FIRST LESSON I Peter 4:12-14, I Peter 5:6-11
SECOND LESSON John 17:1-11
SERMON: “Addition, Subtraction, Multiplication & Division”
In Gabriel Garcia Marquez’ prize-winning novel, One Hundred Years of Solitude a strange disease invaded the old village of Macondo from somewhere in the surrounding swamp. It is a lethal disease of insomnia that attacks the whole town. The initial effect is the inability of people to sleep, although the villagers do not feel any bodily fatigue at all. A more critical effect than that slowly manifests itself: loss of memory. Gradually the victims realize they can no longer remember or recall the past. Soon they find that they cannot remember the name or the meaning of the simplest things used every day.
You’ve heard of the fellow who said two things happen to you when you grow old — “one is the loss of memory, and I can’t remember the other.”
What happens to a people who do not remember history? They are doomed to repeat it. Memory is a teaching tool.
Christians are to be reminders, living reminders of Christ’s presence in the world. The world’s lethal disease is amnesia, the loss of memory. Today is a Sunday when we celebrate the sacrament of Holy Communion. This was Jesus’ great “object lesson” . . . “Do this in remembrance of me.”
In today’s Gospel reading we overhear a part of the prayer as Jesus was talking with God the Father before he was arrested. The Message version records part of the prayer this way:
I spelled out your character in detail to the men and women you gave me.
They were yours in the first place; Then you gave them to me,
And they have now done what you said.
They know now, beyond the shadow of a doubt, That everything you gave me is firsthand from you,
For the message you gave me, I gave them; And they took it, and were convinced That I came from you.
They believed that you sent me.
They’ll continue in the world While I return to you.
Holy Father, guard them as they pursue this life That you conferred as a gift through me, so they can be one heart and mind As we are one heart and mind.
Why do you suppose John recorded this prayer . . . so that we would remember and the world we live in would be able to see Christ in us. He prays for the church, that we will
all be one. As author King Duncan comments, “Considering the present fragmentation of the Christian community, Christ is probably still praying that prayer today.” So what is it that holds us – the Church – together? First of all, we are united by our beliefs. Somehow when I am typing the word ‘united’ my fingers often type the word ‘untied,’ and we may just as easily be ‘untied’ by our beliefs. Whether united or untied, what we believe is important. Duncan shares a story from another author, John R. Claypool, a certain Mexican bank robber by the name of Jorge Rodriguez, who operated along the Texas border around the turn of the century. He was so successful in his raids that the Texas Rangers put a whole extra posse along the Rio Grande to try and stop him. Sure enough, late one afternoon, one of the special Rangers saw Jorge stealthily slipping across the river, and trailed him at a discreet distance as he returned to his home village. He watched as Jorge mingled with the people in the square around the town well and then went into his favorite cantina to relax. The Ranger slipped in and managed to get the drop on Jorge. With a pistol to his head he said, "I know who you are, Jorge Rodriguez, and I have come to get back all the money that you have stolen from the banks in Texas. Unless you give it to me, I am going to blow your brains out." There was one fatal difficulty, however, Jorge did not speak English and the Texas Ranger was not versed in Spanish. There they were, two adults at a verbal impasse. Just about that time an enterprising Mexican youth came up and said, "I am bilingual. Do you want me to act as translator?" The Ranger nodded, and he proceeded to put the words of the Ranger into terms that Jorge could understand. Nervously, Jorge answered back: "Tell the big Texas Ranger that I have not spent a cent of the money. If he will go to the town well, face north, count down five stones, he will find a loose one there. Pull it out and all the money is behind there. Please tell him quickly." The young translator got a thoughtful, then solemn look on his face and said to the Ranger in perfect English, "Jorge Rodriguez is a brave man. He says he is ready to die." (1)
It is absurd to say that what you do not know won't hurt you. Tell that to Jorge Rodriguez. It is equally absurd to say that it doesn't matter what you believe, as long as you are sincere. Of course it matters what you believe. When the first missionary arrived on Lakemba, one of the Fiji Islands the islanders worshipped a god of harvest, to whom an annual sacrifice had to be offered to insure good crops. Usually a small young boy was chosen. On a killing stone, the little head was crushed with a rock, so that the victim's blood would flow down and cover the whole stone. They believed then the god would give a good and plentiful harvest.
