A sermon preached at Niles Discovery Church, Fremont, California,
on Sunday, May 17, 2015, by the Rev. Jeffrey Spencer.
Scriptures: John 17:6-19 and Acts 1:15-17, 21-26
Copyright © 2015 by Jeffrey S. Spencer

I realize that mine is not your average Facebook feed, so I suspect this didn’t happen so much for those of you on Facebook as it did for me, but, oh my, the last few days of the week my feed was peppered with posts about the latest Pew Research study about “America’s Changing Religious Landscape.”[1] The big news from the study is this: the percentage of the U.S. population that identifies as Christian is down sharply – almost 8 percentage points – while the percentage of the population that identifies as atheist, agnostic, or “nothing in particular” was way up.

Graph from the Pew Research report.

Graph from the Pew Research report.

The population of the United States still identifies significantly Christian – about 7 in 10 people. But as a percentage of the population, Christians went down almost 8 percentage points between 2007 and 2014. Mainline Christians (that’s us) dropped from 18.1% of the population to 14.7% of the population. The “nones” grew from 16.1% to 22.8%, a growth of a whopping 6.7 percentage points. So people on my strangely rarified Facebook feed were posting links to blogs contemplating how to interpret these numbers.

One theme I heard repeatedly was about loss of market share. Really. Market share. The emotional content behind these comments fell either into grief or panic – or maybe a little of both. Our numbers are falling. What do we do?!

The issue of falling numbers is also in the scripture readings assigned for today, the seventh Sunday of Easter in year B of the lectionary. I am amused.

The reading from John takes place on Maundy Thursday. Jesus has washed the disciples’ feet and given them a new commandment: to love one another. He has launched into a three-chapter long discourse and now he turns to God and we overhear his prayer. This is all happening because he is about to be arrested, pushed through a mockery of a trial and executed by the government for sedition. The community of disciples is about to experience the loss of their leader, the one who called them together.

John wrote his gospel for a community in the midst of loss. Most biblical scholars believe that John’s community had been kicked out of the synagogue. While being a Jew was hardly having a place of prestige in the Roman Empire, at least it meant having a place, a home. But John’s community had been kicked out, cast off, excommunicated – no longer part of the bigger whole. They had experiences a drastic loss of numbers.

The reading from Acts takes place after the Ascension and before Pentecost. The disciples watched the resurrected Christ ascend into the heavens. As moderns and post-moderns, that pre-modern cosmology (of Jesus ascending into heaven) can be a little hard to digest, and rather than chase down that rabbit hole, let’s just acknowledge that they are experiencing loss. Their palpable experiences of the presence of Jesus even though he had been killed had abated. And their numbers were down. There were two empty places at the table. Jesus no longer sat in his seat – a seat that no other could fill. And Judas no longer sat in his seat. Peter decided they had to do something about the loss and they selected Matthias to fill Judas’ empty chair. Ah, Matthias. You know what else Matthias is famous for, right? Nothing. He is mentioned here in Acts 1, and then never again in the Bible.

The writer of Acts doesn’t explain Peter’s motivation. It just says that Peter concluded that Judas’ empty chair needed to be filled. Maybe he just felt he had to do something about their declining numbers. I don’t know.

I know that many of the posts about the Pew Research report concluded that the church has to do something about it’s declining numbers. But one noteworthy response had a different conclusion. Stephen Mattson points out that in 1948, 91% of Americans identified as Christian (69% Protestant and 22% Catholic). And, he points out, that in 1948, “Segregation was still widely practiced and racism was everywhere. It would still be another five years before Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat on a bus and six years before Brown v. Board of Education.”[2]

He goes on: “The Cold War had begun and the Red Scare was sweeping the nation, inspiring fear, anger, and trepidation. People, organizations, and institutions who voiced dissent, criticism, and non-conformist views were portrayed as traitors – wrongfully persecuted due to widespread panic and political fanaticism.

“Women were the victims of inequitable social, professional, and religious practices and expectations. Largely excluded from leadership positions, receiving unfair wages, and forced into specific gender roles, a largely ‘Christian’ culture refused to empower women and maintained an unhealthy ‘status quo.’”[3]

In 1948, we may have been over 90% Christian, but we sure didn’t act it.

And we didn’t act it in 1965 when the percentage of Christians in the United States was up to 93%.[4] We may have made some progress on equal rights, but the Watts riots showed us we had a long way to go. We were becoming more deeply involved in a war in Vietnam. The drug revolution and the “free love” movement were about to take off.

Mattson’s conclusion is that maybe we’re finally getting a more accurate accounting of Christians in the United States. I’d like to think that the 70.6% of the population that claims to be Christian might actually start following Jesus.

But following Jesus isn’t easy. That’s the conclusion that I get reading this portion of the “High Priestly Prayer” (as it’s called) in John’s gospel.

Jesus prays, “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. I am not asking you to take them out of the world, but I ask you to protect them from the evil one. They do not belong to the world, just as I do not belong to the world.… As you have sent me into the world, so I have sent them into the world.”

