RCL Year B
The Fifth Sunday of Easter
1 John 4:7-21
It is Enough
It’s interesting. The majority of Gospel and Epistle lessons during the Easter Season this year are about love. We get the idea, if we don’t already know, that the one teaching John found to be essential, the one that grounds and encircles and contains all Jesus’ actions and interactions and teachings, is love.
And it’s a special kind of love. The New Testament as we have it was first written and translated into Greek, the international language of the day. In Greek there are four words for love, and each one describes a different kind of love. You know this; it’s nothing new. In English we have only one word for the four kinds of love
Eros is the word that signifies falling in love. The word “erotic” comes from the same root. But in its fullest form eros can be also a platonic love, a love that searches for and finds the truth in another. This is the love of deep and committed relationships.
Philia is “brotherly love,” or today we’d say neighborly love. The love of one human being for one another. A platonic love. The love of friendship. Philadelphia is the city of “brotherly love.”
Storge is the love within the family, a natural love. The love that usually comes automatically between parent and child.
The fourth word is agape, and this is the love John uses, the love Jesus showed for all people and the love he calls us to share. This love is nonjudgmental. It is unconditional. God loves every human being without condition, and we are to strive to love one another without condition. This is the love that seeks not to agree but to understand, to accept in another that which can be vastly different from oneself. It’s the hardest kind of love, sometimes. This love is the love that forgives and desires the best for the other. This love sets aside personal interest in the interest of another.
Agape is the love we’ve been reading about all these weeks in the Easter Season. It’s really the foundation of our being as followers of Jesus. Unless we know this love as our calling, we do not know God. John tells us that.
That’s pretty harsh. Pretty unforgiving, it would seem. But we must remember that Jesus’ hope for us is that we will know him and know God and in that knowing have life that is abundant and everlasting. So it’s for our well being that he sets this almost impossible goal for us.
It’s not every day that I see either unconditional love or its opposite, closed minded, selfish judgment. But the past two weeks I’ve heard a lot of words that signify judgment. And these words have come from people who wear the cross proudly, boldly. They define their identity, as we do, in following Jesus. But they qualify the love we are called to give. There are all sorts of conditions; they can be conditions of gender, race, sexual identity, even faith. Some of the conditions are so deeply rooted that their owner would deny they exist. The person can even live and move without realizing conditions are governing their relationships. The conditions that we can lump into a general category of prejudice or judgment keep us from knowing the deep, difficult meaning of the love we’re called to give, and in that unknowing we, according to the words John puts in Jesus’ mouth, don’t know God. There’s a deep chasm between the love that led Jesus to the cross and a common understanding of salvation.
And as I say this I know I am judging. I also know that however far I can reach to give agape to all people, I will fall short and must rely on Jesus’ promise of forgiveness.
So it’s essential that we explore those things that might separate us from other people. We have to understand where we will be challenged, we have to name those places and pray for the grace to meet their challenges and become the people God made us to be. This can be hard. But nothing worth having has ever been easy to come by, and salvation is no exception.
The news the past two years has been saturated with stories from Florida, Missouri, New York, and most recently, Baltimore. We go through life taking peace in our city for granted. We think we have no problems and have no cause to fear. Then a black man dies at the hand of a white policeman. We’re horrified and ashamed. We’re outraged. And when riots break out we realize that a similar sin may be marinating just below the surface in our own city.
We know enough history to see that our racial situation today in this country is the logical and predictable result of slavery. The oppression and the following years of disregard and prejudice that followed are the nourishment for racism. We see that pointing the finger at slave owners of a century and a half ago or at the descendants of slaves is only avoiding the truth of our predicament. We are not slave holders. And yet, we perpetuate a system that intentionally subjugates people who are disadvantaged to those who have the advantages of education, money, position and power. There’s no denying it.
But to admit that we’re all complicit, as painful and as shameful as it is, is essential and a good beginning. It’s truth telling. It’s the light that can awaken us to our responsibility to change the oppressive systems of our day. What can we do? Can we dare to look below the surface of our peaceful communities and see what lies beneath? How do we do that?
