Tuesday, May 16, 2006

communion as life together (john 15)

Years ago I was giving the congregational prayer in a worship service. That church had a large circular altar at the front of its sanctuary, and a number of people would come each week to kneel at the altar rail, where we also received communion. Sometimes children came, which was nice. On that particular morning I realized that our older daughter, Elizabeth, was kneeling next to me. She was a child at the time. As I began the prayer I felt a tugging at my robe. The prayer continued, the tugging continued. It was a little distracting, but finally I completed the prayer. The organist began to play, people were rising to return to their seats, and she looked at me, and in all seriousness asked, “Does this mean we’re not going to get any juice and crackers?”

The sermon this morning is about communion, although we will not be having juice and crackers. Next Sunday at 8:30 we will share Holy Communion together. Today we focus on the communion that we share in relationship with each other, as Christians. A couple of weeks ago we looked at our connection with God, which we also described as a “friendship with Jesus”. This morning we will think about our communion with one another as God’s people.

In the scripture we have both a command and an invitation: Love one another, Jesus says, as I have loved you. The statement is repeated in verse 17: Love one another. The theme of love is central in John’s Gospel, and in the letters of John: For God so loved the world; God is love; I give you a new commandment, that you love one another; since God loved us so much, we ought to love one another.

The word love is absolutely at the heart of the gospel, the life, teaching, death and resurrection of Jesus. It is also a word that has a common usage in our culture. We are exposed to something that passes for love at every turn. A few years ago lists of country music song titles were circulating, and maybe you came across some of them. Do you remember this one? “I’ll tell you lies to win your love, and that’s the truth”. Well, that sentiment isn’t limited to country music; it could be on MTV, or on the latest reality show, or on Friday’s soap opera, or even in the arranged marriages of the rich and famous, but it’s not love. It is self-interest. And yet there is something about love worth rescuing here, something worth recovering, in the church and in the culture. For Christians, love never been about self-interest but instead self-giving; in the words of Jesus, it is about “laying down one’s life for one’s friends”.

This morning I want to redefine love as communion, as an experience of community, Jesus reaching out to people through people. If God is love, then God’s people make God’s love visible. Again, in John’s Gospel there is always something visible, tangible about God’s love. For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son…Jesus, among us, in the flesh. And in the letters of John there is this statement:

No one has ever seen God; if we love one another, God lives in us, and God’s love is perfected in us (4. 11-12).

How can we believe in an invisible God? How can we experience the presence of God? As the Message translates it, “if we love one another, God dwells deeply within us, and his love becomes complete in us…perfect love”. God’s love becomes real, visible, tangible, concrete in the experience of Christian community.

This love is a gift, but we must accept it, and this acceptance involves overcoming certain obstacles. One obstacle is the belief that I can live the Christian life on my own, without community, apart from communion with others. In a book entitled Habits of The Heart, a study of values written in the 1980s, Robert Bellah interviewed a young woman who is named “Sheila”. Sheila is asked about her religion, and she responded:

“I consider myself religious, but I don’t go to church. My religion is just my own little voice. I guess you could call me religion “Sheilaism”.

More recently, Robert Putnam wrote about the values of our culture in his work Bowling Alone. The simple thesis of the book is that more people are bowling than ever before, but fewer people are involved in bowling leagues. We are bowling, but we are bowling alone.

The first obstacle to community is individualism. Another obstacle to communion can be our own pride, our own sin, our own self-centeredness, however you name that. A minister in another state shared this experience, from his congregation. He had become close friends with a couple in the church, both in their mid-thirties, with one daughter, who was in elementary school. They were a wonderful family.

On the daughter’s eighth birthday, the father brought out a beautifully wrapped package, and placed it before his daughter, who was the apple of his eye. I want you to have this”, he said to her. It is a coin collection that was given to me by my father and mother on my eighth birthday. It is not worth much—fifty or sixty dollars, but it means to world to me, and I want you to have it”.

