Sunday, June 9, 2024

Jesus the Strongman: A Homily for the Third Sunday After Pentecost



We are determined to have a king over us, 20so that we also may be like other nations, and that our king may govern us and go out before us and fight our battles.” (1 Sam 8.19-20)

Preached at All Saints, Collingwood, Anglican Diocese of Toronto, Sunday, June 9, 2024, the Third Sunday after Pentecost.

Readings for this Sunday (Proper 10 Year B):  1 Samuel 8:4-11 (12-15), 16-20 (11:14-15); Psalm 138; 2 Corinthians 4:13-5:1; Mark 3:20-35


It’s an unsettled time, full of insecurity and fear.  The old ways of doing things don’t seem to work any more.  The leaders are distrusted, and few people have much faith in religion or even in God.   Instead the people want a strongman to rule them, someone who will crush their enemies and make them feel good about themselves.


I won’t blame you if thought I was talking about today’s headlines, but really this is a a description of where we come in to our first lesson today, from the First Book of Samuel.   Since Sharon talked about the call of the boy Samuel in her homily last Sunday, I thought I’d pick up the story from where she left off.   You’d think the story about the adorable little Samuel in his pyjamas, twice going to Eli and saying “did you call me?”, would have a happy ending, but not so much.


So to recap the story (and just to prove that the Hebrew scriptures are chiock full of good stories), Samuel was called by God because the priest Eli’s sons were absolute rotters, corrupt and abusive.   At the time, Israel is at war with the Philistines, and the war isn’t going that well because the Israelites have started worshipping the gods of neighbouring countries.   


There’s a big battle, and the sons of Eli take the Ark of the Covenant to the battle as a sign of God’s presence and protection.  But, God is angry with Israel’s faithlessness, so God lets the Philistines win, the sons of Eli are killed, and the Ark of the Covenant is captured.   Eli dies of shame when he hears the news, thus fulfilling God’s prophecy that his house and line will end. The Philistines take the Ark home but they suffer terribly because they never watched the Indiana Jones movie, so they send it back.   


By this time Samuel is the chief priest of Israel.  He calls his people to repent, they get rid of their false godsend God helps them to defeat the Philistines.   So you’re thinking, that must be the real happy ending, right?  Well, no, this film isn’t over, because as someone once said, history may not repeat but it does rhyme.  Turns out the sons of Samuel are also rotters, and the people don’t want another priest.  Instead they ask Samuel to find them a king, so they can be like other nations.


So this is point where things really go off the rails. Since Joshua took over from Moses and led the people of God across the Jordan, Israel had never had a king.   Instead they had judges, men and women who mostly acted as a priest and prophet.  The judges had a connection to God who was the true founder and king of Israel.  As God tells Samuel, the people “have not rejected you, but they have rejected me from being king over them” (1 Sam 8.7).   So, God tells Samuel to give the people what they want, with a few caveats.


I read recently about politics that the people who help put  strongmen in power think that they can control the strongmen, when in fact the strongman only looks after himself.   This is exactly what God warns the people will happen to them.   A king will take their wealth.  He will take their daughters as servants, and their sons as soldiers to fight his wars.   A king will be cruel and domineering, like Pharaoh.  It’s a sobering thought that Pharaoh’s soldiers who drowned when God parted the Red Sea were the sons of ordinary people, and Samuel is saying to his people that their sons may likewise never come home.


At this point in the larger story of Samuel we start to notice a trend that may seem discouraging, namely that over and over again, humans pull away from God and go their own way.   Eli was replaced as a priest because his sons were scoundrels.   Samuel was a faithful priest but his sons were scoundrels and no one wanted them.  God wanted the people of Israel to be unique among the nations, but they asked for a king so they could be like other nations.  


And just as good priests are followed by bad ones, so it goes with kings.   Some, like David and Solomon are good, well, mostly, but others are scoundrels and so, by the time we think that First Samuel was written, the kings are gone and the Israelites are slaves in Babylon and the story is back where it started in Egypt.  But that’s not the end of the story, because through all this, God remains faithful.


