A sermon by the Rev Linda Harrison
Easter 6; May 21, 2017
Acts 17:22-31; Psalm 66:8-20; 1 Peter 3:13-22; John 14:15-21
If you love me, you will keep my commandments.
I don’t want to make the mistake of equating the conditions of suffering in the community to which First Peter is written with our present day Christian struggles. Christianity in 21st century America is an establishment religion… Christians in 21st century America are not in the minority or are we considered seditious like the followers of the Way in 1st century Asia Minor.
For the most part, Christians in America live without threat to our livelihoods, our physical bodies, and our social standing. We are, by default of our American culture, a privileged class.
That seems to be changing in some ways, but still in no way has reached the proportion of abuse the communities in Asia Minor experienced. The kicker here is that the threat some Christians experience are coming from other Christians; Christians are attacking other Christians. It isn’t by the nation as a whole … but given the current climate in our national government, it does feel like an attack by the larger culture and nation.
The tension is internal to the larger Christian community … the in-fighting has gotten to dangerous proportions. A sweeping statement I will stand by is that Christianity has created the very “culture wars” we live in today and has fueled the deep divide in our country. Denominations and particular congregations that welcome the stranger, the refugee, the non-English speaker do seem to be under attack by others who also identify as Christian. We have seen reports in the news of vandalism to Lutheran, Episcopal, and UCC buildings that advertise openness to Latino communities and the LGBTQ community.
A clergy colleague told me about the e-mails and phone calls to her church in the last few weeks that spew hatred and vitriol and threats against her congregation because of their loving, welcoming, and open response to LGBTQ folks. The ones leaving the messages identified themselves as God-fearing Christians and questioned the faith and integrity of that congregation’s Christianity.
If you love me, you will keep my commandments.
Let’s be honest, though, shall we? It is hard not to fall into the “us-them” mindset and rhetoric. It is too easy for “us” to adopt the same rhetoric used by our elected governing servants and turn it on “them”. That only foments the divide. I confess I do it all the time. I get angry and start shouting at the radio and I hear myself using “us-them” language, dehumanizing the ones I am shouting against. I recognize that I have hardened my heart against certain politicians and elected servants – refusing to see them as human beings separate from the policies and rhetoric that they put forth. It is hard not to when my deeply held convictions of love and mercy and welcome and forgiveness are under attack and under threat.
That’s the irony, though. Those who think and believe differently from “us” feel just as threatened and attacked. “We” may not understand; “we” may wonder why supporting refugee children and other vulnerable people is threat to some other people; “we” may pooh-pooh their feelings as ignorant or uninformed. Any therapist or chaplain worth their salt will tell you that feelings are real – founded or unfounded by whoever’s definition – but real nonetheless. And no one’s feelings should be discounted, for that discounts a person’s very humanity.
If you love me, you will keep my commandments…
…and Jesus’ commandment is love. And love, as I have said before, means respect for the basic human dignity of every single person on the planet and also willing for everyone the abundant life offered by God through Christ … everyone. As I typed that sentence, I thought of the current resident of the White House. The hardest thing for me recently is recognizing his basic worth as a human being, a creature created in the image of God. Yes, the same God in whose image I also am created. I still cannot come to utter his name, or call him by the official title bestowed upon him at inauguration. And at least, at this point, I recognize that failing on my part. I confess that I do not like the man, the things he stands for, or his policies. But liking has nothing to do with loving another person in God. As with many other people I know, I am having a hard time bridging that theological divide when it comes to the one currently in the White House.
I take comfort in God’s mercy – for both of us.
So, what do we do with, “If you love me, you will keep my commandments”? I remind you that the Greek grammar makes this sentence not so much a command as an invitation to respond; more like “you will keep my commandment to love others because it is your response to loving me and me loving you”.
You will love because I love, and since I love all, so you also will love all, even those for whom you have hardened your heart.
How in the world do we do that?
We invite the Spirit, who abides with us and in us, to soften our hearts.
Perhaps, we first ask the Spirit to help us separate the policy from the person. I know that sounds a little like the statement “love the sinner, hate the sin” used by some Christians concerning their view of homosexuality … however, sexuality is an intrinsic part of one’s personality – wholly tied to who a person is. Policy is an ideology, an opinion, a thought. Thoughts and opinions are not the person. So perhaps, we begin by praying in the Spirit to help us separate the policy from the person.
Second, we pray in and through the Spirit that the one for whom we find it difficult to love, also finds peace in God and flourishes in the abundant love of God. We do not pray the answer of changed policy stances or to see an issue “our” way. We pray for the peace and flourishing of God to surround and abide with the one we just cannot love at this moment. We must recognize that we do not hold God’s love ransom; we do not get to say who God loves and who God doesn’t love and for what reasons. God loves everyone.
Jesus promises that the Advocate will be with us: will abide with us, will be in relationship with us, bringing us to deeper relationships with others. We cling to that promise and we trust that the Advocate, the Holy Spirit, does indeed abide and accompany. Without the help of the Holy Spirit, we simply cannot love those we have hardened our hearts against and deemed unlovable. We can love them through the Holy Spirit.
And while we learn to love those with whom we disagree on policy, we also cling to the promise of the Spirit to abide and accompany as we continue to resist and persist against those policies that are contrary to the love ethic of Jesus. It will be uncomfortable, we will be taken to places and open to feelings that do not feel safe; we will feel uneasy and we will likely suffer emotionally or spiritually for our work. And God is with us through the Spirit who will abide and guide and nourish and encourage us as a community and as individuals. We trust all things to God who loves the whole world, while we work in the Spirit to bring about the Beloved Community that flourishes in the love ethic of Jesus. And we pray for the flourishing of all people.
We cling and we trust and we love because the One we follow also trusted and loved all the way to the cross.
Blessed be God forever.