I don’t know. What I do know is that when we desire to do right, God opens ways for us.
I’m trying to get an appointment with our mayor to ask her what we can do as a community to get ahead of this here and to improve the lives of all people in our community. Maybe she’s already doing something; maybe not. Will conversations between races help? I do put a lot of faith in conversation and real listening.
It’s scary to think there’s tension between the people who protect us and the people who are to be protected. It’s scary to know that the horrors that have come to light in other communities cannot possibly be contained only in those places. North, south, east, west, our country has some serious business to attend to. Will we leave it for our children? Can we see the way to provide for our children a better community? Can we believe and deeply desire that one day our great land will be known for its compassion?
The love Jesus calls us to rise into, agape, is a love that lives with its eyes open and its heart ready to listen. It’s a love that strives not for the good of one person or one group of people but for the common good. For the good of all people of all colors, genders, races, creeds and sexual identities. This, and only this, is what it means to take the Gospel into all corners of the earth to all peoples. This, desiring and working for the common good, is the way we know God and enter into God’s work of reconciliation.
Am I scared? Yes, I’m scared of what’s brewing below our community’s surface. And yes, I’m scared, or maybe I should say intimidated, by what may lie ahead to uncover that brew. I guess Jesus knew following him wouldn’t lead us along a path of roses; he had to know that fear every day as he faced unjust powers and finally the cross.
And John had to know the steps of following Jesus could impart fear, for today we read, “There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear.” True love conquers fear. Our fear is of the powers of the world, the sin that’s here in our systems. We fear for our own well being. Let’s take a chance. Let’s trust that as we desire to grow in perfect love, as the love of God is perfected in us, that love will overcome our fear.
The story is told of the Apostle John that toward the end of his life he was so old and frail his disciples had to carry him around on a stretcher to the places where he taught. He could hardly talk; in fact, he repeated himself quite often. He was asked what is the way to salvation, and the story goes that day after day, minute after minute, he repeated, “Little children, love one another. It is enough.”
Translation: agape one another. Seek the common good. Strive for the good for all people. Forget yourselves. Love one another.
April 2nd of this year has to have been the most moving and memorable Maundy Thursday most, if not all of us, have experienced. Our Bishop had asked that we share a Eucharist and foot washing with the people of the Texas Avenue neighborhood. These are our friends. We know them from Hope House and from meeting on the street and from Sunday services. Most of them we know their name and they know ours. Most are homeless, some live in apartments or houses in the neighborhood. All live in extreme poverty. The day was cloudy and breezy, perfect for gathering in the parking lot in front of Hope House at Austen Place and Texas Avenue. Lois Mabery had bought 32 pairs of shoes and many more pairs of new white socks. St. George’s fabulous chefs had made lunch and were there to serve it. St. Luke’s van was on hand for medical assessment and treatment when needed. Two members of the Physical Therapy staff at LSU Medical School were there to help with any treatments. The Reverends Morgan McIntyre, Bill Bryant, Alston Johnson, Guido Verbeck, Jaime Flowers, Frank Hughes, David Greer and Mary Richard – and of course, Bishop Jake Owensby – and many volunteers were present to wash and be washed and to share Communion and fellowship. In all, around 100 people! Bishop Owensby celebrated the Eucharist, using the Common Cathedral liturgy. We told the story of Jesus’ last supper with his disciples and explained Jesus’ new command that we love one another and that we serve one another. We talked about how he modeled this, by washing the feet of his friends. We prayed together, shared the Body and Blood of Christ, and began the foot washing and treatment. And then we shared lunch. Many good conversations before and after the service strengthened the bonds. All of us left with a deeper understanding of Jesus’ command to us and the depth of that evening that begins the Triuum in our church.
