Fifth Sunday of Easter, Year C, 2019
Kevin Gore, St. Andrew’s Mountain Home
In our Gospel lesson this morning we flash back to the last supper. We are in Maundy Thursday again. Jesus has just instituted the eucharist and is giving his last command. His mandate. Jesus says this to his disciples: That they love one another just as he has loved them. So today I’m sure in many churches that follow the revised common lectionary, there are going to be a lot of sermons about how amazing love is, about how that’s all God wants of us, and about how hard it is to follow.
So how does one even write a sermon about love without sounding trite or like they are rehearsing the same old song? Love is something we know everything and nothing about. According the Beatles, “all you need is love”. According to the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr, Love is the only thing that can drive out hate. Saint Paul gives us an explanation of how love acts in his first letter to the church in Corinth.
When you know that someone is going to preach on love you might think, “Oh great where are they going with this? Is it going to be political? Is it going to be relevant at all to the bible? Maybe it’s going to be all about the Presiding Bishop’s Way of Love campaign. Maybe it’s just going to be some seemingly odd pointless rant about how we fail at love and end with the admonition to do better.”
But the thing about love is that we aren’t that good at it. I don’t think humanity has ever been great at it. Not as a whole. It’s not just now that we’re like this, even the Jewish tradition around creation has stories of failed love with Cain and Able. Humanity doesn’t, in general, seem to trend naturally towards care of the other first. That is one of the reasons why living out the Good News of Jesus Christ and the values of the Kingdom of God is so important.
This last Wednesday, May 15th, was one of the days on the calendar of Saints when someone slightly obscure to the Western Christian was celebrated. Saint Pachomius. He is one of the founders of ascetic monasticism and established communities alongside St. Anthony of Egypt. Pachomius is known especially for authoring many of the first monastic rules that are still used in the Eastern Orthodox Church today. The reason I bring this up is because of how Pachomius came to his Christian faith. He was born in Egypt around 292CE and raised in a non-Christian family. He was swept up in a recruitment by the Roman Army at the age of 21 and immediately taken to Thebes for training. Upon arriving, he encountered the local Christian community as they were on their normal daily routine of bringing food and comfort to the soldiers. This so impressed Pachomius that he vowed to learn more of Christianity once his time in the army was over. He was converted and baptized a year later.
Christian witness is what caught Pachomius’ attention, and what made him decide to learn more. The actions of Christians living into the command to love one another was the catalyst to bring someone to a faith they would later lead. Tertullian, a Theologian of North African birth in the Second Century CE, wrote about fellow Christians that surely the pagans would look at them and say, “See how they love one another, and how they are ready to die for each other.” I mean, it’s a little bit of writing your own review, but it does seem to be rooted in the best of the early Christian community. It wasn’t necessarily more perfect then, or else Paul wouldn’t have needed to write all those letters to the churches.
That quote of Tertullian inspired a Roman Catholic priest in the 1960s to write a hymn for an ecumenical event, entitled ‘We are one in the Spirit.” The well-known refrain asserts, “And they’ll know we are Christians by our love.” I wonder though, what people know about us by our actions. Do they know we are Christians by our love? Or do they associate something else with our faith? Do they think we have something to offer them? Do they see the Good News of the Kingdom of God in how we live in this world?
Our lessons today offer different views of that love. For Peter, the followers of Jesus that he returns to in Jerusalem are aghast that he would socialize and eat with the wrong crowd. These are not Jews, they are not Godly people, and yet Peter shared the message with them, ate with them, and they committed themselves to the Kingdom of God. So, not to sound too flippant about it but, “where’s the love?” in these early followers to think Peter has done wrong. He explains to them why he has done this. It’s about sharing Christ’s message with more than just a select group. It’s about reaching out to all humanity so that they may know the same Good News.
The beautiful poetry we get from the Book of Revelation tells us that heaven isn’t some place far off, up in the sky. The Kingdom of God isn’t somewhere we have to journey to. In this vision God brings the Kingdom here! “The home of God is among mortals. He will dwell with them and they will be his people.” God’s love for creation is evident in bringing the Kingdom to that creation and making all things new.
The irony in our Gospel lesson is that Jesus says, “By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.”; knowing that hours later some of these same disciples will run away or even deny being associated to escape arrest or death. Even the disciples, with Jesus, are going to miss the mark. So the lesson isn’t just do better.
The lesson is that we aren’t always going to do our best when it comes to this mandate. God’s love is the constant, and it’s what we should always be returning to when we can’t quite remember how to live it ourselves. God’s love for all of creation is our example, our target, and as long as we can acknowledge that this is always going to be a work in progress, that’s ok, as long as it stays in progress. It’s not that the Beatles are wrong, when they say, “all you need is love”, it’s just that it’s hard for us to stay in that space. Do be mindful that what others see in you is what they might decide all Christians are like. But the best we can do is to be that work in progress, and if we are willing to at least try, we may find it to be easier than we ever imagined.