Sunday, April 17, 2005

The Spirit of Truth: Commandment

Asbury First United Methodist Church

Text: John 15

At the very end of their years at Colgate, the commencement springtime circle of men would be formed around the swan pond. On a clear, warm spring evening. At dusk, at twilight. As they came to their moment of departure. It was unforgettable to hear those voices, and, even for those of us still on bicycles and in sneakers and blissfully unaware of what they were going through, there was a fine, haunting quality to the amateur 300 voice male chorus. I remember they were dressed in graduation gowns. There was some speaking, and some silence. They held torches, around the lakeshore. And night fell, the same night regularly depicted in the Gospel of John: In the opening hymn. With Nicodemus. In the passion. Otherwise, too. And spectacularly in these five rare chapters, 13-17. There is nothing like these verses in all of literature, biblical or otherwise. They are dripping with the grief of loss, and teeming with the reception of love during departure. I suppose it might have been appropriate, one year or another, at Colgate, if John 15: 12 and following had been read. It may have been read. Now in the full dark the torches burn out bright. You can feel their warmth even from the hiding place behind the willows. You can smell their birch bark scent. Night falls. And the men sing, “Colgate, alma mater….” One by one they depart. One to work. One to marriage. One to teach. One to war. One to study. One to ministry. And all to the open, unforeseen future…

Good news meets us today in the Gospel announcement about love and departure. We can discover the meaning, and nature, of love in times of change—even in the month of change, April. Why should it surprise us that this utterly different Gospel would so accost us? After all, this is John. John whose community found freedom in the aftermath of disappointment. John whose community grasped grace in the aftermath of dislocation.

The greatest hope of the primitive church had been disappointed. Christ had not returned, one, two, three generations later. John, alone, had the courage to look about and find the freedom to change his thought. Heaven is here and now. Hell and judgment, too. Every day is the last day. As Rauschenbusch said, “which is more daunting, the thought of meeting Christ on the last day, or the thought that every day is lived in his presence? Today is the last day, until the next last day, which is tomorrow.

We too need to find our theological voices, after 50 years of wandering in the wilderness. There is hardly any lasting theological writing from the Protestant churches since Tillich. We have been surviving as nomads in a wasteland, now two generations wide. Voices, free and gracious, will emerge, new voices for a new day. Especially, perhaps, new voices will help us think again about unity and diversity, and move us from a unified diversity to a diversified unity, which we shall need to survive the challenges of century 21, Islamic totalitarianism and the ventures of the new sciences.

Likewise John and crew had been shown the door of inherited religion, and expulsed from the temple. Yet they found a strange and new grace in this difficult dislocation. In our region and time, too, we are dislocated. Since (taking Vahanian’s calendar) the opening of the post-Christian era in 1965, we have been moved from a mode of remembering to one of rebuilding. From Christ in culture to Christ transforming culture. We have 150 year old buildings, 100 year old habits, 50 year old preachers, all of which need rebuilding. Rebuilding is harder than building. And more fun. There is more texture, more history, more complexity, more detail. And more fun, for the right temperaments.

And now, in these rare chapters, John concludes his twilight Gospel, by bearing for us the recollection of departure. These 5 chapters are drenched in sorrow, the sorrow of loss, of grief, of change, of departure. To hear them, aright, we need to focus on two losses. That of Jesus and that of John. Jesus in 33ad on the cross. John, or the beloved disciple, or whomever, this church’s beloved patriarch, who after many years himself at last gave up the ghost. These twin shadows, of Jesus and John, lie upon our passage.

Asbury First, in your bones, you know about love shining through loss. You enshrine this love at your altar. The cross of Christ above it, the ashes of Crossland below it. Departure both divine and human. People of God, in your bones, you know about love shining through departure. And April is the month for it, breeding lilacs out of the dead ground. From childhood to adulthood: confirmation. From study to work: commencement. From singleness to covenant: marriage. From home to combat: deployment. Life is a series of greetings and farewells…

Hear the good news of what the earlier Christians found, what the Scripture records, and what we too may receive, of the meaning of love in the season of change!

A. “This is my commandment that you love one another, as I have loved you”

First, the new commandment is known as a word, love.

What is new is the community that carries the commandment to earth. Listen to John Wesley shouting at this passage: “Who then dares assert that God’s love does not at all depend on (human) works”? This is a community—you are its offspring—that knows with confidence the experience of being heard, being heard by divine ears. As Dorothe Solle taught us, years ago: “God has no hands but ours.”

The passion narrative in John is greatly altered from his inheritance in many ways, chief among them is its muting of the physicality and violence of the cross. John is writing at least 80 and maybe 100 years later. But his reason for writing a milder passion is theological not historical. For him, the cross is glory. It is the completion of God’s work. So he can use that lovely perfect passive third person singular verb, “it is finished”, to summarize his gospel. What has needed doing, or saying, or doing, now has been, said and done. Loving and giving are permanently married. There is no love without giving, and there is no giving without love. You truly have what you have the freedom and grace and love, to give.

So this is the community of love in transition. Always in transition. A day of new beginnings, time to believe what love is bringing, laying to rest the pain that is gone. Here is the commandment, new and spoken, that is, lived, in you:

Continuous choices to live for others
Continuous willingness to prefer the narrow and strait to the broad Wide
Continuous reform of inherited patterns
Continuous exodus from established positions
Continuous connection of personal passion with human need
Continuous improvisation in partnership…

Carlyle Marney heard a young preacher and said to him later: “Son, don’t you know that a sermon is like duck hunting? You need to walk a little slower with those folks. You need to take your time. You need to include others in the hunt. And don't shoot every single bird out of the sky yourself. Leave some for the rest of us” (courtesy P Amerson).

