Monday, May 14, 2012

Sixth Easter Sunday at St. Andrew's

Sermon by our Priest Associate, the Rev. Dr. Philip Wainwright

John 15:9–17   

Over the last year now I’ve noticed that St Andrew’s is a fairly typical parish church, at least in one respect: the relationship between its members. There are members who are very close because they are in the same family; others who are pretty close because they went to the same school when they were kids; some who have known each other for twenty years, and so on, all the way to those who have never met each other, don’t know each other’s names, and don’t think about each other unless one of them is in the pew the other usually sits in. And we seldom think about the implications of this. Those who think of St Andrew’s as their family church are aware that there are others in the church who think of it in other ways, just as there are people here who have hardly met anyone yet, but realise there are others that have known each other all their lives, but neither group finds anything significant in that. 

But in this morning’s gospel we hear Jesus talking about the importance of the relationship between Christians, and He talks about it in terms very different from the way most of us usually do. In the passage we read from John 15, Jesus says in v 12, This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you. He’s actually repeating it, hammering the point home; back in chapter 13, John describes Jesus saying v 34 I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another.

Jesus is saying these things on the last night He will be with His disciples in His earthly ministry. It’s His last opportunity to form them into the body that He says will be His Church. At such a time—and it’s clear He knew this was His last opportunity—we can be sure what He says is important, something He really wants His followers to remember and take seriously.

And it’s not just advice. It is a commandment. This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you. It’s not a suggestion, but a direct order. When Episcopalians are baptized, we promise to “obey Jesus as our Lord”— you can refresh your memory at p 303 in the Prayer Book. We at least can’t argue about this or ignore it: when Jesus gives us a commandment, we are to carry it out. We have taken a sacred vow to do so, and we no longer have any choice in the matter.

But it’s not just love; if you look back at chapter 13 again, you’ll see that He said it was love (v 34) just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. People use the word ‘love’ very casually these days, but Jesus is not using it casually. He is not talking about concern for people, a feeling of good will towards others but something that doesn’t cost more than a passing thought and perhaps a few moments in our prayers. Jesus tells us exactly what He means when he says love one another in today’s chapter, v 13: No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends. 

It’s not theoretical love He is urging us to have for one another, but love as real, as costly as it ever gets. The kind of love we celebrate on mothers’ day, self-sacrificing love, that is the kind of love that Jesus says His followers are to have for other followers of Jesus. All of them—not just the ones who are family and close friends, but all of them, even the ones whose theology we disapprove or whose personality rubs us the wrong way, or that we have simply never met.

It’s a tall order. But fortunately He doesn’t just give the order and walk away, leaving us to wonder how we can ever accomplish something so difficult, so apparently impossible. Look at v 17: I am giving you these commands so that you may love one another. Now these commands are not the repeated commandments to love one another; Jesus is referring to the other things He has asked of His followers. I want you to love one another, He says, and all the other things I’ve given you to do I’ve given so that you may love one another. When He tells us to go beyond the letter of the Ten Commandments to their spirit, to turn the other cheek, to avoid the lust of the eyes, to forgive our enemies over and over, to make disciples and teach them all He has taught us, He is telling us those things not only because they are important in themselves, but because they prepare us to love one another. When we are taking seriously all those other things that Jesus has told us to do, we will find that we are able to take just as seriously the idea that we are to love one another as Jesus loved us.

It works this way because if we obey the commandments Jesus gave His followers, we become very different from those who don’t, different enough that we will inevitably draw closer together. Many of us can think of times in our lives that illustrate how this works. When we’ve been part of a group that was different, that lived in a different way, or shared a task or an enemy that others didn’t, we found relationships with the other members of that group deeper than with members of other groups we have been part of. If you were at a particularly unusual school with someone, or were in the Army or in prison together, or were under fire together in the same battle, you’ll know what I mean.

If you look around you this morning, and see people whom you would not lay down your lives for, or for whom you would but because they are family or old friends rather than fellow-Christians—and most of us are in that position—it’s not only because we are not taking seriously the commandment to love one another, but because we are not taking seriously enough the other commands that Jesus gave us. If we never actually have lived by the spirit of the law as well as the letter, turned the other cheek, or told another person how faith in Christ can give you new life, the bond of love between us and others who have struggled to do the same cannot be deep. And for all of us in that position, let this reading this morning be a call to take all Christ’s commandments seriously, so that we can begin to develop the bond of love for one another to which Christ calls us.

Because this bond is not just a nice thing in itself. It is a crucial plank in Jesus’s strategy for the salvation of the world. Jesus sends us to bring the message of salvation, but also says that the people to whom He sends us will know that we are His messengers when they see us obeying this commandment. Back in chapter 13.35 He says v 35 By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another. They’ll see us loving one another, and then they’ll be sure we really represent the saviour of the world and are not blowing hot air. Like an ambassador presenting credentials from the government that sent him, our love for one another is what will convince people that we do, in fact, speak in Jesus’s name, and have something to say that is worth listening to. In other words, it’s what will make the church’s task of evangelism possible: evangelism is telling people the good news from Jesus, but people aren’t likely to listen unless they think we really are from Jesus, that we are actually His messengers. This is how they’ll know. Evangelism won’t work if we’re not loving one another as Christ loved us. Love one another.

When we think about all this, it’s easy get tempted to throw up our hands and say “I’ll never be able to love like that, it’s not even worth me trying. I couldn’t do it.” And it’s true, without help, we can’t do it. But Jesus knew that when He said this, and He has provided help. In this same long passage in which He repeats His commandment to us to love one another so many times, He also repeats over and over His promise to send us the Holy Spirit to help us do it. Chapter 14:15f—If you love me, you will keep my commandments. And I will pray the Father, and He will give you another Counselor to be with you forever, even the Spirit of truth… he will be in you. We’ll hear more about this in a couple of weeks, when we read the passages that tell us about the Holy Spirit at Pentecost.

Let me close by thinking about the significance of Jesus saying that this is how everyone will know that we are His disciples. The only time that everyone looks at us to see how we treat one another is when we attract their attention for some reason that usually has nothing to do with love. You know the sort of thing: the rumor runs around town—“there’s trouble over at St Agatha’s, have you heard, the organist has run off with the rector’s 14 year old daughter.” Then, it’s a different story: you’d be amazed at the number of people who suddenly take an interest! Or we hit the headlines nationally, with bishops excommunicating each other and planting churches in each others’ diocese and claiming each other’s property and all the rest we’ve experienced ourselves in recent years. All of a sudden, everyone is looking at us to see what we’re really like— “you’re an Episcopalian, aren’t you, tell me about all these goings on in your church.”

These are the times when the eyes of everyone are on us, and they are our opportunity to make good on our promise to obey Him and to show love for one another. It doesn’t always happen that way, though. Too often, when someone who isn’t a Christian has a friend who’s an Episcopalian and asks that friend “what are these things I’m reading about in the Episcopal Church?” he gets an answer like “it’s disgraceful what those others are doing, they’re not real Christians at all, etc etc.” Now the one who isn’t a Christian might think any of a number of things at that point, he might even agree with you, but the one thing he or she won’t think is “gosh, what a loving lot these Christians are!” It’s time we gave them the opportunity to think that we really might love each other, even those Christians who in worldly terms seem to be our enemies. There really is a lot hanging on it.

My command is this, says Jesus: Love each other as I have loved you. I am giving you these commands so that you may love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.

1 comment:

cindy said...
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