Cliques and Churches



John 10:11-18 NRSV

When I first moved to Enid, I was immediately told that Enid could be “a cliquish town.” They told me that within this town, there exist these “cliques,” these small groups, circles or factions of close knit, tight, cohesive people. I have also heard this said about every church that I have ever served with, and this church is no different.

However, this may not be as bad as it might sound. I believe there may be something good, even redemptive in the cliques of Enid and in the cliques of the Central Christian Church.

Jesus differentiated himself as a shepherd as opposed to a hired hand. He said that when the hired hand sees the wolf coming, he leaves the sheep and runs away, and the wolf snatches the sheep and scatters them. Jesus says that the hired hand runs way because a hired hand does not care for the sheep. The good shepherd, however, knows the sheep and loves the sheep and is willing to lay down his life for the sheep.

Along life’s journey, all of us have encountered shepherds and hired hands haven’t we? Perhaps it was when we, or our loved ones, were admitted to the hospital. The nurse on duty during the day was loving and caring and compassionate. He called us by name. It was apparent that he loved his job. He acted as if he had been called by God to be a nurse. Being a nurse and caring for others was his Christian vocation. He checked on us frequently and did things for us that he really did not have to do. He was a shepherd who cared for his sheep.

Then the 7:00 shift change came. The night nurse took over. And he was night and day different from the day nurse. We asked him politely for some medicine to help us rest. He rolled his eyes and walked out of the room. We only saw him one other time during the night. We never got the medicine we requested. It was obvious that he was only there to earn a pay check. There was no sense of call, no sense of vocation.  He was truly a hired hand if there ever was one. Not a caring bone in his body. He never once called us by our name.

Jesus said that he is the good Shepherd and he knows his own, and his own know him. Jesus is describing a type of inexplicable, intimate relationship. The Greek word translated “know” in this verse is the same word used to describe the intimate relationship between a married couple.

The relationship Jesus is describing is rooted in the most intimate relationship between the Father and the Son. It is a relationship which is so intimate that Jesus later says, “the Father and I are one.”

Thus, when Jesus speaks of the flock, Jesus is describing a close knit, tight, cohesive, caring, supportive flock of people. There are no strangers in this flock. Each person in the flock knows and is known, intimately, personally, profoundly. You might say that Jesus is describing a type of clique.

This knowing is much more than mere recognition. This knowing in this clique includes a deep involvement in the life of the other. It is an involvement characterized by self-giving, sacrificial love. Where folks, Jesus says, are willing to lay down their lives for one another. Jesus was describing what should characterize the life of this church, and every church.

This is what I believe makes this installation service, three and a half months after I began serving with you as your pastor, so meaningful. If we had this service in January, or even in February, many in this flock would be like strangers to me, and I might feel more like a hired hand. I told the group Wednesday night that I was glad we are having this service in April, because now, three months in, because I have come to know you, I have really come to like you folks, in fact, I have grown to love you. I think we have a pretty good clique going on here.

However, Jesus reminds us that such mutual knowing and intimacy, which is characteristic of cliques, should never become so warm, safe and cozy that it becomes exclusive. Such intimacy and caring should never be turned inward. Listen again to verse 16. I think it may be the most important part of our lesson this morning: “I have other sheep who do not belong to this fold. I must bring them also.”

Jesus reminds us that although a clique may represent a loving and caring, intimate community, a clique should never be closed. A clique should always be open-ended. The flock is not yet finally fixed. There are always others who recognize the shepherd’s voice and need to enter the fold.

I believe failing to remember this is the downfall of churches. We must always remember that communities of mutual caring and intimate knowledge should never be closed.

Someone asked me if we were an open and affirming church. I thought to myself, “What a sad day it is when someone feels like they need to ask that question!” Because as a church, we have absolutely no business being closed and condemning.

