Monday, May 15, 2017

The Way of Love (A sermon from John 14:1-14)

Our passage begins with Jesus telling the disciples to not be troubled. That is much easier said than done. In fact, three times in John’s Gospel the writer tells us that Jesus was troubled. He was troubled over the death of Lazarus. He was troubled at least on one occasion when he contemplated his own death. And he was troubled when he realized that his own disciples would desert him in his final hour. So, let’s not assume then that being troubled is somehow a lack of faith or a sign of spiritual immaturity. I doubt if any of us are willing to say that Jesus lacked faith or spiritual maturity and yet clearly he was troubled on occasion. Being troubled is a common human experience. The challenge for us is not to allow those disturbing feelings and alarming emotions to rule our hearts and wills and lead us into despondency or despair.

We can understand why the disciples would be troubled. Jesus just told them that he is going away. Toward the end of chapter 13 Jesus says to the disciples that he will be with them just a little longer. He tells them that he is leaving them and where he is going they will not be able to follow. They had left everything to follow Jesus. They had put their trust in Jesus. And now he says he is leaving them. Wouldn’t you be troubled?

He is calling them to continue to trust in God and to trust in him. Because even though he is going away, he will still be with them – only in a very different way. We often read Jesus’ promise here to be a promise of Jesus coming to one at the time of death and that is certainly a legitimate way to read it. But it’s not the only way to read it and probably is not the primary way we should read it. Sayings in John often have multiple meanings. Certainly it is a legitimate reading of this passage to apply this to Jesus’ coming to a loved one in death. But’s it’s also a promise of Jesus’ coming to the living who are troubled and filled with grief. Throughout this Upper Room teaching of Jesus in John’s Gospel Jesus speaks of sending the Advocate, the Spirit of Truth, who will be Christ to them.

This passage is saying that nothing is going to sever the relationship we have with the Christ, even though it is a spiritual relationship. It’s a relationship rooted in trust. We can be assured that when a loved one dies, that loved one is safe, that our loved one is in a welcoming place. And we can be assured that we are too. Right now, regardless of the circumstances of our lives.

The lack of understanding on the part of the disciples leads to Thomas’ question: “Lord, we do not know where you are going. How can we know the way?” Jesus responds by saying, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.” If you were here last week you will remember that I referenced this passage in talking about the text where Jesus says, “I am the gate. Whoever enters by me will be saved, and will come in and go out and find pasture.” I mentioned the Jewish rabbi who said he believed this passage about Jesus being the way and truth and the life. When he was asked how a Jewish rabbi could believe this he said, “Because I believe Jesus is the way of love, that Jesus’ truth is the truth of love, and that Jesus’ life is the life of love. No one comes to the Father but through love.” It’s not Jesus exclusively, it’s Jesus inclusively  – it’s what his life represents, the virtues he incarnated, the values he embodied, the love he expressed

In John 13, just after Jesus tells the disciples he is going away and they would not be able to go with him he says, “I give you a new commandment, that you love one another.” We might ask, “How is this new?” In the Synoptic Gospels Jesus references the command to love in the Torah and says that the whole law and prophets are fulfilled in the love commands of loving God and loving neighbor as oneself. The command to love was at the heart of the law and the prophets. So how is the command to love a new commandment? Well Jesus says next, “Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. By this everyone will know you are my disciples. If you love one another” (13:34-35).  It’s new in the sense that we are instructed to love like Jesus. Jesus becomes for us the definitive revelation of God’s love.

You see, sisters and brothers, it’s all about love. Everything else is secondary. Anything that usurps the place of love in our lives – be it our religion, our politics, our social life, anything – is a false god. Our beliefs about God and our beliefs about Jesus can become a false god. Anything that keeps us from loving the way Jesus loved becomes a false god – because God is love.