The old killing stone where life was taken has now become the baptismal font, where new life begins for those who are baptized in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.
Of course it matters what you believe.. Sometimes it matters so much that churches divide. That's sad. But when the dust settles, no matter how uncomfortable it makes us, there is a common bond that unites everyone who takes upon himself or herself the name Christian. That bond is this: We believe that God so loved the world that He gave His own Son that whoever believes in him shall have life everlasting. We believe that and that unites us with millions of believers around this planet.
The Book of the Acts of the Apostles tells us that Peter spoke to the crowd to tell them about Jesus. Luke records “41 Those who accepted his message were baptized, and about three thousand were added to their number that day.”
As I studied the prayer that Jesus prayed for the church, for his disciples, I thought about the options that are still in front of us as a church today, which brought to mind the four basic functions I learned in elementary arithmetic: Addition, Subtraction, Multiplication and Division.
I always like addition better than subtraction. Addition has, for me, a positive connotation. When Peter shared the Good News about Jesus Christ, how he died on the cross and that God raised him from the dead, freeing us all from the power of sin and death, God added daily to their numbers.
Sometimes churches add to their numbers by receiving members who transfer from other churches, occasionally Presbyterians even receive members from other denominations. That transaction may add to one church’s membership list but it subtracts from another church’s roll. Changing pews does nothing to add to the kingdom those who are being saved. The Good News does that when people come to faith in Christ, whether or not they join a congregation.
Subtraction happens when we lose members because they move away, die . . . or when their feelings are hurt or people are offended by the words or actions of others. Some subtractions are natural and unavoidable – growing up, moving away, going to be with the Lord. Some are sad, and avoidable. I still like addition better than subtraction.
I always prefer to end on a positive note, so even though we learned division after we learned multiplication, let’s consider it next. We know division happens when we break something into pieces. The kind of division I learned in fourth grade was about dividing things into equal-sized pieces. If I have a dozen cookies and am playing with three friends, so there are four of us, how many cookies should each of us get so that we have the same amount?
Sadly division in the church isn’t about cookies . . . it happens when we have major disagreements . . . or for some people minor disagreements blown up into major ones. And those divisions are rarely into equal parts. General Assembly made some decisions in 2010 about who could be ordained to be Teaching and Ruling Elders, and a significant number of churches have left the denomination. As a people we are divided on this issue.
It is both an advantage and a disadvantage of the Presbyterian form of government that the people vote on issues, and as we know in the political world of our local and national governments, you win some, you lose some. And it can be difficult to be gracious losers . . . and gracious winners.
Back to the positive! In third grade we learned multiplication. I remember learning the times tables and thinking this was the greatest thing! Basically it’s a fast way of adding. I come to the gathering with my three – so there are four of us and we each bring three cookies. Which is easier: 4 + 4 = 8 + 4 = 12 + 4 = 16 . . . or 4 x 4 = 16. Multiplication is great!
And right now multiplication is what we need in the church. little c and Big C.
Suppose each member of a one-hundred member church took seriously the idea of bringing one person to Christ, one person to join the church in the next two years. By this time in 2016 that church would have 200 members. Suppose those 200 members did the same thing – you don’t have to preach like Peter and bring in 3,000 at a time. But by 2018 that 100 member congregation in 2014, that became 200 members in 2016 would be 400 members in 2018. Would you have worries then about meeting a budget? About having
Here’s the cool thing: This multiplication process means that in the next four years each of you has a goal of bringing just two people – you are not responsible to bring in 300 or 200 or even 100 . . . just 2.
We can add and multiply or we can divide and subtract. Which way do you believe God wants us to go?