When the angel Gabriel appears to Mary, he says of the son she will have that “the Lord God will give to him the throne of his ancestor David” (Lk 1.32).  But in all his time on earth, Jesus doesn’t want like any earthly king.   Likewise, Jesus tells his disciples not to want power and honour as they understand it.   He tells them “You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great ones are tyrants over them. 26It will not be so among you” (Mt 20.26-28).   


What Jesus is saying here is a complete reversal of what the people told Samuel.  They wanted a powerful king to be like other nations.  Jesus is calling God’s people back to the role that was always intended for them, to be a unique people who will be a blessing for the world.  The kings that Samuel warns of will always want to be served.  Jesus will be a king that serves others.  As he says in Matthew’s gospel, “the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many” (Mt 20:28).


Now don’t get Jesus wrong, his talk about serving others doesn’t mean that he is some milquetoast hero.  Jesus comes to smack down evil.    The first miracle that Jesus performs in Mark’s gospel is to free a man of an unclean spirit, a demon, and the witnesses recognize this as an act of power and authority (exousia) (Mk 1.27).  So in today’s gospel reading, Jesus’ authority is never questioned by his religious opponents.  Rather, they suggest that Jesus is somehow demonic himself - “by the ruler of the demons he casts out demons” (Mk 3.23).


Let’s pay attention to the parable by which Jesus rebuts this accusation:  “no one can enter a strong man’s house and plunder his property without first tying up the strong man” (Mk 3.27).   So the strong man in the parable would be Beelzebul, the prince of devils (whose name, by the way, means “Lord of the Flies / Dung Heap”).   The strong man’s house is the world that is captive to sin and evil.  The strong man’s plundered property are those who are held captive by sin evil, as seen in those in the gospels whom Jesus frees from evil spirits.  And the thief who can bind the strong man must be even stronger, and the thief is clearly Jesus.


So in a surprising conclusion to this homily, the strong man that we long for is not some earthly king or leader who will defeat our enemies and make us great, but rather, the strong man is Jesus, the King of Heaven and Earth, who will set free us from the evil, free us from the evil of the world and from ourselves.  The strong king that the people asked Samuel for could never come from among them.  That king could only come from God, but he would be no king they could even recognize, because his crown would be thorns, his throne a cross, and his sword would be love.  But his power over evil is very real.


We need Jesus our king because now is just as uncertain a time as it was in Samuel’s day.  It’s still an unsettled time, full of insecurity, and full of fear.  Social media has filled many people with outrage and grievance, and it’s made our politics vicious, so that we’re less likely to compromise and to find solutions to complicated issues.  Half the world seems to be run by dictators, and the other half is losing faith in democracy.   So now, as in Samuel’s day, many want strongmen to rule over them and to crush their enemies


I didn’t mean for this to be a political homily.   As followers of Jesus, I would say that our politics should resemble our Sunday prayers of the people in that they should want what is best for our communities and for the wider world.   I would also that whatever our politics, whatever our insecurities, we should never give in to the desire for a strongman, because we have Jesus and because we live in his kingdom.


Jesus is our strongman and king, but he’s a curious kind of strongman because in return for conquering our enemies, sin and death, he only asks three things of us:  to repent, to love God, and to love our neighbour as ourselves.   If we can obey him in these three things, then we might well find our way to a politics that offers community, dignity, and security for all.


 

Thursday, June 6, 2024

Ben Crosby on the Perils of Functionalist Theology

The Symbol of God Functions? by Ben Crosby

How attention to the practical function of Christian belief helps and hinders contemporary theology

Read on Substack

Sunday, May 26, 2024

Romans, Ben Hur, and Adoption: A Homily for Trinity Sunday

 



For you did not receive a spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you have received a spirit of adoption.”  (Romans 8.



