A sermon for the fifth Sunday of Easter

First of all, I want to warn you up front: I’m going to invite you to share some sermon-related thoughts of your own this morning via the comments box on Facebook. This will be voluntary, of course, but if you think you might want to play along at home, have your keyboard ready.

I’ll even give you a rough idea now of what I’m going to ask. In general, it’s about what we’ve learned over the past 13 months about continuing as a community when we can’t be together in person.

What have we learned about that? What lessons has this pandemic taught us?

I’ve been seeing a lot of articles along those lines lately, as the vaccines roll out and as things begin to ease up a little. Articles about what we’ve learned. What have we learned about what really matters in life? What do we appreciate more now than we did before?

I saw a blurb last week for an article about things that people started doing during the pandemic that they want to keep doing when it’s over. It mentioned three things in particular: cooking at home, telecommuting, and wearing soft pants.

Now I’m down for all three of those. I’ve been cooking more this past year than any time since my kids were still at home. We don’t eat on the run any more. But of course we don’t, since we don’t have any place to run to. Sharing a carefully prepared meal has become one of the highlights of our day. There’s been a lot more vegetables and a lot less Wawa in my life.

Telecommuting? I never thought I’d be telecommuting to church on a Sunday morning, but here I am.

And speaking for myself, I’ve always been in favor of comfortable clothes.

But when it comes to the meaning of community, one thing I think we’ve come to realize now more than ever is how much personal connection really means to us. We humans are made for connection. Connection with God, and connection  with each other. Most of us belong to multiple communities, some larger than others, and these communities are really important to us.

Community contributes to making us whole, so we’re diminished as individuals when we can’t be connected to other people in some way.  

We’re made for connection. We’re made for the exact kind of connection that’s implied by the use of the word abide, which appears a couple of times in today’s readings: Abide in me as I abide in you, for example. God is love, and those who abide in love abide in God, and God abides in them.

But abide isa word we don’t use much in ordinary conversation. And what Jesus is talking about here—it isn’t exactly the kind of passive resting in the Lord that the beautiful hymn “Abide with Me” seems to suggest.

The word that’s translated in the readings as abide has a couple of different meanings, and each one sort of layers on and enhances the others. It means to remain where you are, physically. To remain alive. To keep on going; to endure.

Remain in me—that’s how verse 4 is sometimes translated.[i]

The kind of abiding that’s conveyed here is a model for a particular way of relating to God, but also to each other. And that part is really important.

In John’s Gospel Jesus is preparing his people to carry on when he’s gone. To keep on living the life that he’s given them. To endure. And this abiding he describes is an essential part of that. We are rooted in Jesus Christ, and the indwelling of the Holy Spirit is our source of life, and in this way we we’re all connected.

We’re alive together, Jesus says, and together we will bear much fruit. We bear the fruit of Christian discipleship together.

Now if you think about that image of vine and branches, you realize that Jesus is saying that being alive in Christ and living this Christian life is something we simply cannot do alone. An individual branch can’t thrive without being connected to the rest of the plant, and a healthy plant has more than one branch. This is a vision of church as a community of members who are closely bound together.

So the vine with its branches is our template for church community, and it’s a very real, physical, tangible image.

And so what I’ve been pondering this past week in particular is, how do we continue to experience this intimately connected community when we can’t be together?

We might be enjoying sitting at home right now in our soft pants—maybe you’re even eating a delicious home-cooked breakfast while you watch—but what makes this different from watching “Meet the Press” or “Face the Nation” or “Fox News Sunday with Chris Wallace?”

The answer to that, I think, is all about how we abide in love, to use the words of our readings.

We become community through loving God, and loving one another—and not just by loving those we see and know personally. As the author of John’s letter says, “God loved us so much, we also ought to love one another. … The commandment we have from him is this: those who love God must love their brothers and sisters also.”

So you see where I’m going with this, and I invite you, as I said to share your own thoughts in the comments box on Facebook. What’s helped you to feel connected to a greater community over this past year, and how has that made a difference for you? What have we learned during this time that’s worth carrying forward into the future?

There are no right answers here. It doesn’t even matter if you’re answering the exact question I asked. I really invite you to feel free to share anything that’s on your heart, whether it seems large or small. And if you happen to be a visitor here today, you’re also welcome to join the conversation.

The way this Facebook and Zoom thing works, I won’t be able to see what you write, at least not right away, but this sharing isn’t for me, really, it’s for all of you. It’s for the community.

I think there are a lot of different ways of being connected, of being in community. We come into this world physically connected to another human being, but once that umbilical cord is clipped, all human connection is virtual, when you think about it.

We know there are multiple ways of being present to one another. When I have a video call with my little granddaughters, or when I talk on the phone to my daughter in California, we are truly present to one another. Sure, I’d like to give them a bit hug, and I’m looking forward to the day when I can do that again, but we are still truly connected now. We’re connected by love.

We believe that Jesus is truly present this morning. Normally we say we believe that Jesus is present when we worship in Word and sacrament, and in those of us who have gathered to worship together. The personal presence of Christ is with us in multiple ways this morning, though, even without the elements of bread and wine,[ii] and through our love of Christ and our love for each other, we are truly present to each other. The relationship we have of mutual abiding together in Christ is communion.[iii]

So from my perspective, from the perspective of an observer, your Zoom book and Bible studies and your food and blood drives—they look like expressions of abiding love and relationship, each in its own way. But I’m sure since I’m at a distance there’s more going on that I don’t know about, but you do.

Through this abiding love, God is with us. As there’s a line that really jumped out at me as John was reading this morning: “If we love one another, God lives in us, and his love is perfected in us.“

May the God who loves us so much give us grace through the Spirit to continue to remain in love for God, and for each other, so that together we might bear much fruit. Amen.

[i] Raymond E. Brown, The Gospel According to John (XIII-XXI): A New Translation with Introduction and Commentary. The Anchor Bible, 1970. 661. David Hart Bentley, The New Testament: A Translation, 2017.

[ii] For a discussion of this at some length, see John Macquarrie, A Guide to the Sacraments, 1997. 127.

[iii]B rown, 674

Preached for Church of the Ascension in Parkesburg PA.