Saturday, January 22, 2011

Ask not what Christ can do for you; ask what you can do for Christ

Week of Prayer for Christian Unity
As you may have seen in the news this week, last Thursday was the 50th anniversary of the inauguration of John F. Kennedy as President. There was considerable focus given to his inaugural address, which certainly continues to stand as one of the greatest oratorical moments in American history. This is the speech, after all, that gave us the famous line, “Ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country.”  My personal favorite quote of the inaugural is, “If a free society cannot help the many who are poor, it cannot save the few who are rich.”

Given the ever-increasing level of angry vitriol in our country’s political life over the last decade, special attention was paid this week to another part of that speech where JFK said, “So let us begin anew—remembering on both sides that civility is not a sign of weakness.”

As we all know too well, the last few years have been tough ones as we have found ourselves in an economic crisis that at times doesn’t seem to have an end. We hope in what economists are now saying: that we are beginning to come out of it.

But, even in the midst of these challenges, there have been bright lights. Not too long ago, I came across an essay by Rev. Susan Brooks Thistlewaite in the Washington Post. She took a unique view of our recent events noting that one of the missed lessons is that, more than ever, we’re all in this together. In other words, we are connected - what happens in Tokyo affects what happens in Paris and London and New York. What happens in one part of the world can affect the day-to-day life of someone a world away.

Reverend Thistlewaite also looked back at another moment in history when we were all united by a feeling of crisis, The Great Depression. Thistlewaite decided to look back at another famous inaugural address, that of Franklin Roosevelt in 1933; one which gave us another famous quote, “We have nothing to fear but fear itself.” But, listen to what else FDR said, “The measure of our restoration lies in the extent to which we apply social values more noble than mere monetary profit.” Roosevelt reminded us that there was something greater than money binding us together. And America came to realize that were all in it together – with a shared sense of community and common purpose.

As we gather today, we as church find ourselves praying in a particular way for a similar sense of community and common purpose. We are smack in the middle of the annual Week of Prayer for Christian Unity which ends on Tuesday. And our Scriptures today speak to that idea. In the second reading, Paul’s letter cries out for unity among the people of Corinth. It was another moment in time when people – the early Church – were united by a crisis, and were struggling to survive. “Is Christ divided?” he asks. “I urge you …that there be no divisions among you, but that you be united in the same mind and the same purpose.”

And when we come to Matthew’s Gospel today we are struck by the way in which Christ Himself went about building the first Christian community. He walked along the sea one day, and called first one set of brothers, and then another. He called them two by two. Brother with brother. In other words, from the very beginning, the message was clear: being church is not a solitary endeavor. Remember that the next time someone asks you why you go to church. Can’t I just pray on my own? Christ built a community; a family; living, working, praying – together.

As Matthew tells us, Christ’s Church would be comprised of people who didn’t work alone. They were fishermen, after all, casting large nets into the sea. We live here in a commercial fishing area, so we know that it takes more than one person to haul in a big catch. You need help. I think that’s one reason why Jesus chose His apostles from that particular line of work. They had stamina. They had strength. And they knew how to work together. The great work they would undertake would demand collaboration and even compromise. There is a lesson here, I think, for all Christians, as we pray for unity.

Some scripture scholars believe there may have been rivalry and tension between the followers of John the Baptist and those who would follow Jesus. You’ll notice that when Jesus begins His ministry, He uses the very same words as John the Baptist: “Repent for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.” He isn’t trying to compete with the Baptist. Rather, He is continuing the work that John began – and enlarging and amplifying it. It’s a powerful example for all of us seeking to enlarge and amplify the Gospel and bring it into the world. And we should never forget that what unites us is greater than what divides us. As Paul put it, Christ is not divided – and we are His Body.

The last few years have reminded us that our world is smaller than ever. The global economy means all of us are inextricably linked, for better or for worse. Now, more than ever, we need to bear with one another, listen to one another, hope with one another, and uplift one another -- as residents of the world, and as Christians.

We have nothing to fear, but fear itself. Ask not what Christ can do for you; ask what you can do for Christ. And together, bound by a common purpose, we can achieve great things, no matter what our differences and difficulties. To use a metaphor the first apostles would understand: the sea may at times be rough. But we’re all in the same boat.

“I urge you, brothers and sisters…that there be no divisions among you, but that you be united in the same mind and in the same purpose.”

May God give you peace.

(Based on a reflection from

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