O God: Do not leave us comfortless, but send us your Holy Spirit to strengthen us, and exalt us to that place where our Savior Christ has gone before. Amen.
Have you ever encountered a really great love song? One of those songs that sneaked up beside you and touched the most private recesses of your soul when you didn’t expect it?
I had one of those experiences the other day.
I was away last week visiting family and friends around the South. I flew into Nashville where I borrowed a car from my parents and spent the next week on a road trip through Tennessee, Arkansas, Louisiana, Mississippi, and Alabama, before heading back to Tennessee to return home to New Jersey. I stopped along the way to reacquaint myself with the people and places that make up many of the stories of my life.
It was a great week. In spite of all of the driving, it was one of those times that really fed my soul. And even when I was driving, my soul was fed. I was in a convertible, and the weather was just perfect, so I drove along with the top down, listening to mindless music, seeing familiar sites, and all the while accompanied by the fragrances of the South – honeysuckle, Confederate jasmine, and pine.
It really was a great week.
Then on Tuesday I flew back to Philadelphia. When I got back to my car – my very sensible Subaru – I decided to keep wrapping myself in that blanket of nurturing familiarity just a while longer, so on my way back to New Jersey I listened to one of my favorite bands: the Indigo Girls. I chose one of their earlier albums to fit my mindset. Hearing it was like seeing an old friend again after a long time away.
Somewhere in South Jersey, while I was driving north on the Turnpike, it hit me: this old familiar song – a love song – that touched me in a new way. It isn’t your typical love song. It’s not meant for a person, but for that peculiar union of place and time. It’s something like “nostalgia” but deeper in your gut than that word seems to imply.
The song is called “Southland in the Springtime”. The chorus says, “There’s something about the Southland in the springtime, where the waters flow with confidence and reason. Though I miss her when I am gone, it won’t ever be too long, ‘til I’m home again to spend my favorite season… there’s no place like home and none more pleasin’, than the Southland in the springtime.”
As those words enveloped me my eyes welled with tears. It wasn’t because I was sad to have left the South. It certainly wasn’t because I was sad to be home in New Jersey. It was because those words were, for me, so true. They touched my own experience of the past few days (and those days’ relationship with the rest of my life) in a very deep and intimate way. They caused a divine comfort to surround me – like an embrace from something or someone that was more than present.
I had that same feeling when I read this Gospel with new eyes about a year or so ago. I forget exactly when it was, but I was preparing to preach on an excerpt from the 18th chapter of John and I was feeling stumped by it.
John’s Gospel can be that way sometimes – at first glance it can seem a little obtuse. The style of writing can, at times, come across as so deliberate and calculated, that it almost seems to explain away any hope of clarity. “As you, God, are in me and I am in you, may they also be in us, so that the world may believe that you have sent me…. The world does not know you, but I know you; and these know that you have sent me. I made your name known to them, and I will make it known, so that the love with which you have loved me may be in them, and I in them.”
Huh?? It almost sounds like the kind of puzzle you might find in the Sunday paper: see if you can rearrange these words to make a coherent sentence.
I’ve learned that – though true in all of the Gospels, it seems somehow more so in John – that context is key. When I’m stumped by a passage or a story, sometimes the key to beginning to understand it is as simple as reading the things around it. Allow it to set its own stage. Some of its meaning might begin to flow from there.
So I first REALLY read the seventeenth chapter of John while preparing to preach on the eighteenth chapter of John. I remember sitting in the church with a Bible, feeling utterly confused. I’d already read the appointed text and about a chapter after it before turning back a couple of pages to begin reading the chapter before.
Then it struck me. This is a love letter. It’s a love letter about us – about me and about you – written millennia ago to God, but with us – the church of the ages – in mind.
It really is quite humbling – to be so loved through the centuries. It’s humbling to recognize that the Bible isn’t just a collection of stories of people long ago, but that it’s connected to our story. We were mentioned right there in the seventeenth chapter of John.
Jesus’ prayer for us was not about what we would do. Instead, it was about who, and how, we would be. He prayed that we would be “one”. He prayed that we would be in relationship with one another and that those relationships would be characterized by love. That’s how Christ lives: in our love.
We need that prayer now more than ever.
Our culture values individualism. We honor those who pull themselves up by their bootstraps. Even those from more vocal and evangelistic Christian traditions than ours talk about each individual’s “personal” relationship with Jesus.
But that is not Christ’s prayer for us. It is not that we will be strong, rugged individuals, capable of tending to ourselves in matters of livelihood and faith. It is that we will be faithful in our relationships. It is a love song “like a tapestry passed down through generations” – like an embrace from someone more than present. May we all practice that love. May we allow our individual threads through this world to interweave themselves into the community of Christ. May his prayer be our own. In the name of God. Amen.