As a kid in high school, I often attended church with my best friend, Dena. Dena and I had been friends since middle school and we were inseparable. I had grown up in the Baptist church, but when we moved to Virginia, we’d had a hard time finding a church home. So I went with Dena to her church—a Pentecostal church. Now, I’ll admit that I don’t know all the church history and theology that supports the Pentecostal church in America, but what I do know is based simply on observation and experience. In the time that I was attending the church, I would say the Holy Spirit was alive and on fire there. On more than one occasion, people spoke in tongues, danced in the aisles, and waved their arms to praise music. I have participated in altar calls and watched as pastors performed healings. While all of this was exciting, for me personally, it didn’t meet me on my journey with God. And so I look back fondly on that experience, and it has given me a love for the season of Pentecost, which I would say is the foundation for how this particular denomination understands Christian living.
Now having said all that, I don’t expect to experience the same things in an Episcopal church that I did on those Sundays in the Pentecostal church. And I think it would be inauthentic to who we are as a church to replicate those experiences for the sake of celebrating Pentecost.
So what do we make of this great celebration of the church? Well, as good Episcopalians, we use our three-legged stool of Scripture, Tradition and Reason to guide us in our understanding. Scripture tells us that in the experience of Pentecost the church’s eyes are opened to the fact that God is working in new ways; that the Spirit is in the world and has always worked to bring about the Kingdom of God. For early Jewish-Christians, the Spirit invited the Gentiles and others into the Body of Christ. For us, the Spirit is still calling us to be inclusive and welcoming to all.
Tradition says that we celebrate Pentecost to remember that the gospel is intended for everyone, and that forgiveness is offered to all.
Reason highlights for us that when we see the works of love, peace and justice, we know that the Spirit is at work. Historically speaking, the work of the Spirit can be seen in great movements—the women’s movement, the civil rights movement, the end to slavery and apartheid. And now, I would say that the Spirit is at work in the Human Rights movement and the equality of LGBT peoples.
The Spirit is dangerous, playful, and daring. What I mean by that is that it calls us to be truth-tellers and witnesses to the gospel. It calls us to a place that says “All are welcome” and no one is denied access. It calls us to a place that doesn’t allow discrimination for any reason. It calls us to a place to be prophetic in the proclamation of the gospel that gives us the courage to confront the injustices in our world.
This week a woman came to the church office looking for assistance. After talking with her and listening to her story, we went up to the hospital together to get her a hotel voucher so she wouldn’t have to sleep out in the rain. I made arrangements for her to get some clean clothes for free at another church’s thrift store, and then they were going to help her connect with the Lion’s Club to get some glasses. In talking with her about her experience out on the road, I was sad, but not surprised to hear about the challenges she had faced…being turned away because she didn’t “belong”, sometimes fearing for her safety as a woman alone on the road, not knowing if she’d have at least one meal each day. But the Spirit was present in that moment…both in her truth telling and courage, and in the variety of places we were able to find help for her; places that acted out of love, peace and justice.
The Spirit is also our teacher. With each generation, we gather new learnings and insights into the meaning of Scripture and how we can be participants in the Kingdom of God. While the Bible may be a “fixed” text, it is organic and alive through inspiration and revelation about its meaning. How we understand the Bible is part of the work of the Spirit. While at one time we understood the text to say women could not serve at the altar, now we understand it to say that the full body of Christ should be represented at the altar…both men and women.
So we need the experience of Pentecost. Not just one day of the year, but every day in our Christian lives. It may or may not include dancing, waving of arms, or speaking in tongues. It may or may not include the laying on of hands and altar calls. But when we are open to the Spirit of Pentecost, we are given the strength, courage, and encouragement to proclaim the Gospel in our daily life, to be truth tellers, prophets and teachers acting in ways of love, peace and justice.
A few years ago I was working with a group of women who wanted to join Daughters of the King. DoK has a requirement of discernment and guided study before you can take your vows. I had gone through this study and discernment period a few years before seminary, and now on the other side as a priest, I was leading another group of women in their own discernment. Each meeting we would open with prayer. This was more of a challenge than I could have ever imagined. I would begin by inviting any of the women to lead us in prayer…and the response to my invitation was silence. So I would take on the responsibility. And so it continued like this for several meetings. Finally, I asked the women what it was that held them back from taking on this responsibility. The answers ranged from not feeling confident about serving in that role with a priest in the room to not knowing the words to use. They had anxiety around praying! They were somehow afraid that their words to God weren’t “good enough” or “eloquent enough”. So we spent the rest of that session together talking about prayer, and eventually writing our prayers as a group.
