Sometimes, as I am writing one of these articles or preparing a sermon, I feel like I am returning to the late ’60s or early ’70s; to the times of “flower power,” hippies and chants of peace and love. I feel this way because I seem to spend a lot of time writing and talking about love. I guess that is the risk one runs when talking about Jesus and what he taught.
One of the things I like about liturgical churches is the use of the Revised Common Lectionary. This book lists the readings to be used for every Sunday of the year. By using it, most of Christian scripture and a great deal of Hebrew scripture is read over the course of a three-year cycle. It’s a good system for making sure all of the writings are included, not just a few favorite texts. Still, I don’t always understand why certain texts are used at specific times of the church year.
This is one of those times of year when I find the choice of readings a little confusing. Before Easter, which was over five weeks ago, we were reading from what is called the “Farewell Discourse” in the Gospel of John. That seemed appropriate; it was just before we commemorated the crucifixion.
For Jesus to be saying goodbye, and encouraging his disciples to continue in his footsteps, to follow his commandments seems right.
Now, here we are, five to six weeks later, we have celebrated the resurrection and continue through the season of Easter to celebrate that resurrection, yet once again we are reading from the “Farewell Discourse.” And, in John 14:15-21, we are again hearing about love. Jesus is asking his followers to embrace the love he has lived among them as a goal for their own lives. So perhaps it doesn’t really matter what the scriptural context of this discourse is, maybe we need to look at the social context during the late first century, when John was writing.
The Roman Empire dominated the territory of the Middle East at that time. Political upheaval was the order of the day, as a Jewish rebellion had recently been quashed and the temple in Jerusalem destroyed. Surrounded by the images of an imposed dominion and the weapons enforcing the imperial power, Christians in that day would have heard the message of love as a very sharp contrast to their daily reality. Religious persecution and racial profiling were everyday experiences for the people of the region.
Dialing forward two millennia, have things changed all that much? The forces at work in the world, governments that are good, bad or indifferent, still dominate as much as they are allowed. Weapons of war are used to enforce their domination wherever they can. Religious persecution happens around the world and racial profiling is commonplace. The message of God’s love in this world is still a very sharp contrast to the realities we see on a daily basis.
For a populace that likes to say this is a Christian nation, the recent rise in hate speech and hate crime, the anger expressed without restraint both over the Internet and in person, is appalling. To live into the love that Jesus calls us to, as Christians, is in stark contrast to what is happening across this country today. How are we to live out this calling? What are we to do?
Relationship is the key. “If you love me, you will keep my commandments,” Jesus says. What is the commandment? To love God and one’s neighbor as one’s self. Just as I want the best for myself, I am to seek the best for all around me, near and far. Jesus promised not to abandon the disciples or us. We cannot, therefore, abandon any who are in need. Whether that need is for food, water, clothing or protection from injustice. Maybe this is the reminder we need all of the time; that Christ is with us now because he once left, not abandoning us but actually being with us more fully in order help us be more fully with others.