This past Monday evening, Corrie and I did something we hadn’t done in over fifteen months. We were invited over to friends for dinner. A week earlier, we had been the hosts for another couple, but that dinner took place on our screened-in back porch. So this was the first time, we sat down at a formal dinner table with friends.
It was a lovely occasion, of course but it was also deeply poignant. Over the years we have enjoyed many meals at that table, usually it would be crowded with 10 or 12 or 14 guests and the festivities would last for many hours. Memories of those happy times came to the surface throughout the evening. The meal was fantastic, the conversation diverting, catching up with friends we hadn’t seen face to face for many months was wonderful.
But over it all there was also a sense of loss—the missed opportunities for similar gatherings over the course of the pandemic, the sense that our friendship had been in some way suspended over that time, that we couldn’t really fully engage with each other, share the sorts of things friends share through good times and bad. And there was also something else, a wariness or discomfort as we experienced the strangeness of being in close quarters with other people for an extended period of time.
That wariness, or strangeness, that feeling of a gap in our lives or relationships, is something I’ve also sensed as I’ve begun to meet again with the people of Grace Church over the last few weeks. There’s an awkwardness as we try to reconnect and catch up and those conversations sometimes seem much more difficult simply because I have grown unaccustomed to being present with another person fully—not just as a disembodied voice on the phone or a face on a zoom call.
There are so many things that are going to be difficult as we begin to reconnect face-to-face, and I suspect one of the hardest will simply be the sensory and emotional overload of being together with people we care about and who care about us for the first time in many months.
Friendship—in pandemic as in ordinary times—friendship can be lifegiving and supportive. It can also be elusive. It’s a word that comes easily off our lips and in a world now shaped by social media, friendship can be a fleeting thing, as ephemeral as the posts we scroll through on our various timelines.
So when we hear the words from today’s gospel reading with ears conditioned by life in pandemic, we may hear them rather differently than we would have three or six years ago. When we have felt the strain placed on all of our relationships by quarantine, fear, and everything else we have experienced, to hear Jesus say, “I know longer call you servant but friend” may come as something of a shock. Especially when it comes after a series of other statements about love—“As the Father has loved me, so I have loved you” and “No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.”
When we have struggled to maintain relationships without face-to-face contact, the sort of friendship, the sort of love that Jesus is talking about here is both deeply appealing and may seem to be quite beyond our capacity to feel or experience. We may consider laying down our life for a family member, a child; or we may regard as heroes those who sacrifice their lives in efforts to save the lives of others, but would we really consider laying down our lives for a “friend”?
Here, of course, Jesus is not referring to a facebook friend, but a fellow member of the community that he himself gathers—a community abiding in his love. He, and the gospel writer after him, are envisioning a community abiding in love, just as Jesus abides in his Father’s love. We may imagine that such a love is focused inwardly, on building and deepening the relationships among the members of the community and building and deepening the relationships of individual members of the community with Christ—abiding in his love.
But is not an inward-focused love. It is a love that emanates outward into the world: “I appointed you to go and bear fruit…” The love of Christ in which we abide and which abides in us opens us to a world desperate for that love.
We are slowly, tentatively, as a society, as a congregation, and as individuals emerging from the isolation of pandemic. We are entering the world cautiously, timidly, many of us, experiencing the strangeness of returning to places and to activities that we were forced to abandon for many months. As we emerge, we have to confront the reality of the changed world.
For us at Grace, there may no greater sign of that change than the departure of the homeless shelter at the beginning of the pandemic. Central to our identity and mission for some 35 years, at the heart of our role in the community, vanished suddenly and without fanfare. We have not had opportunity to mourn its departure or to celebrate the dedication of our congregation and so many volunteers over the years to helping some of the most vulnerable members of our community. We will need that opportunity, to mourn and to celebrate, before we can move on fully into the new work to which God is calling us.
There are other changes of course. As we plan for a return to public worship, we can expect to be confronted by many changes made necessary by the pandemic—continued social distancing, masks, no congregational singing. Though many are yearning to return to church, it may not seem to us like “church” at all. No doubt we will be frustrated and struggle with all of the changes.
As we enter this changed world and as we enter our changed church, bringing our fears and uncertainties with us, Jesus’ words here should offer us comfort and encouragement. We abide in his love as he abides in the Father’s love. The love he has for us is not for our benefit alone but is meant for the world. Even as we rebuild and deepen our relationships with each other, Christ’s love calls us out into the world, and for us, that love calls us out into our neighborhood where we can see visibly how much that love is needed right now.
The shelter may be gone from Grace, but as events this past week have demonstrated, whether and where our city can find a new location to welcome and care for men experiencing homelessness remains an open question. And even with the shelter’s departure from Grace, there will continue to be unhoused people living and present downtown. How will we as a neighborhood and church respond to those needs?
More deeply, and reflecting on our experiences as we seek to return to some normalcy in our lives, how can our church support and sustain the building of life-giving relationships among our members and with our neighbors? What can we do to help create a new, vibrant, inclusive, downtown that truly welcomes everyone?
These are important questions that get at the heart of our future mission in our community. The final words of the gospel reading urge us to focus on our responsibilities as followers of Jesus even as we abide in his love: “
And I appointed you to go and bear fruit, fruit that will last, so that the Father will give you whatever you ask him in my name. I am giving you these commands so that you may love one another.”
We truly love one another only if we bear fruit that lasts. The decision to welcome the shelter was a decision that bore much fruit over the last three and a half decades. How will our love in this new season of Grace’s life bear fruit that lasts?