I don’t know if I find that prayer comforting or a warning – or maybe both. I let these words of Jesus wash over me. I know they are rooted in love and that is comforting. But they also say that the world will hate me as it hated Jesus.

Scholars agree that the Greek kosmos, translated as “world,” isn’t the universe or the planet. It is the “world” of human social existence alienated, estranged from God. “Walter Wink has suggested ‘system’ as a translation for this special meaning, as in, ‘My kingdom is not of this system,’ or, as in the present case, ‘The world system has hated them because they are not of the system, even as I am not.’”[5]

Mount Katahdin

Being in the world but not of the system – that is the knife edge we Christians are called to walk. The picture[6] on the cover of your bulletins is of Mount Katahdin. It is the northern end of the Appalachian Trail, a hiking trail that goes from Georgia to Maine. Katahdin actually has two peaks – and you can’t see either in the picture. The trail ends in a loop that goes up one side to the first peak and then across the ridge you see in the picture to the other peak.

The knife edge between the peaks of Mount Katahdin.

I say ridge, but it’s really a knife edge.[7] This is what it looks like to hike it.[8] I know there are other trails along knife edges, but I know this one. I hiked it was I was 11 or 12.

Hiking the knife edge.

The thing about knife edges is that you need to be careful. It’s a treacherous fall in either direction.

And so it is with our discipleship. We need to walk in the world but not be of the system. The problem is that many of us are beneficiaries of the system.

I know that I have benefited in one way or another by the system. It provides me with security, often by supporting injustice and oppression beyond my sight (and I don’t go looking). I allow myself to be ignorant. And so perhaps I should remind myself of the African proverb: When an elephant puts its foot on the tail of a mouse, the mouse will not appreciate my neutrality![9] I need to climb back up on the knife edge and join Jesus in his ministry of truth and love.

Jim Wallis points out that despite all the expectation of conflict in this prayer, “it is not a prayer of despair, bitterness, or pessimism. Rather it is a prayer of deepest love, filled with hope and joy. Jesus yearns for his disciples to know and be sustained by the same love that binds him together with his Father. The very love and glory which he has received from God he now wants to share with his disciples and his desire is ‘that they may have my joy within them in full measure’”[10] – or as the NRSV translates the line from the prayer, “so that they may have my joy made complete in themselves.”

True hope and joy are found in the community of the knife-edge-walkers. Jesus offers this prayer so “that they may all be one,” the scripture motto adopted by the United Church of Christ when it was founded in 1957. Walking the knife edge means walking in a way that is not of the system yet is still in the world – just as Jesus was in the world – “to confront the system with the love and truth it does not want to know.

“The offense of the gospel lies in its discontinuity with the world. That is also the hope of the gospel. It has always been so. The hope is in our continuity with Christ and, therefore, our discontinuity with the world.

“The power of the Christian life is joy and hope in the face of discontinuity. The churches have never accepted this easily.  Endless theologies have been constructed to ease the discontinuity, to reduce the conflict, to find some accommodation between Christ and the world, to affirm the world on its own terms, to find our hope in the world after all and to secure a more comfortable place in it.

“The placing of false hope in the world and its power to save itself has always been and continues to be the great threat to the church.

“What the church must always seek is the gracefulness of a life lived in discontinuity. It is the gracefulness of living an ordinary and normal life in Christ, which is so extraordinary and abnormal in the world. Partaking of the richness of that life, one which the world regards as a scandal, is the source of our joy.”[11]

And so, we walk on the knife edge.


[1] Pew Research, “American’s Changing Religions Landscape,” Pew Research, http://www.pewforum.org/2015/05/12/americas-changing-religious-landscape/ (posted 12 May 2015; accessed 16 May 2015).

[2] Stephen Mattson, “The Rise and Fall of American Christianity,” Sojourners, http://sojo.net/blogs/2015/05/15/rise-and-fall-american-christianity (posted and accessed 15 May 2015).

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Bill Wylie-Kellermann, “A Prayer Upon Us All,” Sojourners, http://sojo.net/preaching-the-word/prayer-upon-us-all (accessed 12 May 2015).

[6] You can see the picture we used at http://actoutwithaislinn.bangordailynews.com/wp-content/blogs.dir/38/files/2012/02/Mount-Katahdin.jpg?ref=inline.

[7] I showed this picture on our projection system at this point: https://s-media-cache-ak0.pinimg.com/236x/da/41/50/da4150aeb097fcb74a648140ed42e57f.jpg.

[8] And then I showed this picture: http://i.ytimg.com/vi/pmaVqyKos_o/maxresdefault.jpg.

[9] Peter B. Price, “Walk on the Knife Edge,” Sojourners, http://sojo.net/preaching-the-word/walk-knife-edge (accessed 12 May 2015).

[10] Jim Wallis, “True Hope and False Hope,” Sojourners, http://sojo.net/preaching-the-word/true-hope-and-false-hope (accessed 12 May 2015).

[11] Ibid.