Friendship with Christ and the world after Pandemic: A Homily for Easter 6B

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?

Chased by the Holy Spirit: A Sermon for Easter 5B, 2021

            
5 Easter 

May 2, 2021

            As many of you know, we have set Sunday June 6 as the tentative date for our return to public worship. We’ve got a lot to do before then much of it having to do with communicating to all of you about what our worship will be like, what to expect. Our return to public worship whether it comes a month from now or at some other point will be both a joyful celebration of return, and an apprehensive, strange experience because of the months we’ve been apart from each other, all that we have experienced over that time, and the accommodations will have to continue to make because of the pandemic.

            So much has changed. I’ve talked with you before about the eerie sense one gets being downtown—the empty sidewalks, the empty storefronts—the massive construction projects in the middle of the emptiness. And for us, perhaps the biggest change is the empty space in the basement of our west wing—the shelter having left on March 30 of last year. None of us has been around Grace enough to really process what the shelter’s departure means for our mission and identity.

            In conversations over the last few weeks, I’ve talked with people about the future of the downtown, and Grace’s role in that future. You may have seen Dean Mosiman’s fine article in the State Journal about all that has changed downtown over the last fourteen months, and downtown leaders’ hopes for the future. There was no mention of the role churches might play in that future but I was surprised while reading an article on a secular site about rebuilding urban community after the pandemic, that the author specifically mentioned the importance of congregations in creating a new, more equitable, more humane urban communities.

            Today’s reading from the Acts of the Apostles is one of the most powerful stories in that book, perhaps in all of scripture. Full of drama and unexpected details, the questions in the text raise more questions for us twenty-first century Christians as we think about the road the Spirit is leading us on as we move from the exile of virtual worship and digital community toward the new realities of gathering for worship and walking into the future.

            Acts is the second volume of Luke’s two-volume work that begins with the Gospel. The two works are linked thematically and organizationally. One of those overarching themes is geography. Luke constructs his gospel as a movement of Jesus toward Jerusalem, where he is crucified and raised from the dead, and ascends to heaven. Acts begins with the disciples still in Jerusalem, gathering in the same upper room where the Last Supper had taken place, where they had encountered the Risen Christ, and where they would receive the Holy Spirit on Pentecost. 

Immediately before his ascension, Jesus had told them that “you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.” Just before this episode, we read that as persecution forced the disciples to scatter from Jerusalem, Philipp had gone to Samaria where he preached and converted many. Now, the Spirit drives him further away, to the road to Gaza where he sees the Ethopian eunuch riding in a chariot. The spirit keeps moving Philipp further, telling him to run after the chariot. Willie James Jennings, in his brilliant commentary on Acts, says, “The Holy Spirit was chasing the Ethiopian eunuch.”

            Then the remarkable story unfolds further. A series of questions follows. First, Philip asks if the eunuch understands what he is reading. In response comes another question, “How can I, unless someone guides me?” And a relationship is born, between disciple and reader, centered on the text of scripture. He reads from Isaiah 53 and asks for clarification. Philip preaches to him, a sermon for one, telling him the story of Jesus. At the end, the eunuch asks the final question, “What is to prevent me from being baptized?” 

            We don’t get how strange this all is. The eunuch is completely other. African, Black, not a Jew, though he likely was what Acts calls “god-fearers” people who were attracted to the monotheism and high ethical standards of Judaism. He was also a eunuch—barred by Mosaic law from serving at the altar. He was a gentile. This is the first time in Acts that the disciples had to confront what would become one of the central questions for that book and for early Christianity—what would be the relationship of Jews and Gentiles in this new community created by Christ?

            Philip didn’t have to think twice. In this story full of miracles and surprises, as they travel down a desert road, they come upon some water, the eunuch asks his question and Philip quickly baptizes him.  Just as quickly, the Spirit snatches up Philip, the eunuch saw him no more, and he went on his way rejoicing.

            This is a story about evangelism. It is also a story about transformative conversations taking place in difficult spaces and across great difference. It is a story about the spirit leading and the spirit snatching away, a story about faith, and reading, and baptism.

            The book of Acts is about the spread of the gospel from Jerusalem to the ends of the earth, and about the creative chaos of the Holy Spirit. For us in this time, this story and the story of book of Acts may seem particularly strange, perhaps even irrelevant. Who of us have been making journeys to distant places? I’ve joked that the furthest I’ve traveled since March of 2020 was to Watertown, where Corrie got her vaccines. We’ve been largely confined to our homes, limited in travel and in encounters with strangers. 

            And as members of a church that has been in the same location for over 160, and whose stone walls are the very symbol of stability and permanence, the idea that the Spirit might be snatching us up and out into new encounters seems a bit far-fetched. But as I’ve been saying, and as the articles I referred to at the beginning of this sermon make clear, when we return to in-person worship next month, we will be worshiping in a very different place than where we worshiped a couple of years ago. The landscape has changed dramatically; our own identity and mission has changed with the departure of the shelter. 

            Where is the Spirit chasing us? Who will we meet along the way? These are burning questions for us as we seek to follow Jesus along the wilderness road. Can we make relationships across difference; can we gather around scripture to read it together and discern God’s call to us? Will we have the courage to step out into the unknown to meet with people, like Philip, even run after them as they make their way, to invite them into relationship with God? Can we imagine the strange new places and people toward which the Spirit is leading us, and the strange new people we might become through those encounters and relationships? And finally, can we envision the joy that we might feel, the rejoicing we might do, at the end? 

            The Spirit is leading us down a new road into the future. May it be a road along which we encounter the Holy Spirit, a road on which we invite those we meet to join us in this great adventure of faith.