Where True Love Is

A Sermon for Easter 6B, 2015
Readings can be found here

This is the last Sunday before we observe the Ascension of Christ and, if we observe the lessons appointed by the Revised Common Lectionary, today’s Gospel can be heard as some of the last words the resurrected Jesus speak to his friends before ascending into heaven.  

This fascinates me, because the Gospel appointed for today is the Gospel of John 15:9-17--which is located approximately 5 chapters BEFORE the resurrection occurs in the Gospel of John. So, why does the lectionary offer us this passage during the season of Easter?  

In order to discuss the choice of this Gospel for this Sunday, I need to back up a bit to the Revised Common Lectionary.  The RCL was compiled in collaboration with an assortment of liturgically based denominations--including the Episcopal church--and was created based on an assortment of Protestant lectionaries, all of which originated from the three year cycle created in 1969 by the Roman Catholic Church.  The idea is that, over the course of a three year cycle, congregations would be able to hear the voices of the various authors of scripture with a greater sense of continuity and  integrity.  So, no picking and choosing on the part of the clergy or congregation--but, rather, scripture appointed in order to meet the need for congregations to be exposed to the breadth of scripture.  

Each year in the three year cycle focuses on a different Gospel--Matthew, year A; Mark, year B; Luke, year C.  These are the synoptic Gospels and they share a great deal of material with each other.  

You’ll note, however, that a three year cycle excludes a Gospel.  The Gospel of John, with its distinct language and theology, is interspersed in all three years and dominates the season of Easter.

But, why, why do we hear so much of John in this particular season?  John was the last of the canonical Gospels to be composed and emerged within the context of the early church.  It’s goals, or spin, is different than that of the other Gospels because of the author’s context as a believer in the midst of an emergent community.  Unlike the other three Gospels, the author of John wasn’t concerned with presenting a chronological account of Jesus’ life, death and resurrection. Rather, the goal, as stated by the author was that “these things are written so that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing you may have life in his name."  This Gospel is grounded, most deeply, in the fledgling theology of a community living long after the resurrection and ascension.  And, thus, it’s intriguing to me to consider the entirety of the Gospel as taking place after the resurrection.  

And, if we think of John’s context as writing in the midst of an “after the resurrection community”, the emphasis on living in relationship with each other, within the context of the life, death, resurrection and ascension of Jesus,  makes a great deal of sense.  This is a Gospel written for a community trying to figure out what it is to be a community in Christ.  

Some of the major themes of the Gospel of John, themes we hear in this passage, include "abiding" in God's love, the commandment of love, and laying down one's life for friends. 

And, as I hear these themes, I imagine the early Christian community out of which they emerged--I imagine the people nodding in agreement with that line or this.  I imagine a hand reached out for another, a cheek turned for a kiss, an embrace, and the covenant of love which bound them.  

Covenant of love...when we speak of love and covenants we tend to think rather entirely of the covenant of marriage...to have and to hold, in sickness and in health...this is my solemn vow.  But, what would it be like to enter into friendship with similar commitment?  How would that transform the nature of friendship in an age of “friending”?  What would a solemn vow of friendship look like?

St. Aelred of Rievaulx
, a Cistercian abbott from the 12th century wrote extensively about the centrality of friendship to our lives of faith.  Inspired by the Gospel of John, Aelred felt that “He who abides in friendship abides in God, and God in him”.  But, in a society that uses the word friend in such a casual fashion, what distinguishes the kind of friendship which John posits?  

Aelred describes the spiritual friendship that draws us mutually into deeper relationship to God as “spiritual friendship” and finds in this form of spiritual friendship a relationship that is mutually beneficial and in which neither party seeks to use the other to their own advantage.  For Aelred, spiritual friendship is non-exploitative, and draws in the outsider--as servants become friends. 

And, as servants become friends, we can see something of the radical nature of this form of johannine inspired friendship.  Aelred, in his exposition on the Gospel of John notes that if the relationship is not between equals, then the stronger or wiser of the friend will seek to diminish himself/herself before the other. (Aelred, Spiritual Friendship, I.65-66,70 p.47) Friends relinquish power over and above the other in order to be a friend to others. What a radical notion. Imagine, giving up privilege to be a friend...

And, imagine the theological ramifications of this all...God gave up privilege in order to be our friend. Dying to self, so that we might live.  

He gathered at table with his friends...radical friendship.

What a challenge and inspiration this Gospel must have offered to the johannine community! Today, we have not only heard the Gospel of John, but another text which echoes its theological emphasis on abiding in love.  The first letter of John, while it was unlikely to have been written by the same author as the Gospel of John (scholars point out the major differences in the Greek), emerged out of the same community as the Gospel of John.  And, in my sermon last Sunday I challenged us with the verse, 

“those who do not love a brother or sister whom they have seen, cannot love God whom they have not seen.”

What has been seen cannot be unseen.  Those who do not love a brother or sister whom they have seen.  A neighbor whom they have seen.  A human being whom they have seen.

If we do not love the other, the other precious and beloved children of the God we profess, than how can we profess to love God?”

How can we profess to love God?  This week, I will invoke the phrase “what has been seen cannot be unseen” but this time in a different context.  

“You did not choose me but I chose you.”

God has seen us and cannot unsee us. Who has been seen, cannot be unseen.  The God who has been seen cannot be unseen.  The love that has been seen cannot be unseen.  The creator has chosen creation.  The lover of souls has chosen our souls.  Abiding in each of us, divine love.  

In The Brothers Karamazov, Fyodor Dostoyevsky writes, “Love people even in their sin, for that is the semblance of Divine Love and is the highest love on earth.  Love all of God’s creation, the whole and every grain of sand of it.  Love every leaf, every ray of God’s light.  Love the animals, love the plants, love everything.  If you love everything, you will perceive the divine mystery in things.  Once you perceive it, you will begin to comprehend it better every day.  And you will come at last to love the whole world with an all embracing love.”  

Once you see love, you can’t unsee it.  Once we see love we will begin to understand it more deeply and see love made manifest in all places.  

The point of everything, the center of the circle, the reason for it all...love made manifest.

“I am giving you these commands so that you may love one another.”

This is my solemn vow. 

Aelred also happens to be the patron saint of the organization "Integrity
which has worked for the inclusion of GLBT Christians within the Episcopal Church for over 40 years.  

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