However, it is important to recognize that all of us possess a tendency to exclude those who are different from us: those who did not grow up in the church; folks who have no idea what it means to be Christian; folks who have questions and doubts; those who are burdened by all types of struggles; folks who are broken, physically, spiritually and socially; those who look, live, believe and speak differently. Comfortable with our clique, we may tend to avoid inviting and embracing the other.

But if a church gives into this tendency to shun and exclude others, then it ceases being a church. Because if a church is not, first and foremost, a place of grace for all people, then it ceases being Christian.

In Acts, chapter 11, we read that when Barnabas arrived in Antioch to visit one of the first churches, the first thing that he witnessed was “grace.” In verse 22 we read:

“…and they sent Barnabas to Antioch. When he came and saw the grace of God, he rejoiced, and he exhorted them all to remain faithful to the Lord with steadfast devotion… and it was in Antioch that the disciples were first called ‘Christians’. I believe it is important to remember that the first clique to be called to be called Christian was called a community of grace.

As Mother’s Day approaches, our thoughts will almost certainly turn inward toward family. There is no doubt about it, a family is a clique; it is a close knit, tight, cohesive community of mutual knowing and caring. But, do you remember what Jesus reminded us about families? In the 12th chapter of Matthew’s Gospel, Matthew writes that as Jesus was speaking to the crowds, someone told him, “Look your mother and your brothers are standing outside, wanting to speak to you.”  And Jesus replied: “Who is my mother, and who are my brothers?” And pointing to his disciples, he said, “Here are my mothers and my brothers!  For whoever does the will of my Father in heaven is my brother and sister and mother.”

Jesus had a very broad understanding of family, didn’t he? The clique is never closed. The flock is never finally fixed. Jesus yearned for deep, personal, intimate relationships with all who try to do the will of the Father. Jesus desired to be in a community of mutual knowing and caring with a broad range of people, with, in fact, all people.

They tell me that Enid is a cliquish town and Central Christian is a cliquish church. And I for one am grateful that they are absolutely correct.  Within our city there exists communities of mutual knowing and caring. The same is true with this church. There are Bible study classes and small groups who genuinely know one another and care for each another. They are not hired hands but are shepherds to one another.

However, during this installation Sunday as our thoughts turn inward as we commit ourselves to remain faithful to one another with steadfast devotion, may Jesus remind us that those thoughts should also be turned outward to the world. May Central Christian Church reach out and invite and embrace others, embrace even those who are different from us, realizing that the clique is never closed and the flock is never finally fixed.

May we go out and remembering the words of Jesus, “I have others who do not belong to this fold. And I must bring them also.”  And may we remember that we are not hired hands; we have a vocation and a high calling… We are the body of Christ.

Teresa of Avila described it this way: “Christ has no body on this earth but yours…Yours are the eyes through which the compassion of Christ looks out on a hurting world; yours are the feet with which he goes about doing good; yours are the hands with which he is to bless now.”  Right now. Right here.  Let us pray together.

Lord Jesus, even though we crucified you, you rose from the dead and returned to us. Even though we forsook you and denied you, you returned and sought us out, as a shepherd seeks lost sheep. You called us by our very own names, and you summoned us to follow you as sheep follow their good shepherd. So here we are. We are together because you have called us to be together.  However, there are many others who you have also called and summoned who are not here, not yet a part of this flock.  May we have the grace and the courage to bring them in also.  Amen.

First Love


John 21:1-19 NRSV

I want us to take a close look this morning at Jesus. Look at him as he appears with wounds in his glorified, resurrected body to a few friends after Easter.  Look at him.  He had come into the world with a message through words and deeds of God’s unending, unlimited, unwavering and unconditional love for the world. But the world did not want anything to do with that message. Therefore, he was tortured, crucified and sealed in a tomb. He came to give us the best that God had to give, the gift of God’s self, and the world reciprocated that gift with the very worst the world had to give, the cross. Jesus came offering love, unbounded, unending, and we nailed it to a tree. Jesus came offering grace, free, extravagant, and it was too much for us. So, we killed him.

