NRSV JOHN 13:31-35
31 When he had gone out, Jesus said, “Now the Son of Man has been glorified, and God has been glorified in him. 32 If God has been glorified in him, God will also glorify him in himself and will glorify him at once. 33 Little children, I am with you only a little longer. You will look for me; and as I said to the Jews so now I say to you, ‘Where I am going, you cannot come.’ 34 I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. 35 By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.”
NRSV REVELATION 21:1-6
21 Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth; for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and the sea was no more. 2 And I saw the holy city, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband.
3 And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying,
“See, the home of God is among mortals.
He will dwell with them as their God;
they will be his peoples,
and God himself will be with them;
4 he will wipe every tear from their eyes.
Death will be no more;
mourning and crying and pain will be no more,
for the first things have passed away.”
5 And the one who was seated on the throne said, “See, I am making all things new.” Also he said, “Write this, for these words are trustworthy and true.” 6 Then he said to me, “It is done! I am the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the end. To the thirsty I will give water as a gift from the spring of the water of life.
Every month ministers and ruling elders of Presbyterian Churches in our area meet in what is called a “Neighborhood.” Ours is the Piedmont Neighborhood, 34 churches from Appomattox Court House to Rice, from Fork Union down to Meherrin. It’s a wide expanse, but then ours is a pretty wide Presbytery, with over 100 churches in it. The folks in the Presbytery decided a long time ago that the best way to enhance our sense of “connectedness” – a big word in Presbyterianism – would be to divide churches and their leaders into geographical units. First they were called “Clusters,” and then when that title fell into disregard – don’t ask me why – we were called “Neighborhoods.”
Yours truly has been the moderator of this Neighborhood since I showed up here in September 2009, mainly because – I think – nobody else wanted the job. But I would go anyway. It’s neat to sit around and talk with colleagues about how things are going, what is working in their churches, what isn’t, as well as getting caught up with the latest news from the Presbytery.
During our most recent meeting we made our plans for an annual Celebration we will have on September 24th at Briery Presbyterian Church. But we also got to talking about churches in our area who are celebrating significant birthdays this year. Turns out that New Store Presbyterian Church is also celebrating its 175th birthday this year – like us I think it is marking their establishment as a chartered congregation. Maysville Presbyterian, which is in a yoked relationship with New Store, was established 195 years ago. These churches have been around for a while.
Of course when you get ministers together in a historically rich area like ours they are going to unpack where all these churches came from. Cumberland is the mother church for both this church and College Presbyterian on the campus of Hampden-Sydney College. In 1828 the folks in Farmville got tired of having to cross the Appomattox River to go to church. That river, then as now, floods a good bit of the time, and there was many a Sunday when folks on this side of the river could not make it to church. So rather than giving up they established their own church, even though it took them 16 years to make it official.
We talked on and on and I won’t bore you with every detail of the conversation but what impressed me, as well as several of my distinguished colleagues – some of which you all know very well – is that so many of these churches are connected by their histories. One church gave birth to several other churches, some churches yoked with others, some churches combined with others to get preachers to come and lead worship, some of them students at Union Seminary which was housed at Hampden-Sydney before it moved to Richmond in 1896. The churches were established in a time when the Scottish and Irish came down from Pittsburgh and through the Shenandoah Valley and started moving east. Most of those Scotch-Irish were Presbyterians, so that is why you have so many Presbyterian Churches in this area, whereas in a place like New England you have to look mighty hard to find one (there is a story there, too, but I’ll save it for another time).
Like I said, we Presbyterians make a big deal about our “connectional” form of government – the congregation elects members of the Session, someone from the Session goes to Presbytery meetings, the Presbytery is connected to the Synod, and we are all connected to the General Assembly, our national meeting that takes place every other year. But even more exciting than that – much more exciting – is when we see how our churches are connected with each other, in the stories they tell, in the memories they share. Where our stories meet is where our deepest relationships take place, because that is where we live out the commandment of Jesus best, the one to love one another.
