Sanctification in Times of Change
The Rev. Dr. Fritz Ritsch
John 17: 1-11
We all remember the story of Sodom and Gomorrah, how God destroyed the cities for their hedonism and godlessness. It’s a story often debated. What exactly was the sin that caused them to be destroyed? Is it right for God to act with such violence? What we often don’t remember is the story that leads up to it, in which Abraham, the father of our faith, negotiates with God in hopes of saving the city. We find that story in Genesis 18. God says, “The outcry against Sodom and Gomorrah are great; their sin is exceedingly grave. I shall go down,” God says, to destroy them. But Abraham says, “Wilt thou indeed destroy the righteous with the wicked? Far be it from Thee, far be it from Thee! If you find fifty righteous, will you for their sake save the city?” And God replies, “If there be fifty righteous, then I will spare the whole city on their account.” And Abraham boldly continues in this horse-trading with the Almighty, finally getting the number down to ten; and God said, “I will not destroy it on account of ten.”
God promises, for the sake of this righteous remnant, to protect an entire city otherwise deserving of destruction. Unfortunately, ten righteous are not found; only Lot and his family—not enough to save so fallen a city.
The concept of the Righteous Remnant becomes a staple in salvation history. When the Jews are subjected to the Babylonian exile, sent away from their own homes, there is one prophetic school of thought that maintains the exile happens as punishment for unrighteousness; but the righteous remnant will be preserved, and one day they’ll return to the Promised Land with lessons learned and start the nation all over again, and this time do it right.
And in Christian theology, it could be said that Jesus Himself is the One Person, at last, for whose righteousness the whole world can be saved.
The theology of “The Righteous Remnant” underlies Jesus’ prayer for his disciples in our Gospel reading today. Remember, Jesus in John is absolutely committed “not to condemn the world, but that through him the world might be saved.” But in His prayer, He says, “I don’t pray for the world, but for those you have given me,” in other words, just the disciples. This isn’t because He’s not interested in saving the world. In fact, the opposite is true. Jesus prays for the disciples because it is through their faithfulness that the world is to be saved. Through our faithfulness.
We are the righteous remnant.
This is what Jesus tells his disciples. “I came here for your sakes,” he says, essentially—not because I only want to save you handful, but because by creating you handful, you now have the power and potential to save the world. As commentator Gerald Sloyan puts it, “The task is no less than the sanctification of the world through the sanctification of Jesus’ disciples.”
Remember in the story of Sodom and Gomorrah, if God could only find ten righteous people, God would save the cities from destruction. Clearly, that implies that God is looking for a few good people who are doing what’s expected. It doesn’t need to be many, but it does have to be some. Jesus tells us in John that He came to create that Righteous Remnant, but the goal is much larger than in the Sodom story. Jesus isn’t just out to save the world from destruction, but to bring the world to salvation. Like I said a moment ago, “For the Son came into the world not to condemn the world, but that through him the world would be saved.” So it’s not good enough for us to be righteous for our own sakes. We need to be righteous for the sake of others, and to welcome them into the embrace of the Kingdom.
But it matters what we stand for. Jesus makes it clear what makes us disciples, and what it is that is expected of us. “This is eternal life: that they know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ, whom you have sent” (17: 3). Jesus, in His prayer, makes it clear He’s not concerned about whether they—and we—believe: that’s a given. But He’s asking God for two things: that the disciples be protected in the world, and that “they may be one as we are one”—that is, that we be as unified with one another as Jesus and God are unified with each other.
Our job, therefore, is to love one another. And to be unified by that love to one another and to God. And that job has implications beyond our little group of fellow believers. For us at St. Stephen, it has implications beyond our little community.
In John, Jesus says, “This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you. No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends” (John 15: 12-13). It’s a commandment that is particular to the disciples—that they love one another. Some people think Jesus is saying, “Love only one another, your fellow Christians.” But that’s not it, at all. Jesus constantly reminds us to love neighbor, stranger, and enemy. And of course, our whole purpose is not simply to save ourselves, but the whole world, and that’s certainly loving the whole world.
But our love for each other as believers and as a Christian community has by the grace of God implications far beyond ourselves. If we love one another as Christians, that love has the power by grace to spread like a positive contagion through our world. It’s like the gracious opposite of the omicron variant: the more people we infect with our love, even if it’s just our little community of believers, the more this love will spread and by God’s grace infect the world. It will even infect the people who don’t believe in it—just like Covid-19! And so the world itself moves closer to salvation, all people move closer to loving one another, if we, here in our little Christian community, just work at loving one another.
This is important for us to remember as St. Stephen prepares to enter into this liminal time between one pastor and the next. Something that inevitably happens in this period is that tensions that people may have thought buried, or battles people thought were over, begin to re-emerge. Perhaps people feel like the pastor of the past didn’t listen or care, so now is their chance. Maybe they still think the issues they were concerned about were important but hadn’t yet gotten a fair hearing, and this is their chance. Whatever the reason, long-hidden tensions—or entirely new ones—emerge, and that has potential to cause hard feelings and even deep division in the church.
There are a couple of important things to remember as this happens. Many of you who’ve been on session have noticed that I will sometimes ask, “Where was the tension in this meeting?” This is a question that I learned to ask when I was doing community organizing. I was taught that the place where there’s tension is the place where you have potential to grow. Think about weight-lifting, for instance. People think they are building up their muscle while they lift weights. You actually aren’t. You are putting tension on your muscles. In the short run, that tension is actually tearing your muscle down. What builds your muscle up is the rest period between workouts. Your muscles say, “You know, that blasted idiot is probably going lift those dang weights again! I better do something to build myself up so I can be ready.” So what actually builds the muscle is the rest period.
That’s good to remember as new challenges or old concerns emerge. This rest period, or as I called it last week, this transition, is the place where you work through the things that hurt, or about which you differ, so that you are building up the community rather than tearing it down. Tension is the place where you have potential to grow.
It’s worth remembering one of the challenges of the last transition between pastors. I’m not sure how many people are aware or remember that there was a period of subterranean, secret behavior, where people worked behind the scenes to undermine the process. It got bad. People were even secretly recording confidential session or nominating committee meetings and sharing them with others. It’s shocking to hear about, but my point in bringing this up is, that’s not loving behavior. If people disagree with one another, be honest about it. Debate it in public. Listen to one another. On the one hand, those who were engaged in secretive behavior were doing the wrong thing. On the other, they may have felt no one was willing to give them a fair hearing. It is vital, incredibly vital, that people love one another during this process. And love means respect. Listen, even if you disagree. Be honest, even if it’s hard. Seek a middle ground if it’s possible; but accept it if the majority don’t agree with you. Regardless, respect each other, seek the good for one another, and most of all, seek what’s right for the church and for the Kingdom of God in this time of transition.
And above all, trust God. Trust God to be in this process of discussion and dreaming and planning. As I said last week, trust God to be in the transition. But also, trust that God is in the midst of you, always, and so whatever you come up with together is what God needs from you at this critical time.
That’s what Jesus is praying for for his disciples—for us. That we can disagree in love, with mutual respect, and be bonded by what draws us together in the first place: Jesus Christ. That mutuality and unity in the midst of diversity is meant to be a witness to the world. It’s a gift the Holy Spirit has given us that we need to share with the world. It is a calling that we have as disciples that we must take seriously. It’s how we are sanctified—made holy—and purified for our purpose under heaven.
It is one of the ways that our sanctification can sanctify the world and achieve God’s goal for it—its complete transformation—God’s salvation of the whole world in Jesus Christ.