From Many Paths, Embracing our Differences, Finding Our Story Together
An Open and Affirming Congregation
"After Sunday worship I feel refreshed and ready to start a new week. Worship calms me and makes me want to be a more giving and forgiving person."
"I am here to share my soul, body, and mind with our bigger family who shares our worship to God and the entire universe. This is my worship experience at church."
Worship at FCC Essex follows a traditional liturgy, but God still speaks to the world today from these ancient words and rituals as if they were new. Music and spirit and art and words and silence center us and inform us. Our style of worship brings comfort, soothes the spirit, challenges the mind, strengthens our love of each other, and empowers us for doing good in the world.
Other special services of worship are celebrated throughout the year during Advent (Christmas) and Lent, as well as ecumenical events with other churches in Essex and within the UCC.
May 9, 2021
Sixth Sunday of Easter
1 John 5:1-6
Reflection on John 15:9-17
by Rev. Dr. Cheryl Lindsay
What is Joy?
I was recently in a Bible study led by Racquel S. Lettsome, PhD in which she stated that joy is a manifestation of the Holy Spirit. The study centered on the day of Pentecost, but her point was more encompassing. Rejoicing is a response to the movement of the Spirit. In this week’s focus text, Jesus continues his discourse on abiding and reveals that the whole point of the conversation is “that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be complete.” As Robert A. Peterson notes, “Still another fruit is the great joy that comes from continuing in a warm personal relationship with Jesus.” Joy is a gift of and from God and a fruit of the Spirit.
That aspect of joy as a gift means that it must be given and received in order to be realized in our lives. We possess joy; it belongs to us. As the saying goes, “This joy that I have…the world didn’t give it….the world can’t take it away.” Joy comes from the God who comes to us and stays with us. This passage immediately follows Jesus’ words explaining the divine-human relationship as akin to vinegrower-vine-branches where the vinegrower becomes the vine in order to connect and nourish the branches. Here he continues to expound upon the theme of abiding and fruitfulness but shifts more explicitly to name love as the connecting agent.
It was God’s love that propels every iteration of God’s abiding presence, from the love of the Creator who breathed life into the first human beings to the Liberator of the Exodus story who manifested in the cloud that guided their journey to the voice of Truth spoken through the prophets to the Word made flesh. Frances Taylor Gench provides three observations about the nature of love distinctly communicated in John’s narrative:
More than any other Gospel, John’s narrative emphasizes Jesus as divine, which would suggest a Jesus who is somewhat other-worldly, separate and apart, and high and exalted from those with whom he interacted. Yet, this Jesus does not relate from a lofty status but willingly and willfully lays that life down in order to pursue friendship with humanity. The opening words of the gospel take us back to the beginning when human beings were in such intimate relationship with the Holy One that they lived in constant communion and communication. Jesus embodies that intimate companionship in his interaction with his disciples.
Jesus now announces the transformation: “You are my friends, if you are doing the things I command you.” This sounds like a conditional sentence, but if it were truly conditional we would have expected, “If you do the things I command you, you will be my friends,” making friendship dependent on performance. Instead, Jesus says, “You are my friends,” right up front, as if without qualification, just as he said without qualification, “Already you are clean”. (Michaels, J. Ramsey.)
God created humanity for friendship, John suggests, and Jesus comes to fulfill that promise, hope, and purpose. While this framing does not discount other relational metaphors for the divine-human relationship, this one is necessary to reflect the countercultural nature of this union. Just as the creation narratives countered the prevailing understanding of multiple gods at war with one another who used human beings as pawns and needed constant appeasement, this gospel account reframes the reign of God who is both sovereign and abiding in love.
I love superhero movies and have enjoyed the new series offered as off-shoots of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. In particular, I recently finished The Falcon and the Winter Soldier that, in part, chronicles the transitions the position of Captain America from one superhero to another. It’s really interesting because the one who passed the title and its primary resource–a shield–to his self-identified successor actually possessed special powers given to him by ingesting a special serum designed for that purpose. The one being newly elevated to this position does not have nor want access to that serum and states, “The only superpower I have is that I believe that things can be better.”
