Come home to Calvary
When is the last time you wrote a letter? A real letter – not an email or a text, but a letter. To whom did you write? What made you want to write the letter? Were you out of town? Were you missing them? Last week, Marci started us off with a sermon series called “short and sweet “where we will take a look at the three shortest books in the Bible. Not surprisingly, all three of them are letters. We looked at 2nd John last Sunday, and today, we are in 3rd John. 1st and 2nd John talk a lot about love. But 3rd John is primarily concerned about who we are working with—our partners, our co-workers in doing the mission of God. In our fiercely independent and individualistic culture, it’s easy to think we are supposed to do this thing called life alone. But to be human means to be in relationship. The famous anthropologist Margaret Mead was once asked what she considered to be the first sign of humanity. While the questioner expected an answer like cave paintings, religious icons, etc. Mead explained that the first sign was a thousands of years old fractured and healed femur, the long bone in the leg. She said: In the animal kingdom, if you break your leg, you die. A broken femur that has healed is evidence that another person has carried the person to safety and has tended to them through recovery. A healed femur indicates that someone has helped a fellow human, rather than abandoning them to save their own life, that is when we developed humanity. Friends, we need each other. Afterall, as the old proverb goes: “If you want to go fast, go alone; if you want to go far, go together.”
This month, we’re taking a look at the three shortest books in the Bible. 3rd John wins as the shortest book when measured by the number of words in the original written language of koine Greek. It is only 219 words long, and it is an actual letter, written for a specific occasion, addressed to a single person.
Now, there are many letters in the Bible. And Paul wrote the bulk of them. But most of his letters are to churches, entire communities of people. That’s what we find in Romans and Corinthians and Ephesians.
But the letter of 3rd John is addressed to an individual, Gaius, who is beloved and presumably the leader of a congregation.
The author simply refers to themselves as “the elder.” And while 4th century Christians believed the author to be John, the son of Zebedee, who was also thought to be the author of the Gospel of John, we really can’t know for sure.
Robert Kysar, who wrote the commentary for 1st, 2nd, and 3rd John in The New Interpreter’s Study Bible says this, “This tiny letter offers little in the way of theological significance, but it illustrates the kind of problems that arise in congregations of any era…”
Trying to write a sermon on a book of the Bible that “offers little in the way of theological significance.” can be a bit of a challenge!
But I would disagree with Dr. Kysar because dealing with the problems that arise in congregations is theologically significant. It is part of what seminaries call “practical theology,” the ins and outs of being a community of faith that wants to love God and neighbor.
What could be more significant than that?
The “elder” in 3rd John is primarily concerned with the church’s partnerships and whom they are supporting. Diotrephes is a no. He puts himself first and does not welcome friends or authority. Sounds like the early church knew that narcissists need not apply. We could probably use more of that kind of discernment today.
Demetrius, however, is a yes. He’s been vetted by some others and is to be trusted.
Third John is written to ensure that Gaius and the church support and work with the right kind of people. He writes, “Therefore we ought to support such people, so that we may become co-workers with the truth.” I love that, in this statement, is the assumption that there will be co-workers, people with whom we work together to do the will of God.
The church was never supposed to do it alone or do it all. Instead, we are called to build partnerships and develop relationships with those near and far to share the love of God with the world. The church should have co-workers.
Now there are churches in this country and around the world who really do try to do it, all on their own. They’re often called mega-churches, and they have created elaborate campuses with gyms, and bowling alleys, and coffee shops and schools, so that everything a Christian might need can be found right there at their church.
I can see the draw of that in some ways. All your education and fellowship happens in the same place with the same people who share the same beliefs as you. And I guess there is some comfort and safety in that. But there’s also something very insular and limited about that kind of faith community.
We already know that social media keeps us in these echo chambers that reinforce what we are already inclined to believe and think. So if we add to that a very homogenous and inward looking church community, when will we be challenged or encouraged to use our critical thinking? Where can we go to hear different perspectives and understandings on life, faith, and religion?
Mega churches seem cool and definitely seem successful by traditional standards. But I would easily prefer a church that doesn’t have all the bells and whistles, but encourages critical thinking, embraces diversity, has partnerships in the community, and plays well with others.
One of the reasons I first felt called to Calvary was because of your propensity towards partnerships. You all had recently received an amazingly generous bequest. And you could have decided to build your own thing with Calvary’s name on it, something flashy and new that would serve the city in shiny ways.
But instead of asking “what new thing can we do on our own?” you all asked, “who’s already doing this work in the city, and how can we best support them by partnering with them, both financially and with the resources of visibility and volunteers?”
When I heard about the Breaking Cycles of Poverty Partners, now called our Matthew 25 Partners, I was blown away because it signaled to me your humility in knowing that the church is not always equipped to be a social service agency. Nor do we have to reinvent the wheel. There are already amazing agencies and non-profits doing important and good work. And we can partner with them, support them, be co-workers alongside them, rather than trying to become them.
I loved that you chose New Door Ventures, SF Achievers, Raphael House, and the Boys and Girls Club. I love that we reassessed these relationships and chose to add The Hope Center, supporting women at SafeHouse.
Now, that’s not to say we won’t ever be inspired to do something new when we are called. But it is to say that we have been intentional about seeking out partners in ministry who share similar goals and ethos to bring about the kind of world we believe God intended for humankind.
