Preached by Tracey Leslie
Around the time I first began to consider entering the ministry I had an experience that I knew I should not forget. I worked that summer in a Methodist Church in Pittsburgh, mentored and supervised by the church’s pastor. That summer her mother died. Mom was quite elderly and had been declining for some time so her death was not a surprise. But earlier in her life she had been a vital, involved and committed part of her congregation. When my supervising pastor returned from the funeral, I asked how the service was. She responded with great energy. A new pastor – who had not known her mother – presided over the funeral and it was clear that he had not invested any time or energy in discovering the person her mother had been. Jaime felt hurt and angry; he had not even said her mother’s name once until he reached the end of the service, the prayer of commendation. There was a greeting; there were prayers, scriptures… never once speaking her mother’s name. A beloved member of that congregation had been rendered nameless.
Perhaps you recall the popular, 1980’s sitcom Cheers. It was the story of a washed up ball player named Sam who’d opened a local pub that was frequented, primarily, by the same, small group of patrons day after day; patrons who became family to one another. The theme song for the show summed it up nicely:
Sometimes you want to go
Where everybody knows your name,
and they're always glad you came.
You wanna be where you can see,
our troubles are all the same.
You wanna be where everybody knows your name.[i]
We live in a world today where we might feel as if we have been reduced to user names, passwords and account numbers; all designed to insure our safety and security; but leaving us feeling anonymous and unknown. And that is not how we were created to be. Genesis, chapter 2 reveals that God has built within us an innate need to be in intimate fellowship with God and with one another. We were designed with an inward longing to know and to be known.
And so, perhaps, our hearts, too, leap for joy when, in John’s account of the resurrection, we hear Jesus speak the name of Mary. It is in the speaking of her name – perhaps Jesus said it with a characteristic inflection – that Mary suddenly recognizes who this is. This is not the gardener, the grounds-keeper; this is her teacher, her Lord, her friend. When he speaks her name, there is no doubt for Mary that she is face to face with Jesus.
But there’s something terribly important that we need to notice in this exchange between Mary and Jesus… and it’s what I’ll call “the incorporation of the personal plural.” We detect it even before Mary meets her risen Lord. Early in this passage, Mary’s disturbing discovery of the empty tomb causes her to seek out her companions in Christ. She runs to Peter and the other disciple and, together, they return to the tomb. Their sorrow is not a solitary experience. They are joined to one another in grief by a common love and affection for Jesus. But we hear this “incorporation of the personal plural” most poignantly in the words Jesus says to Mary. Although in John’s gospel Jesus will subsequently appear to the disciples at least three times, he is initially entrusting this proclamation of the resurrection to Mary. This is not something she should keep to herself. Jesus instructs her to go and tell. He says, “Go to my brothers and say to them, ‘I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.”
Such intimate language is confirmation of the promise found in the introduction to John’s gospel where we read: “to all who received [Jesus], who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God…”[ii] Our God is not some distant, indifferent deity. Through Jesus, we become members of God’s family; children of a heavenly Father.
This promise was affirmed by Jesus when he spoke to the disciples on the final night before his crucifixion saying, “In a little while, the world will no longer see me, but you will see me; because I live, you also will live. On that day you will know that I am in my Father, and you in me, and I in you.”[iii]
Friends, we find our true identity, we discover our authentic personhood, in relationship with God the Father through Jesus his Son.
But remember; this is plural language because it goes far beyond “me and Jesus.” This is the good news of “us and Jesus.” On his last night with the disciples, Jesus used a metaphor: a grapevine; a visual image to help the disciples understand: he is like the vine, the source of their life and they are branches on the vine; branches intertwined with one another. Branches that, apart from the vine, are lifeless.
Perhaps you, like me, have had the experience at some point of pruning a vine and mistakenly snipping a portion that you had not realized was connected to so many other pieces. You thought you were only clipping that one small piece and then, with horror, you discover you had overlooked all the others connected to it. One little snip has caused a major disruption to the health of the plant because vines are intended to intertwine.
