August 11, 2019

“I In Them and You in Me”
A sermon for Hawaii Kai UCC by Janice Ogoshi
August 11, 2019 (Pentecost +8) 

Many years ago I was talking to a friend, Debbie, about another friend Sherry who had a new boyfriend.  Debbie was eager to find out about this boyfriend, and she asked, “Is he saved?”  I didn’t quite know how to answer.  “Do you mean is he a Christian?” I asked.  “Yes, is he saved?” she asked again. 

I’ve thought about that conversation a lot over the years, and the response I have ready in my head for such a question has evolved.  I told her, “Yes, he’s a Christian” just to give an answer that would satisfy her.  I’m pretty sure that in asking whether the boyfriend was saved, Debbie wanted to know whether he had accepted Jesus Christ as his Lord and Savior.  She thought it important that our friend Sherry dated a believer who knew where he would be spending eternity.  But today, I might respond by asking her, “What do you mean by ‘saved’?” and “Why is this important to you?” 

Others ask a similar question—“Is she born again?”  Both questions come from a perspective that being a Christian is primarily about having one’s sins forgiven by Jesus and making him Lord of one’s life, and knowing that after you die, you’re going to heaven and not to hell.  Another question along this line is, “If you died tonight, do you know where you’re going?”  Billy Sunday, a famous traveling evangelist in the early 20th century famously imagined a person coming forward to receive Christ, leaving the tent and being hit by a truck, and instantly going to heaven.  He was satisfied that he accomplished his mission when people left the tent knowing that they would go to heaven if they died, whether right after the meeting or years later.  I’m sure Billy Sunday encouraged people to read the Bible and go to church after they were saved, but being saved from hell and for heaven seemed to be the whole point. 

But is that really what Jesus was concerned about in his ministry?  Where people would go after they died?  Our Scripture reading suggests a different priority for ministry.  And there is nothing in our Future Directions Statements that talk about making sure people get to heaven.  The focus of our Future Directions Statements, which we discerned together, is more on building relationships with Christ and with each other.  Let’s read them together, and take note of how many times relationships are mentioned: 

1.   With Jesus Christ as the foundation of our faith, we are open to the Holy Spirit to guide the use of our gifts and passions. As servant-hearted people, we are confident in trying new ways of doing ministry, welcoming new people to authentic relationships with Jesus and one another. We do this with the support of our church family, our community of faith. 

2.   We are a family of faith utilizing the gifts God has given us to provide opportunities to establish a relationship with Him and others. Our diverse and shared wisdom guides and supports the inclusivity and understanding of all generations. 

3.   We recognize that everyone is on an ongoing journey of faith and that we are at different places on this journey. We provide a safe and welcoming place for people of all ages to explore their relationship with God through worship, fellowship, friendships, small group studies, interest groups, service, ministry teams and more. In all of this, sojourners will feel loved and cared for so all will grow in their relationships with God. 

We discerned together that in moving toward the future, God wants us to nurture relationships with God and with each other.  God wants us to introduce our neighbors to Christ.  God wants us to deepen our relationships with each other as well.  It’s not primarily about being saved, even though that’s what happens when we are in relationship with God.  We are saved from sin and evil, but the focus is on relationship.  In a relationship there is mutuality, communication, living together.  And in our living together with God, and loving each other, the kingdom of God becomes visible, and we have life abundant, life in Christ, life with Christ. 

It’s important for us to know what exactly we are inviting others to do and be when we tell them about Jesus and invite them to be in relationship with God.  And it’s not just about avoiding hell in the afterlife.  It’s about how we live with God and each other in this life, in this world. 

Today’s Scripture reading is Jesus’ prayer for us.  It’s part of a longer prayer, all of chapter 17 of the gospel of John.  It’s the longest prayer attributed to Jesus in the Bible.  The setting for this prayer is the night before Jesus will be crucified.  He’s had supper with his disciples, and he knows what’s coming.  He talks about the Holy Spirit, who will come to comfort and guide them after he leaves them.  He encourages them to stay connected to him—he says that he is the vine, and they are the branches, and that they should remain in him.   He tries to prepare them for the terrible days they will be facing and the grief they will need to endure.  

And then in John 17 Jesus switches from talking to his disciples to praying, and he addresses God.  He prays for himself, then asks God to protect his disciples.  And in today’s reading, verses 20-26, Jesus prays for “those who will believe in me through their (the disciples’) message” (v. 20).  Jesus prayed for all those who would follow him as a result of the preaching and ministry of his first disciples.  Looking into the future, confident that his disciples would spread the gospel, Jesus prayed for us! 

Jesus prayed that we would be one with each other, and one with him.  Jesus wanted all of his followers to be one, just like he was one with the Father.  “I pray for those who will believe in me through their message that all of them may be one, Father, just as you are in me and I am in you” (vv. 20-21).  

