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?

Prayers Ascending: A Sermon for the 7th Sunday of Easter, 2018


 Today is the 7thSunday of Easter, the season of Eastertide is drawing to a close. It will end next Sunday on the Feast of Pentecost. Today is also known as the Sunday after the Ascension because this past Thursday was the Feast of the Ascension. Although it’s a major feast day in the Church, we didn’t have a service here at Grace—if we had, almost no one would have attended. I know, because we tried it a couple of times. Continue reading

No longer servants but friends–A Sermon for the Sixth Sunday of Easter, 2018

I’ve been feeling a bit reflective, perhaps even nostalgic over the last few weeks. That might not be at all surprising given that I observed my 60thbirthday two weeks ago. But it’s also likely due to the fact that I attended a memorial service for one of my aunts last month and reconnected with my cousins, and this past week, saw the death of another aunt, the last of my dad’s 10 siblings. It’s not just or primarily the grief, it’s the sense of time passing, the lives and the world in which those lives played out, receding into the past.

That sort of nostalgia is common—many of us look back on the world of our childhood as a magical, safe place and feel acutely how different the world is today than it was in the fifties or sixties. But of course, those of us who remember a safe, loving, nurturing past, are overlooking other aspects of those times—the racism and sexism, the overwhelming fear of nuclear war, and so many other things.

It’s also true that nostalgia of this sort is part of what brings many of us to church. We want the reassurance of tradition to sustain in uncertain and anxious times. We want familiar faces, familiar hymns, liturgy that we have memorized. As the world spins ever more quickly out of control, the stone walls of this church that have stood firmly for over 150 years, seem to provide a haven, an ark to protect us from the coming flood.

But of course, it’s not quite that simple. Changing demographics, changing culture, the rapid decline of Christianity in America present grave challenges to the future stability of even the congregation that meets within the solid walls of this building. None of this is new. We’ve been talking about it for years. And in recent months, many individuals and groups at Grace have been reading The Agile Church, by Dwight Zscheile, in which he talks about these changes and how the church might adapt and innovate to become more effective in sharing the good news of Jesus Christ and connecting with our neighbors and larger community.

Still, there’s no little irony that we are reading a book called The Agile Churchhere at Grace. There’s really nothing agile about us. We’ve been here on this corner for over 175 yrs; this building has been here since 1858, the oldest building on Capitol Square, the oldest church in Madison, perhaps in Dane County. But I think Zscheile’s underlying point is absolutely correct. We have to change, we have to experiment and innovate as we seek to connect in new ways to our neighbors, and we have to be willing to fail in the process.

For all of this, we have significant precedent in scripture, nowhere more so than in the Book of Acts, a text that offers us insight into the development of the followers of the Way, as they called themselves, in the first years after the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Last week, we looked at the story of Philip and the Ethiopian Eunuch, one of the most important early examples of the expansion of the good news of Jesus Christ outside of the Jewish and Jerusalem context in which it began.

This week we have part of another story that makes the same point. For whatever reason, we only get a small part of the story—the climax, with its conversion experience, the coming of the Holy Spirit on Gentiles, and Peter’s question, echoing the Eunuch’s words last week, “Can anyone withhold the water for baptizing these people?”

But just who were these people? Our reading is the conclusion of the story of Cornelius the Centurion. Cornelius, we are told, was a god-fearer, someone attracted to the ethical standards and monotheism of Judaism. He had a vision one day that instructed him to send for Peter. As his emissaries were approaching the place where Peter was staying, it was about noon, and Peter was praying on the roof of the house. He had a vision in which a large sheet came down from heaven, and on the sheet were all manner of animals, all of them unclean. But a voice told him, “Take and eat.” Peter refused, and the scene was repeated two more times. Just as he was trying to figure out what the vision might mean, Cornelius’ messengers arrived. Peter and his companions went with them and he preached to Cornelius and his household. As he preached, the Holy Spirit came upon the gathering, including on the unbaptized Gentiles. And Peter asked the question, “Can anyone withhold the water for baptizing these people who have received the Holy Spirit just as we have?”

