Rev. Sabrina Ingram
Genesis 2: 15 – 24; John 13: 31 – 35

The last time Terry and I were in London we connected with friends we hadn’t seen for some time. They had bought a new house and we went to see it. We caught up on our kids. We ate lunch. A pretty ordinary type of encounter. As we were leaving my friend said to me, “It’s so good to see you. No matter how long it’s been we always seem to instantly re-connect. It’ll always be like that.” What connects us, and what made the visit rich, is that we’re both reflective people, interested in the growth and well-being of ourselves and others. When we’re together there’s laughter, quick-witted banter, honesty, respect, reflection and shared memories. We take turns listening to and supporting one another. Perhaps our deepest bond is our vibrant love for Christ and a similar depth of Spirit. When I think of my closest friendships, these are often the qualities that bind us. I’m grateful for these friends because they nourish my soul. Whether it’s friends, family or passing acquaintances, we’re shaped by people. From the moment we’re born, the love we receive, the bonds we form and the care we’re given, teach us we’re beloved children of God. Without life-giving relationships, it’s difficult to discover this. As we mature, people help us to discern our gifts, our talents and our purpose. Life-giving relationships also teach us about God. They help us stay in the flow of the Spirit. They make us want to be the best “me” we can be – the person redeemed in Christ. Life-giving people help us see what we’re missing about our self – good and bad. They encourage our growth. They challenge us when we’re in danger of shrinking. They bolster us when we’re tempted to give up or give in. God uses people to form people. The Spirit wants to use every relationship, every human encounter, to bring us to life.

What makes life flourish, isn’t money, health, security, IQ, success or appearance, it’s people. It’s friendship. It’s the bond of kindred spirits. Happy people have rich, deep, joyful, meaningful, life-changing relationships. God knew this from the beginning. After creating Adam, God declared, “It’s not good for the Man to be alone; I’ll make him a helper, a companion” (Genesis 2: 18). Those who have experienced the black hole of loneliness will tell you, God was right. (no surprise there!) It’s not good for people to be alone. We’re created to be socially connected. When children are isolated, they languish. When they have social contact and physical touch, they thrive. Emotionally isolated people are more prone to depression, anxiety, loneliness, low self-esteem, substance abuse, eating disorders, and sexual addiction. When we’re isolated, we’re more likely to give into temptation, become self-absorbed, and spend money recklessly. People with poor health habits – physical inactivity, overeating, poor diet – who remain connected to others, live longer than healthy people who are disconnected. Winston Churchill had terrible health habits and lived into his 90th year. He had a good marriage, a loving family and many friends. When asked if he exercised, he replied, “The only exercise I get is serving as a pallbearer for my friends who died while exercising.” It’s not good for people to be alone.

Because God knows this, he came in the person of Jesus Christ to share our human experience. I can only imagine the wonderful sense of belonging and camaraderie between Jesus and his disciples. It’s no wonder they felt so alone and abandoned after Jesus died. Although Christ is no longer with us physically, we’re still not alone – his Spirit is within us at all times. “God with us” is still our unseen reality. Yet before Jesus died, he told his disciples, “I am with you for only a short time longer. Let me give you a new command: Love one another. In the same way I loved you, you love one another.” (John 13: 33 & 34) Jesus knew that it wasn’t good for them to be alone. As the disciples needed him, they needed one another. As they loved each other, they experienced his love. That still holds true. As we love one another, we experience his love. As we come together in his name, his Spirit is present. When the Spirit is present in the interactions of two people, we call it “fellowship”. The word “fellowship” sounds “churchy”. It evokes images of church basements, Jell-O salads, and the Ladies Aid. Yet, there isn’t an adequate word to replace it. Fellowship speaks of the bond between people that’s created by the presence of the Holy Spirit. Fellowship is the word for the rivers of living water that flow between people who are united by Christ’s love. Fellowship is God’s way of being with us. Fellowship is a necessity. Without it, we languish and die. So much so that the writer of Hebrews insisted, “Let’s see how inventive we can be in encouraging love and helping out, not avoiding worshiping together as some do but spurring each other on…” (Hebrews 10: 24). Coming together as the Body of Christ isn’t optional if we want to live in the flow of the Spirit! It’s when we’re together, showing and sharing his love, that Jesus is with us. Yet we all know that as much as we want to Christian people don’t always do the best job when it comes to showing and sharing Jesus’ love.
A dying monastery had only five monks left. In the surrounding woods, there was the retreat house of a Rabbi. As the Abbot agonized over the imminent death of his order, it occurred to him to ask the Rabbi if he could offer any advice that might save the monastery.

