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.