SIXTH SUNDAY OF EASTER
PRAYER OF THE DAY: O God, you have prepared for those who love you joys beyond understanding. Pour into our hearts such love for you that, loving you above all things, we may obtain your promises, which exceed all we can desire; through Jesus Christ, your Son and our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever.
Professor Stanley Hauerwas somewhere says that the object of a society’s worship is revealed by that for which its citizens are willing to kill and die. States of all stripes demand ultimate loyalty from their citizens, calling upon them both to kill and to die for the greater good of the nation. The United States is no different in that respect. It is expected that we will be willing to give our lives or the lives of our children if necessary to defend our country. On national holidays, particularly Memorial Day, we honor those who have made the “ultimate sacrifice” for the preservation of our nation, our freedoms, our way of life. Even when the public begins to doubt the necessity of some particular war, we nevertheless honor those who died fighting it. Something noble there is about dying in combat for the well-being of the nation that commands unusual respect.
Unusual, I say, because there are plenty of sacrifices for the common good (as we understand it) made by those who never see combat. Workers are not infrequently killed or injured in the course of constructing the roads, bridges and tunnels we drive on. It is hard to imagine our nation functioning without passable thoroughfares, yet we do not decorate people whose lives are spent in building and maintaining them. There is no holiday memorializing them nor is there a separate association, like the VA, that cares for their medical needs and those of their families. Neither do we recognize the roughly 30,000 people killed in traffic accidents to accommodate our preference for personal vehicular travel or the 10,000 who die each year for our insistence on the right to bear arms. Without thinking much about it, we deem these lives worth sacrificing to maintain the way of life to which we have grown accustomed. So, too, we in the so called “developed world,” whether we acknowledge it or not, enjoy a life of relative abundance through maintenance of a global economic system that is crushing the bottom third of the world’s population and strangling the planet we share with them. The life we enjoy is paid for with suffering and sacrifice that is hard for us to imagine and about which we would prefer not to think.
Jesus sacrificed his life as well, but not for any nation. He did not give his life to preserve the status quo. His sacrifice was made in loyalty to the gentle reign of his heavenly Father. Jesus died for an alternative way of being human and living together that he modeled throughout his life with his disciples. Like the leaders of other kingdoms, Jesus unapologetically invites his disciples to make the ultimate sacrifice for him. He calls his disciples to share in his suffering and death. A world united and held together by the same Trinitarian love that binds the Father to the Son is well worth living for and, when required, dying for. Disciples are called now more than ever before to renounce the false gods of nationalism, wealth and consumerism that cry out for the blood sacrifice of the innocent. They are called instead to lay down their lives with the victims of these idols. They are challenged to expose the false promises of wealth and prosperity gained through exploitation and point to the new, life giving existence offered through abiding in Jesus.
I should also add that the chief difference between the kingdom Jesus proclaims and all other kingdoms is this: Jesus will not have his disciples kill. While the kingdom is worth dying for, nothing justifies killing. At the end of the day, Jesus chose death over killing. The kingdom cannot be established through violence and it needs no violence to defend it. It sometimes requires the witness of martyrdom, but never the sword in its defense.
This passage is part and parcel of a larger narrative beginning with Peter’s vision in which the Lord speaks to him and commands him to slaughter and eat a host of animals deemed ritually unclean in the Hebrew Scriptures. See Acts 10:1-16. The meaning of this strange vision is not revealed to Peter until he finds himself in the midst of a gentile family, that of the Roman Centurion, Cornelius. There he witnesses the Spirit of God filling them all with faith and inspiring them to confess Jesus as Lord.
The story as a whole reflects the inner struggle of a deeply Jewish church with the positive response of gentiles to the good news about Jesus. Most Jewish disciples, like Peter, harbored serious reservations about receiving gentiles into the church. How could these outsiders possibly have an informed and sincere faith in the Jewish messiah when they knew next to nothing about the Jewish scriptures and practices? What would be the consequences of an influx of these new comers? What conditions, if any, should be placed upon admission of a gentile believer? Must he be circumcised? Should he be required to learn the Hebrew Scriptures? Peter was on solid scriptural grounds with his scruples about eating ritually unclean food and sharing meal fellowship with non-Jews. Jewish believers under the Greek tyrant, Antiochus Epiphanes chose to endure torture and to die horrible deaths rather than eat food deemed unclean as demanded of them. I Maccabees 1:62-64. How could Peter go into the home of a Roman oppressor of Israel and eat unclean food at his unclean table? Would this not dishonor the memory of the brave martyrs under Antiochus?
