Easter 5C. 28 April 2013.
It may seem strange to you, as it did to me, to see the Gospel lesson for today, especially if you attended our Maundy Thursday liturgy. This is, after all, the Gospel lesson for Maundy Thursday in which Jesus gives the "new commandment"—sometimes called the "love commandment"—to his disciples.
It does seem a little strange to have this lesson come up again so soon, and I wondered, cynically, if its appearance was to make sure that even those people who don't come to Maundy Thursday get the lesson. I don't know.
If I were the rector of a large parish, I might preach Maundy Thursday and then hand this Sunday off to an assistant cleric, and say, "I've already handled this one; why don't you give it a shot." But I don't have that luxury. I considered the other texts for preaching with the hopes of not having to deal with the text again so soon, but I've discovered that whenever I try to elude a text, it doesn't let me go.
I considered the possibility that it might be refreshing to address the meaning of it outside of Maundy Thursday, which is, to my mind, a liturgy that is suffused with foreboding and pathos. Jesus is having his last meal, washing feet, and will soon be taken from the comforting embrace of the disciples. It is a profound moment in the story of Jesus, and in the Church's life, and the love commandment, read in that context, seems laden with sentiment.
To take the text from that liturgical context and restore it to its narrative context in the Bible may reveal more of what Jesus is saying. So consider the narrative context. Jesus believes this to be the last supper with his disciples, which is also, fittingly, the Passover, or Seder meal. Believing that his location had been betrayed, he knows that the time is rapidly approaching when he will be taken. "They will strike the shepherd and the sheep will be scattered."
That analogy holds true to this day. Whenever leadership changes, there is a reshuffling of roles and responsibilities. When a parish priest leaves a church, there are people who leave, and people who come back. People who stop doing things, and start doing other things.
But it is one thing when it happens because someone resigns, retires, or steps aside, and quite another when someone is killed—and killed for the very reasons why the group is together to begin with.
Jesus surely knows that when he is taken from them that it will be a very confusing and painful time. And even after he is resurrected, he cannot be with them as he once was; he is returning to the Father. So understood in this context the commandment to love is, perhaps, an attempt to help them navigate the future.
He might have said, "You won't have me anymore. When you get together and have your little squabbles about who is greater than the other, or who is going to sit beside me in the coming kingdom… When you are out doing what I did and preaching and healing, if indeed you go back to the mission field as I have directed you, it won't be like the old times. It won't be like it was when I was here and you could ask your questions about how to deal with what."
"You are going to need each other in a way that you don't even realize right now. So I'm leaving you this new commandment. It's a commandment, but it's not really a commandment—as that is meant in the Bible. It's new, but it's not really new. It's been spoken of before in the context of the Exodus when God brought us out of Egypt and gave us this land. It was moving over the waters at the beginning of time, when this earth was void and barren, and darkness over the earth. And it is simply: Love. God's pulse, God's own being, my being…
"You need to love each other if you want to make it through the coming week, and the coming months and years, because it isn't pretty out there. And you will likely be afraid." (Long pause.)
Fear is such an ugly subject. I don't like even mentioning it. Just a couple weeks ago I was talking with my local clergy buddies, and we were talking about the Boston Marathon bombing. And the question in the room was whether or not we would be talking about it on Sunday.
My belief is that the pulpit should be a place of reflection, not reaction. So I mention events in the prayers and announcements; I may dedicate the celebration of the Eucharist to the victims, but I don't run to the pulpit, as if I can redeem the tragedy with quick words.
There are sermons that need to be preached about tragedy—I have preached some of them—and I believe they are best heard at a respectful distance from the events. When the trauma is recent and palpably moving in the air, it seems to me that the Holy Spirit is also palpable, and doing something beautiful that extended words might spoil.
The silence we give—which is not unlike the silence of Good Friday—honors and respects the people most affected, and helps us, I think, pray for them a bit more deeply. Part of the silence is also to allow the fear to dissipate.
