May 13th, 6th Sunday of Easter

Two of our readings for today are concerned with love, which shouldn’t surprise us, because that is what being a Christian is all about. Jesus said to his followers: My command is this: love one another as I have loved you. At this time, Jesus knew that his death was not far off, and he could have been saying anything to the disciples. He could have been expounding on Scripture; he could have been revealing the secrets of the universe. But he simply said to them: Love one another.
And this is the commandment which we need to follow today, maybe even more than in those early days of the church. Last week, we spoke about abiding in Jesus, about being branches of the true vine, and this week, we are told how to do it. Simply put – love one another. You have often heard me mention Henri Nouwen, a theologian who wrote amazing books on spiritual disciplines. He put it a slightly different way in his short book In The Name Of Jesus, when he said that we are called to love Jesus and to love the way Jesus loved. Loving the way Jesus loved is the thing that is most difficult for us, and that seemed to be the most difficult for the early church as well. But more about that later.
For now, let’s focus on what Jesus said, and on how it applies to us today. The first thing to point out is that he said that the apostles – which includes us – are no longer his servants. Now, this may sound strange to us, seeing that in the 21st century, we don’t really consider ourselves anyone’s servants. But, if we look at the word in the original Greek, and check the real meaning, we will see that being a servant is not necessarily a bad thing. You see, the word DOULOS, which translates as the slave or servant of God, was not a title of shame in Jesus’ time, or in the time of the ancient Israelites. Rather, it was a title of honour. Moses was the doulos of God (Deuteronomy 34: 5); so was Joshua (Joshua 24: 29); and so was David (Psalm 89:20). Doulos was a title which Paul counted it an honour to use (Titus 1: 1); and so did James (James 1:1). The greatest men and women of the past were proud to be called the douli, the slaves of God.
And yet Jesus says: “I have something greater for you than this, you are no
longer to be called my slaves; rather I call you my friends.” Again, there is some explanation needed here. We think that we understand what the word “friend” means, and we do – in OUR context. However, there is a deeper meaning, which I found in my research for this week. You see, the word “friend”, when applied to being Jesus’ friend, means much more than it does if we refer to each other as friends. At that time, and even centuries later, the rulers of the land had a select group of people who had special privileges. I am not referring to the members of the court, who were most often there pushing their own agendas. Rather, I refer to those people who were known as “friends of the king” or “friends of the emperor”. These people had access to the ruler at all times, even when he was sleeping. It was common for them to come to his bedroom at the start of the day, before he met with statesmen or diplomats or generals. The friends of the king were the people with whom he was most intimate. And here is Jesus saying that the apostles – and we – are to be called HIS friends.
Not only that, but he said: You did not choose me, but I chose you. Now, this whole concept of being chosen is pretty special. You may find this hard to believe, but when I was young, I was not very athletic. In fact, the best word to describe me was “clumsy”. Even my father, who loved me dearly, referred to me using that word. I have been known to fall UP the stairs. I used to say that it was because I was always rushing from one place to another, but now I’ll admit it. I just am not well-co-ordinated. I tell you this so that you will understand how much it matters to me that I was CHOSEN. You see, when I was a child, we played outdoors a lot – no TVs or computers or video games for us. And a lot of the time, we played things which required up being in teams – baseball, Red Rover – that kind of thing. And guess who was almost always the last one chosen? The clumsy one, the one who was afraid of the ball, the one who couldn’t run bases fast enough not to be tagged out. But none of this matters to Jesus. He doesn’t care if we aren’t athletic; he doesn’t care if we can’t sing; he doesn’t notice what talents we have or what talents we are lacking. He has chosen us to be his friends.
Today, we saw that in evidence here at St. Andrew’s, when Cheung Hun and Dennis became members of this congregation and of the Presbyterian Church in Canada. They were already Christians, but today they stood in front of you and announced this publicly. They have been chosen to be his friends, and to be members of this church family. What was it that led them to this church? I can’t answer that, but I know what made them stay. They felt as though they had friends here. They felt welcomed here, and that shows how we, in this church, follow Jesus’ command to love one another.
And here’s another word which needs some explanation – the word COMMAND. Here, it isn’t meant in the legalistic sense, in that we are obligated to love one another, even though we are. It doesn’t refer to a set of laws, such as we can read in other parts of Scripture. It isn’t placing strictures on us, such as dietary laws or laws of cleanliness. In fact, the whole theme of John’s Gospel is love, plain and simple.
We need to remember that John was addressing a small, struggling community of faith, one which did not have centuries of tradition behind it. He is talking about a kind of unselfish love, which binds people together in community AND in relationship to Jesus. This is the kind of love which was crucial then and which is crucial now. Remember that the disciples, whom Jesus was speaking to, were about to face possibly the most difficult thing a community such as theirs could face – the death of their leader. And Jesus himself – well, he was facing his own death. Not only that, the community being addressed in this Gospel, known as the Johannine community, were a generation or two removed from Jesus, and were themselves facing persecution from religious and civil leaders alike. Today, we are facing a different kind of persecution. Here, in Canada, I call it persecution by apathy. So many people no longer attend church. So many babies are not baptized because their parents just don’t bother with it. They say things like: I’ll let him choose when he is older. Well, guess what? If they are not raised IN the church, then the chance of them CHOOSING it later is a very slim one.
