Leaving a Community
A sermon preached by Pastor Ken Carrothers on May 17, 2015.
On a day we honor graduates perhaps a good thing for us to dwell in the idea of departure. For while graduation is a time of accomplishment that should be celebrated it is also a milestone marking the end of a journey. A time when we say good-bye and prepare to move on to another next adventure. And whether we are graduating this year or not, I would bet most of us have experienced something of this in our life.
Perhaps it was your own graduation years ago. Perhaps you have experienced it through the death of a loved one and have had to learn how to live life without them by your side. Perhaps it was simply moving from one place to another. All of us have experienced some moment of saying good-bye and moving on to something else.
For me my mind is filled with memories of leaving Ripon College. It was my first job after college graduation and I ended up spending five years of my life there. It was a time of incredible transition for both my professional and personal life. And while I didn’t leave until May, I had made the decision five months earlier giving myself plenty of time to have intentional and meaningful conversations with a number of people before I left. Which has me wondering if that isn’t why I am still connected to several of them still today.
Jesus is in a similar predicament. Jesus knows his time on earth is coming to an end and in our Gospel reading today we get to overhear Jesus offering an intentional and meaningful prayer for the ones he has been traveling with this past three years. The ones whom Jesus yanked from obscurity; the ones whom Jesus pulled from their everyday lives of fishing, tax collecting and such; the ones whom Jesus says the Father gave him; the ones whom he protected… and for those who will come to believe in him through their word – and that’s you!
Jesus is praying for us… he is praying for our church… praying for all the churches that you passed on your way to get here… praying for all churches everywhere… he is praying for his disciples and us, because he cares about what he is leaving behind. And what he leaves behind is not a pile of boxes like I did for my brother-in-law to pick up and move for me, rather he is leaving behind something entirely different.
Lesslie Newbigin writes in The Light has Come: Expositions on the Fourth Gospel, “The work of Jesus is the communication of the name of God to a community. He does not bequeath to posterity a body of teaching preserved in a book… He does not leave behind an ideal or a program. He leaves behind a community — the Church.” (p. 228)[i]
Jesus leaves behind a community – the church. Not to be of the world, but in it. Jesus makes it abundantly clear that he is not removing the disciples, nor us from our current situations… nor is he doing away with this world. He is leaving them and us to be light in the darkness, to be a vision of God’s kingdom here on earth, to love one another, to do God’s will as Jesus has done, so that we may have God’s joy made complete in us.
Which really makes me question Jesus… I mean what was he thinking? He chooses his disciples and us to continue his mission in this world. Jesus leaves behind a community. Is the dude nuts?
Communities are messy. Communities are inefficient. Communities are complex entities. Communities are filled with broken people. Communities are emotionally, physically and spiritually challenging. Yes, communities can be beacons of strength, drawing upon the best of all who are involved, but just as easily and more often than not communities are places that deeply wound people, causing far more hurts than they heal. Which is why we often work with such effort to make our church communities – which are so complicated – into something different. Something easier to define and understand…
Like a business: a place where we can define the product we offer, identify our future markets, develop strategy to reach them, implement new processes that will ease our ability to both deliver and assess our results…. Or maybe a delivery service: where we can dispense services within defined hours for those who wish to sign up… Or maybe a club: where we can gather and enjoy the company of other club members who pay their dues on time… And while all these would have challenges, we see them as far easier to understand and run and work with than a true community…
But the thing is… Jesus didn’t leave a business or delivery service or club… Jesus left a community, a fellowship, a witness to his body, a church, and Jesus prayed for it.
He prays because he knows where it is he has left us. He knows it is a complicated and broken world. He knows it is challenging and inefficient. Much like the community he leaves. And that is why Jesus prays for his followers. Because prayer, as Dr. Theresa Latini points out in her Washington Post article has “the origin and (goal) of… union and communion with God. And because we are united to one another through God’s spirit, prayer ushers us into genuine fellowship with one another as well.”[ii]
Jesus is praying his disciples and us into the community we need to be.
Jesus is praying us into mission… Jesus knows that the disciples and we will be distracted from the mission he leaves because we live in the world and are influenced by it. Jesus knows the disciples and we are not fully equipped with the skills and strength for the mission he leaves us to share his love with the world. Jesus knows that the disciples and we will be prone to distraction, division and dissension amongst ourselves that will draw us away from the mission of God.
So Jesus prays for the community to be what it needs to be through God’s name by praying us into fellowship and connection with one another. “Holy Father, protect them in your name that you have given me, so that they may be one, as we are one.” The only way this community works is through our unbreakable connection with God that Jesus prays is reflected in our relationships with one another. It is the very name of the one that the prophets of old called upon – the one with whom Moses stood face-to-face – the one in whom all things were called into being – the one whom breathed life into dry bones – the one whom slipped on flesh and lived among us – the one who showed us the very nature of God through his life, death, resurrection and ascension – that one – that God calls us into community and is the source of our unity… Jesus is who and what holds the community together… we are one, because he is one with the Father and he is in us.
And therefore Jesus prays that we may love one another as he loves the whole world. Jesus gives us his name – God’s name – as our connection, our joy, our strength, our relationship, our mission, our purpose and our ability to live into the community God has called us into.
We are the body of Christ. We are a community… not a business or a delivery service or a club… this is a community. A living, breathing community… complex and broken… challenging and inefficient… complicated by us who make it up… and yet, a community that God prays will share God’s love, mercy and grace with the world…. A community that God prays will join Jesus in redeeming all things… A community that God prays God’s joy would be made complete in.
It seems only fitting that we pray for the same. Borrowing the words of David Lose, adapted from Jesus’ own words to his disciples – Let us pray…
Dear God, whose love knows no ending, we know this life is beautiful and difficult and sometimes both at the same time. We do not ask that you take us out of this world, but that you support and protect us while we are in it. We pray that you would set us apart in the truth we have heard here, that your love is for everyone, and we ask that you would send us out from this service to bear witness in word and deed to your grace, goodness and love. May we hear your voice calling us at home and at work, at school, our social settings, and the places we gather and volunteer, that we might feel and share your love. We ask this in the name of Jesus, the one set apart and made holy for us. Amen.[iii]
[i] As noted by Patrick Johnson on his blog http://missionalpreaching.com/2015/05/11/what-did-jesus-leave-behind-john-176-19/ on May 14, 2015.
[ii] Comments shared by Professor Theresa Latini in her Washington Post article, I am a pastor. Here’s why I don’t want you to pray for me, found at http://www.washingtonpost.com/news/acts-of-faith/wp/2015/05/07/i-am-a-pastor-heres-why-i-dont-want-you-to-pray-for-me/?postshare=3971431054083796 on May 14, 2015.
[iii] An adaption of the prayer Jesus prayed for his disciples shared by David Lose at http://www.davidlose.net/2015/05/easter-7-b-called-and-sent/ on May 14, 2015.