What Is Life
Acts 1:15-17, 21-26; John 17:1-19
Sermon What Is Life
Good morning! I’ve had the song “What Is Life” running through my head for the last several weeks. How many of you know it? It’s one of the first songs that George Harrison released after the Beatles broke up. It’s really infectious and it starts with this great riff. Larry, can you help us out?
Catchy, isn’t it?
I knew the song, but I had forgotten about it until I was looking for another song on YouTube. I noticed there was a video for this song and it appeared to be fairly recent, which seemed odd. George Harrison has been dead for close to twenty years. Why did someone release a music video in 2014? Instead of investigating that question, I watched the video.
Then I watched it again. And again. And again.
It starts off with a young woman, standing in front of a house. She wears a yellow sweater and a pale-yellow skirt. There’s a tinge of happiness on her face, but otherwise, she’s expressionless. The video was recorded on the grounds of the Presidio in San Francisco, where the young woman dances through a garden, a cemetery, and lots of woods.
About two-thirds of the way through the song, the young woman meets a young man. He’s wearing a yellow shirt, the same color as her sweater. He mirrors her moves. He follows her. And then they begin to dance together. Their expressions change as they dance. By the end of the video, they are joyful.
The message of the song and the video is this: Life is connection.
We are not fully alive if we live only for ourselves.
Our reading this morning from the Gospel of John is about both human connection and connection with God. This is the end of the section of John’s gospel that scholars call the farewell discourse. Our last few readings have been from the farewell discourse. Jesus is preparing the disciples for their life and ministry without the human Jesus in the world.
Then Jesus does something weird.
He prays for the disciples.
Right in the middle of the conversation!
Now it’s not weird for Jesus to pray. He does that a lot. Especially in the other three gospels. But most of the time, he does it differently. In the Gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke, there are many scenes where Jesus goes off to pray alone. And of course, in the other gospels, the disciples ask Jesus to tell them how to pray, and then they get a version of the Lord’s Prayer.
Instead, while they’re all gathered around the table—the same table where they consumed the Last Supper—Jesus pauses the conversation and starts praying to God. Right in front of all the remaining disciples. (Remember, Judas has left the gathering.) That’s rather abrupt.
I suppose that nothing should seem odd to the disciples at this point in the story. In John’s Gospel, they’ve seen Jesus turn water into wine, feed a multitude of people from five loaves and two fish. They’ve seen him heal people. They even watched as Jesus raised Lazarus from the dead.
They’ve seen Jesus do a lot of strange and powerful things.
Still, it must have been jarring.
I bet the disciples paid close attention. We think of prayer as a very private, intimate act, but not here. In the other gospels, Jesus often goes off to pray alone, but not here. Prayer has a different role in John’s Gospel: because the relationship between God the Father and Jesus the Christ is so close, so intimate in the Gospel of John, it’s almost like Jesus doesn’t need to pray, because he’s not separated very much from God the Father.
But this situation is very different. The disciples need to hear this conversation precisely because they know that Jesus is so closely and intimately connected with God the Father. They need to witness this conversation because they need to know that they, too, are connected to Jesus and to God the Father. They need to be strengthened in their ministry, because they aren’t going to have the human Jesus in the world much longer. They are called to carry on Jesus’ work of healing and reconciling the world. The whole world. The world that God created. The world that God loved so much that he sent his only begotten son.
This might sound a little confusing, given that in verses 9, 11, 13, 14, 15, 16, and 18, it seems like Jesus takes a rather dim view of the world. He says that he is in the world, but not of the world. He says the same thing about the disciples. He makes the world seem like a very dangerous place, and not a Godly place.
How do we square that with the most recognizable verse in the entire New Testament, John 3:16? “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.” That doesn’t sound like the world that’s described in Chapter 17. What gives?
In Chapter 17, I think we need to interpret the “world” as not the whole of creation, but rather, the culture that was created by humans. In this case, the “world” is human systems of empire and commerce, systems that devalue the humanity of each individual; systems that reduce us to the labor and goods we can provide for someone with more wealth and power. This was the way of the world in Jesus’ time, and in many ways, in our time, too.
That’s the world that Jesus was called to heal, to reconcile. Jesus is called to reconcile the people to God and to one another; Jesus does not, cannot, complete this work in his lifetime, so the work is passed on to the disciples. In turn, this work is passed on to us; we’re also disciples. But the work of reconciliation is difficult. And scary.
In some ways, this has always been the case. Our world, our culture, has always sought to divide us from one another. We are divided by race and class and political affiliation. Our consumer culture encourages us to chase after money and wealth and to make idols of our own desires and material wants.
And now, in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, this work of discipleship, this work of reconciliation has become even scarier, even more challenging. It’s harder to gather for worship and feel the connection to one another. It’s harder to go out and do the work of building the kingdom, as we used to do when we volunteered for the Sanctuary program.
Few of those things seemed easy before, but now, the challenge can seem almost overwhelming.
But this is NOT the time to give up!
Dale Allison, who was one of my seminary professors, is a huge fan of George Harrison. So much so, that he wrote a book about Harrison and the spirituality in his songs. Yet he finds no particular religious content in “What Is Life,” but he also notes that it shares some themes with many of Harrison’s explicitly spiritual songs. Regardless, I think we can draw some lessons from this song and apply those lessons to our lives.
In the chorus of the song, Harrison sings: “Tell me, what is my life without your love? / Tell me, who am I without you by my side?” Those must be the sorts of questions the disciples are asking themselves when Jesus tells them he’s going to go away, going to leave them.
The message of this whole extended scene—the scene that scholars call the Farewell Discourse, the scene that occupies all of Chapters 13 through 17—is that Jesus is telling the disciples that he will always be by their side, that he will always abide with them.
In the second verse of the song, Harrison sings: “What I know / I can do / If I give my love now to everyone like you.” After hearing Jesus’ prayer, the disciples know that they can do the work of ministry, the work of healing and restoration that Jesus has set before them. They know that they are connected to God, through Jesus Christ.
Beloved, we are also disciples. We are also connected to God through Jesus Christ. Jesus prays for us!
Let me repeat that: Jesus prays for us!
What is life? For Christians, then and now, life is discipleship. Life is connection to God and Jesus and one another. What we know, we can do. We know God’s love. We know Christ’s love. It may be a little bit more challenging to feel that love in this time, but it’s there. It’s still there. We’ve felt it. We know it!
Yes, it’s more complicated than ever to share that love, to “give our love to everyone,” whether they’re like you or not. So, go find a partner. Find someone to join you in the work of giving our love to everyone. We can do this! Jesus is praying for us! God is protecting us! Thanks be to God. Amen.
Beloved, as you depart from this place, remember that we are called to live a life of discipleship. Go forth and be instruments of God’s peace and love and reconciliation. Do not return evil for evil to any person, but know that we are all loved by God, and that we are called to reflect that love to everyone we meet. Go forth and be the salt of the earth and the light of the world. In the name of Jesus Christ, our Lord, let all God’s children say, Amen!
 Karoline Lewis. John: Fortress Biblical Preaching Commentaries. Minneapolis: Fortress Press (2014), p. 209.  Dale C. Allison, Jr. The Love There That’s Sleeping: The Art and Spirituality of George Harrison. New York: Continuum, (2006), pp. 124, 158.