There are six types of prayer as evidenced in Scripture. These are: Praise, Thanksgiving, Confession, Intercession, Petition and Listening. In church we offer our prayers through the Opening Collect, the Prayers of the People, and the Eucharist. Jesus also gave us examples of these prayers: healing prayers, the Lord’s Prayer, resurrecting Lazarus from the dead, his prayer in the Garden of Gethsemane, and in this Sunday’s reading from John 17—the prayer of intercession for the disciples.
Jesus prays for three specific things in this prayer: that God will protect the disciples so they may be one; that God sanctify the disciples in truth; and that God be with them as they are sent into the world. Jesus’ prayer is intimate, reflecting on his relationship with God, and it is specific. It is a prayer said in love.
The word “protect” comes from the Greek word “tereo” which means “attend to carefully, pay attention to, take care of”. It is most often used in the context of a parent and child relationship. Jesus asks for God to attend to, pay attention to, and take care of his disciples. Not because they were incompetent, but because their task in the world of spreading the Good News would be challenging. Jesus knew there would be bumps, bruises, and hurdles along the way. So God, pay attention to them.
He also asks that they be sanctified in truth. Sanctified is a word we use a lot in the Eucharist. We ask that God sanctify the bread and wine, and then to sanctify us. What does that mean? To be sanctified means to be made holy and set apart for a specific purpose. To be sanctified in truth means to be holy carriers of God’s truth—the Good News of love, forgiveness and redemption.
Sometimes when we hear the word “sanctified” or the idea of “being made holy” it makes us think that the person or object is removed from the world; for me it calls to mind a story of an ancient desert father who sat on a pole for many years in prayer and fasting. Yes, that man was probably very holy. But that’s not the only way to live a holy life. For the disciples, holy living involved not just obeying God’s commandments, but also about sharing the joys of life…sharing meals, healing and teaching, making other disciples. In Adult Ed we just finished the Acts of the Apostles. Those early apostles often found themselves in precarious situations (and especially Paul), but they were engaged in the life of the early church. Just because they had been sanctified didn’t excuse them from daily living.
Jesus prays that God will be with the disciples as they are sent into the world. Again, knowing that there will be challenges, knowing that the Good News might not be so “good” for everyone, Jesus prays that God will be with them so that they may be one.
I’d like to think that this prayer is timeless…that Jesus prayed it not only for his 12 friends, but for all of us who are his followers. His prayer serves not only as an example of how to pray, but also as a reminder of what our ministry is, 2000 years after those first disciples. We still need God’s protection. Whether we find ourselves in the mission field, in the hospital holding the hand of a loved one, or in quiet contemplation, knowing that God loves and protects us is reassuring. Each time we gather for Eucharist, we are made holy, and while that might call us to spend the day in meditation, it also calls us to action. Being sanctified in truth means working to make our corner of the world a little better…whether it’s in how we spend our money, where we give our time, or voicing the concerns of those who have no voice.
And we do all this with the hope that we all may be one. That we might love one another as Christ loved us.
So going back to my story of the Daughters of the King women; I’m reminded that while Jesus prayed for his friends, (and hopefully us), we too can offer our prayers. I’d like us to do part of the exercise I did with them. This is going to require a little participation on your part, but don’t be nervous. By what name(s) do we call God? For what or whom are we thankful for? For what or whom needs God’s special attention?
For the last couple of weeks, the readings have been a love letter from Jesus. I have spent time working with the poetry and beauty of words like “love” and “abide” and questioned what it means to be a branch on the vine. And in all this warm and fuzzy space, I have allowed myself to detach from the context in which these love letters have been written. These teachings about love from Jesus to his disciples were not post-resurrection teachings, but pre-crucifixion teachings. He was preparing them for life without his daily presence. So when we have this in mind, these love letters become a bit sad. Jesus is in essence saying goodbye.
However, Jesus’ farewell discourse (as it’s technically called) holds the disciples and us in a place of tension. On the one hand, it is sad. It means things will be different. Life as it has been is going to change. On the other hand, if we are abiding in God’s love, those changes will lead to growth and abundant life. And so it is within this tension that Jesus calls the disciples his friends.
What does it mean to be a friend? In our current time and place, the word “friend” has become somewhat of an empty word. Thanks to social networking sites like “Facebook”, you can “friend” someone you might vaguely remember from high-school, and you can “unfriend” your parents. To be a “friend” on Facebook means you have access to photos, fleeting thoughts of the day, and time-wasting games, quizzes and puzzles. While it may be fun to reconnect on some level, the number of “friends” on Facebook is hardly a measure of the type of “friend” you are.