Like the story of the Ethiopian eunuch, the story of Cornelius is a story of the gospel moving beyond its beginning among a small group of Jesus’ followers centered in Jerusalem, out into the world, and out among people quite unlike these Galileans. Acts will tell the story of the gospel reaching Rome, but it is a story not without conflict and dissent. The New Testament, both in Acts and in Paul’s letters show the tension that arose as the gospel was proclaimed among Gentiles. Many Jews and Jewish Christians were troubled by the expansion of the gospel to Gentiles, and the decision not to require converts to keep the commandments of Torah.

It’s easy for us, 1900 years on the other side of this development, all of us descendants of those who were once outsiders and welcomed in, to see all this as a natural, easy development. But the challenge for us is to discern where the Holy Spirit is calling us now—what sort of barriers and assumptions do we maintain that prevent the spread of the good news of Jesus Christ?

When we ask the question that way, we immediately jump to issues of diversity and inclusion, which are so very important, and have focused our energies as Christians for many years. But in some ways, the obvious issues may not always be the most pressing, or the most challenging.

Having preached on such matters repeatedly over the years, and for some of you, it may have become a bit tiresome, I would like to shift our perspective and think about other internal barriers that prevent us from allowing the spirit’s free movement. And it’s here that today’s gospel reading offers insight.

Jesus is speaking to his disciples at the Last Supper.  He says some pretty remarkable things in this brief passage: “As the Father has loved me, so I have loved you.” Think about it, think about the eternity, the intimacy of that love of God the Father and God the Son—that’s the sort of love Jesus is talking about here, the love he has for his disciples, for us.

But then he goes on. , “I do not call you servants any longer, … but I have called you friends.” While we get the contrast between friend and servant—the change in status, the change in power dynamic, we probably don’t fully grasp the intimacy implied. For us, “friend” has become something casual—especially in the age of Facebook.

But friendship takes on even deeper meaning as Jesus says, “no one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.” If we haven’t gotten the point earlier, by now it’s clear. The sort of friendship Jesus is talking about is nothing like contemporary notions of friendship. It’s all-encompassing. Of course, we’re meant to think of Jesus’ own love, love expressed on the cross. But we’re also meant to think back to the beginning of this section of John’s gospel, chapter 13, where the gospel begins his account of the Last Supper with the words, “And having loved his own who were in the world, he loved them to the end.” And here, end means both the end of Jesus’ life as well as “to the fullest extent possible.”

That sort of love, the sort of love Jesus showed in his death as well as his life, is incomprehensible to us, even as we experience it. That he might be calling us to the same love is mind-boggling. But we shouldn’t regard it as yet another burden or demand. It is a logical extension of Jesus’ calling us his “friends.”

John’s gospel begins with that marvelous hymn, “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God and the Word was God.” It goes on to proclaim, “The Word became flesh and dwelt among us.” That Word made flesh now calls us “friend.” We are no longer servants or slaves, but friends.” It is a declaration of our shared identity with Christ, not just a relationship, but identity. That identity reaches beyond Jesus Christ to God. The love we share with Christ, that we abide in him and he in us, are reflections, extensions, of the love Jesus and the Father share. We abide in Christ as Christ abides in God.

Among other things, what this means is that we share in God’s mission in the world. We project God’s presence and love in the world. That’s why this commandment to love is so important. It’s not just our obligation; it’s evidence of who we are, of our identity as disciples of Jesus Christ.

So to come back to my earlier question, what sort of barriers do we set up preventing the good news from reaching the world—well, perhaps the first barrier is within ourselves, a barrier that limits us from experiencing that intimacy, the fullness of God’s love, and because we can’t experience it, or don’t want to, we are unable to share it fully with others.

May we open ourselves to the depths and riches of God’s love, may we abide in that love, may we become friends with Jesus, and through his love and friendship, begin to share that same love and friendship with the world.







What a friend we have in Jesus: A Sermon for the Sixth Sunday of Easter, 2015

How many of you remember that old hymn, “What a friend we have in Jesus”? I grew up singing it, and I’ll bet many of you my age or older, especially if you grew up in Evangelical backgrounds, sang it as well. You might even know it so well that you could sing at least verse from memory:

What a friend we have in Jesus,

All our sins and griefs he bears.

What a privilege to carry,

Everything to God in prayer.

Oh what peace we often forfeit,

Oh what needless pain we bear

All because we do not carry

Everything to God in prayer.

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