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Sunday, September 20, 2020 | 11:00 a.m.
To What End? Being Church in These Days:
“Providing for the shelter, nurture, and spiritual fellowship of the children of God”
Part of a sermon series on the Great Ends of the Church
Shannon J. Kershner
Pastor, Fourth Presbyterian Church
“Why are you no longer involved in the church?” I asked her. We were sitting in a coffee shop, not too far from the church I was serving at that time. I had reached out to her because it had been a long time since I had seen her around. She had joined the church shortly after I arrived, showing a lot of enthusiasm and jumping right in. But then, within a year or so, she and her kids quietly slipped away.
I assumed she was going to respond that she was not around as much because she had a difficult time with my theological perspective or that they were absent because she and her family had incredibly packed schedules, even on Sunday mornings. Unfortunately, though, neither of those reasons was why she slipped out the back door. “It is a great church,” she said. “I am more conservative than you are, so I don’t always agree with you, but we don’t need to agree all the time. It is not that. To be honest, we just never really found our place. I had a hard time making a real connection, and that is what I need. I just didn’t find it.” My heart sank with her response, but I appreciated her honesty with me. We finished our coffee, hugged, and that was that.
I share this story with you because that particular congregation is not the only one that struggles with helping people find their home within it, their place where they can be both nourished and challenged, their people with whom they can share life’s joys and difficulties, if they choose. We struggle with that challenge here at Fourth Church, as well. We are all constantly working on creative ways to make sure the people who want to connect with each other are able to do so. Church staff and church members alike are always trying to figure out how to help people come in the symbolic front door of the church house and then find their place and call within the body called Fourth Church.
But in a church this size, helping people discover connections with each other is a monumental task. Even when we were gathering in person, it has always been easy to be anonymous at Fourth Church, and some of you love that. It is why you are here. But many of you do not. You are like my former church member: you want to find your place, your real connection. You long to feel fully welcomed home just as you are.
The call to create that kind of inclusive and hospitable community forms the second Great End of the Church, another part of our denominational mission statement. Last week we talked about our imperative invitation to proclaim the gospel for the salvation of humankind. This week, though, our great end is a more of an inwardly focused one: We are to provide for the shelter, nurture, and spiritual fellowship of the children of God. It is a purpose that calls attention to the quality of life within the community of faith, for if we do not provide shelter, nurture, and spiritual fellowship for those whom God has called into this body, our communal life could wither to the point where we would be of little use for God’s broken world. If we neglect to help each other find a place within the life of this congregation where we can inhale God’s grace for ourselves, then eventually we might become unable to exhale that grace for anybody else. We will be like dry bones.
And yet while the idea behind this second great end is not complicated, knowing what that looks like these days is. What does it mean to provide for shelter, nurture, and spiritual fellowship in the middle of a global pandemic? For us, one thing it means is that we pay attention to caring for both the physical well-being of each other as well as each other’s spiritual well-being.
This attentiveness to the well-being of our community in a holistic sense is why your church leadership made difficult decisions about continuing with only online worship and online programming for the foreseeable future. Yet even providing what has become generous programming opportunities is not the primary answer to living out this second great end. We could have the most excellent church programming in the whole denomination and still have folks who drift away because they could not find a connection, because they never felt known.
That conviction about a church needing much more than only fantastic programs emerges out of this Johannine text. When we read this part of John’s Gospel, we notice that Jesus is asking much more of us as disciples, as a body together, than only participating in activities together. Rather, Jesus focuses his disciples first on abiding in him and second on loving each other. Abide and love. Both of these verbs are liberally sprinkled throughout this passage from John. Given their prevalence, we can conclude that for Jesus, these two things—abiding and loving—are critical building blocks for the foundation of what it means to live as a community of faith, as part of his body. Abiding in Jesus and loving each other directly shape our ability to be a space for shelter, nurture, and spiritual fellowship.
Let’s first look at abide. We have considered this verb before because it is one of John’s favorite words. As you might recall, the Greek word is meno. We can translate that into English in a variety of ways: to live, to dwell, or to lodge; to remain, to continue, to abide. It implies an inward, enduring, personal communion—a mutuality, an interdependence of sorts. John talks about this abiding happening between Jesus and the one Jesus calls Abba as well as this abiding happening in God’s own being—between the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. It is intimate and relational community language. And it is a way of being with the Holy into which Jesus invites us.
The best way I can describe what it means to abide is to use a word I used earlier: abiding with someone is feeling like you are home with that person. Now, I know that for some of you worshiping with us today, home was or is not a safe place to be. If that is currently true for you, please reach out to me or to another clergy person. God desires for you to be safe. But when I say home, I mean home the way it is supposed to be: a place of safety, comfort, deep acceptance, and rooted love. When Jesus says to his disciples, “abide in my love,” he is saying, “make your home in my love; be grounded in my love; see that as the most important thing about who you are—that you are a people who live firmly rooted in my love for you and for this world.”
I am using the plural “people” rather than the singular “person,” because in this particular passage Jesus is not using the singular form of “you.” Rather, he is using “y’all” again, as he often does, talking to them as a group, as a congregation. He is challenging that early group of disciples to make its communal home in his love; to be grounded in his love; and to see that love-grounding as the most important thing about who they are together as a body.