Sometimes, those partners share our faith. Sometimes, they don’t. In fact, some of the most rich partnerships I have participated in are interfaith. And those of you who have participated in the San Francisco Interfaith Council know what I’m talking about. We learn and grow from our siblings from different faith traditions,and we serve and walk alongside them – at PRIDE, at the Interfaith winter shelter, in Bible Study and pulpit sharing.
Our partners, who may or may not be Christians, make us better followers of Jesus nonetheless. Rachel Held Evans writes:
One of the most destructive mistakes we Christians make is to prioritize shared beliefs over shared relationship, which is deeply ironic considering we worship a God who would rather die than lose relationship with us.
They will know we are Christians, not by who we exclude, not by who we condemn, not by who we hate, but by our love.
Now, the elder in Third John was concerned about relationships, relationships among church members, relationships with other leaders, his enduring relationship with the congregation.
And while he had a hand in Gaius’s faith and in the life of the church, he knew he also had to pass on some of that work to others, like Demetrius. What the elder began, he knew he could not finish. And sometimes, that is one of the hardest parts of ministry: Partnering with good people on good work that you know you cannot bring to complete fruition.
I know when I left the church I served in Minnesota, I was prepared to say goodbye to the congregation, which was hard enough, but saying goodbye to our partners in Colombia, based in Barranquilla and Cartagena, with whom I had visited multiple times and gotten to know hadn’t even occurred to me, and that was just as hard!
Similarly, I know those who work with and volunteer with youth ministries also often feel like that. We get to witness these young people grow up in the church, but we don’t always get to see who they become as they graduate and get older.
There’s a wistfulness in having to let go and trying to trust those who will come after us. With ministry, partnership is necessary. But what’s complicated about partnerships is that
Which is hard especially when we know that we could do it best, right?
I imagine that’s how some of these early church starters felt as they wrote to their former congregations and church leaders whom they had worked with and had come to love. Perhaps if “The Romero Prayer” had been written back then, they could’ve taken solace in that.
This prayer, which I will share with you, was composed by the late Bishop Ken Untener of Saginaw. The words of the prayer are commonly attributed to Oscar Romero, but they were never spoken by him, they were a tribute to him.
It says this:
It helps, now and then, to step back and take the long view.
The Kingdom is not only beyond our efforts; it is even beyond our vision.
We accomplish in our lifetime only a fraction
of the magnificent enterprise that is God’s work.
Nothing we do is complete,
which is another way of saying that the kingdom always lies beyond us.
No statement says all that could be said.
No prayer fully expresses our faith.
No confession brings perfection. No pastoral visit brings wholeness.
No program accomplishes the church’s mission.
No set of goals and objectives includes everything.
This is what we are about.
We plant the seeds that one day will grow.
We water the seeds already planted,
knowing that they hold future promise.
We lay foundations that will need further development.
We provide yeast that produces effects far beyond our capabilities.
We cannot do everything and there is a sense of liberation in realizing that.
This enables us to do something and to do it well.
It may be incomplete, but it is a beginning,
a step along the way, an opportunity for the Lord’s grace
to enter and do the rest.
We may never see the end results,
but that is the difference between the master builder and the worker.
We are workers, not master builders;
ministers, not messiahs.
We are prophets of a future not our own.
So. Who are your partners in ministry? Who is working with you in the effort that God has called you to do?
Maybe it’s members of a group here at Calvary – Faith in Action, Deacons, the Racial Equity Initiative.
Maybe it is one of our partners at SafeHouse or SF Achievers.
Maybe it’s your kid’s PTA or your neighborhood’s home association, or your colleagues at work.
Take a moment. Give God thanks for co-workers, our partners in ministry.
And if you can’t name any, consider, who might you partner with, so that you’re not going it alone?
And now, take a step back. Take the long view. Know that God is ultimately in control, and we only have a small part to play, our part. And it’s enough.
We do not have to be the savior; in our tradition, Jesus is already the Messiah, not us. We cannot do everything; let there be a sense of liberation in realizing that.
And may we trust God enough for this to be so. Amen.
The 3rd Letter of John
The elder to the beloved Gaius, whom I love in truth.
Beloved, I pray that all may go well with you and that you may be in good health, just as it is well with your soul. I was overjoyed when some of the friends arrived and testified to your faithfulness to the truth, namely, how you walk in the truth. I have no greater joy than this, to hear that my children are walking in the truth.
Beloved, you do faithfully whatever you do for the friends, even though they are strangers to you; they have testified to your love before the church. You will do well to send them on in a manner worthy of God; for they began their journey for the sake of Christ, accepting no support from non-believers. Therefore we ought to support such people, so that we may become co-workers with the truth.
I have written something to the church; but Diotrephes, who likes to put himself first, does not acknowledge our authority. So if I come, I will call attention to what he is doing in spreading false charges against us. And not content with those charges, he refuses to welcome the friends, and even prevents those who want to do so and expels them from the church.
Beloved, do not imitate what is evil but imitate what is good. Whoever does good is from God; whoever does evil has not seen God. Everyone has testified favourably about Demetrius, and so has the truth itself. We also testify for him, and you know that our testimony is true.
I have much to write to you, but I would rather not write with pen and ink; instead I hope to see you soon, and we will talk together face to face.
Peace to you. The friends send you their greetings. Greet the friends there, each by name.