RCL Year B The Second Sunday of Easter
Acts 4:32-35 Psalm 133
1 John 1:1-2:2
Receive the Holy Spirit
“…he breathed on them and said to them, ‘Receive the Holy Spirit.’” This is John’s story of the coming of the Holy Spirit. When we read John we have to put aside any expectation that he tells the story exactly like it happened. John wrote his gospel when he was an old man, maybe near;y 100 years old. He’d been the leader of a community of believers on the Isle of Patmos for years and years. He’d had not only the time but the practice to tell the stories of the Gospel over and over and over and over. We all have family stories, don’t we? Stories that we hear and repeat many, many times, year after year, whenever the family gathers. The stories become known by two, maybe three generations. Sometimes the person telling the story never knew the people in the story. But the tale is so funny, or so profound, that it goes on and on. We laugh, we cry, we share the stories, and we come to know the people in them. And as each person tells it, as even the same person tells it over and over, subtle changes come about in a story. Elaborations, stretching details, shifting scenes and orders. The storyteller is on stage; he can become a ham. She’s a teacher; she stresses and repeats to make her point. The thing is, all the stories are edited, either consciously or unconsciously. Each storyteller makes the story her own. It’s the same with any story that’s passed on orally. And it was no different with the gospel stories. As John practiced and aged, he honed his theology. What began as a succession of details, perhaps as a wonder with little understanding, evolved into theology. John lived to be very old. He had long years to overlay his stories with theology. And by the time he wrote them down he might have believed his calling to be to pass on his theology, not only to tell the story. Jesus had told his disciples to wait in Jerusalem, not to go out teaching and preaching and healing, until they had received the Holy Spirit. We know it was the Spirit that propelled them into the mission fields. The Holy Spirit was the one responsible for the birth of the Church and the spreading of the Gospel. So her coming is of momentous occasion. According to the gospels, stated or implicit, spreading the Gospel depended on the coming and receiving of the Holy Spirit. So her coming is a critical turning point in the story of God’s revelation. You’d think there would be one time, one place, one way the Spirit came upon Jesus’ followers. An account beyond disputing. An event so tremendous there’d be no question of the details. But there are two stories. John tells the story the way we read it today. Jesus surprised his scared, trembling disciples, hiding from the people responsible for Jesus’ crucifixion. He appears to them in a locked room and gives them the greeting of peace. Peace be with you. And to send them out, he breathed on them and said, “Receive the Holy Spirit.” And gave them the power they needed to go out. It’s a quiet story. The disciples rejoiced to see Jesus, but I don’t get the sense that the room was full of toasts and partying. It’s quiet. Breath. The breath of God. We’re reminded of the story of God breathing life into Adam in the time of Creation. The breath of God. Life. New life. It’s a quiet story, but it’s a story filled with power. In the evening of that first Day of Resurrection. But there is another version, and it couldn’t be more different from this one. Luke tells us the Spirit came much later, fifty days after the Passover. We celebrate that version on the Day of Pentecost, fifty days after Easter Day. You know the story. The Spirit came into the upper room where the disciples were gathered, waiting. That much is the same as John’s version, except that it seems to have been daytime, not evening. In Luke’s story she was not a quiet lady but a noisy invader. A sound like the rush of a violent wind. Divided tongues, as of fire. Each person speaking in a foreign tongue, as the Spirit gave them ability. Not the quiet, peaceful evening of John’s story. So which is the real one? I’m not sure it matters so much. The Spirit comes in many ways. Both stories hold us spellbound, as the invasion of the Holy Spirit should. The point is that Jesus promised the Holy Spirit would come, and she did. She came, and she gave power that turned a cowardly, denying, scared, confused group of people into the tiny band who would disperse and tell without fear the story of salvation Imagine. Before the coming of the Holy Spirit these people, we sense, huddled together for safety. They hid, they laid low, they kept quiet, they didn’t venture far from home, and then under cover of darkness or hidden in a crowd. And either by a breath or