“Belonging to the World” Colchester Federated Church, May 16, 2021, Seventh Sunday of Easter (John 17:6-19)

A favorite TV comedy of mine over the years was The Big Bang Theory.  The show chronicled the lives of four friends—two were physicists, one was an aerospace engineer, and the other was an astrophysicist.  Dr. Sheldon Cooper (one of the physicists) was probably the most socially awkward character and was played brilliantly by Jim Parsons who won many awards for his performance.  Now one of Sheldon’s quirks was gift-giving and receiving.  Sheldon always wanted to make absolutely certain that if you gave him a gift, he returned the favor.  However, his gift had to have the exact same monetary value as the gift he received, or he felt indebted to the gift giver and that was not okay. 

When exchanging Christmas presents with his friend Penny one year, he went to the mall and bought at least 10 baskets of bath products, lotions, etc., knowing that he would base the size of the basket he gave her on his estimated value of what she gave him.  This is what he said, “I know you think you are being generous, but the foundation of gift giving is reciprocity. You haven’t given me a gift. You’ve given me an obligation . . . the essence of the custom is that I now have to go out and purchase for you a gift of commensurate value and representing the same perceived level of friendship as that represented by the gift you’ve given me.”[1]  Sheldon analyzes the practice of gift giving to such an extent that he rarely, if ever, enjoys the custom. 

Now it’s obviously not Christmas, but today’s Gospel text from the Gospel according to John can make us contemplate gifts.  We often think about the gifts that Jesus gave us or the spiritual gifts that come when we follow in his footsteps.  Paul famously wrote about spiritual gifts in his First Letter to the Corinthians.  Paul explained to that Christian community, “There are different spiritual gifts but the same Spirit; and there are different ministries and the same Lord; and there are different activities but the same God who produces all of them in everyone.  A demonstration of the Spirit is given to each person for the common good.  A word of wisdom is given by the Spirit to one person, a word of knowledge to another according to the same Spirit, faith to still another by the same Spirit, gifts of healing to another in the one Spirit, performance of miracles to another, prophecy to another, the ability to tell spirits apart to another, different kinds of tongues to another, and the interpretation of the tongues to another.  All these things are produced by the one and same Spirit who gives what he wants to each person.”[2] 

In Christian communities we all have spiritual gifts that we can offer to one another, gifts that help further the mission of the church not just for us but for the community around us.  The beauty is that we have different gifts.  Though the same Spirit has given us gifts to share.  When we live lives devoted to the Way of Jesus Christ—our lives will have meaning and purpose.  We can hopefully understand and embrace the gifts that we have been given and appreciate that our gifts are not all the same.  Being a follower of Jesus who does one’s best to practice the Christian faith and live into the gifts that God has given us doesn’t mean that life won’t be without ups and downs.  But we have support to go through those ups and downs because of being grounded in God and being in relationship with fellow Christians.  Having faith in something bigger than ourselves is a gift.  Having a church community to support us along life’s journey is a gift.  And it’s a gift that we should not take for granted in this time when churches are closing their doors because the pandemic has pushed communities of faith in ways that none of us anticipated.  Some churches have not been able to weather the storm.

Perhaps we can hear and take to heart Jesus’ words and expand our understandings about gifts in Christian communities, let alone the gift of Christian community.  Perhaps we can see how Jesus thought of his disciples as gifts that God gave him (then and even now).  Last Sunday we explored Jesus teaching important lessons to his disciples in the farewell discourse in John’s Gospel.  In that section of Jesus’ goodbye speech, Jesus gave the love commandment and implored his followers to love one another just as Jesus had loved them.  Further, Jesus related to his disciples that he didn’t call them servants any longer.  Instead, he called them friends.  We contemplated the gift of friendship, what makes a person a good friend, and how we can be good friends to one another.

Today’s text is actually the ending of the farewell discourse in John’s Gospel.  Yet again we can see another gift here.  What’s fascinating and fitting is that Jesus ends this long speech to his disciples with a prayer.  That in and of itself is a gift.  Praying for those we love and seeing that modeled by Jesus himself is a gift.  Traditionally the Christian Church has called this text Jesus’ priestly prayer.  Because Jesus says, “I made myself holy on their behalf so that they also would be made holy in the truth.”[3]  Jesus is setting himself apart here.  Jesus prays for his followers as the conclusion to all of the important teachings he sought to convey before his trials and suffering were about to begin.  Let us not forget that Jesus prays all of this right before he’s about to be betrayed and turned over into the hands of those in power by one man he was gifted by God.  Moreover, the rest of the disciples he was entrusted with during his ministry will abandon him in the next chapters of the Gospel.  Jesus could have been bitter when he sees that all of his work is apparently crashing down upon him, but instead he prays to God on behalf of these disciples he was gifted by God up to the very end.  It’s just so moving.

Disciples of Christ minister Jennie Churchman says that what Jesus was saying to the disciples in his eloquent prayer was simply this: “You are called and empowered.  And you are mine.  I need you to carry on my work.  I need you to pass on to others the wisdom I have shared with you.  I need you to love one another as I have loved you.  I need you to be the gift to the world that you are meant to be.”[4]

Jesus needs us to be gifts to the world.  Let that sink into our hearts here in this sanctuary or as we are watching from home.  Jesus needs us.  Jesus needs you.  You are called and empowered.  You belong to God.  Jesus needs you and me to carry on his work.  Jesus needs us to pass on the wisdom that he shared.  Jesus needs us to love one another as Jesus loves us.  Because Jesus didn’t take his followers out of the world.  Instead he prayed to God, “As you sent me into the world, so I have sent them into the world.”[5]  May we be the gifts to the world that we are meant to be.  Thanks be to God.  Amen.

[1] The Big Bang Theory, “The Bath Item Gift Hypothesis,” 2008,  http://www.imdb.com/title/tt1256021/quotes
[2] 1 Corinthians 12:4-11, Common English Bible.
[3] John 17:19.
[4] Jennie Churchman, “Now Choose” in Disciplines: A Book of Daily Devotions, 2012, 148.
[5] John 17:18.

Photo by Tim Marshall on Unsplash