalez’s interpretation. Couldn’t God speak through the lot-casting in a miraculous way whereby a non-candidate is chosen?  Or, maybe the disciples are earnestly trying to ensure the next leader is really on board with the gospel project, guarding against mission creep.  Of course, but there is merit to his point.  Gonzalez is saying that rather than living into the gospel spirit which is always about the mission of widening the circle of love and grace, the disciples opt instead for “structure above mission.”[1]  They’re afraid to go against even their own internal religious culture. 

                Going against the grain is hard.  Again, recall middle school.  Yet Jesus calls us to hard things, being in the midst of the world, in its beauty (you can find God in the world) and its challenge and live gospel lives.  We’re promised we won’t be abandoned there.  We can step out in faith to do gospel things. 

                There’s an old story Tony Campolo tells.[2]Campolo, a sociologist and Baptist pastor, was in Hawaii and found himself at 3:30 in the morning jetlagged, hungry and unable to sleep.  So he finds a way to this greasy little diner.  It was grungy, and he started to wonder if he’d made a mistake when, sitting at the counter, he’s joined by a bunch of quite boisterous prostitutes. They take the seats on either side of him as he awkwardly tries to enjoy his stale donut and coffee. 

                At one point, one of them says, “Tomorrow’s my birthday. I’m going to be 39” to which another responds in a nasty tone,

                “So what do you want from me?  A birthday party?  What do you want.  Ya want me to get you a cake and sing ‘Happy Birthday’?”

                The first pulls back.  “Why do you have to be so mean?” she says, “I was just telling you that’s all. Why do you have to put me down? I was just telling you it was my birthday. I don't want anything from you. I mean, why should you give me a birthday party? I've never had a birthday party in my whole life. Why should I have one now?" 

                It’s then that Campolo makes a decision to stay in the world, but stand dramatically apart from the piece of it he’s experiencing. He knows he has the power and privilege and therefore responsibility to do so.  He bides his time until the women leave the diner and asks the man behind the counter, “Does she come here every night?” 

                “Yeah,” the man responds.  “That’s Agnes.  Yeah, she comes in here every night.  Why d’ya wanta know?”

                Campolo proceeds to tell him he’d like to throw her a birthday party.  The man loves the idea, calls back to his wife, the cook, who also loves the idea. She knows Agnes, says she is good and kind.  Agnes, by the way, means lamb, as in lamb of God.  That’s my addition to the story.  They hatch a plan to bake a cake, get some decorations, a sign wishing her “Happy Birthday,” and Campolo returns at 2:30 the next morning to set everything up. By that time, word is out on the streets and by 3:30 the whole place is packed with women of the night who break out in song when Agnes walks in surprised.  Tears form in Agnes’ eyes as she excuses herself to quickly run the cake home, perhaps to a child who’s never had one either, and she then returns to join the celebration.

                At the end, Campolo invites the group to pray and he proceeds to pray for Agnes, her life, her family.  When it’s over, and the women have all filtered out the man behind the counter says, “You never told me you were a preacher.  What kind of church do you belong to?”

                Campolo responds that he belongs to the kind of church that throws birthday parties for prostitutes at 3:30 in the morning.

                The man can’t believe it.  “No you don’t.  There’s no church like that. If there was, I’d join it.  I’d join a church like that!”  The non-Christians, they know a gift when they see one, and they’re asking us to share it.  It is our responsibility and our privilege to do so. 


    [1]Original citation lost.  Likely Feasting on the Wordlectionary commentary series. 

    [2]This story originally appears in Tony Campolo, The Kingdom of God is a Party.