Fifth Sunday of Easter – Year C
May 15, 2011 – 10:30 AM
Saint Cecilia Catholic Community
Rev. David Justin Lynch
Acts 14:21-27 | Psalm 145:8-13
Revelation 21:1-5a | John 13:31-33a;34-35
+In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
Many debates among Christians are over doctrines. The word “doctrine” means teaching. Among Christians, the word “doctrine” is used to describe sets of ideas that Christians hold concerning God, human nature, Jesus, the Holy Spirit, salvation, eschatology, also known as last things, the sacraments, and many other subjects. Supposedly, and I emphasize, supposedly, subscribing to a particular set of ideas and obeying a set of rules will get you into heaven if you die instead of going to hell.
This approach to Christianity is known as an “orthodoxy” approach. I am not using the word “orthodoxy” to refer to Eastern Christians but in a more general sense to describe a way of thinking based on the word itself, which means, “right belief.”
Some Christians exclude other Christians and other churches from their lives based on doctrinal disputes. But does this behavior benefit Christianity as a whole? Does arguing about doctrine grow the church? It does not. Arguing about doctrine is a most unloving behavior because it invariably leads to personal attacks and people leaving the church behind. What grows the church is Christians loving one another.
Today’s Second Reading refers to Jesus as one who “makes all things new.” In today’s Gospel, Jesus makes all things new with a new approach to God and our neighbors. It’s known as “orthopraxy,” or “right practice.” What this means is what counts with God is not what you say or think, but what you do. Orthopraxy is more likely to focus churches not on what might happen in the next world, but on what happens in this world.
The scene in today’s Gospel is Jesus and his disciples at the Last Supper. Supper had ended. Jesus then washed the feet of the disciples. Although not stated in the Gospel of John, we can surmise from the context of the Last Supper supplied by the synoptic Gospels that Jesus had just recited the words that instituted the Eucharist. And, Jesus had just dipped bread into a dish and given the bread to Judas and told him to do quickly what he had to do.
Jesus began what is known as his “Farewell Discourses,” the parting message Jesus gave to his disciples knowing fully that the next day he would go to the cross to die. Jesus commenced his final words to his disciples with, “Love one another, as I have loved you.”
What exactly did Jesus mean with that statement? Was Jesus telling the disciples to have an orgy? I don’t think so. While physical love between romantic partners is a good thing, that is not what Jesus meant in this context. As I’ve preached many times, context is everything when reading scripture. This particular Gospel reading demonstrates why ignoring the context of scripture and instead of taking literally the modern meaning of translated ancient words leads the Church down a disastrous path that does not lead to more people following Jesus.
Here’s why. One of the problems with the English language is that it uses the word “love” to mean many things. The New Testament, however, was written in Greek, a language that has several words to specify different kinds of love, all of them good.
Eros is sexual passion between people physically attracted to one another.
Philia is the kind of love you have for your best friend.
Ludus is playful love, like playful affection between children, flirting, or bantering and laughing with friends at a social event.
Pragma is mature, realistic love like that between partners in a longstanding relationship.
Storge is the love between parents and children.
Agape is a love extended to all people, whether family members or distant strangers. Agape was later translated into Latin as caritas, which is the origin of our word “charity.”
A useful tool to analyze scripture is an interlinear translation that matches word-for-word the original Greek text to their English equivalents. If you examine the Greek text for today’s Gospel, you will see that agape was the kind of love to which Jesus was referring.
Another tool useful in understanding scripture is a concordance. That’s a book that takes every word appearing in the Bible and tells you where else it has been used. The most popular concordance is known as Strongs, and if you look up Agape and words derived therefrom in Strongs, you will find that they appear at least two-hundred-fifty-nine times throughout the New Testament. Agape is the word Jesus uses for love throughout all four canonical Gospels. So there is no doubt that when Jesus told the disciples, “Love one another as I have loved you,” he was referring to agape and not something else.
The Anglican Christian author C.S. Lewis referred to agape as “gift love,” and called it the highest form of Christian love. But the same concept also appears in Buddhism as metta in Islam as ishq, and in Confucianism as ren. Agape is, therefore, more or less, a universal spiritual concept, something we all ought to do. But here, what is significant is that Jesus was not, at that time, addressing the world at large, but just his disciples.
You will recall that earlier during his ministry, Jesus gave us the Two Great Commandments, “Love God with all your heart, mind and soul,” which originated in the Book of Deuteronomy, and “Love your neighbor as yourself”, which comes from the Book of Leviticus. Jesus concludes by saying that the world will know they are his disciples by demonstrating their love for one another. What Jesus was telling the Church is that if the Church wants the world to love God and neighbor, love must begin within the Church itself.
But, the way Christians treat each other within church organizations is often anything but loving. If there is any area where Christians talk the talk but do not walk the walk, it is within the Church itself.
I can recall the Rector of an Episcopal church in Palm Springs following a singer into the church parking lot after Mass to deliver insulting remarks. I was that singer. That is why you will never, ever, hear me say bad things to or about any of our musicians. I don’t want to replicate in any of you the humiliation I felt at that time. I will leave musical criticism up to God because here, we sing to the glory of God. I don’t do to other people what I would not want other people to do to myself.
Another Episcopal Rector, this one in Indio, challenged an altar server to a physical fight after Mass because that server had administered consecrated bread to those who were waiting for it in a crowded church. His justification was that the server was doing something that was his sole prerogative, canons of the church to the contrary notwithstanding. I was that server. So that’s why you will never hear me put down or insult any of our servers after Mass or at any other time. Again, I don’t do to other people what I would not want other people to do to me.
