May 15, 2022| 5th Sunday in Eastertide
The commandment of love that we heard in the Gospel lesson is set in the context of the night of the arrest of Jesus, when, according to the Gospel of John, Jesus delivers his last will and instructions by means of several speeches. This Gospel makes it look like Jesus talked away the whole night, the last and longest night of his life. It is a literary device meant to underline what are the most important issues to Jesus. Love and unity among his followers are certainly included in this list.
Immediately before the scene in which the commandment of reciprocal love appears, Jesus talks to Judas Iscariot, showing that he knows that Judas will soon betray him. Then Judas exits the stage, presumably to fetch the guards. That is when our Gospel lesson starts. Then, right after the giving of the love commandment, Jesus and Peter engage in a dialogue in which Jesus announces that Peter will deny him three times on that very night. Although there is a substantial difference between Judas the betrayer and Peter the denier, the fact is that the commandment of love is framed by these two figures. What did the author of the Fourth Gospel mean to tell his readers? Not only does Jesus say that, after his departure, the disciples should love each other as he loved them--therefore, unconditionally and even sacrificially. Not only does Jesus say that reciprocal love must be their badge of identity: “They will know that you are my disciples by the love that you have for each other.” But this commandment is given in the context of a narrative of betrayal and repudiation.
I have had my fill of betrayals in the context of the Church, here and elsewhere. The more you are attracted into the inner circle, the more you are bound to experience those betrayals. If you think about it, it is not really a specific fault of the Church as such, but rather a law of human society. The more people invest emotionally in a group and get close to each other, the more they risk getting hurt. There are, of course, personal ambitions and egos that come into play, envy and all kinds of other negative emotions that people bring from their personal history into the community that they join. But even if this weren't the case, as the Church claims to deal with the ultimate Truth, those who invest their time and energy in the Church necessarily project high hopes on the Church. And these idealizations, like all idealizations, are bound to be deflated when all sorts of unconscious projections come into conflict with each other. Hurts and betrayals are, therefore, inevitable. The teaching that I derive today from the Gospel of John is not that if we love each other all shall be well, but that despite betrayals and shunning, we are still called to be a community based on love. Why? Isn't such an ideal simply too high, too lofty to be engaged with any hope of success? Isn't the excess of idealization about the identity of the Church a big part of the problem itself?
We have already encountered the issue of idealization. In the last few Sundays, the Acts of the Apostles has presented us with stories depicting the Church in such a way that we may feel ashamed or even desperate. Paralytics are told to walk, and they walk. Dead people are taken by the hand and brought back to life. Believers share their possessions, and nobody is destitute among them. The Church constantly grows in numbers and in love. How can we even get closer to this ideal?
Luckily for us, just as we can see that the commandment of love is given by Jesus with full knowledge of the imminent betrayal of Judas and denial of Peter, so also the Acts of the Apostles describes some major conflicts in the Church, besides reporting all the good things. Today, we heard Peter tell the other leaders of the Church in Jerusalem the story of how he came to understand that even those who eat prohibited food, the Gentiles, are loved and welcomed by the God of Israel. He had a vision in the middle of the day, while praying on the roof of the house where he was staying, which showed him what the will of God was at that very moment in time. Behind this particular story there is a larger history. The conflict between Peter and Paul was the conflict that defined the Church of the first century. Paul maintained that the Gentiles who wanted to become followers of Jesus should not be asked to become Jews. They should not be circumcised, they should not be subjected to Jewish dietary laws, and so on and so forth. Peter and the believers based in Jerusalem did not think the same at all. After all, Jesus was a Jew, and all his followers during his life were Jews. The story that we just heard in our first reading presents Peter's conversion, his understanding that his previous position was insufficient. He understands that God himself is already accepting people that we would prefer to make like ourselves before we accept them. He understands that God does not ask people to change who they are, but to transform their whole attitude about everything. Peter and his party conclude that “God has given even to Gentiles the repentance that leads to life.” The Church should include the Gentiles. Such a teaching about inclusion has been very important for the Episcopal Church in the last few decades. It has been the model upon which the acceptance of non-heterosexual and non- cisgender people has been based. It is the faith and the workings of God in people that matter, not their conformity to some obsolete moral rule. I would even say that “love” in the Episcopal Church tends to be defined today in terms of inclusion. This is good, especially because it connects very well with the main meaning of love in the whole Bible, which is “solidarity.”
There is, then, at least one sense in which love is actively expressed in the Church today, and that is love as inclusion. That said, it seems to me that love as inclusion is not enough. Again, it is good because it is concrete. It is good also because it does not allow us to avoid conflicts, but rather through conflicts it produces solid results. Yet our individuality is not defined by descriptors such as gay or straight, poor or wealthy, black or white, old or young, and so on and so forth. These descriptors matter, sometimes they matter a lot, but when you find yourself face to face, especially in a small community like ours, it is the individual personalities that come into play. It is our own individual understandings of what it means to be a follower of Jesus that become important.
The amazing fact that I don't want you to miss today is that the commandment of love in the Gospel of John is not about love for humanity. It is about love among those who are disciples of Jesus. People who do not know each other before they are called to be part of the Church, people who might have a lot in common or almost nothing in common; these people are called to be a kind of social experiment, or rather they are called to be a successful social experiment. Two thousand years before somebody decided that it would be fun to lock people together in a house and do a reality TV show about it, the Gospel of John was very clear: the Church is the Church only if there is love flowing among its members, if the house of the Church is filled with love. If we donated millions of dollars every week for social projects but we did not love each other, we wouldn't be worthy of being called Church. This is a huge challenge. It makes me tremble, really, given my experiences of betrayal in the Church. Let me be clear. This is still not love merely as feelings, and surely it is not a call to sentimentalism. It can be the case that I have been meeting with some other disciples of Jesus for years, and I still find them difficult to deal with. I have feelings, perceptions, and experiences about other individuals. These are real, and I use them to make practical decisions. And yet the challenge is: Can I look beyond all the information that I possess, in order to connect to the core of those individuals? Not to their ideas, not to their behaviors, but to their core, to what makes them be disciples of Jesus. The descriptor “disciple of Jesus” can be just a descriptor. “Christian” may simply be what one writes in the box “religion” after one has filled the other boxes: age, gender, profession, ethnicity, etc. But it can also denote something much deeper than all other descriptors. A direction, an intention, a longing. That is what we are called to love in each other. Such longing or direction or intention might be buried under several strata of stubbornness, ego-inflation, immaturity, and whatnot. But that core intentionality is still there. After all, the difference between Judas Iscariot and Simon Peter is that the latter never let go of his intention to be a disciple of Jesus, even when he denied him. That was the core of his identity. Our ability to connect to that core in each other, to that pulsing intention that lives in each of us--it is such an ability, and nothing else, that builds up the Church, the risen body of Christ in the world. AMEN.