by Rev. Jerrod H. Hugenot for The Christian Citizen
During seminary, I used to pass by a church in Kansas City, Kansas, with a very strange name. You’d have to go around the block twice to read the entire name of the church.
First, you read the sign. Then you went around the block to go read the church sign again to make sure you read what you thought you had read.
The church’s name: “Christ’s Church of the Jesus Hour.”
It ranks up there with some of the other great “odd church names” I’ve seen or read about: “Lover’s Lane Christian Church” (Texas) and a church whose acronym sounds right at home with something the federal government would have cooked up: FUMCOG (First United Methodist Church of Germantown, Pennsylvania). (Martin E. Marty’s longtime column in The Christian Century made me aware of this one.)
The seminary students used to laugh a bit at the church name. It did not strike us as the most conventional. Reading John’s gospel with the help of a great New Testament professor, I came to wonder if the church leaders were influenced by John’s gospel, particularly chapter seventeen.
In John 17, Jesus claims that “the hour” is at hand when he would be glorified and his disciples given their chance to be in the fullness of what his gospel proclaimed. Just as Jesus was one with the Father, so would the disciples be one with God, known as Father, Son, and the Comforter. (The gospel of John calls the Holy Spirit the Comforter [or Gk., “Paraclete”] who comes after Jesus has departed to console, assure, and empower the disciples in their work of spreading the gospel.) Christ’s Church is called to be a people of this time, or appointed hour inaugurated by the death and resurrection of Jesus.
Likewise, the street corner church “Christ Church of the Jesus Hour” stands there with its improbable-sounding name as a witness to the question posed by John’s gospel. The hour is at hand. Will the disciples, or “church,” be ready to live in it? Further, will we do so as a people shaped as much by the death of Jesus as we are by his life and resurrection?
It was the last Sunday of another congregation in Kansas City, not that many miles away from “Christ’s Church of the Jesus Hour.” And you heard me correctly: it was “the last Sunday.” After the benediction, the congregants would go their separate ways. The property would be given to the American Baptist region. That was that.
The then ABC/Central Region Executive Minister Dr. Fred Ansell (now of blessed memory) asked me to preach at the church to ensure this congregation had a Sunday morning service preacher for the last three Sundays.
After I said “yes” to the region office’s request, I began to ponder what to do. What sort of worship service do you have when it’s literally the last three weeks of a congregation’s life? What do you say now that the “big vote” is now taken, the proverbial “other shoe” has dropped, and the clock is counting down?
The first week I was there, we had four people. The next week, we had six. (When Fred heard the news, he wryly observed I must have had a revival.) The final week, a number of people came. Not many, about a dozen or so. We sang, we prayed, we listened to the Word. And then it was time for the “Amen.”
By intention, I had invited the congregation to be prepared for a different benediction. As the last hymn finished, I asked the gathered people to move around the sanctuary and hold onto something in the sanctuary: a pew, a window, the altar, the door handle. Just grab ahold and prepare to pray, I asked. Then we prayed something that I refused to single out as “one last prayer” as if no others would come thereafter.
I asked the congregation to pray with me a word of thanksgiving for the ministry they were concluding, as well as a word of blessing for whatever ministry and mission the building would take on after the congregation folded. Even though this group would depart, another would benefit from the building. In humility, the congregation realized it was part of the greater “Oneness” of the Church, not leaving future plans to their own hands, but rather to the hands of the greater Church.
The service was not about the ominous hour at hand. It was about the joyful realization that while the little gathering of believers might have thought “the Church” died that day, really, their faith said “the Church” continued. They would find themselves scattered in pews elsewhere the next week. But “dead,” heavens no! The best vocabulary word Christians carry with them was trotted out: “resurrection”—even if the disciples themselves had to take a spell to puzzle the fullness of what this word is all about.
While we see only in part, Jesus’ prayer tells us there is indeed a full “One-ness” to claim. Just as Christians eventually discover the divisions that separate us are built-up human-made sediment, we realize that “our church” is just one part of a bigger story called “Church,” the gathering of believers made one with God through Christ Jesus and by the power of the Spirit. Even when the future we see looks cloudy, the prayer Jesus offers up for his believers is one of trust, hope, and love.
We are never left orphaned. We are never forgotten.
Christ’s prayer continues to bless us, now and forevermore.
Rev. Jerrod H. Hugenot is associate executive minister, American Baptist Churches of New York State.
Photo by engin akyurt on Unsplash