Those of you who are film fans of a certain vintage will remember how Hollywood in the 1950s was fascinated by the ancient world.   These Techniclour epics, these so-called “sword and sandals” films, included The Ten Commandments, Cleopatra, Spartacus, The Robe, and of course, Ben Hur.  When I was a child, I think I learned more from these films than I did from Sunday School, even though I had the idea that that everyone in the Bible looked like Charlton Heston.


Of all these films, i think the most beloved is Ben Hur, the story of a young Jewish nobleman in the time of Christ.   The film starts with Ben Hur becomes a Roman slave while his mother and sister are imprisoned.   Paul’s words in our second reading abut a spirit of slavery and a spirit of adoption reminded me of Ben Hur, so bear with me while this homily becomes a bit of a Sunday matinee.


When Ben Hur becomes a slave, he’s sent to a Roman galley, a ship where the rowers are chained to their oars.   He comes to the attention of the commander, a Roman nobleman named Arius (played  by the great Jack Hawkins).    There’s a big sea battle, the ship sinks, and Ben Hur saves Arius’ life.   They are rescued and returned to Rome, where  in a show of love and gratitude Arius rewards Ben Hur by adopting him as his son.


In the film, Arius gives a party where he proclaims Ben Hur as “the legal bearer of my name and the heir to my property”.   The film does get the history right in that legal adoption was often practiced in the Roman world, usually to preserve a noble family’s name and prestige.   The adoptee was usually a close relative or the child of a family friend.  It was very rare for a slave to be adopted, and the movie sort of gets around that by Arius saying that he has come to love Ben Hur like the son he lost.


Paul’s letter to the Romans was written in the world that the film Ben Hur fictionalizes, and Paul’s language about slavery, adoption and inheritance would have been entirely familiar to his readers.   The difference is that most early Christians were of low birth, servants and slaves, who would never have dreamed of being adopted into a great Roman family.  But Paul offered them  far more wonderful, far greater prospect than what Ben Hur enjoyed.   Paul tells us that we can be “children of God, and of children, then heirs of God and joint heirs of Christ” (Rom 8    ).


I think we can pause and let that sink in for a moment.  God wishes to adopt us.   God, who has a son, wishes to make us heirs and joint heirs with Christ.   God, who would not give his name to Moses except to say “I am”, now allows us to call him Father in its intimate form, Abba, or daddy.  God, unlike Arius in the film Ben Hur is under no debt of gratitude, who owes us nothing, will do this for us out of love.  And finally, as if this wasn’t enough wonder for a Sunday morning, the God who will do this for us out of love is the same God who shakes the earth in the Psalm, the same God barely glimpsed by Isaiah, wreathed in smoke and glory, the same who’s temple shakes with awe.  


So why would this wonderful God do all this for us?   Let’s take a few moments to think about what Paul means to be adopted.   In films and literature, orphans dream of being adopted because it means rescue from poverty and loneliness.   Dickens’ novels are full of orphans, and they weren’t far off real life.  My wife’s grandparents were poor Barnardo orphans who found new lives in Canada that they could scarcely imagine.  


Now we may not be in some ghastly Victorian orphanage, but God does want to rescue us all the same.    Paul says that we are rescued from “debt to the flesh” and adopted by the “Spirit of God”, and this kind of flesh/spirit opposition is very typical of Paul but hard for us to understand because it plays into the idea that Christianity is opposed to the body and to the physical.     I think, rather, that it means something much more profound and deeper.


Let’s go back to out seat at the movies and watch Ben Hur some more.  After Ben Hur is adopted by Arius, you would think the film is over.   The hero has status and power.   But he hasn’t been healed.   He’s been driven by the desire for revenge over the Roman friend who put him and his family in slavery and prison, and even though he got his revenge ion his enemy in the famous chariot race scene, he’s still wounded.   He goes back to Judea and frees his mother and sister, only to find that they have leprosy.    The world and the power of Rome can’t restore these injuries.    