by wind and fire they turned into fearless missionaries, on fire with the good news that all people are loved and treasured by God. That there is healing in God’s love. Healing of the wounds of divisions and fears. Luke records that 3000 – 5000 – people came to believe at any one time. These are the people who would turn away from lifelong teachings that women are inferior and to be mastered, that people outside the faith of Israel were impure, that God’s love depended on their following rules. These are the ones who would give positions of import in the church to women; the ones who would come to understand that food and practices do not make a person impure; the ones who would eventually take the Gospel to people outside Judaism because they came to understand that God’s saving love is available to everyone. These were in their time earth shattering decisions. And they came at the hand of the Holy Spirit. Last week a tragic story was told. Another in a string of stories of white policemen killing black men. Stories of such sadness we can hardly think about them for long. It must be clear that something is dreadfully wrong in our beautiful country. How did we come to this place? Well, we don’t need to retrace every tragic detail of slavery and freedom that brought only a different kind of chains. A legacy of prejudice and inequality that makes our stomachs turn over. A legacy of racism that turns some good men into knee jerk killers and other good men into murder victims. And those who live either by prejudice or by fear of prejudice walk in a living state of sorrow or hatred. And we are at a loss as to how to change things. But I just don’t believe God made a world where there are no solutions, no answers. The critical thing is that we ask the questions: How did we come to this? How can we seek to change? How are we complicit in the sin of racism that pervades our society? Where is it? Where have we not seen and named it? If the Holy Spirit can guide the disciples as she did in just the few years left to them before all but John died martyrs, the Holy Spirit can lead us into change. We have only to ask the questions. To give up our fears. To put ourselves in the hands of the Spirit. The Holy Spirit comes to each of us as we will best receive her. Quietly. Sometimes so quietly it’s only looking back that we see her and recognize her whisper. Or in a sudden rush of revelation so distinct, so earth shattering it can’t be mistaken. Sometimes that’s what it takes. But however she comes, the Spirit will bring power that’s beyond our imagining. I bet the disciples never imagined they would move out of that room of fear. They probably couldn’t even anticipate the coming day, so great was their terror. And a mere whisper – or maybe a fearsome wind with fire – swept them up and took them on a journey that would change the world. That Spirit is no less powerful today. We have to ask the hard questions, and we have to open ourselves to receive her. “Receive the Holy Spirit.”
RCL Year B
Psalm 118:1-2, 14-24
The Real Story
Alleluia! Christ is risen!
What’s the real story of the empty tomb on the Third Day?
Matthew, Mark, Luke and John offer us the accounts that had been handed down to them and that they researched using the records they had. The four Gospel stories are similar, but their details vary.
Mark’s Gospel is thought to be the earliest account written, the shortest one, and his wasn’t penned until some 35 or 40 years after Jesus’ death and resurrection. Later, Matthew and Luke told longer versions and embellished them. John, much later, added his own theology to what he knew of Jesus’ life. And that was probably 60 years, at least, after the fact. We see how, with very few written documents, details and projections were added with each oral telling. And so we look for the Truth, and we don’t worry so much about the discrepancies in the details.
The Gospel lesson we read today was written by Mark. By the way, scholars suggest that Mark is the young man who fled the Garden of Gethsemane on that fateful night of Jesus’ arrest, wearing only a towel that was snatched away. Mark, along with the others, knew what it was to deny Jesus. He is also known to have been Peter’s scribe after the Resurrection, writing down Peter’s words as he spoke them. So his accounts, the briefest and those containing the fewest theological overtones, are the most straightforward of the four Gospels. His stories of Jesus must have come right from Peter as he taught and Mark recorded.
What does this most simple, and perhaps most accurate account of the Resurrection teach us? First, of course, Jesus is not dead. He has been raised! His followers will meet him again in Galilee, just as he had promised. Death has not had the last word; God has.