Peter’s scruples are resolved by an act of God filling his gentile hosts with the Holy Spirit enabling them speak in tongues. Vss. 44-46. His seemingly rhetorical question echoes that of the Ethiopian eunuch in or lesson from last Sunday: “Can anyone withhold the water for baptizing these people who have received the Holy Spirit just as we have?” Vs. 47; cf. Acts 8:36. A couple of things are noteworthy here. In the first place, the filling of the Holy Spirit precedes rather than follows baptism. Our theology of baptism has it quite the other way around-and rightly so. Baptism is given as God’s pledge that God’s Spirit dwells within us-even when there are no outward manifestations or inward feelings to substantiate it. As such, it is a great source of comfort. Nevertheless, God does not need baptism to impart God’s Spirit. We need baptism to remind us that God’s Holy Spirit dwells within us. Thus, baptism was quite properly administered to these newly Spirit filled believers to serve as God’s witness and vow that the Spirit they had just received would never leave them.
Second, this outpouring of God’s Spirit upon outsiders follows the trajectory established in the first chapter of Acts where the ascending Jesus commissioned the disciples to be his witnesses “in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.” Acts 1:8. The church, however, seems reluctant to take the good news of Jesus so far so fast. I am sure that the leaders back at synod headquarters would have preferred to conduct a lengthy study into the theological basis for mission to the gentiles followed by a mission viability survey and vote at some subsequent synod assembly. But the Spirit will have none of that. The Spirit continues to push, prod and needle the church into action. Throughout the Book of Acts it seems the church is forever racing frantically to catch up with the Holy Spirit. Then as now, disciples of Jesus are frequently dragged kicking and screaming into God’s future. We are not in charge of the church’s mission-and a good thing that is!
This is a psalm of praise celebrating a great victory won for Israel by God’s might. This victory might refer to the Exodus, the Return from Babylon or some other great act of salvation experienced in Israel’s history. Rogerson and McKay are probably right in saying that we cannot determine with certainty which of these events is intended, if any of them. Rogerson, J.W. and McKay, J.W., Psalms 51-100, The Cambridge Bible Commentary (c. 1977 Cambridge University Press) p. 226. Saint Augustine says of this opening verse to the psalm: “When the whole earth is enjoined to sing a new song, it is meant, that peace singeth a new song.” Augustine, Expositions on the Book of Psalms, A Select Library of the Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers of the Christian Church, Vol.3 (reprinted 1979, edited by Philip Schaff, D.D., LL.D., pub. by WM. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co.) p. 480.
“Newness” (as in “Sing a new song” vs. 1) is a recurring theme in the prophets, particularly in Second Isaiah (Isaiah 40-55): “Remember not the former things; behold, I do a new thing…” Isaiah 43:18. So also in the New Testament: “If anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation.” II Corinthians 5:17; “Behold, I make all things new.” Revelation 21:5. Notice also the refrain of “victory” or “yeshuath” throughout the psalm. Vss. 1-3. The word is actually from the root “yeshua” or “salvation,” root also of Joshua and, of course, Jesus. God’s victory or salvation is for the ends of the earth, not only for Israel. Vss. 4 and 9. Yet Israel is instrumental in proclaiming and making known that victory.
“His right hand and his holy arm have gotten him victory.” Vs. 2. This is a figurative reference to divine power which alone is responsible for Israel’s victories. Ibid. It is worth remembering that when we confess that Jesus ascended to the right hand of God, we are asserting that Jesus is that power through which God exercises God’s reign. The power of God is God’s patient suffering, refusal to resort to retaliation and determination to love us in the face or our stark rejection.
“[God] will judge the world with righteousness and the peoples with equity.” Vs. 9. As Professor Anderson points out, “[t]he verb ‘judge’ means much more than the English word suggests. It refers to the power to obtain and maintain justice and proper order-power which human rulers should have (“Give us a king to judge us,” I Sam. 8:6) but which, in the biblical view, is vested supremely and ultimately in God.” Anderson, Bernhard, W., Out of the Depths-The Psalms Speak for Us Today, (c.1983 by Bernhard W. Anderson, pub. by The Westminster Press) p. 179.
Saint John’s argument is maddeningly circular. First he tells us, “No one has ever seen God; if we love one another, God lives in us, and his love is perfected in us.” I John 4:12. This week he tells us, “By this we know that we love the children of God, when we love God and obey his commandments.” Vs. 2. It seems we cannot know and obey God without loving one another and we cannot love one another without loving and obeying God. It is similar to the impossible conundrum faced by so many college graduates: You need experience to get the job; but you also need the job to get experience. This is a lot like trying to shimmy up a greased pole!