In these verses Jesus uses the word “in” to describe relationship seven times:  you in me, I am in you, they in us, I in them, you in me, the love you have for me may be in them, I myself may be in them.  Do you hear the emphasis on close relationships?  Jesus wants his followers to be “in” him as he is “in” the Father.  What Jesus wants for us is not just to be saved, but to be in relationship with him and with God the Father.  Jesus wants us to experience communion and community with God and with each other.  And this is what our Future Directions Statements point toward.  All three statements talk about being in relationship with Jesus or nurturing relationships with each other and with God.  This is about much more than being saved from hell and going to heaven after we die.  This is about how we experience life now and on into eternity. 

The best way I know how to illustrate this is with this icon, known as the Rublev Trinity Icon.  Andrei Rublev, a Russian Orthodox monk, originally painted it on a wall in a church around 1425. 

The icon depicts a scene from a story in Genesis 18:1-15.  God appears to Abraham in the form of three men.  As was customary in those days, Abraham extended hospitality to the travelers, inviting them to rest under the shade of a tree near where his tent was pitched.  

Rublev illustrates the three visitors as the Trinity—God the Father, Son and Holy Spirit.  The three figures have the same face, but are dressed differently.  All three have beautiful blue garments, indicating their divine status.  The Father, on the left, has a shimmery golden coat, indicating that he is the Creator.  The Holy Spirit, seated on our right, wears a robe of green, the color of life because he is the giver of life.  Jesus, the Son, wears a thick garment of reddish-brown to represent the earth, or his incarnation.  His right hand extends two fingers, representing his dual nature, his humanity and divinity. 

It looks as though the Son and Spirit are bowing toward the Father.  Jesus said that he came to do the will of the Father, and the Holy Spirit was sent to point us to the Father and Son.  But the Father’s head is equally bowed to the Son and Spirit.  There is no hierarchy in the Trinity.  They all carry identical staffs (thin red lines), indicating their equal authority.  This is a community of love, submission and sacrifice.  There is an intimate relationship among the three figures. 

The figures are seated at a table on which sits a chalice, representing the cup of Jesus’ sacrifice and the cup used in Holy Communion.  There is an opening at the table.   Henri Nouwen wrote:  “As we place ourselves in front of the icon in prayer, we come to experience a gentle invitation to participate in the intimate conversation that is taking place among the three divine angels and to join them around the table. “(Behold the Beauty of the Lord, p. 32) 

This icon helps us to understand that God exists in relationship among the Father, Son and Holy Spirit.  This community of love is God.  And the amazing thing is that we are invited to join this community.  Some scholars believe that the rectangle below the cup on the table originally held a mirror so that the viewer would see themselves at the table.  All people are invited to be seated at this table of fellowship.  

Jesus prayed, “I have given them the glory that you gave me, that they may be one as we are one—I in them and you in me—so that they may be brought to complete unity.  Then the world will know that you sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me” (vv. 22-23). 

The Spirit invites us to the intimate fellowship at the table, we partake of the hospitality of God, and we acknowledge Jesus is the Son of God.  This invitation of the Trinity to the table is not to us alone as individuals.  We are in the company of the entire Church.  Our communion with the Trinity is also communion with our sisters and brothers in Christ, and it brings us into complete unity.  

When we are one in communion with our Triune God, we become witnesses—our unity is appealing, attractive and inviting.  We are a fellowship that makes people feel welcomed, loved, accepted.  Not just because we’re nice people, but because we have experienced the love of the Triune God.  We have entered into the loving community that exists among the Father, Son and Holy Spirit.  This loving community encourages folks to learn more about Jesus’ life and teachings and to read about God in the Bible.  As we do so, we enter into this picture, we all come and sit at the table together with God. 

Think about the way you became part of this church, this fellowship of love.  How has your relationship with God deepened as you received love from the people here at HKUCC?  How can you similarly invite others to experience a deeper relationship with Jesus?  What practices of faith have helped you to sit at the table with the Triune God?  Prayer?  Service?  Worship?  Fellowship?  Can these practices be ways of inviting others to come to the table with God?  This is what our Future Directions Statements challenge us to do.  We will be moving toward our Future Directions Statements when we nurture relationships among God and the people of God, inviting people to the table of fellowship with the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. 

So instead of trying to make sure our friends and family know where they are going after they die, let’s invite them to get to know Jesus, to be in relationship with God now so that they will enter into the unity of the body of Christ and thereby live the life God created us all to enjoy.  Let’s experience the community of love at the table together with the Father, Son and Holy Spirit and with each other. 

Jesus prayed that we would be one—with each other and with God.  I get “chicken skin” when I think that he actually prayed for us, for all followers.  Isn’t it wonderful that Jesus was thinking of us and inviting us all into this community of love?  More than just being saved from hell, we are invited to intimate fellowship with God and with each other.  As we live our life together, as we move toward our Future Directions and seek to be one with each other and with God, may God draw others into this ever-expanding community of love.