We know that all Jesus’ disciples deserted him when the danger came too near. All except the women, who stayed at the cross until he died. If John is “the disciple whom Jesus loved,” he stayed there too. But when they came to the tomb that morning the women, even the women, found the place of fear that was too much for them. And I have to say that finding a tomb empty where I knew there to have been a body, hearing the words of Resurrection from a young man who may have been an angel, feeling all of life and nature turned upside down, could be a genuine place of denial for me. Mark tells us that at first there was not joy but that they were “alarmed,” that “terror and amazement” seized them, that they were afraid. Too afraid to stay at the tomb; too afraid to say anything to anyone. They ran away.
The place of denial. Each of us has one, somewhere, maybe more than one. It’s good for us to question ourselves about these, to name them.
The pressures of our culture are great. If we lived in the first century we might not find it so hard to give our possessions to the community of believers; to hold everything in common, not to accumulate a lot of stuff we don’t need. That’s what all the “followers of the Way” did. But it’s next to impossible today to come to do that, although there are a very few communities where this is done.
We say we live in a “Christian society,” or in a time when Christianity is the predominant faith and way of life. But we know that “Christian values” have been misconstrued to support personal fears. We see that not only is there gross discrimination among races and people of various gender orientations, and even in the growing chasms between the wealthy and the poor, but prejudice still drives those who are in the places where our laws are made. When you get to the bottom of it, it’s fear. It’s a place where people find their place of denial, their departure from the Good News of Jesus’ Resurrection.
Bigoted jokes, prejudicial hiring practices, discrepancy in educational opportunities and wages, the reality of poverty and homelessness in our time, war, capital punishment – these and other sorrows in our world are things we all agree are wrong and should be addressed and changed. Yet, it’s safer to remain silent, with heads turned away. These are the places where some find that they will run away, as the disciples did and as the women did, finally. From the danger at Gethsemane and at the cross, and even from the unknown they found at the empty tomb, the Resurrection.
God spoke God’s final word that morning: Death, sin, injustice did not that day nor in any time have the list word. They all work against God’s good Creation. The reason for Jesus’ life and death and resurrection is that we are made in the image of God. God has acted. We have no reason to fear.
But the reality of the resurrection, whatever the details are, means that we are called to live into it. God draws us in to God’s purpose: to bring an end to injustice and to make the values we know to be Christian values the ones that will change our society and the world for good.
Yes, we live in a time and a place when Christianity is accepted and honored. But that may be because we aren’t causing enough waves on the sea of status quo in our time and place. As Jesus shows us, following his way, embracing all the implications of loving one another as he loved us, is not a way to be chosen lightly. If we’re on the right path, it’s full of bumps and turns, rejection and ridicule and possible death. If we don’t see this, we fool ourselves. If we don’t see the place where we, too, might flee from the tomb in alarm and terror and fear, we strike out unarmed.
Mark sees all the people of the story as they are: human and beloved of God. The resounding message of Mark’s Gospel is this: God’s action, God’s promise to redeem our sinfulness, does not depend on our acting perfectly. It never, never did. In the end, even in our daily lives, we find our places of denial. And in those places we find not death but life. Not blame and guilt but God acting to transform it all into life for God’s good purpose. The verdict is clear: The worst that human beings could do, one to another, even to God’s Son, God redeems.
All our joys and all our sorrows, all our losses and failings, our hopes and our fears – even death, the shroud that is cast over all people – are in God’s hands. God’s promise of salvation to Israel, and God’s promise to us, always rests on God’s faithfulness. On God’s action. And that never fails. Hell today is vanquished! Heaven is won today!
Whatever the details of that morning 2000 years ago, God raised Jesus from death. God raises us from despair and failure, fear, pain and death. That’s Easter’s promise. The stories of Easter Day are told to reassure us and to inspire us to reach for the heights. To go out from the empty tomb not in fear of what we’ll encounter but in confidence that with God, we can be more than we can be alone. To proclaim with joy and conviction what God has done for us and for all people. To meet Jesus where he promised to be: on the streets, in our neighbors, in one another.
Alleluia! Christ is risen!