Upon further reflection, though, I don’t believe it is a question of the starting point. We don’t necessarily find God in love for one another. A lot of what goes under the name of love is really lust, desire for control, need for self-affirmation and codependency. Most violent crimes occur within the context of domestic abuse. Much of what goes under the rubric of loving our children has more to do with living vicariously through them. Love of one’s own family, tribe or nation often has as its flip side distrust or outright hatred of outsiders. Love, as John points out, is not an abstract principle or mere sentiment. It is concretely exercised by God toward us in the sending of God’s Son. I John 4:10. Jesus is the shape love toward our sisters and brothers in Christ must take. Moreover, this community of love is sent into the word for which Jesus died, just as Jesus himself was sent. John 20:21-22. Thus, the relationship between believing in Jesus and loving your sisters and brothers is dialogical. Love becomes concrete or “incarnate” within the community of disciples, but is refined by the abiding presence of Jesus through whom repentance and forgiveness is freely offered.
The difficulty in preaching this text and that of the gospel which follows lies in the word “love,” a vacuous word in our language. How much meaning can any word have when I can use it interchangeably to describe both my feelings for my wife as well as my fondness for rum raison ice cream? Saint John, as I have said, anchors love in God’s sending of the Son and the Son’s sending of his disciples. This countercultural love transcends and supersedes all other social, familial and nationalist loyalties grounding itself in the One who was sent for the life of the world. In so doing, it undermines all systems of domination, whether tribal, patriarchal or nationalistic. Faith in Jesus thereby “overcomes the world.” Vss. 4-5.
The gospel reading builds on the lesson from the First Letter of John. “As the Father has loved me, so I have loved you; abide in my love.” Vs. 9. Love is grounded in the Trinity. The love binding the community of faith together is not based on common interests, family ties or cultural heritage. It is the love that is the unity of the Trinity. God’s love for the Son is bound up with the sending of the Son, the beloved. So deeply did God love the world. John 3:16. The disciples are now invited to abide in that same Trinitarian love.
It is the nature of Trinitarian love that it “goes out” from itself. As the hymn has it, “The universe of space and time did not arise by chance, but as the Three, in love and hope, made room within their dance.” “Come Join the Dance of Trinity,” Lutheran Worship,(c. 2006 by the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, pub. by Augsburg Fortress) Hymn # 412. Just as love made room for the universe of space and time, so the sending of the Son makes space within the universe for that same pulsating Triune love. Love is not merely a human emotion or a humanly discerned philosophical/moral concept. It is the defining characteristic of the Holy Trinity pre-existing time itself. The same cannot be said of hatred, prejudice, jealousy, greed or any other vice. In fact, it cannot really be said of any other virtue either.
Trinitarian love is not hierarchical. Though I am hardly a student of doctrinal history, it seems to me that most, if not all, the heretical understandings of the Trinity rejected by the church have at least one thing in common: they created a hierarchy within the Trinity. It is surprising to me that a church that had become so rigidly hierarchical and so thoroughly patriarchal nevertheless rejected so many doctrinal models of the Triune God that subordinated the Son and/or Spirit to the Father in some way. Given the influence of the Empire over the Trinitarian disputes, this outcome is all the more remarkable. Perhaps we must simply attribute the church’s insistence on the unity and coequality within the Trinity to the working of the Holy Spirit in spite of rather than because of the church! Jesus makes clear that his relationship to his church is not a master/slave arrangement. It is through friendship that Jesus exercises his lordship over his disciples and will one day exercise it over all creation. To use Paul’s language, we are God’s ambassadors of reconciliation extending friendship with God to the world. II Corinthians 5:20. This is the “fruit that will last” about which John speaks. Vs. 16.
“…so that the Father will give you whatever you ask him in my name.” vs. 16. Taken out of context, this promise is problematic. God does not give us everything for which we ask-nor should he. Half the time we don’t have any idea about what we really want. Seldom do we have the sense or courage to ask for what we need. If God were to start writing blank checks in response to prayer, I suspect we would very soon find ourselves living in a post-apocalyptic landscape. Nothing is more dangerous to us than our desires. It is therefore critical to read this promise in light of Jesus’ commission to “bear fruit that lasts.” Jesus assures his disciples that God will give them all they need to bear faithful witness to the reconciling love of God in their midst and for the world.
Finally, Jesus’ admonition in verse 17 is worth raising up. “I am giving you these commands so that you may love one another.” Much of the time the church has gotten that directive backwards. Rather than putting the commandments in the service of love, we have made our love and acceptance of people contingent on compliance with the rules. While the commandments are to be observed and obeyed, obedience to any single commandment is shaped by the greatest commandment to love one another.