By: Eleanor Wellford, Priest Associate
This time last year, my husband, Tenny, and I were in the middle of a project that took the rest of the year to complete. It was called downsizing! We were moving from a house that we had lived in for 20 years; and the fact that we were downsizing meant that there was no way we could bring all of our stuff with us into our new house (although my husband tried his best to do so!). We had to decide what to keep, what to give away, pack away or sell. It wasn’t easy because we had accumulated things from our own marriage but things that our parents and even grandparents didn’t know what to do with and ended up passing on to us.
Figuring out what to do with the pictures was the biggest challenge. It was easy to keep the ones of us and our children, but then there were some faded pictures of people who had lived so long ago that we had no idea who they were. Why were we still holding on to them? If we couldn’t answer that question, how could we expect our children to know what to do with them? Then we both thought: how many generations would it take before someone would look at faded pictures of us and wonder who we were?
What we just heard from John’s gospel this morning was part of what is known as Jesus’ farewell address or prayer during his last meal with his disciples. The timing is a little out of order since we’ve already celebrated Easter but the message is timeless. After Jesus and his disciples had finished eating their Passover meal together, I can imagine that there might have been an uneasy lull in the conversation giving the disciples time to wonder what was going to happen next.
What happened was that Jesus looked to heaven and prayed one last time with and for them. And from what we heard of the prayer, it sounds like Jesus was wondering who would remember him generations after he was gone. His disciples were the closest to Jesus; they were his eyewitnesses, and the survival of his memory and message would depend on them – which may be why Jesus was understandably concerned.
Their message about him would have to be unified which meant that they would have to be unified. They would have to be of one mind – on the same sheet of music. The problem was that Jesus saw disunity or disconnection among his disciples while he was still alive. What would happen after he died?
Even under the best of circumstances, unity is hard to maintain; and these circumstances weren’t even close to being good. Jesus’ disciples would no doubt be sad, angry and bewildered in the time following his death. How could any unified witness come out of that chaos? And even if it did, who would listen to them? The Temple doors would be shut to them. No one at the synagogues would care. Where would they go to console each other and to talk about the man they loved so much but who was no longer with them?
It was truly against all odds that the church began to take any shape at all. The book of Acts tells us that Peter became the leader of the early Christian community within Jerusalem and that Paul carried the message that caught fire way beyond the City. How did that all happen? What was it that stirred within the hearts of some Jews who became Christians and of some Gentiles who found the message of Jesus so appealing?
It must have had everything to do with the Holy Spirit, which David described a few weeks ago in his sermon as the divine matchmaker. The Spirit was also the divine pot stirrer – putting those apostles in unlikely circumstances with strange crowds of people who had a history of avoiding each other rather than wanting to be with each other.
Yet the beauty of it all was what would happen when the Spirit did get involved. Connections would be made; hearts would be opened and love would start to flow. Not a warm fuzzy feeling of love, but a love that is a choice to respect and uphold one another no matter what. It’s a love that ebbs and flows throughout life. The more it ebbs, the more disconnected we become. The more it flows, the more unifying it is.
That unifying love was and always is flowing between Jesus and his Father, keeping them connected at all times. As Jesus prayed: “As you, Father, are in me and I am in you, may they also be in us…” (John 17:21). So that’s the love that Jesus wanted his disciples to live and to witness to. But they didn’t know that at the time of this prayer. They didn’t know that the Holy Spirit would be sent to make that happen.
A few weeks ago Bp IIhoff was at St. Mary’s church to confirm 16 of our youth. Part of any confirmation service is a renewal of our own baptismal covenant. One of the questions that the Bishop asked us reminded me of this type of unifying love. “Will you seek and serve Christ in all persons, loving your neighbor as yourself?” And our answer is “I will.” And because we can’t do this on our own, we ask for God’s help in doing so. Even the Bishop admitted that this part of the covenant is hard to keep because there are always going to be people we don’t like or don’t agree with or simply go out of our way to avoid.
But these are the very people in whom we need to find something of Christ because when we do – when we stop noticing our differences and suspend all judgment – a connection is made that starts that unifying love flowing. It’s like flipping on a light switch, or starting an I.V. or opening a clogged blood vessel. That’s the power of Christian love which was started over 2000 years ago and which won’t lose its meaning or fade away like an old photograph as long as the unity of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit has its way.
Jesus may have wondered if his disciples would be able to witness to that kind of love. He’s probably wondering that about us, today. Like his disciples, we haven’t exactly given him reason not to wonder.
But that hasn’t discouraged him from sending the Holy Spirit our way, to be at work among us, giving us opportunities to make connections by searching out and meeting Christ in each other and starting that love flowing. As the words of an old hymn say:
We are one in the Spirit, we are one in the Lord
And we pray that our unity will one day be restored
We will work with each other, we will work side by side
And we’ll guard each (other’s) dignity and save each (other’s) pride
And they’ll know we are Christians by our love, by our love
Yeah, they’ll know we are Christians by our love.
Songwriter: Peter Scholtes