I was back in the pulpit this morning after having a week away to celebrate Ginger’s birthday with some dear friends. (I’m sort of blowing the intro to the sermon, but so be it.) The passage for today was John 17:1-11, which is part of Jesus’ prayer the night before he died.
As most of you know, I was not here last Sunday because I was with Ginger in Savannah, Georgia celebrating her sixtieth birthday. When we began making plans for it several months ago, she said she wanted to pick a place where some of those closest to her over the years could gather. Savannah was a geographical fit—and we could fly from Tweed on Avelo Airlines! We found a VRBO rental that could sleep up to twelve and sent out invitations. Over the course of our week there, sixteen different people came to celebrate. If you were to lay the friendships end to end, they added up to almost four hundred years of relationships.
The point of the time was to just to be together. We didn’t have a list of sights to see or anything that had to be accomplished. We ate together, walked together, cooked together, laughed and sang and stayed up late telling stories. We were not productive or efficient. We had nothing to show for the week other than the memories we made together.
We came back from the week feeling restored and rejuvenated. It was a sacred time—and it was a lot of fun, as well.
Even though I wasn’t at work, I had in my mind that this passage from John was going to be the text for today. It is John’s account of Jesus’ prayer on the night before his death at the hands of the Romans. He could see that his life was coming to an end. The disciples knew things were changing but couldn’t see the bigger picture. When they had asked questions, they asked things like who was going to sit closest to Jesus in heaven. Jesus kept telling them to keep loving people. By the time they got to the Garden of Gethsemane that night, the disciples were so exhausted that they fell asleep while Jesus prayed—and he was praying for them.
What I said about friendship was also true about Jesus’ relationships with his disciples: they were not productive or efficient. They spent three years walking from town to town without much of an itinerary, meeting people mostly by accident and interruption, and listening to Jesus tell stories. Jesus did not leave any sort of mission statement or business plan or five-year projection—and still he prayed and said to God, “I have glorified you on earth by finishing the work you gave me to do.”
What Jesus had done was love people. That was all he came to do.
Then he prayed for his followers who would remain after he was gone and what he asked was that God would “watch over them so that they will be unified—that they will be one,” which is another way of saying that they would love one another enough to stick together.
He didn’t say anything about mass evangelism or big buildings or denominational infrastructure or doctrinal purity or political perspective or endowment funds. He said, love them so they will love one another.
Over the years, as Ginger and I have reflected on our friendships, we have commented that we (and by we I mean pretty much everybody) put up with things that our friends do that we do not tolerate as easily when people who are not our friends do them. Let me say that long sentence again: Over the years, as Ginger and I have reflected on our friendships, we have commented that we put up with things that our friends do that we do not tolerate as easily when people who are not our friends do them. We still may get irritated or frustrated, or even hurt, but we don’t bail on the relationship because we have chosen to be friends.
I have a book I bought back in the 80s by Martin Marty simply titled Friendship, and he starts the book by saying, “We have friends, and we are friends in order that we do not get killed”—another way of saying we need each other to thrive and belong.
The same dynamic works in a marriage and in a family. And in church. We come together here because we have chosen to put up with each other, to love each other, and when we do we answer Jesus’ prayer by choosing relationship over doctrine and opinion and personal preference and politics and whatever else might divide us. We choose each other over, well, pretty much anything.
As though they knew what I was preaching about, there was an essay in the New York Times this morning titled, “For People to Really Know Us, We Need to Show Up.” (NYT gift link) The author, Brad Stulberg, wrote:
For people to really know us, we need to show up consistently. Over time, what starts out as obligation becomes less about something we have to do and more about something we want to do, something that we can’t imagine living without. The spiritual teacher Ram Dass once wrote that “we’re all just walking each other home.” But that’s only true if we don’t constantly cancel our walking plans.
Not canceling plans means, essentially, showing up for one another. If we commit to certain people and activities, if we feel an obligation to show up for them, then it’s likely that we will, indeed, show up. And showing up repeatedly is what creates community.
To be together doesn’t mean we agree on everything, or that life is all sunshine and roses. Community is not efficient or necessarily productive. We are made for each other. We belong together. And when we hit rough spots, we show up, we stick together, and we get through it. The point is not to all be alike, it is to be together—and to make room for others to join us because this kind of love is hard to come by.
We lived out what I am talking about two Sundays ago when we sat down after worship and talked about the possibility of placing the Witness Stone in our church yard. I learned a lot listening to the various responses voiced as we talked together. We listened well to each other, and we didn’t make anything more important than our connection to each other. Our commitment to one another runs deeper than our questions, our anxieties, and our opinions.
I hope we keep saying that out loud to each other: Our commitment to one another runs deeper than our questions, our anxieties, and our opinions. That’s good stuff. When we love one another, we are doing what God made us to do, pure and simple. What an amazing reason to be alive.
To be unified doesn’t mean we are uniform. To be together—to belong to each other—means we start by listening and then by sharing our stories. To love one another means to pay attention to the details beyond opinions, beyond what is comfortable to share; to stick together through difficulty, through anger, through misunderstanding, through successes, through mistakes, through life; to show up. That’s what love looks like.
And when we live like that together, we are the answer to Jesus’ prayer. Amen.
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