But there he was, standing before friends with scars on his hands and feet and in his side. Standing there rejected; standing there wounded simply asking, “Do you love me?”  And he keeps asking, “Do you love me?”  “Do you love me?  Three times he asks.  “Do you love me?”

I believe there is another way of phrasing this simple question. The rejected, wounded Jesus is standing there asking: “Do you really know how much I love you?”

Because if you and I really knew how much Jesus loves us, we would certainly love him. If we really knew the heart of God which was revealed through the love of Christ Jesus, loving this Jesus would be our only response.

John the evangelist calls this love revealed through Christ “God’s first love.”  “Let us love,” he says, “because God first loved us.” God is love and only love. So, let us love because this God has loved us freely and unconditionally from the very beginning.  The Psalmist sings that it was “in love that God created our inmost self and knit us together in our mother’s womb” (Psalm 139:13).

Henri Nouwen once said that this first love is often difficult for us human creatures to comprehend. For the love with which we are most familiar is “second love.” This is the love we experience in our human relationships.  It is the affirmation, affection, sympathy, encouragement and support that we receive from our parents, spouses, church members and friends. Nouwen says that this second love is only a broken reflection of the first love. The second love is a love which often leaves us doubting that love, frustrated by that love, angry and resentful.

All of us who experience human love know just how limited, broken and very fragile it is. Nouwen says that “behind the many expressions of this second love, there is always the chance of rejection, withdrawal, punishment, blackmail, violence and even hatred. Contemporary movies and plays portray the ambiguities and ambivalences of human relationships,” and there are no friendships; there are no marriages, and there are no communities, even communities of faith, in which the “strains and stresses of the second love are not keenly felt.” With human relationships there is always the chance of “abandonment, betrayal, rejection, rupture, and loss.”  “These are all the shadow side of the second love.”

The good news of the gospel is that the second love is “only a broken reflection of the first love, and that the first love is offered to us by a God in whom there are no shadows.”

Jesus is standing there, rejected and wounded and resurrected and glorified as the incarnation of the shadow-free first love of God.  Look at him. Jesus is standing there offering from his very heart streams of living water. Listen to him. Jesus is standing there crying out with a loud voice, “Let anyone who is thirsty come to me!  Let anyone who believes in me come and drink” (John 8:37). “Come to me, all you who labor and are overburdened, and I will give you rest.  Shoulder my yoke and learn from me for I am gentle and humble in heart and you will find rest for your souls” (Matthew 11:28-29).

Jesus is standing there rejected and wounded, yet resurrected and glorified asking, “Do you love me?” “Do you have any idea how much I love you? I love you with a perfect love, a shadow free first love.  I love you without limits, without conditions. I love you without end.”

Do you love me? Then feed my sheep.

I believe when we really know how much God truly loves us, our natural response is feeding the sheep of God: nourishing them physically and spiritually; tending the lambs of God: meeting their needs, educating them, fighting for the lost, the last and the least, protecting them from all those who wish to do them harm, those wolves who often clothe themselves with righteousness, who hide under garments of “family values” or “religious freedom.”

Look at Jesus, standing there in all his glory, yet wounded and broken and rejected, standing there with the loving heart of God. Our response to this Jesus can be none other but to bring healing, reconciliation, new life, justice and hope wherever we go. Our only response should be to say to the world with our whole being: “You are loved, unreservedly, unconditionally, eternally. There is no reason to be afraid, for God loved you first. God loved you before you loved God or even knew God. In love, God created your inmost self and knit you together in your mother’s womb. And God loves you even when your rejected and crucified that love.”

However, because we are more familiar with the second love, with fragmented human love, our natural response is often to love expecting something in return, therefore we have this awful and evil tendency to judge and to discriminate.

I believe this is why we are seeing so much hate in our world today: We have forgotten the first love. I believe the church and our country is in the state that it is in today because we have taken our eyes off of the crucified, risen Lord is standing before us all, asking, “Do you love me?”