And through this text Jesus is challenging us to do the same. Are we, as a church, dwelling in Christ’s love, making our home there, first and foremost? Furthermore, is abiding in Jesus’ love the centerpiece of our identity as a congregation? Is being grounded in Jesus’ love what anchors us and defines us?Let me put it another way: If Fourth Church is your primary spiritual home, when people ask you to tell them about this congregation, what do you say? Is your first response, “We are a people who make a home in Jesus’ love and try to live that love out in the world”? Or is your response usually focused on something else?
Do we derive our primary identity as a congregation from what we do—our great programming for people of all ages, the kind of social justice work in which we are engaged, the quality of our music program, or the authenticity of our worship services? Are those what we point to first? Honestly, I often do, because those activities are important to who we are. But the question this passage from John compels me to ask is, Are they primary? Is the most important thing about who we are as Fourth Church what we do? Not according to Jesus’ hope expressed in John 15. Abide in my love. Ground yourselves in my love. Make a home in the love I have for you and for this world, Jesus declares.
What would shift for us as a congregation if whenever we are evaluating a ministry or a program for its effectiveness, we did not only ask “How many people or devices logged on?” or even “Did I get something out of that?” Rather, what might change if our primary questions of evaluation became “How did that experience or ministry or program help our church abide more deeply in Jesus’ love?” Or “When we did that, did we show the love of Christ?” These are the kinds of questions that emerge from this John passage. And these are the kinds of questions that can help a congregation, no matter its size, become more of a community in which people can be real with each other and find home—a space of spiritual fellowship in which people are truly sheltered and nurtured.
Yet let us not forget that while abiding in Jesus’ love is to be our first priority, the second critical factor for a congregation that hopes to be about providing shelter, nurture, and spiritual fellowship for the children of God is a decision to love one another. Not like one another. Not always agree with one another. Not even just play nice alongside each other. No. Love one another. And that, by the way, is not an invitation from Jesus, nor is it merely a request. It is an imperative command. “Love one another as I have loved you.” Because of Jesus, we know what that love looks like, don’t we. Remember, he is saying these words immediately before his arrest, trial, and death on the cross, all motivated by a total love for us.
It is not simply a feeling love, but it is an action love. It is a love that means to be for another person and to act for another person, sometimes even regardless of how you feel about them. It is a love that is hard work and takes a whole lot of intention and practice. And yet this kind of love for each other is what my former church member in the coffee shop longed for. My guess is that it is what you long for, too. Frankly, right now, I’d guess most of us in this nation long to know that kind of love amongst us as a people. For example, I think that longing is why the deep friendship between Justice Ginsburg and Justice Scalia has once again caught our attention following her death Friday night. As Scalia’s son said yesterday, “They held very strong, very different views. . . . They didn’t compromise those beliefs for each other, but they didn’t let it disrupt their relationship.”
Perhaps especially now, we long for a community, a people, in which someone will be for us—cheering us on, challenging us, being real with us, but always motivated by love and not spite, not allowing difference to disrupt relationship. This mutual, honest, hard-work love is the heart of John’s vision of the church’s life. I argue it is the heart of what it means to provide shelter, nurture, and spiritual fellowship for the children of God.
I preach all of this fully realizing how incredibly complicated it is to figure out how to be this kind of love for one another in this time when we don’t even get to see each other. I know it is frustrating to want to reach out to people who might be new to Fourth Church in particular or to the Presbyterian way of being Christian in general when you literally cannot see someone standing by him or herself in Coffee Hour or hear them asking for directions, indicating they haven’t been around for long.
But even with all of these frustrating complications, let us not waste this time wringing our hands. For even though 2020 has been one heck of a year thus far, let us also not wish it away, for each day really is a gift from God. Rather, in these days let us intentionally practice both abiding in Jesus’ love for us and for this world and doing the hard work of action love for those we do know. Make a phone call. Send a card. Type an email. Perhaps think back to someone in the church you only sort of know and make an effort to reach out to that person.
My point is that as we continue in this liminal COVID-19 space, use this time to practice abiding and loving. Build up those muscles. For just imagine what it would be like if, when we finally are able to gather together again, we realize that the fabric of our communal life, our ability to be a space of shelter, nurture, and spiritual fellowship, has grown stronger and more tightly woven together than it was before mid-March? What would it be like if we could just feel a different energy with each other, a deeper appreciation of each other, a fuller embrace of this gift called being the church?
What would it be like if the first time we are back together in the Sanctuary, people purposefully went to sit with people they did not know, rather than going back to familiar pews and familiar friends? What might be unleashed in the spirit of our congregation’s life if, when the time came for us to be back together, we all tried to outdo each other in welcoming the stranger, having compassion for those we don’t understand or necessarily enjoy, being for each other and treasuring what makes us all different? Just imagine what that could feel like—the way all of those actions would radiate with the love of Christ.
Abide in me. Love one another. Be about the shelter, nurture, and the spiritual fellowship of the children of God. This is another reason why this church was born into this place. And it is a challenging and precious gift we have been given to share in a world that longs for real, honest, home. Amen.