Friends, you have heard me say many times that Christianity is not so much a belief system as it is a relational system. We are not depositories for theological ideas. We are living expressions of Jesus. The Word made flesh continues to be expressed and experienced in our flesh through our fellowship with one another in Christ. That is why the author of 1st John writes: “we declare to you what we have seen and heard so that you also may have fellowship with us; and truly our fellowship is with the Father and with his Son Jesus Christ.”[iv] Did you hear that? Fellowship among God the Father, Jesus the Son, and the children of God. We are bound together. Friends, our post-modern American culture has birthed a heresy by making Christianity an individualized belief system when it is, in fact, a corporate experience of intimate fellowship with God and one another through Jesus, the vine that holds us in connection to one another. Friends, ideas and concepts are informative; but relationships are transformative. Let me say that again: ideas and concepts about God are informative. But a relationship with a risen Lord who binds us to one another not only changes our lives; it gives us life, eternal life.
The gospel of John wasn’t written simply to give us information about Jesus. It was written to inspire a new community that would embody the message of its founder, Jesus; a community that would proclaim, through its life together, the message of eternal life through Jesus, the Word of God made flesh… that Word that still takes on flesh when our fellowship with one another reflects the fellowship between God the Father and the Son.
Folks, I imagine all of us came here this morning expecting to hear that Jesus rose from the dead; up from the grave he arose, right? And someday, when we’re staring death in the face, we’re going to be awfully glad to have that reassurance. But here’s something to help us right here and now: the resurrection of Jesus served to validate all the things he said and taught; it especially served to validate his teaching that he is the way to be in a close, intimate relationship with God. He said that his coming was an expression of God’s love for us; a love so radical he laid down his life for us.
But it doesn’t stop there because Jesus told us that we were to do the same for one another. He said: “This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you. No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends. You are my friends if you do this.”[v]
So friends, maybe this morning is your first time here at Trinity. Or maybe you’ve come back to your home church to visit with family. Or maybe you’ve been here a few times before. Or maybe you’ve been sitting in that same pew for years. But here’s what I hope you hear this morning: whether it’s here in this place or at another church or in another town, I hope – I pray – that you will come to know a congregation of people that you will love enough to sacrifice anything, even your life for them.
Friends; the only way to live out the eternal life Jesus offers us, is to live it out in relationship with one another. Our relationship to Jesus is inextricably wrapped up in our relationship with one another. You know, church attendance in America is declining. And maybe we think that’s because we haven’t spent enough time going door to door; or haven’t figured out the right marketing strategy; or haven’t gotten enough people on committees. But that’s not what it’s about. It’s about Christ-centered relationships. People should be able to find in churches the most compassionate, passionate, self-sacrificing, attentive, supportive relationships of any place they look. And I’ve got to tell you: just attending worship doesn’t cultivate those relationships. And just serving on a committee doesn’t cultivate those relationships. And just giving a donation to a mission doesn’t cultivate those relationships. It requires more than that. We need to spend time together in order to develop relationships that allow our love for and trust in Jesus and each other to grow. It happens during times of fellowship like we had this morning at our Easter breakfast. It happens during small group studies when we share our experiences and hopes and struggles with each other. It happens when we call another church member to say, “Hey, I heard you’ve been having a tough time lately. Let’s get together. Could I buy you a cup of coffee… or tea or whatever?”
You know, there was some good theology in that Cheers theme song. It really can be tough to make our way in the world and we really do need a place where everybody knows our names and they’re always glad we came; a place where we can see our troubles are all the same…
That place is called Church; not a building or a steeple but a family, bound together by the love and grace of a risen Savior.
[i] Where Everybody Knows Your Name. Lyrics by Gary Portnoy and Judy Hart Angelo.
[ii] John 1:12
[iii] John 14:19-20
[iv] 1 John 1:3
[v] John 15:12-14
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