At the heart of that power is love, and it is the power of God’s love in the world that transforms lives, communities and creation. That love exacts costs:
John speaks of in-house love, calling Christians to “love one another.” We ought not to assume, however, that this makes John’s love commandment easier to follow. Indeed, Gail R. O’Day cautions against dismissing its ethical seriousness, noting that “the history of the church and of individual communities of faith suggests that to love one another may be the most difficult thing Jesus could have asked. There are many circumstances in which it is easier to love one’s enemies than it is to love those with whom one lives, works, and worships day after day” (“John,” The Women’s Bible Commentary ed. C. A. Newsom and S. H. Ringe [Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 1992] 302). The intensity of the conflict in which many churches and denominations are presently (and perennially) engaged attests to the wisdom of this observation. (Frances Taylor Gench)
Love is the most difficult thing, but it is also the most necessary thing. Love is the antidote to human shortcomings because the lack of it constitutes the source. What if we considered the restriction God places–eating from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil–not as a test of obedience, but as a missed opportunity to show God love? How many of us have asked a friend not to do something without explanation…and considered it a gift and confirmation of friendship when the friend honored that request on the basis of the relationship alone? Does God deserve less than our close human companions?
This mutual love propels the community from within but also attracts the world.
Moreover, mutual love, the heart of John’s vision of the Christian life, is crucial not only for the community’s life together but also for its public witness. The world is not likely to be impressed by Christian love for outsiders, however expansive, nor compelled to join the company of believers, if those who call themselves Christian exhibit hatred for one another. Thus, throughout the Farewell Discourse, the believing community is given to understand that the quality of its life together is its most convincing witness to the truth and power of the gospel it proclaims (e.g., 13:35; 17:20-26). (Frances Taylor Gench)
Consider the moments of Jesus’ ministry that garnered large crowds–the Sermon on the Mount, the feeding of the five thousand, and the Triumphal Entry are three examples, but they reflect how his teaching, care, and promise generated attention. It seems to me that so much focus on the church being relevant (in terms of engaging with contemporary culture) has been preoccupied with creating recipes for substandard fruit rather than cultivating the soil and planting seeds with the radical, abundant, overwhelming, and joyful love of God. If we functioned from love, of course, we would be more inclusive and welcoming with our worship styles. If we lead with love, our stewardship campaigns would benefit from an increased spirit of gratitude and generosity. If love were our primary metric, our budget would be community-serving rather than self-serving. And, rather than sparking internal discord when adapting to the changing world around us, we’d be making paths in for the kin-dom of God on earth and spreading the joy of love.
Part of the joy of love comes from knowing that this is not an exchange of a commodity, but the giving and receiving of a gift. God is not looking for a transactional relationship even though the last part of this passage has been misinterpreted to indicate that if we only use the name of Jesus, our prayers will be answered. Here too, Jesus emphasizes the relationship and this assurance flows from the abiding in Christ’s love.
Jesus’ “friends” are thus also partners in the divine mission. For this reason, they are “in the know,” privy to the plan and intention of God revealed in Jesus Christ: “I do not call you servants any longer, because the servant does not know what the master is doing; but I have called you friends, because I have made known to you everything that I have heard from my father” (15:15). Indeed, they have been befriended for a purpose, solely at Jesus’ initiative: “You did not choose me but I chose you. And I appointed you to go and bear fruit, fruit that will last” (15:16). In short, the church, the community of Jesus’ friends, is elected not for privilege but for a mission in the world that is a continuation of Jesus’ own—a mission to bear the fruit of love in the world. Such love keeps the spirit of Jesus alive in the world, for as long as Christian love is in the world, the world is still encountering Jesus. It is an awesome vocation, one in which believers are supported and sustained by the one who loved them and chose them and who promises that prayers in his name in behalf of their mission will be answered by his Father (15:16). (Frances Taylor Gench)
The love that Jesus offers is truly that “gift that keeps on giving.” That reference doesn’t come from scripture, it’s a relic of an ad campaign that’s nearly a century old. But it is like a vine, with branches that are properly cared for, planted in fertile soil, nourished with Living Water, that grows, spreads, produces new branches, and ultimately bears fruit.
Who wouldn’t receive that gift?
Who wouldn’t become that gift?
First Congregational Church in Essex
United Church of Christ
6 Methodist Hill
Essex, Connecticut 06426