I’m going to start out today by sharing with you the story of “Balcony Guy.” No, balcony guy isn’t a superhero nor is he a fictional character. Balcony guy is a real person who attended a church that I used to serve. I call him balcony guy because he would come to church after it started, sit by himself in the balcony, and leave before it was over. So, for the first four years I was there, I never met him. I would see him up there during the sermon, but he would always leave before the final hymn.
I thought this was kind of unusual, so I asked some of the long-time members about him. However, outside of knowing his name and who his parents were, they knew very little. So, I called him and tried to set up a home visit, but he wasn’t interested. And while I had him on the phone I invited him to come in a meet with, but again, he wasn’t interested. Becky talked with him a couple of times. She would hand him a bulletin sometimes when he came in, but that was the extent of it. She observed that he was extremely introverted, so he most likely would have been very uncomfortable participating in worship or coming to fellowship.
Now, I mention balcony guy today because I think he had a unique, if not unusual way of interacting with the church. The text that we have before us today, however, offers an alternative understanding of what it means to BE the church.
Jesus says, “If you love me, you will keep my commandments.” We all know what “keep my commands” means, right? When asked about the most important of God’s laws Jesus answered, “Love God with all you heart, soul, strength and mind.” In other words, with all your being; with all you are. And the second and equally important law is this, “love your neighbor as yourself.” “The entirety of the law hangs on these two concepts,” Jesus said. Love God, love neighbor; it’s as simple and as complicated as that. And it’s the complexity of loving God and neighbor that John takes up in this text and, I would contend, still confounds us today. So, that being said, I think it’s important that we take a closer look at this passage.
First, Jesus’ words here may seem like just that: words from a lovely speech long ago. But they’re more than just pretty words. Jesus backs up his claims with a promise to send the Holy Spirit. Paraclete (Paraclete) is the Greek word that John uses here to describe the Spirit rather than the more common Pneumatos (Pneumatos). Now, the word Paraclete is an interesting word. It literally means “someone who comes alongside to comfort” That’s the “companion” John’s talking about in this passage. We can turn to this Paraclete, this Comforter, this Spirit of Truth, as a companion on our journey. A companion who comes along side us and comforts us as we travel. Especially as we wrestle with the concept of loving God and neighbor.
But this commandment, that mattered so much to Jesus, didn’t end with this passage. He expanded upon it, through his actions and further teachings, to include things like forgiveness, praying for our enemies, caring about the poor and the marginalized, and ordering our lives so that we might live them to their fullest.
That the first complexity we encounter when attempting to keep his commandment, and the second is this: Loving God and neighbor doesn’t stop with the individual; it’s a communal challenge.
In this text, Jesus is speaking to a group and not to an individual, and he was preparing them for what was to come. Things were going to change, and change fast, and, that would affect how the disciples would carry out Jesus’ command, even how they would show their love for him after he’d gone. So, that means this short passage we have before us today was crucial to the disciples. They would come to show their love for Jesus by doing the works he had commanded. They would show their love for Jesus by loving others, by demonstrating compassion, by forgiving and accepting forgiveness, and by gathering in communities of faith. They didn’t cling to a cherished memory of him nor did they retreat into their private experience of him. When the disciples walked the talk and lived out what Jesus had taught them in their communities of faith, they found themselves once again in his love”[i]
So, with this understanding of loving God and neighbor, how might John’s words guide our faith journey still today? In other words, would anyone be able to pick us out of a crowd as followers of Jesus, because of our love? Love of enemy? Love of someone from a different race, or nationality or religion? Loving constantly and without judgment? Now, I don’t know about you, but the question that arises in my mind is: “How can we possibly live up to this standard of loving and God and all our neighbors all the time?”
Well, the truth is we can’t. Not on our own anyway. But this is where our text for today really helps us out. I am in God, Jesus says, “[and] you are in me, and I am in you.” The word IN is vitally important here. Jesus is IN God and God is IN us! This is not a visit nor a pass through from time to time. We don’t live our lives down here while God exists only up there in heaven. Jesus, through the faithful writing of John, makes it perfectly clear that God, the very breath of God, the Paraclete, is within each of us; within all humanity and within all creation. God is love and God’s love is within us!
When I was a twenty-something the idea of the Holy Spirit being within me was a very foreign concept. In my youthful immaturity, I believed God was out there, waiting for me to “trip-up.” Hoping even to catch me committing a sin. But I’ve come to discover that nothing could further from the truth. God is within me. God, through the Spirit, is my advocate, my comforter, comes alongside me on the way. God is finally Light and Life; a light that shines forth from within each of our lives.
Richard Attenborough, the British producer of the movie Gandhi, has a wonderful philosophical perspective on this idea of God within each of us. He once said: “There is a Light in this world. A healing spirit more powerful than any darkness we may encounter. We sometime lose sight of this force when there is suffering, and too much pain. Then suddenly, the spirit will emerge through the lives of ordinary people who hear a call and answer in extraordinary ways.” “…the spirit will emerge through the lives of ordinary people who hear a call and answer in extraordinary ways.”
I think this is a wonderful description of what it means to BE the Church; both in our congregation and in the United Church of Christ. When we, ordinary people realize the calling of the Spirit within us, it can and will lead us to answer in extraordinary ways. And this is best done, more easily realized, in community. Yes, there is an individual calling on our lives, but the work of the Spirit with us is most fully lived-out when we participate in the mission and ministry of our church.
Which brings us back to balcony guy. My hope is that in some way he was fed by being present in worship on Sunday mornings. His potential as a person of faith, however, was most probably not all it could have been because he finally didn’t fully participate in the community. He chose to be an outsider looking in. My friends, while it’s true we come to worship to be fed by God’s Word presented in the forms of song and prayer, scripture and message, it’s also true that we are not here on Sunday’s just to receive our spiritual feeding. We are also challenged to give of ourselves. Church is about a mutual sharing, a giving and receiving of God’s blessing and our blessing upon each other.
One final thought this morning. In her book, Gospel Medicine, Barbara Brown Taylor compares the church to a home. I like that image. She said that the Church “…is a permanent home,” and that it “…is a giant heart of a place with room enough for everyone whom love unites. It is John’s idea of heaven to move in with the God who has moved in with us…”[ii]
As we go out from this gathering today, that’s the image of the church I’d like you to ponder. The church as “a giant heart of a place with room enough for everyone whom love invites.” May we all walk with God who is Love, who comes alongside us and meets us right where we’re at, and whose comforting Spirit is within every breath we take… may it be so. Amen.
[i] Gail R. O’Day, John, The New Interpreter’s Bible. Vol. IX eds. Lender E. Keck et.al. (Nashville: Abingdon Press 1995) pgs. 739-744
[ii] Barbara Brown Taylor. Gospel Medicine (Rowman & Littlefield, 1995)