When I taught Ethics in high-school, we studied Aristotle’s work on friendship. Aristotle believed there are three kinds of friendship: 1) those that are useful to us (networking); 2) those that are pleasurable to us (people we enjoy hanging out with); and those that are formative (people who challenge us, who deeply care and love us). For Aristotle, the third type of friendship was the most important, and the most difficult to achieve because it required of both parties a mutual respect, a mutual granting of dignity, and responsibility for one another.
It is this kind of friendship that Jesus talks about with his disciples. In the ancient world, if you were a slave to a good master, the relationship was as positive as it could be…very little to no abuse, meager but living wages; you may even be a trusted companion. But as a slave, you were never equal to your master; there was always a power differential. That’s why it’s important that Jesus tells the disciples that they are not slaves, but friends. They are equal. There is mutual respect. There is responsibility to one another. Friendship, is in essence, a covenant…not to be entered into lightly. And it is in the spirit of this friendship that Jesus has given the disciples everything they need to go ahead with the spreading of the kingdom of God. What does he give them? A reminder of God’s abiding love, and the commandment to love one another. Why does he do this? So that their joy may be complete. Jesus doesn’t leave behind a “how to” manual for his friends. He leaves them with love and friendship. It is that love and friendship that calls the disciples into ministry and into the joy of the kingdom.
When the Bishop was here almost two years ago for my installation as Rector, I got to pick the Gospel lesson of the day, and I chose this week’s text with a particular line in mind: “You did not choose me but I chose you.” Jesus chose us. He chose us to be his friends…to love one another, respect one another, and be responsible for one another. He chose us to bring about the Kingdom of God. With that in mind, are we willing to be “friended”?
The word “abide” appears 6 times in our reading from 1 John (4:7-21) and 8 times in the Gospel reading (John 15:1-8). The word “love” appears 27 times in the 1 John reading, but not in the Gospel reading, although I get the sense that the idea of love is there. So what’s the point in my word count? That the repetition of these words means that they’re important.
To “abide” in the Biblical sense means to dwell or to stay. Dwell in love. Stay in love. God’s love dwells within us. Our love for each other is based on God’s love which stays in us. This is the message we receive from the reading of 1 John. That we are Beloved. All week this reading has been with me in my heart and in my mind because it is so intimate. It’s like a love letter. It’s poetic and beautiful. It’s a reassuring message to hear that we are the recipients of the most wonderful, living giving perfect love.
And yes, I would very much like to stay in that warm and fuzzy place that makes my heart feel good. But that’s not the work I’m given to do.
In the Gospel, we read that Jesus says “I am the vine and you are the branches”. What does that mean?
My grandfather, in his later years, took on the venture of having a backyard vineyard. Most of the wine he had produced prior to that had been fruit or wild berry wine, but he decided he wanted to try the grape process. So he spent a lot of time tending to the vines. One afternoon I remember going out to look at the little vineyard with him.
The vine is the part that grows out of the ground from the roots. It’s a little thicker and not really tall. But what I realized is that the vine is what nurtures the branches. It is through the vine that the branches get water, nutrients from the soil, and the ability to thrive. The branches depend on the vine. But the branches also have work to do. They are responsible for growing, becoming entangled with one another for support, and producing the buds which will lead to fruit. Sometimes, they have to be pruned in order to continue to grow. Without pruning, they can’t prosper.
In particular I found the branches to be really interesting. Unless you look really carefully, it’s hard to tell where one vine and its branches end and another begins…they’re all tangled up. And they’re long…it’s as if they’re reach extends forever.
I can’t help but wonder if this is what Jesus was after in this pseudo-parable. He is our vine…he gives us life, he nurtures us, he grows us. We are his branches…we get tangled up together, supporting one another, extending our reach through one another, growing and changing the world around us. And we do this by abiding, by dwelling and staying, in his love.
Every week I visit Mae Kniskern. I was with her when she turned 97 this year. She’s still spunky, she drives, and she loves bingo. And every week when we spend time together, we read the same passage from scripture…this passage from John’s Gospel. For two years now we’ve been reading this scripture, and admittedly, I never gave it much thought. But pairing it with the reading from 1 John, I’m finally starting to understand it in a new way.
It is because God—the vine--loves us, that God cares for us, nurtures us, provides for us and grows us, that we are able to do our work as branches—to dwell in God’s love, to create and change our ministries, to hang on to one another and grow. We need the vine and we need the branches to be able to fully abide in the love of God.
I don't know what the future of the church is, but I know that we will continue to be a place of sanctuary and hope, working towards healing in the world.