So we all, the disciples, the early Christians, and today’s Presbyterians, all of us are called to love one another. Henri Nouwen wrote: “The mystery of ministry is that we have been chosen to make our own limited and very conditional love the gateway for the unlimited and unconditional love of God.” And remember, I have told you many times, that we are ALL called to ministry of some sort. But we cannot be ministers unless we love.
I don’t know how much you know about liberation theology, but this is not really a new thing. It happens mostly in developing countries, where whole classes of people are eliminated from any kind of good life. They are oppressed, and often abused by those who believe themselves to be superior. This happens especially in Latin America, where drug lords reign supreme, and where it is not uncommon for people just to disappear. When I was studying liberation theology, I learned about Archbishop Oscar Romero, who was definitely one of the privileged ones in el Salvador. He became archbishop of San Salvador in 1977, and many of the priests in the country were upset at this, believing that, because of his privileged life, he would not be sympathetic to their stand regarding ministry to the poor. However, one month after his appointment, a Jesuit friend of the Archbishop was assassinated, and he realized that there was something seriously wrong in his country. He became known as one who could be both a prophet to the rich and a pastor to the poor and oppressed people of El Salvador. He didn’t turn away from, or ignore, the setting in which he preached, or the people who needed a word of hope about their lives, then and there, not simply pie-in-the-sky promises of heaven while their loved ones were disappearing into the violent machinery of a corrupt state. In faithfulness to the love of which Jesus speaks in this passage, Romero ultimately laid down his life for those he loved, when he was himself assassinated on March 24th, 1980, while he was celebrating Mass in a small hospital chapel.
This is what Jesus knew would happen; this is why he told us to love others – specifically, in another place, he told us to love our enemies. If we were to read just one more verse in the Gospel reading, we would hear Jesus day: If the world hates you, keep in mind that it hated me first. He knew, you see, that it wasn’t going to be easy for the disciples, or for the early Christians, or for liberation theologians like Oscar Romero, or for people like Mother Theresa, or for us today, as we struggle to live out our faith in face of the many challenges we face. In one of our best-known hymns – Amazing Grace – we sing about the dangers, toils, and snares through which we have come, thanks to God’s grace. And, in this sermon, Jesus reassured the disciples – and us – that we face these things as his friends, not merely as his servants.
Here, in Québec, we are not called to do what Oscar Romero did. It is difficult enough to lives our daily lives as Christians, in a society that is increasingly secular. There is a book by Jim Wallis, titled Called To Conversion, which puts it quite well. Wallis describes something that happened at a conference in New York City on social justice that included religious leaders of all kinds. “At one point,” he recalls, “a Native American stood up, looked out over the mostly white audience, and said, ‘Regardless of what the New Testament says, most Christians are individualists with no real experience of community.’ He paused for a moment and then continued: ‘Let’s pretend that you were all Christians. If you were Christians, you would no longer accumulate. You would share everything you had. You would actually love one another. And you would treat each other as if you were family.’ His eyes were piercing as he asked, ‘Why don’t you do that? Why don’t you live that way?'” Let’s pretend we are all Christians. What would that look like? How would it be different from the way we live today? I can’t paint a picture, but I would be willing to be that, for many of us, there would be changes.
But there were also changes in the early church. People had to change the way they lived, the way they looked at others. This is evident in our reading from the Acts of the Apostles. In this we are told that the circumcised were astonished that the gift of the Holy Spirit had been poured out even on the Gentiles. Now, to get this, we have to look at it in context. You see, the Jews who followed Jesus – the early Christians – really believed that Jesus had been speaking ONLY to Jews. And this despite the fact that he healed Gentiles, and hung out with sinners and tax collectors and prostitutes. And despite the fact that the first person to recognize him as the Messiah was a Samaritan woman. And despite the fact that the first people to bring him gifts were the Magi – more Gentiles. If we had looked at the previous chapter in this book, we would have seen Peter’s vision, which I would like to share with you. He saw heaven opened and something like a large sheet being let down to earth by its four corners. It contained all kinds of four-footed animals, as well as reptiles of the earth and birds of the air. Then a voice told him: “Get up, Peter. Kill and eat.” “Surely not, Lord,” Peter replied. “I have never eaten anything impure or unclean.” The voice spoke to him a second time. “Do not call anything impure that God has made clean.”
For a long time, this was thought to refer to the removal of dietary restrictions, and that may well be one of the messages. However, a more important message is that the Good News is for everyone, and this is a hugely liberating message for all kinds of reasons. Peter is himself liberated from his belief that Gentiles needed to follow the rules of Judaism in order to follow Jesus. Gentile believers are liberated from the dietary rules as well as – for the men, at least – an uncomfortable surgical procedure. Peter also realized, as the followers just realized, as we also should realize, that God pours out the Spirit on whomever he chooses. He ignores what we think; he doesn’t care whom we believe to be suitable. And we are called to trust him, and to love all of those who are called, no matter what we think of them. After all, that’s what he did to us. Thanks be to God.

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