17 May 2009 Easter 6B * John 15:9-17
The Reverend Kirk Alan Kubicek, Saint Peter’s at Ellicott Mills, Maryland
Ubuntu – pronounced oom-boon-too – a Bantu South African word that means “I in you and you in me.” According to Archbishop Desmond Tutu: A person with Ubuntu is open and available to others, affirming of others, does not feel threatened that others are able and good, for he or she has a proper self-assurance that comes from knowing that he or she belongs in a greater whole and is diminished when others are humiliated or diminished, when others are tortured or oppressed. One of the sayings in our country is Ubuntu - the essence of being human. Ubuntu speaks particularly about the fact that you can't exist as a human being in isolation. It speaks about our interconnectedness. You can't be human all by yourself, and when you have this quality - Ubuntu - you are known for your generosity. We think of ourselves far too frequently as just individuals, separated from one another, whereas you are connected and what you do affects the whole world. When you do well, it spreads out; it is for the whole of humanity.
In a word, this is what Jesus has been talking about in his farewell discourse in John’s gospel. It marks a shift in our relationship with Jesus. He calls his disciples friends. They are no longer called servants, even if this is the most often used title for the disciples, but friends. Not simply to be nice to one another or to raise the level of comradeship, but because for Jesus to be a friend is to be one who does what our Lord commands. We are called to be friends and we have been called to build up friendship among ourselves and, perhaps just as importantly, with those beyond the fellowship of our worshipping community. We are called to a life of Ubuntu.
Our job is one of response. We do not choose Jesus. Jesus chooses us. And Jesus appoints us to go and bear fruit, fruit that will last, so that the father will “give you whatever you ask him in my name.”
So why, we may ask, are our prayers not always answered? The usual stock answer is, “We get what we need, not what we desire.” Sure enough, our collect is suggestive of this, saying that we “may obtain your promises, which exceed all that we can desire.”
We can all agree, we desire an awful lot. Beginning with the perennial pageant hope for world peace, and ending perhaps with the power ball number in the Mega Million Drawing!
Yet, all this getting what we pray for and bearing fruit that lasts, and even joy that is full and complete, depends on our response to Jesus choosing us and appointing us. Simply put, do we accept being chosen? And if so, how do we respond?
Our response is meant to hinge on our understanding of two actions of response on our part: to abide in Christ and to keep his commandments.
Abide is not a word that gets much use these days. It may help that in the Greek text it is a word derived from the same root as “to dwell.” Which helps in understanding why it is we are meant to abide in Christ, not simply with Christ. As one professor of preaching once remarked, it is all in getting the correct preposition!
We are to dwell in Christ, just as Christ came down out of residence in the Godhead where he had dwelt in all time before creation and came to “dwell among us” as John has it in chapter 1. The closest liturgical expression of this is in Eucharistic Prayer 1 of Rite One in our Book of Common Prayer:
“And here we offer and present unto thee, O Lord, ourselves, our souls and bodies, to be a reasonable, holy and living sacrifice unto thee; humbly beseeching thee that we, and all others who shall be partakers of this Holy Communion, may worthily receive the most precious Body and Blood of thy Son Jesus Christ, be filled with thy grace and heavenly benediction, and made one body with him, that he may dwell in us, and we in him.”
This is what it means to abide. Note the first person plural: that he may dwell in us and we in him. Not that he may dwell in me and me in him. This is difficult for our highly individualistic, post-enlightenment minds to get around. He seeks to dwell amongst us so that we might dwell in Him.
Thus the importance of being friends, friends who love one another as He loves us, laying down his life for His friends. This is meant to be the default setting, the operative place from which we live – as one Body in Christ, one body with one another. Ubuntu. So if we are Ubuntu with Christ, one with God, whatever we ask for will already be one with God.
In contemplative prayer we spend time in what is called “practice” attempting to connect with this mutual indwelling relationship with God in Christ. Regular practice of contemplative prayer, twenty minutes once or twice a day, helps us to identify that sense of mutual indwelling with Christ - ubuntu.
As Sally Chiroff observed the other evening, once this place is experienced, it seems natural that that is the place from which we are meant to live our lives, thus being able to bear fruit that lasts. We tend to think of this place of mutual indwelling as some place to which we retreat from daily life. Sally said, “Perhaps we are meant to live there all the time, and from time to time step out of that place back into the world as the pattern.” I could not have said it better. It is what our prayers and gospel are all about.
We sense that we are just too busy and too scheduled and too programmed to do this, when the truth may be that until we live into this mutual indwelling, we have no idea how to arrange our lives to reflect the kind of friendship Jesus offers us. He chooses us, we are meant to respond. Will we take the time to respond? That is perhaps the central question of faith. Given that we stand to obtain promises which exceed all that we can desire, it seems to make sense to at least give it a try!
So it is we pray, “Pour into our hearts such love towards you, that we [might love] you in all things and above all things….” All things. That would be every thing. It’s asking a lot, but it just might work. Jesus thinks so. How about you? Ubuntu. Amen.