But, then we remember that when he was on his way to the galleys, a man gave him a drink of water.   Now, at the end of the film, Ben Hur and his family huddle at the foot of the hill where the same man who gave him  drink now hangs on a Roman cross, and as the rain washes the blood down the hill of Calvary, Ben Hur and his family are healed.     It’s then that we realize that being adopted by Arius was never going to save Ben Hur.  it was only being healed by Jesus, only by being named and claimed by as God’s child, that he would be saved. 


As of said before, the church’s language and thinking about salvation and being saved is in some disrepair, so let me finish with some thoughts about salvation and adoption from our friend C.S. Lewis.   Some of us have been working our way through his book For the last month some of us have been reading C.S. Lewis’ book The Screwtape Letters,  which imagines Screwtape, a senior devil, advising a junior devil on the best way to tempt a human soul away from God.    Screwtape advises his young charge, Wormwood, to aim at the centre of the human being, at what he calls the Will, the very centre of the self.   


The will is where all the virtues live, those practices and habits that orient us towards God and which allow us to love our fellow humans.  Push those virtues and habits out of the Will, says Screwtape, and you can replace them with all those impulses - greed, vanity, etc - which make the self become selfish and which drive out all love of others.   In Lewis’ language, the will or the self become a lot like Paul’s idea of the flesh, something that pulls us away from God.


The cleverness of C.S. Lewis is that he helps us understand what it means to be God’s adopted children from the devils’ point of view.   Screwtape is horrified that God, who he calls “the Enemy”, loves humans and wants them to become “replicas of Himself - creatures whose life, on its miniature scale, will be qualitatively like His own … because their wills freely conform to His”.   As Screwtape says with disgust, whereas the devils want souls who will be their food, God wants “servants who can finally become [children].   


So dear saints, if we can learn anything on Trinity Sunday, maybe it is simply this, that if God as Holy Trinity is a loving family, then we are adopted into that family.    One of the great blessings of our faith is that we who follow Jesus as his students and servants can also call him friend and brother.     




Saturday, May 18, 2024

Truth, Testimony, Love: A Homily on Asking For The Gifts of Pentecost

A homily preached at All Saints, Collingwood, Anglican Diocese of Toronto, on 19 May, 2024, the Feast of Pentecost.

Readings:  Acts 2:1-21, Psalm 104, Romans 8:22-27, John 15:26-267,16:4b-15



Today, the Day of Pentecost, all four of our readings, even the Psalm, mention the Holy Spirit and its work.   The Spirit is incredibly active in these readings:  it fills the earth with life, it descends on the apostles and enables them to speak in foreign languages,  it comforts and accompanies those who are weak and struggling, it bridges the very gap between us and God.

The Spirit does so much amazing work in our readings that its a wonder to me that we don’t call ourselves Spirit people, or maybe even, God forbid, Pentecostals. But we are instead, after all, Anglicans, and as is often noted, not all Anglican churches are comfortable talking about the Holy Spirit.

Even so, today I want to talk about the Holy Spirit, it’s role in our church and in our lives, about the gifts the Spirit offers us, and how we as a church can ask the Holy Spirit for these gifts.  I will define these gifts as having a truth to believe in, having the courage to speak about the truth of our faith, and having the generosity to love those different from ourselves.

In one of the Alpha Course videos, Nicky Gumbel tells a joke about a man who went to a very formal church.   Every now and during the service he would put his hands in the air and say “Hallelujah!”  or “Praise the Lord”.   Finally an usher came over to him and asked why he was making a disturbance.   “I’m sorry”, the man said, “but I just gave my life to Christ and I’m excited because I received the Holy Spirit!”

“Well, you didn’t get it here” said the usher, “so you need to behave.”

While I don’t think any of our ushers would ever say something like that, I think we find the joke funny because it plays on ideas of churches that are formally religious but spiritually dead.  Indeed, the whole point of the Alpha course is to help people find Sometimes people reject this offer to get to know Jesus because they distrust religion, even if they define themselves as spiritual.   The argument is that organized religion (it’s really not that organized) is hypocritical, hateful, and divisive.   When such people criticize religion, they are criticizing human institutions, but in fact, this is nothing new.  