It is that way with churches, and it is especially that way in individual congregations. One of the reasons why I wanted to take the time for us to share our stories is that those stories are part of the history of this church. They are testimonies of our connectedness in Christ, and our connectedness with one another. We may have different versions of the stories – like if someone starts to tell a story and somebody else chimes in, ”That’s not the way I remember it” – but it is our stories that hold us together and keep us connected.
I think it is especially important to remember that these days, because there are so many things that are pulling us apart. We get irritated with someone for not taking out their mother last Sunday; we get offended because of something someone said that walked all over our feelings and they didn’t seem to care; we have folks who were born here and folks who have come here, and sometimes it seems like we don’t speak the same language. And then there are all the political, social and cultural battles we fight. Someone says something about the President and undoubtedly there will be a whole squadron of folks who take issue with what they said. Someone laments the lack of young people in the church and starts going after all the millenials, and someone who is connected blood and soul to a millenial gets offended. We have history lovers around here, but we also have those who roll their eyes and get bored silly every time a historical reference is made. We are connected, but there are so many things that keep us apart. At least, there are so many things that we let keep us apart.
But then I guess it has always been that way, because both of our Bible readings this morning come from within a context of disconnectedness. John of Patmos was writing about some visions he had of the end times, visions which he phrased in code words so he wouldn’t get himself or the church which received these writings into trouble with the Empire (Roman in this case). We don’t know much about what he was doing on Patmos, but given there was a penal colony there a lot of scholars have surmised that he was sent there as punishment for practicing his religion. They are also in disagreement about when the book was written, though quite a few think it was penned in the years after the Romans came in and demolished the country, destroying the Temple and throwing Jews into a severe sense of displacement. And that would include early Christians who considered themselves Jews.
In the midst of their disconnectedness, their sense of displacement, John gives his vision of a time when the Holy City, the new Jerusalem, will come upon the earth. It will not come by human effort or human hustle. It will come by the grace of God, the grace that proclaims for all to hear that “God will make God’s home among mortals.” There will not be a dividing line anymore. They will not be separation. God will be connected with us in a special way that nothing and no one can tear apart.
When the Holy voice from the throne proclaims “It is done!”, we can easily be somewhat suspicious when we look at our world and when we look at our own community of faith. We have plenty of squabbles, we have plenty of disagreements, we will have our times of wondering what made someone think the way they do. But God has opted to pitch God’s tent among us – which is a wonderful way of expressing that complicated term “Incarnation”. God is with us. New life will come. By the grace of God, we will always be connected.
The text out of John’s Gospel should sound familiar – we read this during the Maundy Thursday service two months ago. But it also is heard in a context of disconnectedness. Just before these words of Jesus, Judas has left to follow through on his plans to betray his Lord. After this, Peter will affirm his faith in Jesus, only to deny him three times before the night is out when the going got tough.
In spite of all this, there comes a commandment from Jesus: Love one another. He adds, “Just as I have loved you…” He showed them what loving each other means by taking water and towel and washing their feet, doing the slave work, the menial work, the task of cleaning off the feet of others. The work of serving others without expecting anything in return.
We have a wonderful mission statement at this church. I have seen a lot of mission statements over the years, and most of them tend to be so broad that you put the entire universe into them. But I think this church’s mission statement is excellent: We exist to actively and creatively share the love of God each and every day. It’s a statement of love, a statement that embraces our Lord’s commandment to us to love, to serve, to be with, to share, to be the love of Christ not just in here but out there, wherever “out there” means for us.
Despite everything that keeps us apart, Jesus calls on us to love one another. The Voice of God from the depths of heaven declares that new life is not just a future hope but a present reality. In all of this we are connected – with each other, with other Presbyterians in this neighborhood, with all people here and everywhere. God’s love is present, and it is that love that connects us, and allows us to view the future not with dread but with hope, and with excitement. Amen.