May 9, 2021
Susan L. Davidson
St. Gabriel’s, Titusville
On the 21st of this month, my husband and I will celebrate our 52nd wedding anniversary. I mention this not to gain your appreciation, but to tell you also that on the day before our wedding, we graduated from the School of Sacred Music of Union Theological Seminary, and at the time of the 40th reunion of our class (in 2009) Union made available to each member of the class membership on “Facebook,” a then-new online method for connecting with old and new friends, near and far. I got to thinking about that as I contemplated Jesus and those whom he designated as his “friends.” While Jesus himself was and is a friend – and more – to all, he designated as his friends particularly those who followed his command to “abide in his love.”
“Abide” is a funny, out-of-fashion word, isn’t it? You may not recall, but we heard it seven times last Sunday. This week, it appears three more times in the Gospel lesson, and is intimately linked with another word which, in its Biblical meaning, is also a bit out of fashion today: the word “love.”
It seems to me that throughout his ministry, Jesus tried to convince his followers of the goodness and the presence of Love. Not the kinds of love that we usually mean today when we use that word; not about the kinds of meanings our culture attaches to it, everything from a vague sentimental attachment to Ben and Jerry’s ice cream, or a particular kind of automobile, or the color red, or to an emotional attachment to a particular person. What Jesus was talking about, I think, was Love in its purest form, love that is God, love for one another; the kind of love God meant when those Ten Commandments were first given to Moses on Mt. Sinai. The kind of love Jesus meant when he commanded his disciples to “love one another as I have loved you.” Love God and love your neighbor, the commandments say. Love with the kind of love that abides, that lasts through thick and thin, that perseveres, that gets inside you and never gives up, no matter what; the kind of love that isGod.
What I hear Jesus saying over and over again is that we who are baptized into his Body are called to live as the people who we are – not as people whom the marketing world would like us to be, self-centered and greedy for gain – but as people who know we are made in the image of God, in the image of Love. And I hear Jesus saying, over and over again, that God loves not only you and me, but also loves our neighbors. ALL of our neighbors: Jews and Muslims and Roman Catholics; Buddhists and fundamentalists of all varieties, and even atheists. Those who may not look like us, or speak a different language, or are more or less able-bodied or mentally agile than we are; who are younger or older, or who live a different lifestyle. All are created in the same image as we. Remember how the persecuted and fleeing-for-their-lives disciples, when they reached Antioch, did not exclude even the pagan Greeks as they preached the word. So once again, and especially in these tense, divisive times in which we live, each of us modern-day disciples is faced with that urgent question: what does it mean to love my neighbor? Does it mean I have to pray even for those I don’t like? Does it mean I really should pray “for our enemies and those who wish us harm?” In a word: Yes. Continue to pray not just for those people whom it’s easy to love, but also – and especially – for those whom it is NOT easy to love, because they, too, are human beings, created in the image of God. Pray that God will continue to work in them to turn their hearts and enable them to live into all that the Lord has prepared for them to be. By keeping them close in prayer, you will be loving God even if, at this moment, God alone is the only one able truly to find fondness for them.
“If you keep my commandments,” said Jesus, through the memory of John, “you will abide in my love.” There’s that word again: abide. Here he seems to mean that even we – sinners though we are – are able to abide in the love of Christ. The kind of love that lasts through thick and thin; that perseveres, that gets inside you and never gives up. Jesus makes it sound easy, but we all know it’s not. Harder yet, he makes obedience to his commandment a condition of that state of “abiding in love.”
Jesus then goes on to clarify – “This is my commandment,” he says, “that you love one another as I have loved you. Out of the original ten commandments, boiled down to two, comes one. “Love one another as I have loved you.” The record shows that the love Jesus has for us caused him to give up everything we hold dear – even life itself – for your good and for mine, turning out the pockets of his heart so that we might receive the treasure of his love. This is the same Jesus who earlier called himself the Good Shepherd, claiming, “I lay down my life for the sheep.” So it would seem that keeping his commandment has something to do with giving up those things we hold dear for ourselves as individuals – wealth, power, prestige, being “right” – all those things which the secular world teaches us are important – giving them up to serve the greater good of all.
In our hearts we know how powerful that sacrifice is. For instance: (1) at the end of this month, we will commemorate those who have given their very lives in order that the freedoms which we enjoy may be maintained. (2) In these pandemic times, we are all reminded of and humbled by how much of themselves health care workers and first responders have given. (3) Those who are married know how important it is for the individuals in that holy estate regularly to sacrifice their own personal preferences and prejudices for the good of the marriage. The life of the union which results from those individual offerings is far stronger than either would be alone. (4) Finally, especially on this Mother’s Day weekend, I am reminded of parents (not just mothers, but parents in general) who give up so much of their time, energy and material resources to help their children grow into responsible adults; they, also, intimately understand this term. The “sacrifice” which is offered in each of these cases is true to the meaning of that word: a holy offering. Like the offering we make at the altar of God, an offering of “ourselves, our souls and bodies, to be a reasonable, holy and living sacrifice” unto God (in the language of Rite I). That’s in direct opposition to what we are taught these days – to pay attention to and serve No 1 first.
Hard as it may be to believe, all that Jesus did on this earth – his life, his death, and his resurrection – he did for us and for our neighbors. Now, as Christians, we are baptized into all of his resurrection life, made members of his risen and living Body on this earth. The generous love of God that we see in the ministry of Christ, which is woven into our very souls at the moment of our Baptism, is constantly spun forth from us through the working of the Holy Spirit. To the extent with which we act in a manner consistent with the love of Christ abiding in us, the wider world may be able to see God at work. In the healing, reconciling love of God in Christ, the world may come to know, through us, the meaning of salvation – a world to whom the concept of sacrificial love is basically foreign. A world which lives to blame does not know the power of forgiveness. A world which seeks to separate and divide does not know the strength of unity. A world which insists on worth measured in monetary terms does not know the value of being a child of God and an inheritor of the Kingdom of Heaven. A world which chooses the exercise of might over compassion does not know the freedom established by justice and love.
As I understand it, the “love” that Jesus talked about is not that sort of gooey, sentimental feeling touted by the greeting card lobby. It’s rooted in the generosity of God, which we image when we give of ourselves for the good of someone else. It’s what ministry is all about. The sacrifice of time, or energy, or whatever makes it possible for someone else to see Christ in you – in other words, to see in you what God is like.
The bottom line is this: God loved the world so much, that God gave Jesus Christ for us. Gave up the power of staying on a throne way out there, somewhere, in order to come right here into our midst; to be born of an earthly mother; to take on this foolish, mortal flesh – flesh that can and does die – in order to live among us and show us what the love of God is like: Dying for us on the cross, and then doing the unthinkable – breaking the bonds of death and rising again to new life in order that we, too, might have new life, forever.
This Thursday, the Church celebrates the Feast of the Ascension, commemorating the event which lifted Jesus literally out of this world and returned him to his heavenly home, to prepare a place for us. We will hear again his admonition to his disciples to stay in the world and wait for the Holy Spirit of God – his own Spirit – to come upon them, to infuse and inspire them with the awesome love of God; bind them together and send them out to spread the Good News of that Love. Through the mystery of Baptism, we are the descendants of those first disciples. Through the mystery of Holy Communion, Christ brings us together at God’s Table to feast on his love and be strengthened, as his friends, to make our own day-to-day sacrifices. Through the mystery of these sacraments, God’s love abides in us. Let us make it visible, in the Name and for the sake of Jesus Christ.