Unfortunately, my personal experiences are not the only examples of un-loving behavior in an ecclesiastical organization. Some churches and church-related organizations have fired employees for giving birth to a child while unmarried or marrying a person of the same sex. In the minds of the church leaders who perpetrated these wrongs, upholding doctrines about sexuality was more important than treating people within the organization with the same love they preach, the same kind of love to which Jesus was exhorting us in today’s Gospel.
Examples of spiritual abuse of the laity by spiritually abusive clergy are legion. But spiritual abuse in the church is a two-way street. Believe it or not, the laity abuse clergy. And they do it to each other in the same way. Here are just a few of the ways that spiritually abusive people, both lay and ordained, do to each other in the church:
They twist the truth to make themselves look better.
They demand respect instead of earning it.
They gossip by sharing confidential information with others and saying bad things about you to others behind your back.
They don’t allow themselves to be held accountable or corrected.
They bully anyone who disagrees with them.
They demand to be served instead of serving others.
They dismiss you when you no longer serve their need.
They can’t admit fault. Multiple parties to a dispute claim innocence and all blame everything on others.
They use their charisma to create a cult-like following that would defend them when they are questioned.
Over the last decade, church membership and attendance have plummeted. There are many reasons for this depressing set of facts, but I am quite sure that the disconnect between Christian teaching and Christian behavior has played at least some causative role. Jesus holds this behavior in low regard; consider the parable of the Pharisee and the tax-collector and the repeated condemnation by Jesus of people who say one thing and do another.
Today’s First Reading is about the travels of Paul and Barnabas to Lystra, Iconium, and Antioch, cities in an area then known as Galatia in Asia Minor but now part of the country known as Turkey. The text tells us that they went to that area to proclaim the Gospel, here translated as “Good News” and to make many disciples. So successful were they in attracting people to Jesus that they went there a subsequent time to appoint elders, called in Greek, presbyteros, modernly known as priests, to provide for the spiritual needs of those congregations.
Paul and Barnabas were doing more of what the Ecumenical Catholic Communion, of which we are part, should be doing today. Paul and Barnabas were planting churches and recruiting priests to minister to them. The E-C-C Diocese of California, in which we are situated, has led the way in this endeavor by planting at least six missions in Southern California and in Mexico. We hope that our efforts inspire the rest of the E-C-C to do likewise.
However, to be successful in proclaiming the Gospel and making disciples, modeling Christian behavior towards one another is not just a good idea. It is a necessity. No one cares about Church doctrines. What matters is Church behavior.
People are attracted to a church, based on how they are treated at that church. If a church treats people badly, they do not return. A successful church treats other people the way God treats people. Church people forget that Christian love is always “concrete.” Love is action than words, more given than received.
We worship a God who is love.
We worship a God from whom love emanates.
And to those of you for whom the Bible is important, I direct your attention to Chapter four of the First Epistle of John. There you will find the direct statement that God is love and love is from God.
There you will find that you can’t say you love God without also loving other people.
There you will find that you cannot love God who you cannot see if you cannot love other people whom you can see.
There you will find that those who abide in love abide in God and that God abides in them.
Sometimes we need our animal friends to show us what love is. If you look at the front of today’s service booklet, you will see a dog lying with a cat. And, as you will also see on the front of your booklet, one of the ministers of Saint Cecilia Catholic Community is Felicity Bliss Moonlight. She is a dog living in the Saint Cecilia Clergy House. She reminds us every day, all the time, of what God’s love is like and how we should love other people. Felicity loves us unconditionally whether we are good or bad people just like God does. And because Felicity loves us unconditionally, we love her the same way.
Unlike human love, which tends to be self-oriented, God’s love, is spontaneous, unmotivated, and is directed not only to so-called “good” people but also to sinners and others unworthy of love. We as human persons tend to love other people who please us in some way, but God is different. God loves us even when we don’t please God.
Love is not only an attribute of God but the very essence of what God is. We need to look at everything through the lens of God’s love, what I call the love hermeneutic, or way of interpretation.
God’s righteousness is God’s love.
God’s justice is God’s love.
By the grace of God channeled through Jesus, we are joined to God in what the theologian Peter Abelard in the twelfth century called an “indissoluble bond of affection.” Jesus went to the cross not to suffer punishment for the sins of humanity, but because Jesus loved us enough to give his own life to enable Jesus to triumph over the devil and free humanity from sin and death through the power of his message. Rather than surrender to the secular and religious authorities by recanting his message, he chose to die, so that his message might live on to save the world.
Jesus is God’s magnet.
Jesus is the magnetic force that emanates from God.
Jesus is love.
During Jesus’ life, God used Jesus to magnetically draw people to himself. Then, when he was crucified, Jesus became an ultra-high-powered electromagnet. The intensity of the love displayed on the cross not only draws us to God but also draws out of us a superhuman love for one another. We can see this in one of the final acts of Jesus when he forgave those who killed him, by praying from the cross, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.”
The Ecumenical Catholic Communion is called to establish the New Jerusalem of today’s second reading, a Church where sacramental justice prevails because we are people who love one another as Jesus has loved us. In that new place, people will not watch as their brothers and sisters languish in poverty and hunger, nor will they attack each other in various forms of inhumane treatment, torture, and war.
God cannot force us to love God any more than we can force another person to love us. Love is always a gift, freely offered and freely received. But we must open our hearts, cooperate with grace, welcome the divine presence, and live before God in reverence and awe.
The Old Testament prophets emphasize that worship and prayer are not pleasing to God unless they are accompanied by practical works of justice and charity. We must therefore acknowledge the call to commit ourselves ever more generously to working for justice and the liberation of the oppressed.
The road to the new Jerusalem envisioned by Jesus will not be an easy one: “We must undergo many trials if we are to enter into the reign of God.” The key to this new world will be love. As Jesus said in the last line of today’s Gospel, “This is how all will know you for my disciples: your love for one another.” Go forth and love!