The Rabbi welcomed the Abbot at his hut. When the Abbot explained the reason for his visit, the Rabbi could only commiserate with him. “I know how it is,” he exclaimed. “The spirit has gone out of the people. It is the same in my town. Almost no one comes to the synagogue anymore.” They had a lovely visit and as the Abbot was leaving, he asked again for the Rabbi’s advice. “The only thing I can tell you,” said the Rabbi, “is that the Messiah is among you.”

When the Abbot returned to the monastery, his fellow monks gathered around him asking, “What did the Rabbi say?” The Abbot answered, “Nothing helpful. The only thing he said was that the Messiah is among us. Whatever that means.” In the months that followed, the monks pondered this and wondered whether there was any possible significance to the Rabbi’s words: The Messiah is among us? Could he possibly have meant that the Messiah is one of us monks here at the monastery? If that’s the case, which one of us is the Messiah?

As they contemplated this, the monks began to treat each other with greater respect and care. In many little ways they deepened their expressions of love. They listened to one another. They pitched in when there was a crisis. They alleviated each other’s burdens. They stopped judging each other and built one another up instead. They believe in the other’s abilities and pushed each other to give their all. Everyone was included in everything – you wouldn’t want to leave out the Messiah. They were thoughtful. They did special things for each other – one brought another coffee, another let someone else ahead of him in the cafeteria line up, another finished his own tasks and helped out with the garden. They surprised each other with special treats. From time to time they even said, “I love you, brother.” Every moment became an opportunity to practice love. As everyone began to feel like they belonged, they became more joyful. They teased each other gently. They became playful. They took time to relax and be together. They shared bonding experiences – teaching each other to do woodwork and cook. They laughed together. They observed each other and noticed each other’s moods, likes and dislikes. They found ways to be supportive. They developed life-giving relationships. And although they were small, they brought one another to life. They were in the flow of the Spirit.

It so happened that people still occasionally came to visit the beautiful grounds around the monastery. Without really being conscious of it, visitors began to notice something had shifted. They sensed the presence of the Holy Spirit. They picked up on the extraordinary love and joy that now filled the monastery. Hardly knowing why, people began to come to the monastery frequently to picnic, to play, and to pray. They began to bring their friends, and their friends brought their friends. They sought out the monks for spiritual guidance. Then it happened that some of the men started to come to the monastery for retreats. They enjoyed being with the monks and felt valued. After a while, one asked the abbot if he could join them. Then, another and another asked if they too could become part of the community. Within a few years, the monastery once again became a thriving order, a vibrant center of light and spirituality in the realm. And the words of the Rabbi came back to them as a prophecy fulfilled because, indeed, the Messiah – the Spirit of Christ – was among them.

Life-giving relationships breed new life and growth. What might happen here at St. Stephen’s if we embodied and shared the life-giving love of Christ? How many young people would join us if we welcomed them as we would welcome Jesus? What would be the atmosphere here if we welcomed the stranger in our midst as a messenger from God? How would things might change in your home if you treated your family with increasing respect? How might your circle of friends grow in strength if you really saw them and listened to them? How would acquaintances within the larger community blossom if everyone was included and lifted up? How might your heart heal and change if you were open to the flow of the Spirit as it reaches out to everyone who crosses your path? We make friends by being friends. We find love by spreading love.

Life-giving relationships give life; the abundant life Jesus wants for you. Teilhard de Chardin wrote, “Someday, after we have mastered the winds and the waves, the tides and gravity, we will harness for God the energies of love, and then for the second time in the history of the world man will have discovered fire.” May our love burn so brightly, that everyone we meet discovers the vitality of the fire of the Spirit of Christ in life-giving relationships.