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!

Sunday, May 03, 2015

Consciously abiding

1 John 4:7-21John 15:1-8

Spiritual language is quite different from technical language. We can’t talk about a deep and ongoing connection with God in the same way that we might talk about how to change the toner cartridge in a printer. When we change a toner cartridge we need the manual to say very clearly what to do. We don’t want rich, heavily textured language which carries several shades of meaning. All we want to do is change the cartridge as quickly as possible.

Spiritual language is quite different. Our conscious connection with spirituality depends to a large extent on metaphor and symbol. The metaphors we use are enormously important because they carry layers and nuances of meaning which then influence how we think, how we connect with Spirit and how we behave. In this morning’s gospel Jesus uses the metaphor of the vine. Jesus was speaking with people very familiar with vines and vineyards so it had immediate resonance.

Like us, they understood that withered branches need to be cut off and in fact vines have to be regularly pruned in order to fruit more abundantly. But Jesus is not using technical language here. He is not giving them a lesson in viticulture. He is drawing on a long Biblical tradition in which the community of Israel was picture as vine and vineyard. He was taking a spiritual concept that they already resonated with and applying it to their new life in Christ.

How are we to understand this today?  If we are branches or we perhaps we collectively are a branch of the vine, what does it mean to be pruned? Jesus is talking about the process by which we are shaped, by which we mature in our faith. It has been called sanctification – being made holy. Pruning can be painful. It is very clear in Jesus’ teachings that when we are truly following him there will be times of difficulty and pain because we are called to give up our lives. We are called to let go of our egos’ grasping behavior and to offer ourselves and our bodies - that means every aspect of our physical and spiritual lives - to God as a living sacrifice.

To sacrifice often means to give up, but in ancient times the main purpose of making a sacrifice was to thank God and to be reconciled with God. So our living sacrifice is not a giving up but a giving to – giving ourselves to God in thanksgiving and uniting ourselves with Jesus’ sacrifice. But what was Jesus’ sacrifice? It was God’s self-giving – God herself being the sacrifice for the reconciliation between God and human. This turned the whole notion of sacrifice on its head.  Instead of food provided by humans and offered to God then eaten in a meal of reconciliation;  Jesus is food offered by God to symbolize reconciliation with humans.

When we gather for the Eucharistic meal together we are celebrating God’s gift, to us and participating in that sacrificial meal where we symbolically take God into ourselves, so that we may become a part of God. We become part of the vine which is Christ and then we abide in him as he does in us.

In using the metaphor of the vine, Jesus is talking about incredible mutuality with God. We touched on this last week when Jesus said “I know my own and my own know me, just as the Father knows me and I know the Father.” This is not just an informational knowing, this is a deep intimate knowing and today that goes even further – “abide in me as I abide in you”.
Isn’t this amazing! It’s mind blowing that we are called not just to be friends with Jesus the Christ, which would be a big deal in itself, but to intimately know and abide in him.

I found directions on the internet for grafting grapevines. That’s when you take a short piece of vine, which must have at least two buds, and attach it to a rooted vine in such a way that the two will grow together. The directions for grafting grapevines say “You will want to check that your rootstock is compatible with what you will be grafting.If a graft is not compatible with the rootstock it will simply wither and die.  In order to successfully abide in the vine we have to become similar to the vine and start to grow as if we had always been there. That is the process of sanctification; we are being made more and more like the one in whom we abide, in whom we live and move and have our being. But notice that this is not a passive situation. 

Jesus says, “Abide in me as I abide in you.” This means we have to do something. We have to actively abide. To abide is to continue, to remain or to dwell. How do we do that actively?
The sociologist Robert Wuthnow, commenting on the changes in American religion since the 1950s points out that we used to focus our spiritual life around the dwelling place of God signified by the local church or synagogue. But as society has become more and more mobile our central metaphor has changed from dwelling to seeking. Now we more often think of ourselves as spiritual seekers. This can easily lead to picking and choosing a bit of this and a bit of that without ever delving into the depths of the knowledge of God. So he suggests that spiritual practice is a helpful metaphor for the future. This has both the stability of dwelling and the activeness of seeking.

Our practice then as Christians is to abide in Christ. This is a choice which we will need to make again and again. As the reading from the first letter of John suggests, the way we do this is through love. Jesus gave us the two great commandments; “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength” and “Love your neighbor as yourself.” (Mark 12:30-31). This is not an easy love. This is a demanding love which means that we have to let go of our own lives, just as Jesus did. If we choose to abide in the vine of Christ then we can expect to be pruned and cultivated, nurtured and loved as we become more and more like him.

As we consciously practice abiding in Christ so Christ abides in us. And in that mutual abiding the two become alike. People who live together a long time start to think alike and do things alike and even to look alike. Some people even begin to look like their dogs!  How much better that we should start to look like Christ than like a Shih Tzu!

Practicing abiding in Christ means internally and intentionally turning to God and aligning ourselves with gospel values. It means noticing when we are judging our neighbor and praying for them instead. It means noticing when we are bad-tempered and irritable and turning instead to God’s love. It means noticing when we are worrying rather than trusting, when we are fearful instead of loving, and turning once again to the knowledge of God’s complete and total love for us. It means allowing God’s love to fill us and cast out fear and anger and judgmentalism. And it means expanding our capacity to love.

A vine feeds its branches with sap. We are fed with the life of the Holy Spirit who is the embodiment of love and we are asked to reveal that love in the world. To reveal in this sense does not mean to point to but to make real, to bring into being.  We are called to continually expand our ability to embody love until wherever we go and whatever we do and say we are so filled with divine love that those around us cannot help but find themselves connected with the unconditional and extravagant love of God. For to abide in the vine means to practice becoming more and more like the Christ-filled beings we were created to be. So let us practice abiding in Christ and revealing the love of God to the world.