One of the readings often used on Pentecost, the prophet Ezekiel’s vision of Israel as a valley of dead, dry bones, uses a familiar theme of the Hebrew prophets.  The prophets told the priests and leaders that God had not use for their rituals and sacrifices if they ignored oppression and injustice within their society.    Jesus’ criticism of the Pharisees in the gospels is in this tradition.  As you recall from the vision of Ezekiel, it’s the Spirit of God which restores flesh, life and breath to the people of Israel and their dead faith.

Thankfully, today reminds us that the same life-giving spirit of God is given to us.   Today’s stories are all about spirit.  Religion is never mentioned.    Jesus promises his disciples an Advocate, a Comforter, who will come from the Father and who will continue to be present with them after he is gone.   Jesus does not promise them a religion.    In Acts, the apostles are visited with the Holy Spirit in tongues of fire which allows them to tell the story of Jesus in many languages.  The result, as often noted, is the birth of the church.  It is not the birth of a religion.

The story of Pentecost, then, is the story of the Spirit of God given to God’s people so that they may live well and flourish in the world.    If Ascension is about Jesus’ leaving the world, then Pentecost is about Jesus remaining in the world through the life-giving Spirit of God.    The message of Pentecost is not about us being religious.  Rather, it is about us being church, a people gathered by the Spirit, enabled by the Spirit, and led by the Spirit.

In the last part of this homily, I want to look briefly at three gifts of the Spirit, which I believe are at the heart of today

The first gift is truth.   In our gospel reading, Jesus tells the disciples “When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth”.   Let’s face it, truth is elusive these days, in these world of “alternative facts”, and conspiracy theories.  Postmodernity has taught to distrust “truth claims” and to see them as ways to gain power over others, and some do use truth as a weapon, particularly in religious circles.   As a result, we’ve come to distrust truth.

I think that as believers, we need to trust the Spirit’s promise that our faith is real and true, that Jesus is Lord, that the church is called to do serve the world that God created and loves, and that following the way of Jesus is the key to human flourishing.  I think we can hold on to the truth of our faith in a way that is generous and attractive to others, spiritual seekers, who are curious about what we believe.

The second gift is testimony.  Jesus said to told his disciples, that the Spirit of truth who comes from the Father, he will testify on my behalf. You also are to testify because you have been with me from the beginning.   Testimony as they say in court is about telling the truth.   In faith terms, testimony is about telling others about the truth of our faith.   

Now testifying sounds a lot like evangelism, which we Anglicans are supposed to be notoriously bad at, to which I say, “Pshaw”.  I saw more than a few of you stand up at last month’s women’s breakfast and talk about the difference faith in Jesus has made in your lives.    (We men, by the way, don’t do that as well at our breakfasts).   I was inspired to hear your testimony (when I should have been washing dishes).  Imagine how powerful it could be during our worship if from time to time someone could stand up and say that Jesus has made a real difference in their lives.   

The third and final gift I want to talk about is the generosity to love people different from ourselves.  Acts tells us that “All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages, as the Spirit gave them ability”.  The Spirit wants to gather people, from across all nations, into God’s family.   We’ve heard this clearly through Eastertide, in the stories of the Ethiopian and of the Roman soldier Cornelius, reminding us that membership the people of God is open to all.

There was a recent article in The Anglican Journal about how our Communion is enriching the church in Canada as more and more people come to Canada and bring their faith with them.    Our Diocese includes people and clergy from Chinese, African, and Indo-Pakistani communities, and that same diversity enriches our parish life at All Saints. The Spirit allows us to love those who come to God’s because we are all God’s children regardless of gender, skin colour, or language. The Spirit gives us the generosity to invite others into God’s community.

So what do we do if we feel that we as church (writ large) are lacking in these gifts?   After all, many of our congregations are getting older, fewer younger people are interested, and we’re all getting tired.  Has the Holy Spirit passed us by?

