Blessed conviviality

One of the most memorable clergy meetings I have been a part of happened a few years ago here in Nashville. We didn’t have a speaker; we didn’t have a topic to discuss, and we didn’t have decisions to make. We sat in a circle around a big table, and we didn’t know each other particularly well: Each of us knew at least one other person in the room, but only one of us knew all of us.

Our host invited us to go around the circle and tell the others about the joys and challenges of our ministry. We could talk for as long as we needed. Then the person sitting next to us in the circle would pray for us, out loud, right there and then.

Not your typical ice breaker, is it? I remember how very awkward I felt at first. I had never done anything like that before, but I got a sense that several of my colleagues around the table were quite familiar with the practice. I don’t remember what was said. I don’t remember what I said, and I don’t remember what Tim said when he prayed for me. But I do remember his hand on my shoulder, and that he spoke with kindness and care. I felt safe and honored and held.

I thought of that surprising intimacy when I read and reread the scene in the gospel of John we just heard. It is the final scene of Jesus’ farewell meal with his disciples. He had been at table with them. He had washed their feet. He had instructed and taught them. He had spoken at length about what was about to happen and how they would continue to live as his followers and friends after his return to the Father. And then he turned from teaching them to praying for them. No more instructions and exhortations. He prayed for them, for us, for all who had come to see in him what it means to be human and for and all who would. For all who had come to see in him who God is and all who would. His final words that night were words of prayer. He prayed that we may all be one. “As you, Father, are in me and I am in you, may they also be in us.” He didn’t talk about the intimacy of the divine life, but spoke into it and from it; he let us witness and participate in this intimacy by letting us overhear his intercessions. He drew us in, drew us into the loving intimacy of the communal life of God. “As you, Father, are in me and I am in you, may they also be in us, so that the world may believe that you have sent me.”

I thought I would preach today about the unity of the church as a gift we struggle to live into. I thought I would be talking about how Jesus explicitly linked the truth of his life and message to our life together. “How we live together [as Christians from so many cultures and such diverse backgrounds] is the most persuasive sermon we’ll ever get to preach,” Christine Pohl wrote just a few years ago, and I thought I would quote her today in a sermon about our unity. “The Word who became flesh and lived among us, full of grace and truth, expects that our relationships with one another will also be characterized by grace and truth,” she wrote.[1]

Communities characterized by grace and truth, in loving resistance to the climate of lies, division, and disgrace that is unraveling societies around the world. I thought that would preach— believers living into our God-given unity, but the words didn’t come, only groans and sighs. There had been another mass shooting, this time in Virginia Beach. Eleven of the victims were civil servants, the kind of people who worked on construction projects and water quality and right of way issues. Another was a local contractor who had come by the office in Building 2 to talk about a permit. It was supposed to be just another day at work.

“The Word who became flesh and lived among us, full of grace and truth, expects that our relationships with one another will also be characterized by grace and truth”— but he knows in his bones that our relationships with one another are also characterized by violence and all manner of lovelessness. And that is why he prays for us and wants us to know that he prays for us. We have been entrusted with making the love of God tangible in the world. Jesus wants us to know that we are not alone in our struggles to live faithfully in this love. He is praying for us, praying with us, letting his heart be broken with ours, mourning with us, loving with us, loving us.

He is praying for us to be drawn into the communion of love that is God and he doesn’t just make it so, because there is nothing coercive about this love. He speaks into, and his words emerge from, the loving intimacy of the divine life, and by letting us overhear his intercessions, he invites us to let ourselves be drawn into the open circle of this life where the mutuality of love reigns supreme.

Jesus loves us, and the new commandment he has given us is new not in commanding us to love one another, but to love one another as he has loved us.[2] His radical hospitality for any and all of us, revealed on the cross, defines both the center of the circle of love as well as the radius that determines its circumference. His radical hospitality means that there is nothing exclusive or conditional about God’s love. The circle that has the cross as its center is as wide as creation is old. We are one in Christ whether we agree with each other or not. We are one in Christ whether we like one another or not. To become a member in the body of Christ is to become a part of the beloved community; a part of the life that is one as God is one.[3]

Belonging is a given. It doesn’t matter who you voted for. It doesn’t matter on what continent you were born. It doesn’t matter if you have the documents they demand to see. It doesn’t matter if you identify as queer or cisgender heterosexual. You belong because you’re beloved.

Churches are communities where this truth is embodied: Belonging is a given. You belong because you’re beloved. Churches are communities where followers of Jesus wrestle with this truth. Pastor Josh Scott told Brian McLaren, “Part of our work [as a congregation] is to teach people how to disagree generously, how to be open to thoughtful critique and discussion. Our values aren’t up for negotiation, but we can engage in conversation that helps us all understand one another a bit better … we regularly have people from various political or even religious backgrounds engaging on topics from theology to health care to immigration. All voices are given space, as long as they are respectful. One person asked, ‘How long can we live in this tension?’ My reply was simple: ‘As long as you can and are willing, so are we.’”[4]

The more fully we let ourselves be drawn into the divine life, both individually and communally, the more faithfully our life together will reflect the radical hospitality of Jesus. Division in the church distorts our witness and keeps the world from believing in Jesus as the embodiment of God’s love for the world. But our willingness to live in the tension and to fully see and hear each other, open up to each other, and embrace each other as God’s beloved, creates countless moments in our days for the glory of God to shine forth.

Chris Hobgood, the former General Minister and President of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) who died on Friday, said in 2004,

“I believe that God does not care as much for the renewal of the church as for the renewal of the world. If we think that God loves only us then we’ve been smoking some theology that is very dangerous. Yet our actions sometimes convey this. … All of this is to say that we are true to God’s call only when we recall that there’s a world out there, and if we spend all of our energy trying to fix ourselves while the world burns, we can be sure of God’s pained displeasure.”

The world is burning. The world God loves is on fire with hatred, injustice, ignorance and violence. But the world is also aflame with the unquenchable fire of God’s love, and the Spirit of God teaches us how to tend this fire in the name of Jesus. God has entrusted us, fragile and prone to failure as we are, with making the love of God tangible in the world.

The Word who became flesh and lived among us, was a stranger in the world. “The world came into being through him, yet the world did not know him,” we read in John.[5] The stranger in whom we have come to see the face of God invites us to live as strangers in the world by becoming his friends. He invites us to become resident aliens in the realms of fear that hold the world captive. He invites us to be at home in God’s love for the world, for the sake of the world.

And while we struggle to simply live the life given and entrusted to us,  Jesus prays for us. He continues to pray for those who follow him until all of life has become completely one in the blessed conviviality of all creatures and their maker, of lover and beloved, of heaven and earth.


[1] https://www.christiancentury.org/article/2012-02/our-life-together

[2] John 13:34 “I give you a new commandment, that you love one another.”

[3] See http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=1637

[4] https://www.christiancentury.org/article/features/how-be-purple-church-red-state

[5] John 1:10

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