Ann Howard who at one time was the director of the “The Beatitude Society” recalls how these words from John 14 bothered her when she was a child. When she was about 10 years old a group of foreign visitors came to her little Minnesota town for a weekend visit on their tour of the U.S. Several families hosted them, and her family hosted one of the Russians, a friendly man with a thick accent who went with her family to their Lutheran church on Sunday. She was sorry when the visit ended, but something Yuri said during the visit really troubled Ann. She asked her mother about it. As a ten year old girl she says to her mother, “Yuri said he doesn’t believe in Jesus. He doesn’t even believe in God. I’m afraid he’s not going to go to heaven. What’s going to happen to Yuri when he dies?” Her mother replied, “Christianity is not a club, Anne. It’s not about who’s in and who’s out. It’s about how we live.”

That’s good but I would say that a little bit differently today. I would say, “It’s not a club. It’s not about who’s in and who’s out. It’s about how we love.” By this, says Jesus, others will know you are my disciples – by your love for one another. This is why Paul said, “Now abide these three, faith, hope, and love. But the greatest of these is love.”

When Jesus says, “Trust in God, trust also in me” what he is saying is, “Trust in the love of God that I have shown you. You don’t need to be afraid. You don’t need to be insecure. You don’t need to be overly anxious. Because God’s love will never let you go. In God’s house everyone has a place. There are many rooms. Everyone is welcome.”

I wish I had heard that when I was ten years old. (And by the way, I don’t blame anyone for that. My parents taught me what they had been taught. So did my religious instructors. No one encouraged them to explore or question. In fact, questioning what one was taught was looked down upon. So I don’t blame anyone. But I so wish more Christians knew this and would teach this to their children and grandchildren).

Next up in the story is Philip who says, “Show us the Father and that will be enough.” Philip’s lack of understanding and blindness is reflective and expressive of our own blindness and lack of understanding. Jesus says, “I have already shown you, Philip. Can’t you see? Open your eyes. Open your heart. I have shown you the nature of God. I have revealed to you what God is like. If you have taken notice of how I have loved you and loved the world then you would know how God loves you and how God so loves the world. You would know that nothing can separate you from God’s love and my love.” I so wish more people could understand that – especially Christians, because so few Christians today understand that.

Jesus says I am in the Father and the Father is in me. I am in God and God is in me. And that’s true for all of us. As Jesus teaches throughout the Upper Room discourse here in John’s Gospel: We are in God and God is in us. When we allow the Divine Love that filled Jesus to fill our hearts and lives then we like Jesus just know that we dwell in God and God dwells in us. And you don’t need a Bible verse or a preacher like me to tell you – you just know. It’s like what the old hymn says, “You ask me how I know he lives, he lives within my heart.” God is in you and you are in God – just like Jesus.

So Jesus calls his disciples to trust in the God of love as they face the challenges of life. He also calls them to participate with him in his works of love. Being in relationship brings responsibility. This passage says that those who trust Jesus will also engage in the works of love that Jesus did. Jesus even promises that those who trust in and participate in his works of love will do “greater works” because he is going to the Father.

In John’s theology Jesus’ physical departure means his spiritual presence. It means the Spirit of Christ will be at work in the world and in their lives, and the Spirit of Christ, the Cosmic Christ doesn’t have human limitations. It is through the power of the Spirit of Christ, which is the Spirit of Love, that his disciples multiply his works.

Think of the works he did. He healed the sick, he fed the hungry, he liberated the oppressed, he welcomed the outcasts, he stood with the marginalized, he challenged the status quo, he confronted the untruth of the religious and social establishment, he served all people – the religious and irreligious, the poor and the wealthy, women, men and children, and in perhaps his greatest work of all, he bore the sins and the wrath of the powers that be without returning that wrath. These are the works of love we are called to multiply in the world. They will be “greater” not in quality, but in quantity, as many of Jesus’ followers do the works he did. So knowing God, knowing Christ carries with it the assignment of making God known. Abiding in Christ means doing what Jesus did. Living in communion with Christ means engaging in the works of love that Jesus engaged in.

Now, I’m not sure it’s possible to do such works or at least to sustain such works over time unless we nurture an inner spiritual life – a life of communion and connection with the Source of life.  I find in my own experience that a life of contemplation, a life of prayer is necessary to continue in the way of love and to sustain works of love. This is why, I think, this passage ends with a call to prayer. Prayer is what sustains our participation in works of love.