I don’t think it has, but I think that we have to ask for what we need.   After all, Jesus tells us, I”f in my name you ask me for anything, I will do it” (Jn 14.14).   This month in our Diocese, Bishop Andrew has declared that the next two years will be called the Season of Spiritual Renewal.  We are church will be intentional about asking for the gifts of the Spirit, and trusting that we will receive it.   One of the things that you will be seeing and hearing a lot about is an emphasis on prayer, prayer in private, in groups, and across the church.  We will be looking at some the traditional spiritual disciplines of our faith and listening to the wisdom of voices across our Communion and in our indigenous churches.   I think it will be an exciting time.

It all starts with Pentecost, and Pentecost is about trusting that God will give his people the gifts of the Spirit, the same Spirit that raised Jesus from the dead, and that can bring new life to our churches.     These gifts are there for the asking.   So let me close with a simple prayer that says it all, from one of my favourite saints, Julian of Norwich.

God, of your goodness give me yourself,

For you are enough for me. I cannot properly ask anything less, to be worthy of you. If I were to ask less, I should always be in want.

In you alone do I have everything.

Amen.


Friday, May 17, 2024

Whitsunday or Pentecost?


This Sunday, May 19, is the Day of Pentecost, which is often called “the birthday of the church”.  On this day we remember the first appearance of the Holy Spirit which empowered the disciples and allowed them to go out and become the church in the world.

Pentecost always falls on the fiftieth day after Easter, and the old Book of Common Prayer says that this day is “commonly called WHITSUNDAY”.    This name is confusing, because “Whitsunday” literally means “white Sunday”, though the liturgical colour is red for the flames of the Holy Spirit that descend on the apostles (see Acts 2:3).  So why the name Whitsunday?


A brief dive into early church history tells us that while new believers being instructed in the faith (called catechumens) were usually baptized on the Vigil of Easter (the Saturday before Easter Sunday).   However, those who weren’t ready by the Vigil were baptized on Pentecost, when they received new white robes to symbolize their new identity as Christians.


In the Anglo-Catholic tradition, Whitsunday is the preferred name and it is seen as a day when we remember the gifts of the Holy Spirit which include the traditional seven sacraments (though the Thirty Nine Articles only recognizes two, Baptism and Communion, as “ordained by Christ” (BCP p. 708).  


In the old Prayer Book calendar, “Whitsuntide” runs from Pentecost/Whitsunday to Trinity Sunday, and includes three “Ember Days” (Wednesday, Friday, and Saturday) when we pray for those who “are called to any office or administration in the church”.   


While many congregations often are asked to wear red for Pentecost Sunday, it is also appropriate to wear white in memory of the older name of Whitsunday.   So come to church wearing red, or white, or both, and you’ll be fine!

L.M. Sacasas on that Apple iPad and the Things of a Good Life


There's so much to read and follow online but I'm glad I made time to read this SubStack essay by L.M. Sacasas on that horrific iPad advertisement showing creative things crushed in a hydraulic press and turned into a new, slightly thiner device.   I say horrific deliberately, and I'm an Apple guy from way back.

Sacasas puts his finger on why so many people found that ad, well, horrific, and offers some important thoughts on the good things in life that technology can deprive us of.   Read the essay here.



Wednesday, May 8, 2024

Remembering Julian of Norwich

 


Today, May 8, is the feast day of Julian of Norwich, and for those of you who have been participating in Lent Madness, you will recall that of 32 hopefuls, Julian won the Golden Halo in this year's competition.   A silly game but a useful way to get to know some heroes of the faith.

Lately in sermons and in a piece in last week's parish newsletter, All Saints Alive, I've shared a few passages from Julian's writings.   Here are a couple of things I've found in today's reading.

In a sermon from 2018, Brother David Vryhof of the Society of St John the Evangelist offers an engaging and accessible introduction to Julian's life, times, and thought, found here.

In a video from YouTube, English church explorer Simon Knott gives us a tour of St Julian's church, which became the home of Julian when she became an anchorite, found here.

Finally, the Collect for the feast day of St. Julian.

