Easter 5 May 2, 2010

Revelation 21:1-6                                                                              

John 13:31-35                                                                     

  “I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another.”

— John 13:34

 “If you love me,” says the teenager in the parked car to his girl friend, “you will do what I want.” “Oh, I just love myself!” gushes the woman on the total make-over show as she admires her new face, new clothes and new hair in a mirror. “Love makes the world go round,” runs an old song. And of course, “Don’t you love those Red Sox?” Love, love, love.

Talk about love puts me in mind of the Supreme Court Justice who wrote in an opinion that he couldn’t define pornography, but he knew it when he saw it. I can’t define love, but I know it when I see it. We don’t see it all that often – not real love. But we see it in Jesus. “Just as I have loved you,” he says, “you also should love one another.” Church is not about a bunch of ideas, concepts, rules and regulations, even biblical texts. Church is about a person: Jesus. About learning to see ourselves, to see all life, in terms of the love we see in Jesus.

“Come and see.” This is where we gather week by week, coming and seeing. Where we come to see how to become truly ourselves, in a world full of falsehoods. How to live in love with one another, in love with God and with ourselves, in a world full of fear, anger, hate and despair.

I went away for a day of retreat last week, as I try to once a month, to the monastery down in Cambridge. And I must say I was feeling pretty tired and sorry for myself after what’s been a couple of months of straight-out work. I put out and put out and put out, I was feeling, and what do I get in return? Like Jesus in the reading, week by week I hand out pieces of bread – if not to Judases who betray the Gospel, to people who take it all casually, whose lives are focused on other things, who come and go as they please with church at the bottom of the list.

But then, praying in the monastery, I was suddenly struck by the presumption of that self-pity – by my lack of true love. If Jesus showed his love by handing out bread to all comers, even to Judas whom he knew was going to betray him, should I not do the same? Is not the love that Jesus shows us precisely about giving without expectation of receiving in return? Giving just to give? And why did I put myself in the place of Jesus, as the bread giver, and not in the place of Judas as the one who receives the bread? Does not God give life and love to me day after day, and I fail to recognize it, fail to give thanks for it, even complain that it isn’t enough, even in some ways betray Christ in the way I live? How far I am from the kingdom of heaven, and still Jesus loves me and gives me his bread.

This church business is so strange. I think I’ll never really get it right. It’s completely voluntary. You never have to give a dime or do anything in return – even volunteer to help pick up the highway. You can come as you want or not come. You can be gone for years and then return. You can be filled with hypocrisy, pretending to be one thing and actually being another. You can be a saint one minute and a sinner the next. You can be filled with doubts. You can be clueless about what all the doctrines mean and totally ignorant of the Bible. And still Jesus gives you his bread, week in, week out.

Because that is what love is about, he says. That is the love that I showed you. That complete freedom, to come and to go, to see and not to see, to do or not to do, to be or not to be. That is love.

It’s a damn poor business plan, is what it is. And through the ages churches have realized that and tried to tighten things up. They’ve made a system of religion and put people in charge. People with titles and costumes. People set above. They’ve made a bunch of rules and rigged them so that they favor the people in charge – as rules always do. And down deep we like rules, at least rules that put us in the right; they give us comfort and guidance, a sense of being better than others because we follow them, a way of getting something for ourselves in return for what we give. A congregation where I was once the priest had the custom of giving a cocktail party for all the members who pledged at least $1,000. It was an effective business plan. The money rolled in.

Except it wasn’t love. Love is giving with no expectation of receiving anything in return – except love itself, the love of God, which we experience by loving others, requiring nothing in return. The gospel passage this morning is an account of the Last Supper, the meal Jesus had with his disciples on the night before he died. But it’s been brought forward into this Easter season because we know that the outcome of this sacrificial love that Jesus lived was resurrection. Whatever else it is – empty tomb, miraculous appearances to the disciples – the Resurrection is the victory of love. When we love, truly love, we enter into this mystery of resurrection love.

That victory of love is dramatized in the other reading this morning, from the last book in the Bible, Revelation. The passage we have is from the very end of that book, the image of resurrection victorious over death and over time in all the earth: a new Jerusalem, a new creation, the reunion of God and mortals sealed for all time. Revelation is a dream, a vision, as I say a dramatization, of the victory of love.  You and I struggle dimly forwards, led by that vision, often losing it but then glimpsing it again as we come and see week by week and are fed by the bread of God’s love.

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