After asking three times if we know how much God love us, and after telling us how to respond three times, Jesus said: “In all truth I tell you:  When you were young you put on your own belt and walked where you liked; but when you grow old you will stretch out your hands and somebody else will put a belt around you and take you where you would rather not go.”

This is a radical response, a radical understanding of maturity, for it is the exact opposite of the world’s understanding of maturity, the exact antithesis of American values. But God’s first love is a radically different from the world’s second love and any human value.

The world says: “When you were young, you were dependent and could not go where you wanted, but when you grow old you will be able to make your own decisions, go your own way and control your own destiny.”

Jesus’ vision of maturity is the exact opposite. It is the ability and the willingness to be led to those places where you would rather not go.

Here, as he has said before, Jesus is saying that we must become child-like. We must allow someone else to fasten our belts. We must place all of our being into the hands of God and allow God to lead us even into unknown, undesirable and painful places.

Look at Jesus, standing there rejected and wounded, yet resurrected and glorified. Look at him as he appears with wounds in his glorified, resurrected body to a few friends after Easter Sunday.  Look at him. He is standing there.  Listen to him. He is asking, “Do you love me?  Do you love me?  Do you love me?

Absent Thomas


John 20:19-31 NRSV

On the very first Easter Sunday, John tells us that the disciples had gathered together in a house. The doors of the house were locked underscoring the great anxiety were experiencing. Peter had probably reported to the disciples that Jesus’ body had apparently been stolen. So, they were all probably afraid that the ones who had stolen the body of Jesus would soon be coming after them.

The disciples were not only fearful, but I believe they were also despairing. The Jesus for whom they had left their families and all forms of security to follow was gone. The one in whom they placed all of their trust had been crucified. The one for whom they all vowed to even give up their very lives was dead and now his body was missing.

It is then, as they were gathered together as a community of faith, Jesus shows up and speaks to them great words of comfort and assurance: “Peace be with you.”  Jesus, wanting them to know that he was the very one who was crucified, showed the disciples the wounds on his hands and in his side.  And suddenly, the disciples fear and trembling was transformed into rejoicing.

I believe this speaks volumes about the presence of the risen Lord. First of all, the presence of the resurrected Lord is always transforming. When Jesus shows up, despair is transformed into hope, fear into rejoicing, and as the wounds on his hands and in his side testify, death into life.

John also tells us that Jesus said, “As the Father has sent me, so I send you.”  He then breathed on the disciples and said, “Receive the Holy Spirit.” This is why this glorious event is commonly referred to as “John’s Pentecost Story.”  For John, this is where the Church is born and commissioned.

However, in the middle of all of this rejoicing, we get our first inkling that something is wrong. It is here we read that sometimes dreaded conjunction: “but.”

“But Thomas, who was one of the twelve, was not with them when Jesus came.”  All of the disciples were gathered together in community with their family of faith—all of them, except Thomas. We can only guess where he was—somewhere perhaps out on his own; someplace withdrawn, somewhere isolated, in some private sanctuary. We just know he was absent from his community of faith.

Later, when the disciples find Thomas and tell him that they had seen the Lord, Thomas responds with those infamous words that has given him the nickname, “Doubting Thomas.” “Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands, and put my finger in his side, I will not believe.”

We like to call him “Doubting Thomas.” However, when you think about it, that is really an unfair designation, because Thomas is really no different from the other disciples. Thomas is not asking for anything more than the other disciples received on that first Easter. What really makes Thomas different from the others is that he was not present with his community of faith when they gathered on Sunday morning. He’s not so much a “doubting Thomas” as he is an “absent Thomas.” The risen Christ showed up as they gathered together in community, and absent Thomas missed it all!

No, we really don’t know why Thomas was absent on that Sunday. But those of us who have been a part of the church could certainly guess, couldn’t we?

Have you ever been tempted to stay home on Sunday morning? Have you ever thought to yourself, “I don’t need those people down at the church to experience God! After all, there are people there who have hurt my feeling. There are people there who get on my nerves. I can experience God better on my back porch, taking a walk in a park, or watching the sunrise all by myself.”

