The Seventh Sunday of Easter
St. John's Lutheran Church, Alexandria, VA
It’s fantastic when it happens. Earlier in today’s service, we hear the psalmist sing out how great it is when siblings get along well. It doesn’t matter if you’re a parent or not, you’ve probably either witnessed a situation like this or played a part in it yourself: the kids are off in another room while the adults are working on something or just having a conversation someplace else, like the kitchen. It’s been a pleasant day. Everyone’s enjoying themselves and the people around them. That’s what life is supposed to be like, right? You start to think about how lucky you are to be able to have days like this – and that’s when the wind changes. “WAAAAHHHH!” “Give it back!” “Stop poking me!” “You started it!” Who knows what started it off? Whether you were the sibling or relative or friend who was the source of (or just near) the yelling or the adult that was then called upon to investigate and resolve whatever caused all the shouts, you know that things aren’t good. And given how these kinds of situations turn out, you know it’s probably going to get worse before it gets better. Even once the crisis has been sorted out and a tentative peace has been negotiated, it’s not like everything’s going to go back to the way it was when everyone was getting along and enjoying each other’s company. You can’t force that unity, even under threat of grounding or worse. The best you can probably hope for is a sullen silence that is only a shadow of what came before. Family getting along together sometimes seems like an impossible dream.
Especially in the past few years here at St. John’s, we’ve experienced an increase in the number of infants and young children who are here on a regular basis, and that’s a great thing! Parents are living out their responsibility in teaching their children about who God is and how we live together in the community of the Church. They come to services to be a part of the family that Jesus has made possible. Little children can get noisy from time to time, even disruptive. That’s something that families have to face every day, even when they come to worship. We’re in the process of developing resources to help equip and support our parents with young children in our family of faith here at St. John’s, and we’ll have more to share in this area in the weeks to come. To be fair, even adults can get disruptive during a service by carrying on conversations, which are best left for after worship! Distractions will always be a problem for us, people whose thoughts and attention can wander. The bigger issue, though, is when we fail to live in unity as the family that God has made us.
Living in unity is tough! It seems like it happens so rarely in our close relationships. On the surface, it’s easier to get along well with people that you don’t see as often, or who don’t really know each other all that well. There’s less trouble there because there’s less interaction. When you start to spend more time with someone – or live with them in your family – you get closer, and that can be a very good thing. But it might seem like there are times when people are too close. How much time can you spend together with your family before you want to shout “WAAAAHHHH! Stop poking me!” You and I have this problem which we share with all of our brothers and sisters in the human race: selfishness. I’m not talking about “greed” here – this is something that’s even deeper in us, the drive for self-preservation that encourages us to put up walls or strike out when we feel threatened. This kind of selfishness, based in our fear and our desire to put ourselves first in all things, makes unity tough. Selfishness enables that “too close” mentality that pushes relationships apart, especially in a family. It’s so deep-rooted, in fact, that there’s nothing that you or I can do to get rid of it. Sometimes it seems like it would take an act of God to make that impossible dream of living in unity a reality. So God acted!
Today’s reading from John 17 tells us of Jesus’ prayer for his disciples and for all those who would come to faith through the gospel message they would share, people like you and me. Jesus prayed for us. He wants us to experience unity like he has with God the Father, unity ever greater than any family on earth, unity that is far “too close” for any of us to share because of our selfishness. After he prayed this prayer, Jesus would go out with his disciples to the garden where he would be betrayed and arrested, cruelly beaten and mocked, and then put to death on the cross. He did all of this out of his love for you, because he knew what his desire for you and me to live in unity would require. Through the cross, Jesus’ self-sacrificing love showed God’s love to the world, the same as the Father’s love for His Son. Through the cross, you and I are brought into a restored relationship with God. And through the cross, you and I are brought into a restored relationship with each other. Jesus’ self-sacrificing love makes the impossible dream of living in unity a reality. Answering His Son’s prayer, God puts his love among us and within us. He makes us family.
If you’ve come to the Lord’s Supper here at St. John’s, you’ll notice that we wait for each other. When people gather around the altar rail, everyone remains standing until the last person at that table has arrived. We receive the testament of Jesus’ life-giving love, his body and blood, together. We leave the altar together. We are family. It doesn’t matter where you’ve come from or how long you’ve been here – God is the one who draws us close to Himself and close to each other, from the youngest to the oldest. He calls us together to live in that self-sacrificing love that disarms and overpowers the “too close” mentality that would keep us apart. Sometimes, that self-sacrificing love looks like people who are grandparents, or adults who may never had children of their own connecting with and supporting parents who want to worship in the Lord’s house and raise their children to do the same. Sometimes, that self-sacrificing love looks like people coming together to use their time, training, and strength to help repair a home for a family in our congregation, which happened in this weekend’s “Lend a Hand” project. And sometimes, that self-sacrificing love looks like time spent just listening to and supporting one another in our own families and close relationships.
In the first chapter of the book of Acts, we heard how Matthias was chosen to replace Judas as one of the Twelve. The disciples were able to live in unity from being close to Jesus. It’s the same for us: our unity is based in the revelation of Jesus as humanity’s Savior and in our dependence on him to restore us to a perfect relationship with God. Jesus’ prayer for the disciples and for us looks ahead to the reality that today’s reading from Revelation 22 shows, where his victory over sin and selfishness is complete. God and man will have unity that is complete. Jesus’ self-sacrificing love is the tie that binds us together.
As family in Christ Jesus, you and I have been called to live in a unity that is both present and observable, giving witness to his identity, showing who he is through how we act, both towards each other and towards anyone outside our family. Getting along with other people isn’t always easy, especially when it comes to those closest to us. Jesus prays for you and me, though. In his self-sacrificing love, the tie which binds us together, there is no such thing as “too close.” Through his love, we can and do experience what it’s like to live in unity with God and with other people
It’s fantastic when it happens.
(In the words of the last verse of the book of Revelation:) The grace of the Lord Jesus be with all. Amen.
Christ is risen! He is risen indeed! Alleluia!