Fear is something I don't speak easily about. It can inspire all kinds of negative thoughts and actions. People who are pushed to their limits, and feel themselves without recourse, are the most dangerous.
Before the Boston tragedy, the one most recently on our minds was the stabbing of fourteen people at Lone Star College by Dylan Quick, who told the police that he had been fantasizing about doing that since he was in elementary school. I cannot imagine—I'm sure you cannot imagine—living with that kind of fantasy.
And before that tragedy, there was Newtown, and before that, it was something else. Fear. It comes up when we see an act of evil and cannot understand how a person could want to do it. It is absolutely chilling when it is something that someone has planned for years. We cannot imagine the heart of darkness that nurtures those kinds of thoughts without somehow self-destructing. Often when they have carried out the act, they do self-destruct.
You can live in fear of so many things. Fear of sickness, financial issues, loss of loved ones, loss of one's own life. And there are varieties of fear within those fears. The world can be an ugly, ugly place. Violent, tragic, evil. It has always been that way.
During the years of the Roman Empire, you will remember that Christians were severely persecuted—many put to death for sport in the Coliseum. We Christians also persecuted and killed many followers of Islam during the Crusades. At any given point in history someone has committed awful, evil acts of violence—in the name of God, or for no apparent reason, or for reasons of revenge.
And before he left his disciples Jesus said, "You are going to have to go out there. You can't just stay huddled together in church. You are going to have to go out there, as I did, and show the world how I and the Father intend the human life to be lived: You must not hurt; you must heal. You must not take the bread of others; you must feed them. You may not say to yourself `Well, he's not my dad,' or `She's not my daughter' and just sort of write them off. Everyone is your sister and brother now."
"And the only way you are going to combat the fear that you will see in the hungry eyes of others is with the love that you have for each other."
So when we gather together in the bonds of affection, and share the bread and wine, and pray, the Holy Spirit—God's spirit—my spirit—is present, and fear and evil have no place. (Pause.)
Last month, during Holy Week, actually just before the Maundy Thursday liturgy I enjoyed something I rarely get to do anymore, and that's to just sit in the back pew and pray, and wait for the church to gather. I sometimes forget what that feels like. You see people trickle in and find their place, and there is something about that.
You see each other in the silent assembly and your mind may go to previous conversations, jokes and stories with each other. Maybe a disagreement, or two, but that's the way life is. But when I see people coming into church and finding their pew and kneeling down, it's just so beautiful to me.
Like each person is voting with their presence for "us." We are saying, "I'd rather be here than anywhere else right now." And here is not just here. It's here with God. Here with the God we believe is revealed in the human flesh of Jesus Christ: here in the context of a place that stands for peace and harmony, justice, redemption. It really is a beautiful thing.
And you may look around some Sunday and wonder where someone is whom you don't see. And you know that life is life, and they'll be back. They're on vacation; family are in town, whatever. Then you have people who are loosely affiliated. They are members and friends, and they come when they can, and it's always good to see them. You have folks who are sick and at home or in the hospital, and a prayer is offered for them. Do you see what I'm trying to say?
Those little thoughts you have when you see someone and when you miss someone are all little signs of this new commandment.
Life is hard. The world can be a very scary place. We have been sent by a loving God to a creation that God called good; and Christ redeemed with his own blood. It is a world that can break your heart with people who can do unspeakable things. It is the mission field.
We ourselves are not perfect; we have moments of sin. We struggle to be the people God has called us to be; but when we gather together, it's not just an assembly of people—it's the re-presentation of what Jesus was talking about. And it has become the way we stand against the evil and tragedy of the world. We come together, and we break the bread, and we sing our song. And by those actions we cast our vote for a more redeemed and beautiful world, which is nothing less than the Kingdom of God.
There is a wonderful motivational poster I saw very recently. It was for exercise, but it works for the Church to. "Don't ever stop. You never know who you are inspiring."
You may not think it matters sometimes. Little church among so many little churches. Little me telling my little stories. But, it really does matter. Because "by this," said Jesus, "everyone will come to know…"
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Go Ye Into All the World and Preach the Gospel