Friday, May 10, 2013

"It's All About Relationship" (May 12, 2013)

Homily:  Yr C Easter 7, May 12 2013, St. Albans
Readings:  Acts 16:16-34; Ps 97; Rev 22:12-14,16-17,20-21; Jn 17:20-26

"It's All About Relationship"

It was six years ago this month that I got on a plane and traveled to the Seychelles Islands.  I spent three months working there, as an intern, as part of my theological training.  And to get ready for that posting, I took part in a 10 day orientation program the previous January. That program was for people like me who were going overseas to do various types of work for the church.  We all met in Toronto, but the people taking part came from all over North America.  It was a great group of people, with a lot of different backgrounds and interesting stories to tell.

And I remember in particular one man from Texas.  He was tall and slim, and he had the usual Texan accent, greeting us with a “Howdy y’all” when he entered the room.  Now my Texan friend didn’t talk a lot, he was a fairly quiet guy.  But as we were going through the sessions and various exercises, whenever he did speak, he almost always said the same thing:  “It’s all about relationship”.  If we did a Bible study, invariably at some point he would chime in “Well, y’all know, it’s all about relationship.”  If we did a session on how to work in a culture we weren’t familiar with, he’d say, “Well, it’s all about relationship”.  If we were getting training on issues of poverty or justice, same thing.  And y’all know what?  My Texan friend was always right.

And if he’d been sitting here with us today, and he’d heard today’s gospel being read, and if we could ask him what he thought about it, I know that he would say “It’s all about relationship.”  And once more, I’m pretty sure that he’d be right.

The gospel that we just heard is not Jesus preaching or answering questions or giving instructions to his disciples.  The time for all that has passed.  In today’s gospel, Jesus is getting ready to go out into the night one last time on that Thursday evening of the last supper.  And so the final thing he does in the company of his disciples is pray.  The words we just heard read are Jesus prayer.  He prays for his disciples, and in the passage selected for today, he prays also for “all those who will believe in me through the disciples’ word”.  That is to say, the last thing that Jesus does on that evening is pray for us, for you and for me.

That in itself is pretty awesome if you think about it.  And so the first thing I want you to try to do this morning is to hear today’s gospel not as a teaching or as a story, but as a prayer.  This is Jesus praying for you. 

Have you ever had someone pray for you?  What’s it feel like?  How would you feel if the person sitting next to you this morning turned to you, and said I’d like to pray for you, and began to pray out loud? 
You might feel grateful or appreciative.  You might be apprehensive, wondering what your neighbour would say.  You might feel a bit embarrassed or awkward.  You probably would feel a mix of all of these things.  And that’s, at least in part, because prayer is an intimate experience.

And so in this intimate moment, this final moment, with Jesus on the brink of his impending death, what is it that he prays for, what is it that he asks the Father for on our behalf?

Is it that we will believe the right things, that we will take to heart the things that he has taught us about God?    No, that’s not what Jesus asks.

Is it that we will behave the right way, doing the right things, acting in the way that he has shown and instructed?   No.

No, Jesus final prayer to the Father on our behalf is that we may be one, as the Father is in the Son and the Son is in the Father.  He prays that we may be drawn into the same relationship of mutual love that he has with the Father, so that we may know that we are loved by the Father even as the Son is loved by the Father.

As my Texan friend would say, “it’s all about relationship”.  The reason Jesus was sent to this earth was to draw us into relationship with God and with each other.

Sometimes, we get things mixed up.  Often, when people in churches hear Jesus prayer that “they may all be one”, we interpret it as a plea for Christian unity, for the ecumenical movement, and then we set up committees, Anglicans and Catholics or Anglicans and Lutherans, and those committees start to look at our theological doctrines and try to find ways to reconcile our doctrinal differences so that we can then do things like share the Eucharist together or recognize each other’s ordained ministers.

Now there’s nothing wrong with any of that, it’s all good work.  But I don’t think that’s what Jesus was praying for.  I think that’s more a reflection of our way of thinking about church.

Phyllis Tickle, in her book “The Great Emergence” talks about two different approaches to being church.  The first approach is “believe – behave – belong”.  The second approach is “belong – behave – believe”.  Same words, but a world of difference.

For most of the last 1700 years or so, our churches have put their emphasis on “believe-behave-belong”.  Under this approach, the first step to joining the church is to learn and assent to the beliefs as these are spelled out in creeds and doctrine.  Once you believe, then based on these beliefs you start to behave in a certain way, to live your life in accordance with the rules of belief.  And when this happens, you belong to the church.  You become a member, you are baptized, your name gets put on the parish list and people start to call you up to bring soup to the pot luck dinners.  This is believe – behave – belong.  There are doctrines and rules which hold us together as a community, and strict boundaries which let us know who is in the community and who isn’t.  Under this approach, we are one when we believe the same things and behave the same way.
Now, as I mentioned, this has been more or less our approach to being church for the last 1700 years, ever since the age of Constantine and the merger of church and empire in the fourth century.  But it hasn’t always been like this.  A few years ago, at a prayer group I was a part of, someone asked me an interesting question.  “How similar,” she asked, “are the beliefs of the early church and our beliefs today?”  I thought for a moment, and then responded that the big difference was that the early church didn’t have beliefs in the same way that the later church does, because there were the doctrines and creeds weren't formalized in the same way.  Instead of believing in doctrines and creeds, the early disciples placed their trust in a relationship, in their relationship with God as children in God’s family.

And so instead of the believe – behave – belong approach to being church which has dominated for such a long time, we see that there is also another way, the way of belong – behave – believe.  In this second approach, the first thing that we seek out is belonging.  We enter into community, we seek to enter into relationships of mutual love in this community that we call church.  We belong to a gathering of God’s people, without preconditions about what we believe or how we behave.  In time, out of our belonging, we may well begin to behave in the ways that Jesus taught, and we may learn to articulate our faith in the language of belief and to be shaped by the beliefs that inform the community as a whole.  But fundamentally it is our relationship which holds us together, the relationship of mutual love that we have with each other and with God.  We are one not because we believe the same things, nor because we behave the same way, but because we enter into relationship.  Because we belong.

In that final moment of intimacy, in that final opportunity to pray, this is what Jesus asks his Father for on our behalf.

“I ask that they may be one, as we are one.  As you Father are in me and I am in you, so may they be one as we are one; so that the world may know that you have loved them even as you have loved me.”

‘Cause as y’all know, it’s all about relationship.


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