Easter VI, Year B (May 13, 2012) The Episcopal Church of the Ascension
“The Passion Story” The Reverend Dr. Howard J. Hess
I. The Passion Story: Jesus spent his last night as a free man with his closest disciples in community with them. He washed their feet, and he shared a meal with them. He talked gently with them about what was going to happen in the next few hours and days, and he comforted them in his final words about abiding with him and loving one another. He told them that God the Father loved him unconditionally, and that he, in turn, has loved them as deeply and as freely as the Father loved him. Then he gave them a mandate, a mandatum, that they love one another as completely as he loved them. In his final words to the twelve together as a group, Jesus wove together two distinct themes: love and obedience.
II. Now, I wouldn’t dare speak for any of you, but I am often much more comfortable with the love part of all of this than I am with this commandment to be obedient. Love is good – all by itself – no commandment needed. Love is meaning you never have to say you’re sorry; love is a universal virtue; love liberates; love fulfills; love completes. We love to “be in love” and we are sad when we “fall out of love.” Makes sense doesn’t it – because doesn’t “love make the world go around?”
But here’s the problem with primarily thinking about love in these ways. In our culture, love is often trivialized and excessively romanticized. In our culture, love is often less about genuine sacrifice of self and more about feeling good. Such love can be shallow, and it can be short-lived. Such love can whither under the duress of physical illness or marital problems or some other family crisis. In many instances, such love can have at its core self-love.
In contrast, the kind of love that Jesus was talking in this morning’s Gospel is more enduring and selfless. First of all, it is a love with God as its source. Imagine the love that flows between God the Father, Jesus Christ, the Son, and Holy Spirit as a giant gentle river. Imagine that the love that we have for one another originates in that river, and this source of love is inexhaustible and unlimited. This love is filled with passion and is completely trustworthy.
However, there is one thing we should clearly understand if we choose to come and tap into this river. There are warning signs on the river’s banks. One clearly states, “When you drink from this water you will be changed.” Another states “When you drink from this water, you are required, in fact you will want to, take God’s love to others.” God’s love needs to be allowed to change us so completely that we are not only required, but we will desire to express love to others. We will need to love others, even if we are not drawn to them or perhaps don’t ever like them. We are even required to love others who have hurt us when every fiber of our being wants to hurt them in return. Some of you may remember Sister Rosina, from the Order of St. Helena. Her son was murdered in California, and one of her sadnesses in this life is that the murderer has never been identified. She would like to forgive him or her face-to-face.
Let me share a true story included recently in a sermon by Sister Miriam Brasher at St. Mary’s Convent in Sewanee, TN:
The scene is a courtroom trial in South Africa. A frail black woman, over 70 years old, gets slowly to her feet. Facing her are several white security police officers. One of them, a Mr. van der Broek, has just been tried and found guilty in the murders of the woman’s son and husband. He had come to the woman’s home, taken her son, and killed him. Then he and his officers partied nearby.
Several years later, van der Broek and his cohorts returned for her husband as well. For months she heard nothing of her whereabouts. Then, almost two years after her husband’s disappearance, van der Broek came back to fetch her. How vividly she remembered that night. They took her to a riverbank where she saw her husband, bound and beaten, but still strong in spirit. The last words she heard from his lips as van der Broek and his fellow officers then murdered him were “Father, forgive them . . . “
When the woman stood in the courtroom and listened to the confessions of van der Broek, a member of South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission turned to her and said, “So what do you want? How should justice be done to this man who has destroyed your family?”
“I want three things,” said the old woman calmly and confidently. “I want first to be taken to the place where my husband’s body can be found and give him a decent burial.” She paused, then continued, “My husband and son were my only family. So I want Mr. van der Broek to become my son. I want him to come twice a month to my house and spend the day with me so I can pour out on him whatever love I have remaining in me.”
“Finally,” she said, “I would like Mr. van der Broek to know that I offer him my forgiveness because Jesus Christ died to forgive. This was also the wish of my husband. So I would kindly ask someone to come to my side and lead me across the courtroom so that I can take Mr. Van der Broek in my arms, embrace him, and let him know that he is truly forgiven.”
As the court assistant came to lead the woman across the room, van der Broek fainted, overwhelmed by what he had heard. As he struggled for consciousness, those in the courtroom – family, friends, neighbors -- all victims of decades of oppression and injustice – began to sing softly and assuredly, “Amazing grace, how sweet the sound, that saved a wretch like me.”
God’s love is radical and it radicalizes our love as well. It creates community and connections when we ourselves would fail to be able to do so.
IV. Conclusion. Today is Mother’s Day, a holiday initiated by a young man who wanted to honor his aunt who had raised him as her son. In my life there are two relationships where I have most closely experienced the love that Jesus Christ is telling us about today – in my relationship with my wife, Peggy, and watching her care for our children and grandchildren with a devotion that I can only begin to understand. And my relationship with my own mother, who never ever stopped loving me, praying for me, and welcoming me home, no matter what was going on in my life. And believe me, I wasn’t the easiest child to rear. Without the influence of these two women in my life, I’d find it much more difficult to comprehend Christ’s words in today’s Gospel.
I’d like to make two requests of you today. First, accept the love that Christ offers you, open up your heart as fully as you can to receive that love, then turn right around and give it away. Secondly, extend yourself today to others with intentional generosity. For example, before you leave church today you might connect warmly with someone you don’t already know. Or, you might decide that before the end of the day, you will reach out to at least one person who might find Mother’s Day a lonely time.
The Christian Gospel is very clear: Love is at the center ~ God’s love for us, and our love for one another. And love and action are always connected, and love must be at the center of our community life together here at Ascension ~ enacted love. For was it not Jesus who said, “This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you.” Amen.