It had been a hard year for “Coffee. Conversation. Carl.” The monthly Bible study and conversation group had met at the home of octogenarian Carl for years. Each month, an eclectic mix of Christians – and those curious about the faith – had gathered on Tuesday evenings in Carl’s living room to talk about the Bible and life, and to learn from the wisdom of the Sunday school teacher who had been teaching longer than most of them had been alive. Every month, they got an email from Carl a couple of days before the meeting, telling them what the next Bible passage would be, with the same invitation at the end: “Bring your Bible. Bring a friend. Coffee’s on!” For years, they enjoyed a lively debate, good coffee, and honest prayer with each other.
Until this year. As I say, it had been a hard year for the group.
First came the election. Long-time friends and sisters and brothers in the faith had found themselves at odds of a contentious and divisive campaign. Every month, the conversation seemed to turn to politics. The neverTrump people sat on one side of the room; the neverHilary people on the other. Those who were both neverTrump AND neverHilary sat in the middle. And many just quit coming. They were tired of hearing about it. Even after the election, the anger did not subside. Each meeting, it seemed, there was another reason to bring up politics and the great divide began all over again. Healthcare. Abortion. Gay marriage. Taxes. National security and Russia. The numbers took a hit over the Christmas Break, and they never fully recovered. The room that had been full was clearly less full.
Next came the Great Congregationalist Debate. The participants in “Coffee. Conversation. Carl.” were members of several different churches, but several of them belonged to the big UCC church in town. The pastor at the church had been there for decades, and some of the younger members had decided that he had been there too long. They began grumbling amongst themselves and on social media, and eventually met in secret to determine if there was a way to get him to leave. Meanwhile, the older members caught on what was happening, and were furious. The pastor’s supporters counter-organized and spoke up in business meetings about how great the pastor had been, and how if these new people didn’t like him, they could go join the Baptists! Of course, this spilled over into the living room at Carl’s house, as well. Members from both factions were present in the group, and it led to some heated debates about Church, evangelism, and generational differences. Again, several of the members of the Bible Study got tired of the fighting and slowly disappeared. The numbers took an even greater hit.
Finally, the most devastating news of all: Carl was diagnosed with stage 4 cancer. It was aggressive, and doctors were not holding out much hope. But Carl was! He told doctors that he had at least another decade to go before he could retire from his post with the coffee and conversation Bible study at his house! It made the members of the group smile when they heard that, but it wasn’t the same when he wasn’t there. While he was in the hospital for treatment, he gave a couple of the members keys so that they could meet in his house anyway. They tried, but this is when the attendance really cratered. So many of the group members were already feeling uncomfortable with the group, that when Carl was not there, no one else wanted to be there. They organized a field trip one of the nights of the meeting, to see him in the hospital. Another month, they just decided not to meet at all. It looked like the days were numbered for the living room conversations around the Gospel and Ethiopian Yirgacheffe.
And then one day, the email came. It was from Carl himself: “Doctors have told me that the chemo isn’t working. It is just making me miserable and so I have decided to stop treatment. I am enrolling with Hospice tomorrow and will be home the next day. The good news is that I will be home in time for our monthly meeting! Bring your Bible. Bring a friend. Coffee’s on!”
The cars were wrapped around the block that Thursday night.
Everyone who had ever been to the Bible study was there. The whole Sunday school class from Carl’s church was there. People who had only heard about the legend of Carl had come to hear him, for what they all knew could be the last time. They ran out of Yirgecheffe and had to resort to the Maxwell House in the back of the cabinet. When that ran out, no one cared.
By the time everyone had squeezed into the living room, Carl opened in prayer and opened his Bible. The passage was from John 17, a disappointment for some. Some had expected a famous passage – the Good Samaritan or the 23rd Psalm or John 3:16. Instead, they got a somewhat convoluted passage in which Jesus prayed to God for his disciples. As Carl read it, several were thinking to themselves that it was filled with theological gobbledy-gook, and had no idea what it was saying. Carl even struggled a few times with the language as he read.
Usually, Carl waited for a response. This time, he spoke first: “These are the last words that Jesus speaks in John before he is arrested and taken to be crucified. He has washed his disciples’ feet. Judas has left to betray him. He has taught them his final lesson about the Vine and the Branches. And now he prays. He prays a prayer of thanksgiving to God for his disciples, and for the opportunity he has been given to care for them while during his ministry. And he prays of prayer of protection over them. What do you hear in the passage?”
No one wanted to be the first to speak up. This was Carl’s time. But he had taught them to be honest with one another, and so Leona spoke up. “Jesus clearly is preaching against the world. He even says it, that he is leaving the world but they have to stay in it. They have to hold on a little longer until they can leave this decrepit and doomed world, as well! He is praying that they can wait out the evil in the world around them and one day receive eternal life…it says it there in verse 3!”
“Sorry to disagree,” came a voice from the back of the room. “But that is not what I think he is saying at all!” It was Josh, a younger member who had been in the middle of the political and congregational disagreements. It was not the first time he and Leona had not seen eye to eye. “I think Jesus is telling them that they are on their own! It is up to them to figure it out now. I figured out a long time ago that anything worth doing is worth doing on your own. And that includes faith!”
