Sixth Sunday after Easter
Acts 17:22-31; 1 Peter 3:13-22; John 14:15-21
Since at least the middle of March, every sermon that I have preached has been colored by COVID-19. And when we are in a time of crisis its hard to think or talk about anything else. We are, quite simply, often trying to manage the crisis. We are, or at least I sometimes am, in a holding pattern, waiting for it to all be over.
But now, many states, if not most, are beginning to “reopen” in some shape, form, or fashion. As strange as it may seem, our “stay home, stay safe” model, which will continue to necessary for many folks, has, perhaps, held back the fear a little, which is now about to be sorely tested for a lot of people. And, as I read and reread today’s Gospel from John 14, a portion of what is often called The Great Discourse, as Jesus prepared His disciples for their time of moving out into the world, I could not help but feel a kindred spirit with them. They are confused, not sure what Jesus is saying or about to do, and they are afraid but it is nothing compared to what is about to come.
Jesus is giving His disciples a glimpse into who He is calling them to be, even as He is about to be crucified: ambassadors of love for each other and for the confused, angry, hopeless, and lost band of people they will minister to out in an uncertain world. Doesn’t that apply to us, too, as people who are called to be disciples of Jesus? Are we not called to radical love and hope, even as we are being sent out into the world, masked, socially distanced, doing the best we can but staying true to Christ’s promise – nay His command – to love as He loves? Yes, is the reply, but how can we do that, if we don’t have Jesus with us, to guide us, to teach us? Well, the good news, brothers and sisters of our loving Jesus, we do have Him, still; the one who goes alongside us on this earthly journey, a journey that Jesus intends to be marked by His love.
So, Jesus continues His conversation with His disciples from last week by reiterating the same command to love. “If you love me you will keep my commandments,” Jesus says to them. He has given them a new commandment remember: to love one another as He has loved them; loves us? We all know, instinctively, that love is one of the most powerful forces in the universe. But we also know, instinctively, that human love can be one of the most devastating and destructive forces known to humanity? We can love blindly, foolishly, too lightly or we can withdraw love from children, partners, and friends when that love no longer suits us?
The love of God in Jesus Christ never fails: this is our first lesson on the love of God in Christ. As Paul famously declares in 1 Corinthians 13, love in Christ bears all things, hopes all things, endures all things and it never, ever comes to an end. The love of God, offered to us in Jesus, has no limits, no strings … If we love as Christ commands, then He will send us His indwelling Spirit to guide us, steel us for His work in the world, and enable us to be instruments of His love; that same, never-failing, all encompassing, and blessed love.
Still, you may be thinking, at this time of pandemic, I am not feeling the love right now, George, or I may not be feeling particularly lovable at the moment, either. I am more confused, frightened, and perhaps more annoyed than ever! So, this brings us to part 2, I suppose, in our lesson on the love of Christ, which answers the question: how do I love when I am afraid, uncertain, lonely and, yes, maybe angry at God or the world? Jesus addresses, in the Great Discourse today, the difficulties of doing anything, including loving, without the presence of Almighty God; without the presence of Jesus.
I am only speaking for myself now – but maybe it will resonate with you, too – I struggle to make sense of my life and love without God. I can no longer conceive or imagine the love that I have for my wife, my children, my friends, my church, or even my Lord without God in Christ drawing it from me. Jesus has been all, everything for His disciples for the last three years, by the time we meet them in today’s Gospel. He was their friend, teacher/rabbi, sustainer, healer, master…how will they make sense of the world or of love without Jesus in it. And Jesus, as always, understands, and provides them and us with an answer.
He tells them, as He does many times from Chapter 13-17 of John’s Gospel, that He will send an “Advocate,” to be with them and, by God’s grace, now with us. Jesus explains to them that He will not leave them, His presence will carry them forward, after He is no longer physically with them.
Parakletos, the Greek word usually associated with the Advocate, the Holy Spirit that Jesus speaks of and that I fully believe in, actually means “He who comes alongside.” He – the Holy Spirit, Christ’s Spirit, God’s Spirit – will come to them and be their new guide, teacher, sustainer and friend. “He who comes alongside” will open up the pathways to Christ’s love so that they will not be or feel “orphaned,” as John puts it. They shall not be abandoned; we shall not and are not abandoned either but rather lifted, strengthened, and made more prepared to love as Christ intends, as He commands, accompanied by the Spirit, the one who comes alongside us.
I was reminded this week, by an article in Growing Christians, of the extended plight in Sudan and South Sudan. Both countries, once one country, have been in protracted civil war that has waxed and waned over the decades. The late Marc Nikkel, an Episcopal priest, wrote of his experiences as a Christian missionary in South Sudan during the 80's, after the country had won its independence, in Why haven’t you left yet? Letters from the Sudan. The book was actually compiled letters which he originally wrote to friends back home, while he was in Sudan. He was once captured and held prisoner for three weeks by a paramilitary group vying for power.
He relates that Christians there, who were once less than 10% of the country, over decades, grew to around 85%. Christian villages were constantly being attacked, people killed, women raped, and many driven from their homes. Yet, somehow, in the midst of an ongoing crisis that lasted for years, uncertainty that is beyond anything we could imagine, yes far beyond COVID-19, their faith in God’s abiding and transforming presence remained and, impossible as it may seem, would grow. If you ever meet a Sudanese Christian, particularly one around my age, ask him or her about their sense of the Holy Spirit, Christ’s presence, God with us, even in unprecedented crisis.
We have a challenging yet blessed command from Christ Jesus, our Lord, the Crucified and Risen name of Love incarnate, to love each other. And Christ, in spite of our challenged and sometimes confusing lives, does not fail us; He abides and remains with us as He has promised. Yes, we are in a time of continued pandemic and even as we open, it is different; there are restrictions, mask wearing, social distancing, not able to hug or shake hands … there are financial hardship and loss that we should not, cannot minimize and far, far be it from me to do so. Yet … yes, and yet we are commanded to love and, thanks be to God, Christ does not fail to show us the way and to walk alongside us, all the while.