There’s a church that is on my mind this week, a United Methodist church that meets in a little apartment in L’viv, Ukraine. It started as a campus ministry and now it’s a church pastored by one of the students who came through that ministry. His name is Valodya Prokip.
The gospel of Luke was written for a church like Volodya’s. Luke wrote it for students, to be shared over a season like the 40 days and 40 nights of Lent, to train students in the way of the Lord.
Volodya’s church has a ministry called Youth for Jesus in which they interacts with people, mostly students, that have little to no experience of Jesus, until they encounter his church. But for the last 14 days and 14 nights, instead of students they’ve been encountering refugees.
Last week Pastor Volodya stepped outside while air raid sirens were going off at 6AM to find people searching for shelter. When his church let them in and gave them sleeping bags, food, and a place to stay for free, they started to ask, “Why are you helping us? You don’t know us. How do you as the church just open the doors and everything is for free?”
“And then,” says the pastor, “we told them that it’s because Jesus has changed us, because he has saved us.”
In his book The Patient Ferment of the Early Church, Alan Kreider argues that the early church, like Luke’s church, grew rapidly in early centuries for two primary reasons, the first being its commitment to hospitality. The first century church was under not Russian but Roman tyranny, and so the poor, the oppressed, widows, and orphans found shelter in the church when they could find it nowhere else. And when those early Christians were asked “Why are you helping us?” they too answered “because Jesus has changed us.”
The second reason for the growth of the early church, Kreider argues, is the intense instruction of students in an alternate lifestyle. Curious seekers were quickly enrolled in training in the scriptures, and in Christian virtues like patience, temperance, self-control, and non-violence. The Church formed a radically different kind of people with a compelling way of life. They became the kind of people that make for peace even in a time of war, the kind of people that you can run to when air raid sirens are going off at six in the morning.
Near the end of the interview Pastor Volodya’s interviewer asks somewhat sheepishly “If the time comes, will you take up a gun?”
Volodya thinks about it.
“Uh, I think no, but I was thinking about that. Yeah, maybe I can bring the bullets, but I will not shoot. But I’ve realized one thing: we’re never 100% sure how we will act when the real enemy is on our streets.
This situation, it’s a big test for Christians, how they are trusting God in front of real danger and the risk of their life. It’s a big test. It’s one thing sitting in the church and saying we should love our enemy, but when the enemy are here, and you see what they are doing, this is not a theory now.”
One of the stories about Jesus that Luke includes for his students is the story that the church reads on the first Sunday in Lent, the Temptation of Christ. But the word Luke uses for temptation is the same as the word for test.
The testing of Christ is a story given to a people tested by their times, by real enemies.
In this story we see Jesus take on the same temptations we face, the same temptations that Adam and Eve faced.
- Adam was tempted to satisfy his own hunger by taking and eating forbidden fruit and he did. Jesus was tempted to do the same, turning stones to bread, but he didn’t.
- Adam was tempted to seize godlike power for himself, and he did (he tried). Jesus was tempted to worship the devil and gain power over all the kingdoms of the world, but he didn’t.
- Adam was tempted to defy death and take immortality into his own hands, and he did. Jesus was tempted to defy death too, but he didn’t.
Wherever the first Adam is tested, when the enemy was on his street, he could not pass the test; but where Christ the New Adam is tested by the same enemy, he prevails. The message is clear, only Jesus can do this.
At the very end the interviewer asks pastor Volodya, “What do you want the rest of the world to know that I haven’t asked you today?”
“I think the world already knows that we have a war in our country, and no matter how much we are talking about freedom in our country, I want to say to everyone that the biggest freedom, from fear, and sin, and a lot of things is through Jesus. I know we have a lot of problems right now, but this is the main news that I keep repeating in every situation. Only Jesus can give you hope. Only Jesus. Every other way is important, but this is the most important.
“This is a great time to preach the gospel. “Besides food, and shelter, and lot of things we are doing because it’s our Christian lifestyle, it’s time to share the gospel because you can give people food, water, shelter, money, but we have the most important thing: to give them Jesus. When you receive Jesus, you get a peace that no one can steal from you.”
In just a few weeks people on both sides of this war will be turning their eyes upon Jesus during Holy Week. Together we will watch as rather than turn stones to bread for himself, Jesus breaks bread with sinners, even the one who is out for his life, saying “this is my body given for you.”
Together we will watch as he is lifted up not in worldly power or dominion, but on a cross, with a crown of thorns, saying “father forgive them. They don’t know what they’re doing.” Today he is tempted to a death-defying leap, but soon he will all watch as he dies, but not before promising peace, paradise, to a criminal dying beside him.
This season is a test for Ukrainian Christians, Russian Christians too, and Lent is a test for all Christians. Valodya’s right, we don’t know 100% for sure how we will act when we are tested. But, thanks be to God, in Christ we’ve been freed to endure testing as those who have been given the answer.