A Sermon for the Fifth Sunday of Easter, John 13:31-35
If there is one thing you take away from the gospel teachings of Christ, if there is one thing you take away from the work of the apostles, the work of Paul, even the promises found in the eschaton, the end times, as revealed through John, it all points towards a profound, deep, unfathomable source and example of love. Through the life, death, and resurrection of Christ: love. Through the presence, the advocacy of the Holy Spirit: love. Through our invitation to join with God in the stewarding of this creation, of all of this creation, all creatures (including all humans), all plants, this entire planet, our island home: love. And yet, even with this simple message, this one word, we have continually failed to live up to what is asked of us. We continually fail to live up to this one teaching, this one way, this one hope for our creation.
And so, it’s broken down for us. We are given pieces to focus on. We are tasked with specific ways to live into this call that is before us.
Love the Lord your God with all of your heart, soul, mind.
Love your neighbor as yourself.
Forgive, through love.
Heal, through love.
Feed, through love.
Clothe, through love.
Visit, through love.
And today, we are given a further new commandment that breaks down the overarching call to love into another manageable, and yet nigh impossible task (or at least that’s what we’d like to tell ourselves in order to excuse our failings): just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.
This new commandment is not the same commandment as love your neighbor. This new commandment is not the same as love God. This commandment focuses very specifically on the love that the disciples are called to show to one another, as disciples, as followers of Christ (and, this is why it’s new, because these disciples are about to breathe into life a great fire from the spark that has been Christ’s life). It tasks us with starting with people who should be the easiest and safest to love, because they are us, and we are them. This is a distillation of our faith in terms of how we practice our faith towards each other as people of faith, well before we think about how we share our faith, show our love, to the rest of our neighbors in this creation.
This past year, the Episcopal Church, through the direction of our Presiding Bishop, has been focused on the way of love. A way of love that was somewhat unexpectedly launched on a global scale exactly one year ago in the wedding sermon heard round the world. That sermon resonated so deeply with the global audience because it was real, it was authentic, because love is so hungered for in this world and Bishop Curry made it so readily accessible to all. And, out of this, the way of love was introduced to the Episcopal Church at the General Convention in Austin last summer. But, this way of love was only very partially focused on loving your neighbor, the brunt of this work we have been called into is about this love that the disciples have been called to share with one another.
Turn, learn, pray, worship, bless, rest, are about seeing one another in the work that we are called to do. These six components on the way of love are focused inwardly to the work of the disciples in the church. They are about how we, as the disciples of the church, must come together to share in the love of God, to share that love with one another, to make that love clearly evident in our love towards one another so that all who may see us may know that we truly are disciples of Christ. These six components call us to live into our reality of faith as Episcopalians when we seek the via media, the middle ground, when we seek to build a community that reflects the full kingdom of God, where ALL are welcome no matter where they are on their journey of faith, and whether they are single, married, divorced, separated, or partnered, because our welcome, founded on this love of each other as the disciples of Christ, knows no boundaries of age, race, ethnicity, culture, political party affiliation, gender, sexual orientation, economic condition, physical or mental ability. We firmly believe that God delights in the diversity of creation and so do we, because that is our call as Episcopalians, because that is our call to love one another as the disciples of Christ, just as Christ has loved each of us.
It is the call to “Go!,” the final piece of the way of love that tasks us with looking beyond the boundaries of our Episcopal Church. But, even in this, we must not forget that the love of the disciples for one another must extend beyond our walls to all disciples, just as the love of neighbor extends to all of our neighbors throughout the world. This can be a hard task to live into. This can be especially hard when that love is not reflected back and we are tempted to dismiss and characterize others for a perceived lack of faith, for failing to live into the call of love as we think it should be.
I will be the first to admit that I definitely struggle with this. I sometimes, perhaps even often, find myself at odds with other pastors in our very own community, let alone those famous pastors who like to declare our country as vile and vomitable, as condemned by God if we dare to afford love to all people. I have gotten frustrated, angry, at fellow pastors for what I perceive as a lack of care, for what I perceive as a willfulness to look past the reality of the world in order to trumpet a narrative that is based on half-truths and judgments. It can be especially hard for me to remember that the call is love, because my natural inclination is to engage in conflict, to stir up the fires of debate, to engage and challenge and push others, privately and publicly. However, this natural inclination is not shared with the vast majority of my fellow clergy and ministerial leaders. We know, I know, that clergy and pastors across the whole of Christendom are conflict avoiders. At least 90%, and likely more, actively work to avoid conflict. I, on the other hand, think conflict is a useful and important tool to drive forward conversation and discover new truths, but what I am learning is how to harness this through a lens of showing love to one another as fellow disciples. How to gently prod and push the conversation along, and when to recognize that the pithy and/or sarcastic response I so desperately want to send, will do nothing to solve anything.
And, it is so hard sometimes.
When the Episcopal Church was disparaged recently on national news media, specifically on Fox News, because it is a “dead church,” and “not really Christian,” in order to discredit the very devout faith of a democratic candidate for president, it was hard to simply let that slide and trust that the Presiding Bishop’s cultural cache would be enough to dispel those hurtful words, to know that my focus is here on this community and not in the national conversation on who is or isn’t Christian (like we get to decide that anyways).
But, if we are really called to love one another as disciples, just as Christ as has shown love to us, then we are called to rise above the petty squabbles and perceived shortcomings of our fellow disciples to answer to a higher calling that has been left for us as people of the way of love. That if we live into this way of love, if we turn our lives towards placing Jesus at the center, reframing our understanding of how we are to interact with this world as the disciples of Christ, how we are to interact specifically with each other as disciples of Christ (and not just other Episcopal disciples, for we are simply one branch of the Jesus movement), then we can be emboldened to go out into the world to rejoicing in the love and peace of Christ, then we can be emboldened to go out into the world ready to love each other as disciples, to love creation as our neighbor, to love as God loves us.
This is our simple call in faith. This is the one word that ties it all together in terms of practical action we can take in order to show our faith. And in this word, in the practice of this action, there are many layers, many understandings of what this looks like, how we are called to live into it, how we are called to share it with one another and all of creation. Love is our call. Love is the way. Love is faith, is Christ, is God.