Jesus says, “I will do whatever you ask in my name. . . . If in my name you ask me for anything, I will do it.” The invitation to ask anything in his name has to be understood in the context of engaging in these greater works of love. It’s not anything, it’s anything that pertains to the works of love. That’s the context here. Christ’s love will motivate us, empower us, sustain us, and strengthen us in doing the works of love if we open our lives to receive God’s love, if we nurture a life of communion with the God of love so that God’s love can flow through us.

John Philip Newell tells about getting to know a Roman Catholic priest in Portsmouth, England when he was serving the Anglican Diocese there. Father David was passionate about peacemaking and the work of justice. For many years he had given himself to the poorest and powerless of Portsmouth. He was a renowned and popular figure throughout the city. In fact, he was so well liked in the community that despite his openly gay relationship with his Buddhist partner and his unorthodox views and ways the bishop was reluctant to rein him in.

Father David invited Dr. Newell and his wife Ali to lead a series on spirituality in the church. Father David suggested that he and Ali come one Sunday morning to get to know the community before beginning the series. The Sunday they attended was the World Day of Prayer for Peace. Father David gave a passionate sermon on nonviolence. Then as they do each Sunday they moved into the celebration of communion.

The little children had been running around during the sermon, free to come and go from their families, but when the service of Holy Communion got underway the little children were now pulled back into the pews by their parents to sit attentively. Dr. Newell and his wife hadn’t noticed this soon enough. So there little one, age three, was still clattering along the wooden bench next to them with his hard-heeled shoes on.   Suddenly, a woman on the far side of the church shouted out, “Would someone keep that child quiet!” Father David did not realize who was being referred to but he stopped the liturgy of communion to speak publicly to the woman. He said, “Claudia, if that is how you feel leave.” Claudia replied, “But Father, I couldn’t hear the words of the liturgy.”

Turning a little red with frustration, Father David said, “We have been building a community here that is inclusive of every person and every age. So Claudia, if that is how you feel, leave.” This was real drama in the midst of the formal liturgy, but the congregation, observed Newell, didn’t look worried. It was a family fight.

Claudia spoke a third time and this time Father David now bright red in the face, slammed his hands down on the altar and headed straight for Claudia. Seeing fire in his eyes, Father David’s Buddhist partner jumped up and tried to stop him from proceeding down the aisle. Claudia, as Dr. Newell later discovered, had been one of Father David’s earliest and staunchest supporters. When Father David reached Claudia, with real puzzlement in his voice he said, “Claudia, what are you saying?”

Claudia left in tears, followed be a few members of the congregation who went out to console her. Then Father David returned to the altar. This is what he said, “I cannot proceed until I ask forgiveness. I do not apologize for defending the place of children, but I do apologize for my violence of heart. I was wrong. I ask God’s forgiveness and I will seek Claudia’s forgiveness.” He then proceeded with the celebration of Communion. And before the end of the liturgy Claudia was back in her seat to receive the bread and wine from the hands of Father David. The family fight was over.

Dr. Newell writes, “There are angels of light and angels of darkness in us all. One moment we may be preaching nonviolence as the only true energy for real transformation in our world. The next moment we may be consumed by violence of heart.” And it’s true. We all battle these demons. Each one of us is a kind of living paradox. And in a few instances, even Jesus was. This is part of being human.

If we are going to share in the works of love, if we are going to multiply the works of Jesus in the world, I believe we will need to sustain an inner life, we will need to nurture a life of communion with God, so that we like Father David are quick to confess our sins and ask for forgiveness.

When the Spirit of Christ, the Spirit of love is allowed to fill our lives, when our relationship with and experience of Diving Love is cultivated through a life of prayer then we are humbled by our failures, we are open to confession and correction, we are ready to give and receive forgiveness, and we refuse to allow the ego to rule our lives.  

To do the works of Christ is to engage in works of love. To live in communion with God, to live in communion with Christ is to be motivated, inspired, sustained, and empowered by God’s love. The way of God, the way of Christ, the way of the Spirit is the way of love. Let’s commit ourselves anew to this way of love as we celebrate communion together. 

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