Just about every family I know has stories they like to tell again and again, and my family is no different. One that gets rolled out from time to time that always makes us laugh is about the time my grandparents took my sister and me to the North Carolina zoo while my parents were on some trip. We were both very young at the time. I was probably about six or seven, meaning my sister was just three or four. I was really into animals back then, so I could have stayed at that zoo for hours, despite the fact that it was 90 degrees, but as far as my sister was concerned we had already seen one too many zebras. She was done.
At one stopping point, our grandparents asked me what I wanted to do next, and I gave them some answer about heading on to the next group of animals. When they turned to ask my sister, who was typically very quiet and shy as a little girl, she quickly responded: “I want you to take me to the car, I want you to buckle me into my car-seat, then I want you to take me to McDonalds and buy me my own French fries.”
Of course, to those in our family, the funniest part of my sister’s response was the part about getting her own French fries. This whole zoo experience had already been a hardship for her and it warranted what our parents would regularly not allow: that is, her own packet of French fries, not one that she’d have to share with her brother from a pile in the middle of the tray.
It occurs to me we live in a world that is all about getting our own French fries, if you know what I mean. It is so easy to be an individual, to demand and claim our own anything…our own meal, our own smartphone, our own understanding of God that, increasingly, will never be challenged. We don’t even need other people to take our photos anymore! We can do that ourselves, too. And what do we call it? A selfie! I bet you could go on Instagram and find a selfie of someone eating their own French fries. In fact, I’ve probably taken that selfie.
Granted, in some ways all our individuality has been good. Millions of people have been empowered by thinking and doing things on their own. Individuals have broken from the pack and made major changes to the world for the better. However, it’s interesting that Jesus never, ever prays for us to be our “own” person. Jesus never, ever says anything like, “You do you.” When Jesus does pray for his disciples, however, like in this portion of John’s gospel right before his crucifixion, he prays that they come together, that they stay together, that they be one. When Jesus does pray for those who follow him, he most often prays that their common life—not their individual life—will reflect the gracious outpouring of love that God has for the world.
It’s quite counter-cultural, then, because as the world, with all its technology and digital communication, enables us to become sequestered in our own little zones, Jesus wants to pull us back in together. In a time when there is so much anxiety about the rise in numbers of those who claim they have no religious affiliation, Jesus’s most fervent prayer is that we be affiliated with himself and with each other.
Of course, when Jesus first prayed this on that night before he was betrayed, he wasn’t immediately concerned about the fragmenting dangers of technology. He was concerned that the terror of his suffering and the shock of his resurrection would have the potential to scatter them. Instead of running closer together, they might run back to their former associations and the old groups that defined them. In the prayer that he offers on their behalf—right there on the spot, as they’re still seated from the Last Supper, he pours out his heart—he asks God his Father to protect them and to strengthen their resolve to handle the pressure of the coming zoo. He asks God to safeguard them so they couldn’t give in to the urge to demand their own French fries.
Jesus gives at least three main reasons why our faith is to be a community thing. The first has to do with our knowledge of God. There is something about keeping us together, Jesus says, that will keep us in the truth. The truth that Jesus is talking about here is the fact that Jesus comes from God, that he is the promised Messiah, that the Son has been sent from the Father to demonstrate love. We will need each other to remind ourselves of this fact and of the promise that brings. We can’t just expect that we’ll remember and know these things on our own if we scatter ourselves from this community that embodies the love that God has for Jesus. Although we need the individual beauty and uniqueness of each person who has ever been created (because there will never be another like them), we also need each other in order to keep the goal of our beauty and the purpose of our uniqueness in mind. Our individuality and our gifts have been given to proclaim Jesus to the world, and that truth resounds more clearly when we are doing it with each other.
Reason number two for the importance of our community: there is something about keeping us together that will keep us safe. Think of it as the buddy system on the scale of several million. When we go on trips with the youth group, we ask them to stay in groups of three as they go about during free time. Here, as he prepares them to be sent into the world without his direct physical supervision, he prays that they “billion up.” He has prayed for their protection the entire time he’s been with them. He has loved them. He and his Father know that the closer the disciples remain with each other, the safer they will feel from things like temptation and despair, hopelessness and greed. Granted, the larger the group, the clunker things will get for Jesus’ followers, but that’s OK. Jesus never mentions anywhere that following him is a race.
The last reason Jesus gives for their buddy system is not something we know with our head like truth or experience with our bodies like protection, but something of the heart. There is something about keeping us together that will bring us joy. Truth and protection are wonderful things to have, but joy is the clincher, and it’s not just any old joy, but Jesus’ own joy. There is joy in knowing that just as Jesus belongs to the Father, that we, then, belong to the Father. It is the joy from knowing that in our baptism we have been made God’s forever.
There is a deep, abiding joy that comes from the realization that the same One who is responsible for the beauty of the ocean, the Blue Ridge Mountains, the majesty of the Milky Way is the same One responsible for all your individual beauty. And that that One behind all of this is good—so good and strong and loving that that One has undone the power of death and decay. This One has forgiven our sin. You and I will be sent together, Jesus says, to share this news, and there is something very joyful about the fact that we’re not in that task alone. We can gather and share stories and build one another up.
Truth, safety, joy: they come from our communion with each other in Christ Jesus. However, Jesus doesn’t just gather his followers together around the ideal that togetherness is better, that togetherness itself is the goal. Any old group out there could do that—the Boy Scouts, Girl Scouts, the Red Hat Club, our workout buddies at the gym. Jesus does not gather us around an ideal. Jesus gathers us together around himself. He is the goal and the source of the joy. He is the protection we seek, in life and in death, just as he is the truth that God loves us and makes us God’s own.
For the confirmands’ last test this year they were asked to pretend they were an architect who had been hired to create the worship space for a new sanctuary. They were invited to be imaginative in their designs, and we didn’t give them too many requirements. We just wanted to make sure they, being good Lutherans, would include places in their worship space where the Word and sacraments would be proclaimed. There were really no right or wrong answers to this exercise; it was thought up in order to see how they had integrated what we’d tried to teach and that you have so thoughtfully modelled.
Their results were very interesting and fun to read. Some were incredibly detailed. I wish I could keep them, but I’ll have to give them back. What I found most remarkable, however, is that in every single design, the cross of Jesus was somehow central. In some of their designs, in fact, the prominence of the cross could not be missed. There it stood, either in the middle of the assembly’s space or on a wall above everything so that everyone could see it, so that everyone would grasp, at least on some level, the main reason for their gathering. One confirmand wrote in their explanation for their design, which placed the seats in a semi-circular way, “Everyone [is] seated near each other in such a way that they are one, drawn together to the cross.” And in one explanation of the practice of the sacrament of Holy Communion, one confirmand wrote, “You cannot take part in communion alone because you are not nor will you ever be alone in Christ.”
There are perhaps a several great reasons for designing a worship space where the cross is so central. These young people who are sent with us into the world today remind us of the one that Jesus prays for: that really, in spite of all the clunkiness, we are one. “The testimony is written on these confirmands’ hearts,” as John later says in his letter. It reminds us that we are a family—one great big family with our own great story that we love to tell when we get together.
And it’s not about our own French fries. It’s the one story about the night he was betrayed…how Jesus died to keep us in truth, in safety and in joy. It’s the story about how he continues to pray that God protect us and keep us, make his joyful face shine on us, and in the wonder of his resurrection, draw us from our scattered ways of death to be the community of his cross.
Thanks be to God!
The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.