Two of John the Baptist’s disciples were talking to him when Jesus walked by. Two of them followed Jesus that day, asking him where he was staying, which meant more than just “Where are you sleeping tonight,” right? The word here is one of John’s favorite words – abide – and it means believing and being in relationship with him. So when Jesus answered, “Come and see,” “Come and see where I abide,” he was inviting them to enter into relationship with him. Jesus first called two people to follow him. We’ll hear Matthew’s version of Jesus calling the first disciples next week, and the story is very different than the one that John tells here in his gospel; but it’s worth nothing that in Matthew, also, Jesus calls two.
Why is that? Is that just the way that it happened? There just happened to be two people standing by the River Jordan that day, and there just happened to be two sets of two fishermen, as we’ll hear next week? I’d give the Holy Spirit a little more credit than that. I wonder if Jesus intentionally called two to start because, from the very beginning, following Jesus was meant to be a community activity.
For many people, faith is a private matter. That’s why people say that it’s bad etiquette to talk about religion in a social setting – you don’t talk about private matters in polite company. My faith is my faith. It’s all about my personal relationship with God. Me and Jesus. Now, I’m not denying that one’s personal relationship with Jesus is incredibly important. But from the very day that Jesus called his first disciples, it’s never been just about a personal relationship. It’s always also about the community.
Faith is about community because following Jesus is hard. There are powerful forces, without and within, that make faith hard. There are situations, both that we get ourselves into and also those over which we have no control, which make discipleship a challenge. It is hard to abide in Jesus all on our own. But community helps. 19th century preacher Charles Spurgeon told the story about going to visit one of his parishioners who had not been in church in quite a while. The man invited his pastor in to sit by the fire, and then explained that he still considered himself a Christian . . . he just didn’t think he needed to go to church. Without saying a word, Pastor Spurgeon picked up the fireplace tongs and removed one coal from the fire, placing it on the edge of the hearth. The two watched as the coal quickly burned itself out. The man got the message: just as coals need each other to stay hot, so we as Christians, need to be in the presence of one another to keep the flames of faith alive. This is the benefit of the community. I’ve seen what it means for all of you to be together in faith. I see and hear you greeting one another. And even though 8:30 is a little quieter about it, nonetheless, I’ve seen the lingering conversations taking place in the parking lot after worship. We like one another. And that’s a good thing, and as it should be. But more than that, we depend upon each other for spiritual strength. That also is as it should be.
Jesus has called us into community. You remember last week, how we explored what it means that Jesus was named God’s beloved when he was baptized, just as we were all so named when we were baptized? And you remember how we all wore name tags identifying ourselves as children of God, and therefore siblings of one another? We are, from our baptisms, a community of people, all beloved of God. And while that is of great benefit to us, it also means that we have responsibilities to one another: to show up for one another, to pray for one another, and to help one another.
But our responsibility to be community extends beyond the people in this room. We are also responsible for the well-being of people in our community, and in our nation, and in our world. The phrase “beloved community,” became well known through Martin Luther King, Jr., whom we remember this weekend. As explained by The King Center, established to further the goals of MLK, “Beloved Community is a global vision in which all people can share in the wealth of the earth. In the Beloved Community, poverty, hunger and homelessness will not be tolerated because international standards of human decency will not allow it. Racism and all forms of discrimination, bigotry and prejudice will be replaced by an all-inclusive spirit of sisterhood and brotherhood”. An all-inclusive spirit of sisterhood and brotherhood. That is who Dr. King envisioned we could be. It is who Jesus called us to be from the very beginning. And it is who we pray we will become with the Spirit’s help.
The hymn that we’re going to sing in just a moment is # 841, and I’m going to invite you to turn to that hymn right now. Written at the turn of the last century, it became a civil rights anthem, and was adopted the NAACP as the Black National Anthem (known as such before the Star-Spangled Banner became our country’s national anthem). But it is less well-known in majority-white assemblies. And one of my fears is always that, because there are so many words in it (and they go by so quickly), people who are singing it, particularly those who are not as familiar with it, will miss some of its powerful meaning. The first stanza is a song of praise; the second has words of lament; but it is the third stanza that I particularly want you to notice: it is a prayer. Please read along silently as I pray the third stanza for us all.
God of our weary years, God of our silent tears,
thou who hast brought us thus far on the way;
thou who hast by thy might led us into the light,
keep us forever in the path, we pray.
[the path of becoming more and more the community you have called us to be]
Lest our feet stray from the places, our God, where we met thee;
[like in this community]
lest, our hearts drunk with the wine of the world, we forget thee;
shadowed beneath thy hand, [in your protection, together as one] may we forever stand,
true to our God, true to our native land.