Carl smiled and he nodded. “You are both right. Yet it is more complicated than either of you suggest. When Jesus speaks of the world, we don’t always hear gloom and doom with which some today decry the world. This is the same word that Jesus uses in John 3:16: ‘God so loved the world.’ And even in our passage, as Jesus prays to God, it is as if his eyes are getting misty as he remembers when they together created the world. In John, the entire cosmos is a thing of pride and beauty in God’s eyes. But it is also a thing of disappointment. For the world has rejected God and God’s ways. Even the person of Jesus has been rejected. The world that was so lovingly created has fallen away. And so, the world is both of these at once: a place of hope and divine promise, and a place of disappointment in need of some serious help. Jesus doesn’t tell us that the world is hopeless; he holds out hope for the world that he co-created.”
“So, when Jesus talks about eternal life, or abundant life, in the Gospel of John, he is talking about living out of that hope. About recognizing God in the world, and how God is working to transform the world – to bring it back to the place of beauty that it was created to be. Jesus invites people to live out of eternity on the way to living in eternity. Eternity in their hearts and eternity in their actions. They aren’t simply in the waiting room, reading the magazines until their name is called. They are actively engaged in the transformation of the world that Jesus came to model, that God is working to bring, that we all have the ability to join!”
“Which is why, at the end of the passage, Jesus begins to talk about unity. Believe it or not, there are times when the people of God spend more time pushing their own agendas than they do listening to one another and working for the transformation of the world.”
He paused when he said this. Immediately, some of those who brought into the group their own political agendas, or their congregational agendas, or their ideological agendas started to get flush and stared down into their empty coffee cups. Carl did not need to name names or topics. He never would have anyway. It wasn’t his style.
He continued: “In this prayer, Jesus is speaking not only to God, but also to his disciples. He is reminding them that when they spend more time yelling at each other, picking fights with each other, categorizing each other, disagreeing with each other, then they are the ones getting in the way of God’s transformation of the world. He is telling them that they CANNOT do it all themselves. They need each other! They are not living with eternity. With abundance. With love. It was like in these last words to his disciples, he was making a final plea for unity. Not unity of ideology – some one-size-fits-all set of beliefs or principles that everyone has to agree with – but unity of spirit. That even in the disagreement with one another, there is unified abundance. He goes as far as to use his own relationship with the Father as a metaphor: ‘may they be one as we are one.’ The relationship between Father and Son here is what Jesus points out – ancient writers called this perichoresis, or a divine dance. In a dance, there is not a monolithic staunchness, but a give and take, a playful engagement, a lively exchange. Jesus prays to the Father, ‘may their dance of unity be like our dance of unity! May they be one as we are one. Unified with the godhead. Unified with one another.”
By this point, some in the room were getting downright uncomfortable. A couple of folks hazarded a glace across the room at someone who they had been less than unified with. Each time, another uncomfortable glance met them on the other side. Each of them knew what Carl meant. Before long, everyone in the room knew why he had chosen this passage…
“Some have called this the ‘last will and testament of Jesus.’ Even though it is a prayer to God, he is speaking to his disciples, too. Telling them with his last words what he wants them to do, what he needs them to understand, summing up his ministry one last time before his arrest and crucifixion.”
“Of course, I don’t think I am Jesus.” He cracked his famous smile and everyone laughed with him. “But I do know that it might be about time for my last will and testament.” At that point, everyone reached for the Kleenex.
“I began this group a long time ago, because I had this crazy idea that sitting down with the Bible and a cup of coffee and an open heart would change the world. Would participate in the transformation of the world that God is doing. Of course, all along these years, it has not been about the coffee.” More smiles around the room. “It has not even been about the Bible by itself. We all know that the Bible alone can be used as a weapon just as quickly as it can be a tool to heal. But what has brought this group together, month after month, year after year, has been this spirit of unity. This dance of lively discussion, this trust of God and each other, this love of one another both when we walk into the room and when we walk out. It has worked because the group has chosen to be one as the God who created us is one.”
“Don’t think that this Bible study has any magical powers. It’s not about the room or the time. God knows it’s not about me! But whether or not this group ever meets again, know that the dance has to continue. The dance of mutual love and respect. Of worship and prayer. Of humble reading and faithful relationship.”
“Jesus knew that he was leaving this world and that he would no longer be able to participate in God’s transformation in the same way. And so, in his last will and testament, he begged his followers to continue in the spirit of unity. I guess, if I have one prayer, that is mine as well.”
Carl died, appropriately so, on a Tuesday, the night that he had opened his home for over a decade to join in the spirit of unity. At the funeral lunch, Leona and Josh were there. Several of the group members saw them sitting at a table in the back, gesticulating wildly as they talked. “Will they ever take a break?” But a few days later, they saw in their email inbox a huge surprise. Sent from both Leona and Josh today, it was an invitation. Apparently, they had volunteered to co-coordinate the group, and alternate their living rooms each month. They invited the whole group, and signed off, at the end:
“Bring your Bible. Bring a friend. Bring your dancing shoes. Coffee’s on!”