Collect

Source and Partner of the eternal Word,
who brought to birth in the Lady Julian
many visions of your nurturing and sustaining love, move our hearts, we pray,
to seek your will above all things,
that we may know the joy of your gifts
and embrace the gift that is simply yourself;
through Jesus Christ our Lord,
our Saviour, Brother, and Mother,
who is alive and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever.


Saturday, May 4, 2024

Asking For The Gift of Love: A Homily for the Sixth Sunday of Easter

 



Preached at All Saints, Collingwood, Anglican Diocese of Toronto, 5 May, 2024, the Sixth Sunday of Easter.   Readings:  Acts 10:44-48; Ps 98; 1 Jn 5:1-6; Jn 15:9-17.

“This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you. (Jn 15.12)

Summary:  As Christians, we are commanded (not asked) to love others, and yet we will consistently fail at this undertaking unless we see love as a spiritual gift, unless we ask for this gift, and unless we cultivate it.

On a fine September day many years ago, twenty five priests, ministers, and pastors reported to Base Borden for our training to become military chaplains.  Father Gordon Mintz and I were among this group.  Our calling was to show the love of God to Canada’s men and women in uniform, but first, we had to show God’s love to one another.    You would think that twenty five priests, ministers, and pastors would have no trouble showing the love of God in their lives and actions.  The sad truth is that we often failed, miserably.

Our three months of training was very mild by military standards, designed to produce just enough stress and hardship to see how we would perform under pressure.   Our instructors were seasoned soldiers, who were amused to be training padres, and who were under orders not to shout at us, at least not too much.  We were divided into three sections, and expected to work as teams, but as the pressure was applied, love and teamwork were often lacking.   Personal habits and quirks quickly got annoying, we people became irritable, and sometimes were downright selfish.   We learned who we could trust, and who would always look out for themselves.

Things got so bad that one of our groups became downright dysfunctional.  Finally their training sergeant lined them up for a lecture.   “You padres don’t have to like each other,”, he said, “but in the military you’re expected to work with others”.  I remember overhearing this lecture and being shocked that it had come to this, that priests, pastors and ministers weren’t being asked to love one another, weren’t even being asked like one another, just being told to work together.

Jesus sets the bar a lot higher than that sergeant did.    Jesus asks us to love one another.   In fact, he doesn’t ask us to love one another, he commands us to love one another.   It’s not the only command Jesus gives in the gospels - he tells people to repent and to follow him, but this command, “love one another as I have loved you”, is certainly the greatest and most important of Jesus’ commandments.

So the obvious problem we need to confront is our simple inability to love the way that Jesus loves.   Jesus here speaks of a great transmission of love, love flowing from the eternal and infinite heart of God the Father to the Son, and from the Son to the disciples.   It is a love that has already been expressed by Jesus washing his disciples’ feet as a servant would, and it is a love that is forecast in his impending death, when Jesus will lay down his life for his friends (Jn 15.13).  How can we love in the humble, self-sacrificial, and infinite way that Jesus loves us?

The answer is that we can’t love this way, at least, not by ourselves.    It’s fine to say that we love others as an abstract principle, but it’s harder to love specific people, especially when we meet them, and even when we meet them in church!   In his book The Screwtape Letters, C.S. Lewis imagines a senior devil advising his trainee on how to discourage faith in someone who has just started going to church.

When he gets to his pew and looks round him he sees just that selection of his neighbours whom he has hitherto avoided. You want to lean pretty heavily on those neighbours. Make his mind flit to and fro between an expression like "the body of Christ" and the actual faces in the next pew. It matters very little, of course, what kind of people that next pew really contains. You may know one of them to be a great warrior on the Enemy's side. No matter. Your patient, thanks to Our Father below, is a fool. Provided that any of those neighbours sing out of tune, or have boots that squeak, or double chins, or odd clothes, the patient will quite easily believe that their religion must therefore be somehow ridiculous. (Screwtape Letters, Chapter 2)

If the sort of minor annoyances that Lewis describes can keep us from fully loving our neighbour, then, as my opening story suggested, how much worse will it be for us when stress, tension, and selfish impulses overwhelm us and pull us away from the love of God?