A couple of days later the father suffered a massive heart attack and died while seated at a desk at the office. Everyone was in shock, including my friend, their pastor. They got through the services and the first few days as best they could.

A few days later the young mother took her daughter to see her grandmother. They were sharing a conversation, the young girl in her grandmother’s lap, when the little girl said, “Guess what? My dad gave me this coin collection”. The grandmother recoiled, “that’s my coin collection; he didn’t have any right to give that away; you need to bring that back; it belongs to me”. And then she added, “don’t come back until you bring that collection”. The mother and daughter departed, stunned.

The next morning the grandmother was in the office of the minister. She told him the story and then asked, “what would you do?” He thought long and hard. “I don’t like to give advice, but you’ve asked, and I owe you this much. You could lose your granddaughter over a $50 coin collection.

"So here is what I would do. If I were you I would rise up out of that chair and walk to my car, put the key in the ignition and drive straight to my granddaughter’s house. I would knock on the door, and when I faced my granddaughter and her mother I would say “ I apologize. None of us is doing very well with this. The coin collection was very special to us, that’s why we gave it to our son, and it was also very special to our son, which is why he gave it to you. I want you to have it. Can you forgive me?”

The grandmother listened to my friend, and then looked at him and said, “hell will freeze over before that will happen”. Fifteen years have passed, and they are still not speaking to each other.

We need community, we need communion with each other. On the way to communion there will be obstacles to overcome. I like the practice of open communion that is a part of our Methodist tradition, echoes found in the words of the Charles Wesley hymn, “come sinners to the gospel feast, let every soul be Jesus’ guest”. Everyone who responds to the invitation is welcome to come to the table. In the language of my daughter, years ago, there is juice and crackers for everyone. The only barriers are those that we ourselves construct.

We come to the Christian faith by different paths. Some are overtaken by an undeniable sense of God’s presence guiding them in some direction—that is the connection with God. But for me it happened like this---I was impressed, drawn into, overtaken by a small community of Christians who included me and accepted me: a young adult/college Sunday School class of four people, including the teacher; a work team that helped to build a storefront church in Brooklyn; a Sunday evening worshipping congregation; a Bible study group on a college campus. My way into the Christian faith came through other Christians. I experienced the community, the communion, and then I made the connection.

In reflecting on the first portion of John 15, I spoke of a friendship with Jesus and the importance of speaking and listening to him and questioning and learning about him, experiences that happen in prayer and reading scripture. That is connecting with God.

What about our communion with each other? We are a large church, and the communion that we share has to happen in smaller groups: Sunday School classes; ChristCare groups; Women’s Circles; Disciple Bible Study; Mission teams; Choirs. I cannot overemphasize the importance of being in a small group. We need a connection with God, but we also need a communion with each other, and the scripture teaches me that we cannot have one without the other.

The gospel is both invitation and command. He is the vine. We are the branches. And so we are connected. And the life that flows from the vine into the branches is a life of love. There are no individual, solitary Christians. We are grafted into each other, into the tree of life, to use another image from scripture, into the body of Christ, to use yet another. I cannot be a Christian without you, and you cannot be a Christian without me. For some reason God designed it all in just this way. And so a part of our conversion is into the communion, the body, the believers, the household of God.

In his spiritual classic Life Together, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, writing from a Nazi prison cell, reflects on the communion that we share with each other, and on our temptation to take our life together for granted. Listen to him:

“It is true that what is an unspeakable gift of God for the lonely individual is easily disregarded by those who have the gift every day. It is easily forgotten that the fellowship of Christian brothers and sisters is a gift of grace, a gift of the Kingdom of God that any day may be taken from us, that the time that still separates us from utter loneliness may be brief indeed. Therefore, let the one who until now has had the privilege of living a common Christian life with other Christians praise God’s grace from the bottom of his heart. Let us thank God on our knees and declare: it is grace, nothing but grace that we are allowed to live in community with Christian brothers and sisters”.


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11:33 PM  

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