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Wednesday, May 09, 2012
Lectionary Scriptures: Acts 10:44-48, Psalm 98:1-9, I John 5:1-6, John 15:9-17

The Gospel and Epistle readings from John and I John continue to elaborate the meaning of God’s love and our love for one another.  Love has often been seen as the focus of Christianity, although it is not always observable in our attitudes and behavior.  If asked to reduce our faith to one word, many would choose the word, “Love.”

The readings of recent weeks have each brought a slightly different perspective to our understanding of love.  This week the epistle lesson adds the dimension of “command” in calling us to love.  “By this we know that we are children of God, when we love God and obey his commandments.  For the love of God is this, that we obey his commandments.”  (I John 5:2-3)   Our romantic notions of love make it seem almost contradictory to speak of love as something that can be commanded, but it’s there in the Gospel lesson as well.  “If you keep my commandments, you will abide in my love . . . This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you.”  (John 15:10 & 12)  Brian Bantum, writing on this text in the Christian Century, talks about coming to a realization “that obedience and love are connected.”  Sometimes love is doing what someone else wants and needs even if it is not something we would automatically and spontaneously and enthusiastically be inclined to do.  Brian Bantum goes on to say, “Perhaps love without obedience is not really love.  Perhaps this is what Jesus is confronting us with in his own life—that love is never love on its own terms.  Love is always tied to obedience because obedience is tied to hearing, recognizing and bending ourselves into the will and desires of the one before us.”  We do not set the terms of love.  The terms of love are to “see the other’s hopes, the other’s desires, the other’s possibilities, and live into them . . .”

In both the Gospel and Epistle lessons, however, I’m inclined to go to another level.  The Gospel lesson, I as Brian Bantum also notes, is about friendship.  Jesus defines his relationship with us not in terms of power and hierarchy but in terms of friendship.  “I do not call you servants any longer, because the servant does not know what the master is doing; but I have called you friends, because I have made known to you everything that I have heard from my Father.”  (John 15:15—see also vss. 13-14)  Love levels the playing field.  When we love one another we meet as equals in friendship.  Note that friendship means being vulnerable to one another, getting to truly “know” one another, sharing our what we know about surviving and thriving in life.  We are invited to make such friendship, extended to include those we are inclined to think of as enemies, the focus of our faith.

The Epistle reading ends with a focus on the Spirit as the basis of loving and knowing.  “ . . . the Spirit is the one that testifies, for the Spirit is the truth.”  (I John 5:6)   I acknowledge that there’s stuff in there about water and blood.  The writer is addressing debates going on in the early church about the nature of Jesus, his humanity and divinity, the relative importance of his baptism and his crucifixion, and a whole host of related issues.  Some may remember that John’s Gospel reports that, when Jesus side was pierced while on the cross, “at once blood and water came out.”  (John 19:34)

Many older manuscripts read that Jesus came “by water and blood and the Spirit.”  The writer here seems to be making it clear that the Spirit takes priority.  Debating about water and blood may be important, but finally it is the Spirit, the Spirit of truth, that matters.  Along with love, Spirit is presented as a “focus.” 

It’s there in the reading from Acts as well.  The story seems to about a “Pentecost” experience coming upon Gentiles.  It raises all the old questions about the nature of that phenomenon.  What does it mean, what does it look like, to speak in tongues?  As in the earlier story about Pentecost (which we’ll be celebrating in a couple of weeks) the focus seems primarily to be upon communication.  In Acts 2:6, we are told that “each one heard them speaking in the native language of each.”  In today’s reading, it is reason for inclusion.  If these Gentiles have received the Spirit then we’d better baptize them.

The sequence is important here.  It is the presence of the Spirit that is important, that is the focus.  The ritual of baptism is simply a confirmation.  It is empty and without meaning unless the Spirit is moving in the life of the one who is baptized, and in the community doing the baptizing, and in the relationships that are formed, breaking down old barriers.  Is it too big a stretch to find ourselves back talking about friendship?  This story is about communication and inclusion and relationship across lines that previously divided.  It is, I believe, about being friends who love one another beyond their race, their language, their station in life, etc.

Even the Psalm confirms that message, in its own way.  It is another great song of praise and thanksgiving and joy.  It ends with the reason for all this exuberance.  Psalm 98:9 identifies the Lord who is being praised and one who treats “the peoples with equity.”  Psalm 133:1 says, “How very good and pleasant it is when kindred live together in unity!”  Is that not a description of friendship at its best?  It is an occasion for singing and joy.  Even the writer of the Gospel According to John, has Jesus saying that his message about love is given “so that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be complete.”  (John 15:11)  One might even suspect that, on such occasions, the Spirit is moving among us.

Both Pastor Rick and I have been nourished by the words of Frederick Buechner.  As part of our daily discipline of reading together, Margie and I have been working our way through his 2006 collection, Secrets in the Dark: A Life in Sermons.  This week we have found ourselves in a sermon, The Word of Life, which interprets the epistle of I John.  Beuchner says he understands friendship here “not to mean that we are somehow to sweep our disagreements under the rug . . . He means we are to be friends at a deeper level than we are adversaries . . . That is the kind of friends he urges us to be—friends like the people we know whom we love even though there are times when we don’t seem to see eye to eye with them about much of anything.”  Buechner illustrates with “a celebration of love and commitment” they were invited to attend in Vermont, involving two women they had known for years, one of them a friend of their daughter since she was five years old.  I want to leave you this week with his commentary upon that occasion.

“How to describe such an occasion in Vermont of all places and in the presence of some people who looked right out of Norman Rockwell and others who looked as if they’d never heard of Norman Rockwell and would have looked down their noses at him if they had?  How to guess what they felt about what they were there to witness except that probably no two of them felt quite the same way?  But there was one feeling that I am as certain as you can be about such things that we all shared, and that was the feeling that something honest and loving and brave was happening before our eyes, and that something kind and affirming and hopeful was happening inside ourselves, and that grace, never more amazingly, was somehow in the very air we breathed.  In other words, for a few moments that summer afternoon, it seemed to me that we were what I believe the church was created to be . . . I wish the church could be as open-hearted and open-minded and free as it was on that little patch of front lawn as the clouds came out from behind the clouds.  I wish that we could affirm as truly as we did there that wherever people love each other and are true to each other and take risks for each other, God is with them and for them and they are doing God’s will.”

See what can happen if we focus!  And I believe it does happen many Sundays right here at Kairos-Milwaukie United Church of Christ, and in the ministries that reach out from this place.  Whoever you are and wherever you on life’s journey, you are welcome!

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Kairos-Milwaukie UCC Blog

Reflections on the Revised Common Lectionary by Rev. Rick Skidmore and Rev. Jim Ogden.

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