Benediction Online

Sunday, May 10, 2015

Becoming a People of Joy

1 John 5:1-6

The gospel this week continues where we left off last week. Again we are listening in to Jesus’ last conversation with his disciples. This is the great summing up of his teaching and, not surprisingly, it rotates around loving and abiding in Christ.  

Most often when we hear these words we apply them to ourselves as individuals. But Jesus was not talking to a bunch of individuals who happened to be in the same place. He was talking to his disciples at their last supper together. These are people who have walked, eaten, slept, sweated and argued together for most of the past three years. These are men who know each other intimately. It may have been more than the twelve close disciples – John doesn’t tell us exactly who or how many were at that last meal together – but it was certainly the inner circle.

And Jesus is talking to them as a group. When he says “you” he’s actually saying “y’all”.
 It would have been as difficult for people in that culture to imagine themselves as totally discreet individuals with the ability to be completely self-directed as it is for us to think of ourselves as part of a group first and only as individuals second. But we are astonishingly interconnected. How we think affects not only ourselves but the people around us too. We may like to think of ourselves as rugged individuals but we are deeply molded by our community and we cannot easily bear to be isolated which is why solitary confinement is such a severe punishment. We really are not lone rangers.

So when Jesus says “If you keep my commandments, you will abide in my love, just as I have kept my Father's commandments and abide in his love,“ this is not just an individual thing but a community thing. We, Jesus’ modern day disciples, are called to keep Jesus’ commandments and abide in his love together. The word that is translated “keep” doesn’t mean obey; it means to attend to carefully, to guard or observe. So keeping Jesus’ commandments is not about obeying a list of rules but about cherishing and nurturing the way of life which we see in his teaching and in his example.
 We, as the community of his disciples, are called to imitate Jesus just as he imitated his Father. We are called to carefully attend to his example and to guard his way of living and thinking as precious. And as we do that, so we will abide in Jesus’ love. These two things, keeping his commandments and abiding in his love, go together.

Last night some of us enjoyed the amazing voices of the St Petersburg Quartet. About ten minutes into the program I was so deeply moved by the beauty of the music that I thought, “this is what it means to abide in God.” I often expect that it will feel good when we are abiding in God’s love but that is probably a significant mistake. If I was abiding in God’s love in that moment was I any the less abiding in God’s love as I carried out the coffee pot or as I talked with people during intermission? It’s quite common for people to tell me that they feel more of a connection with God in nature or in music rather than in church. As though what’s most important is feeling connected.

Jesus doesn’t say anything about feeling good or in the zone. He says “If y’all keep my commandments, y’all will abide in my love.” These two things are equivalent. Want to know if we’re abiding in God’s love? Check out how well we’re doing in keeping Jesus’ commandments. This may be one of those great Sunday mornings when you leave church feeling inspired and connected or it may be one of those so-so mornings when the person behind you keeps coughing and the sermon is dull and the music uninspiring. But that doesn’t affect whether or not God is present or whether we are abiding in him. What affects that is how we choose to think and to live.

As I have commented before the kind of love that Jesus is talking about is not sentimental. It’s not the love of a popular song or the love of a greeting card or even the love of passing the peace. Jesus is talking about a love which demands something from us. “This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you. No one has greater love than this, to lay down one's life for one's friends.” The word John uses for life is psyche which can mean breath of life but can also mean soul, the seat of affections and will, the self. So I don’t think that Jesus is talking so much about heroic dying to save someone else but about everyday loving; about living one’s life as if other people really matter. And not just other people, but the whole of God’s creation.

The feminine spiritual quality of nurturing and self-sacrificial love is often seen in those who provide mothering both those who are physically mothers and those who are spiritually mothers. Which is why Julian of Norwich, among others, calls Jesus our Mother. So Jesus our Mother calls us to nurture and cherish one another.

We live in a time when humans are busy defining how they are different from one another. Nations are splitting into tribes; people are identifying themselves in smaller and smaller units. Families are living further and further apart and social isolation is increasing. Fear leads us to be suspicious of those we don’t know and to build up our bonds with those we do by criticizing others.

To love other people in the self-giving way that Jesus demonstrates is deeply counter-cultural.
Abba Anthony, one of the ancient desert fathers and mothers of the fourth century used to teach, “Our life and our death are with our neighbor.” By which he mean that we do not come to God as isolated individuals. We come to God as a people. There are two great commandments – to love God with everything in us and to love our neighbor as if he or she is ourselves.

Every time we build connection with someone else, however small, we are contributing to the reign of God. Every time we strengthen the ties of neighborhood or community not by excluding or putting someone else down, but by building up, we are keeping Jesus’ commandments. We are fortunate to live in a place where people talk to each other. Where people make an effort to learn each other’s dog’s names and the checker at the grocery store remembers you from week to week. But we are called to do more. We are called to continually expand our capacity for loving; to continually expand our connections; to continually be the presence of God to each other and to our community.

And why should we do all this?

Jesus said, “I have said these things to you so that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be complete.” We lay down our life for our friends so that we may be filled with Jesus’ joy. Because it is the path of joy. The path of cherishing and upholding Jesus teaching and example, the path of loving God with all our hearts and laying down our lives for our friends. That is the true path of joy.

Let us be a people of joy!


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