We need to be honest with ourselves that we cannot produce the love that Jesus commands of us if left to our own devices.   Love is a spiritual gift.    You know the famous passage from 1 Corinthians 13 that if often read at weddings - “love is patient, love is kind” (1 Cor 13:4-7).   When I’ve tried to prepare couples for marriage, I like to tell them that the love described here is not human love. Rather, love is a spiritual gift that will help them keep their wedding vows, but they have to ask for it.

In John’s gospel, Jesus invites his friends to “abide in my love”, just as he abides in his Father’s love.   We all know the term “abide” from the old hymn “Abide With Me” where it means something like “stay with me” or “don’t leave me”.   Here Jesus means something richer and more permanent.  “Abide in my love”  could mean “shelter in my love”, “remain in my love”, or just “live in my love”.  In other words, “abide” has that same sense of an close and sustaining relationship that was in Jesus’ branch and vine language from last Sunday.  Jesus invites us to find shelter inside the love that he and the Father share, to enter into the very heart of the Holy Trinity.

Again, this is not a love that we can produce ourselves.  It is a gift that we have to ask for.   One example of someone who asked for this love is the medieval English mystic, Julian of Norwich.   You may have heard about her during our Lent Madness exercise, and I wrote a piece on her in this week’s All Saints Alive.    After a period of sickness, Julian wrote of very powerful experience of God’s love that she received after her had fixed her thoughts on Jesus and on his sufferings before his death on the cross.   In her mind’s eye, these sufferings became signs of Jesus’ great love for her and for all humanity, which explains the title of her book, Revelations of Divine Love.

At the very end of her book, Julian described all her visions and insights as one great gift from God who wishes to draw us from our sorrows and darkness to God’s heavenly joy.   Julian describes hearing these final words: ‘Wouldst thou learn[3] thy Lord's meaning in this thing? Learn it well: Love was His meaning. Who shewed it thee? Love. What shewed He thee? Love. Wherefore shewed it He? For Love. Hold thee therein and thou shalt learn and know more in the same. .. Thus was I learned[4] that Love was our Lord's meaning” (Revelations Chapter 86).  https://www.gutenberg.org/files/52958/52958-h/52958-h.htm#CHAPTER_LXXXVI

The gift of the great Christian mystics is that they unveil something of God’s nature and purpose.  Julian recognized that God in Christ loves what he created and wishes to draw us from sin and darkness into God’s joy.   Her insights began when she focused on Jesus, on Jesus’ love for her, and on her love for Jesus.    Julian realized that love was reciprocal, that her love for Jesus was returned infinitely, and this realization gave her joy and freedom.

While we can’t all be mystics, I think we can find ways to abide in Jesus’ love.  One way might be to find stories in the gospel that we can keep in our hearts and minds.  John’s gospel offers two powerful examples.   I’ve referred to Jesus washing his friends’ feet, but an example of Jesus’ love being returned comes just before his final days in Jerusalem, when he stays with his friends, Lazarus and his sisters.  At dinner that night, Mary anoints Jesus’ feet with costly perfume and wipes them with her hair.   It’s a powerful story of how we can adore Jesus and give him all we have, and find our love vastly returned,  Perhaps you can find a similar story, or just a mental image, that might focus your love on Jesus and see that love returned.  Or simply ask God for the gift of love, as God loves you in Christ.

I think back to those would be chaplains, some of us so conspicuously lacking in love. We focused on our physical fitness, on trying to be soldiers.  Some of us wanted to fit in to the military. Some of us just wanted stable careers and officer’s pay.   We wanted these things more than we wanted the one thing that was there at the start, the gift of God’s love.  We just had to ask for it.   

Mad Padre

Mad Padre
Opinions expressed within are in no way the responsibility of anyone's employers or facilitating agencies and should by rights be taken as nothing more than one person's notional musings, attempted witticisms, and prayerful posturings.

Followers

Blog Archive

Labels