Maybe Thomas was tired of the politics, tired of being around people who were all about power and control. Maybe he was tired of all the self-absorbed arguments about who was going to be seated where in the Kingdom of Heaven. Maybe he was simply sick of being around people who were constantly disappointing Jesus—people who could never follow through with their commitments, keep their promises, fulfill their obligations. Maybe he was tired of all of the back-biting, manipulation, resentment, and jealousy. And perhaps he was sick and tired of the way he personally kept failing, kept making mistakes kept falling short.

So when Sunday came around, Thomas stayed home. Thomas decided that he could worship God better on his back porch with a cup of coffee and a sunrise. And who could blame him?

But here’s the problem.

In staying home on Sunday morning, in avoiding community, in missing church, Thomas not only missed the transforming presence of the risen Lord, and missed his commissioning to be the church in the this world,

but in verse 26 we read, that Jesus did not appear to Thomas until “a week later.”

Think about that. A whole week later. Thomas, the only disciple who missed seeing Jesus, the only one who missed the transforming power of the risen Christ, the only one who missed the commissioning of the Holy Spirit, did not receive a personal, private visit from Jesus on Monday morning. He didn’t get a phone call on Tuesday, or a card in the mail on Wednesday letting him know he was missed. There was no text message on Thursday, no email on Friday or facebook post on Saturday. Thomas had to wait an entire week—until when? When the disciples were again gathered together in community, for it is in community where we experience the Risen Christ.

Listen again to verse 26. “A week later his disciples were again in the house, and (this time) Thomas was with them.” I bet he was! And just like the week before with the other disciples, Jesus gives Thomas what he needs to experience the fullness of his transforming presence. Jesus says to Thomas, “Put your finger here and see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it in my side. Do not doubt, but believe.” And this time, not so much because Thomas had stopped questioning, stopped doubting, but because Thomas was present, because he was in community, the risen Lord gave Thomas what he needed to exclaim: “My Lord and my God.”

Disciples of Christ, who have remained faithful to the wonderful doctrine of the Priesthood of All Believers, believe very strongly in individual freedom. That means that we believe risen Christ appears to us, encounters us, on a very intimate and personal level.

However, it is important to note that this historic doctrine is called the “Priesthood of All Believers” and not the “Priesthood of the Believer.”

Our beloved tradition is not the Priesthood of the lone, individual believer out on his or her own withdrawn from the community, but it is the Priesthood of all believers gathered together in community. The late Carlyle Marney was fond of saying, “I do not priest me. I priest you and vice versa.”

It is when we are gathered together as community that we Disciples are at our best. Our faith in the risen Christ is indeed very personal, but it is never private. It is through community, through the gathered body of believers, that I believe we experience the fullness of the presence of the risen Lord and his transforming power.

The church is far from perfect. There’s politics, power plays, accusations, denials and desertion. There’s apathy, jealousy, resentment and failure. There’s cowardice, compromise, manipulation, selfishness, intolerance, and malicious words and deeds all justified as righteousness and paraded as signs of religious devotion. And this is the way it has always been, even with the first group of disciples. However, when we come together in the name of Christ, something miraculous happens that we call Easter. The risen Christ shows up. He gives us what we need to believe. And we are transformed. And we are commissioned.

There’s a wonderful story about a kindergarten teacher who asked her students to bring something to show-and-tell to explain their religion.

  • The first child stepped forward and said, “I’m a Muslim and this is my prayer rug.”
  • The second child said, “I’m Jewish and this is my Star of David.
  • The third child said, “I’m a Catholic and this is my rosary.”
  • The last child said, “I’m a protestant and this is my casserole dish.”

Bob Setzer, has said, “church is about relationships. The church is family. The church is a hand on your shoulder, a handkerchief passed to a grief choked friend, and a casserole dish, piled high with love.”