B. “You are my friends if you do what I command you.

Second, the new commandment is known in friendship. Actually, the striking thing about this commandment in John is how vague it is. There is no fine print, no Leviticus. There is no illustration, no narrative, no application. The writer assumes that you and I will know love from non-love, when we see it. The author leaves plenty of ducks for us to shoot.

That is, the meaning and nature of love are known in temporal, finite relationships. In what Paul did call the “earthen vessels”. In the April of life, in change, we learn about denial, anger, bargaining, and acceptance, as Kubler Ross summarized. We are reluctant to let go.

Did you ever try to put a grandson to sleep? They rage against the dying of the light. They know that good reluctance.

Our one poet gave us such a feeling for friendship, for love in change, for reluctance:

When to the heart of man
Was it ever less than a treason
To go with the drift of things
To yield with a grace to reason
And to bow and accept the end of a love or a season? (Frost)

The definition of friendship is the willingness to risk the friendship for the sake of the friend. You live and grow in this here, dear friends. You are aware, too, that this congregation will die or survive on two questions: Do we tithe? Do we invite? Tithe and you will live. Invite and you will live. And if not, you will not.

C. “You did not choose me but I chose you and appointed you that you should go and bear fruit.”

Third, the commandment is known in fruit. Greater love has no one than this. Bear fruit. Here is what the community of the beloved disciple discovered, not in theological disappointment nor in sociological dislocation, but in personal departure: the ‘meaning’ of love.

This is what America learned on April 15 of 1865, when Abraham Lincoln’s life ended, speaking of laying down one’s life for friends, writing about malice toward none and charity for all. How often we think of him. When we are hurt. It is hard to have a dream die. Then we think of Lincoln: “I was too hurt to laugh and too old to cry”. Or when we feel betrayed. Then we hear his voice, “with charity for all”. Lincoln saved the republic form itself.

This is what America learned again on April 12 of 1944, when Franklin Roosevelt’s life ended, a life utterly changed in 1920 by polio. Henceforth a life and voice clearly connected to the hurt, the least, the last, the lost. How often we think of him, in seasons of change. Roosevelt saved capitalism from itself.

This is what the churches learned Aprils ago from Reinhold Neibuhr, remembered now by his daughter’s book, The Serenity Prayer. That there is no reconciliation without the shedding of blood. That we are saved by hope. And that especially daily we shall need to develop that capacity, that spiritual discipline against resentment. Peter Beinart, in the December Atlantic Monthly, has brought such a vigorous and new fighting faith to the fore. Niebuhr saved the church from itself, for a time. But the rogue is an excellent swimmer, as Barth said of Adam.

This is what we learned again on April 4 of 1968, when Robert Kennedy spoke in the twilight of Indianapolis, lamenting King’s death, quoting Aeschylus about grief, speaking to all of America, red and blue, and saying that he could understand those who might be tempted to violence. After all, “I too had a brother who was killed”. Robert Kennedy tried to save liberalism from itself.

And who will save Methodism from itself. And historic Protestantism from itself? And a republic of laws and not of men from itself? And nationalism from itself? And who will work to save this world from its self-destructive tendencies?

This is what we learn with every self-giving act of love, the laying down of life in a pattern or a year or a moment. This is my commandment, that you love one another. Odd, isn’t it, to hear this best in the hour of loss?

D. “When the Counselor comes, whom I shall send to you from the Father, even the Spirit of truth, who proceeds from the Father, he will bear witness to me, and you also are witnesses…”

Fourth, and last, the new commandment is known in spirit. John can find freedom in disappointment and grace in dislocation and love in departure, because he has sensed the free, gracious, loving wind of God, in the Spirit. And who needs Armageddon when you have spirit? And who wants family of origin when you have spirit? And who fears transition when you have spirit? Not you…

You only appreciate what you have when it is gone.

The iron matriarchy of our little village decreed that all activities would end when the streetlights came on, that all engagements would end when the streetlights came on, that all games would conclude when the streetlights came on. When twilight gives way to streetlight, the end is near. Swing batter. Tommy come home. 3 and 1. Billy come home. Foul ball. Jimmy come home. There were always men left on base, and contests unfinished, and matches unsettled, and things left incomplete. Walking home in the twilight, though, somehow, we knew the meaning of what we had.

We were at a party the other night, and a young woman called to her daughter, ‘scout’. Yes she was named for Jeanne Louise, who knew her father’s love as he departed the courtroom.

Even in a departure, sometimes, a kind of love emerges. One of my predecessors here was a southerner, Andrew Turnipseeed, a friend of Dr King’s. At his funeral TL Butts preached:

“Near the end of Nelle Harper Lee’s wonderful novel, To Kill a Mockingbird, there is a touching and unforgettable scene. Jean Louise (Scout), young daughter of the courageous Atticus Finch, has persuaded her father to let her come to the courtroom to hear the verdict in the controversial case in which he is defending a black man. She chose to sit in the balcony with the black people. The inevitable “guilty” verdict is rendered. It is over. Atticus Finch gathers his papers, places them in his briefcase, and begins a sad and lonely walk down the center aisle to the back door. Scout hears someone call her name, “Miss Jean Louise?” She looks behind her and sees that all of the black people are standing up as her father walks down the aisle. Then she heard the voice of the black minister, Rev. Sykes: “Miss Jean Louise, stand up, stand up, your father’s passin’.” Can you hear that? It begs to be heard.

We visited a dear friend in hospital. As we took our leave, leave takings being so significant, she leaned up and said: “All of us are better when we are loved.” Then, “See, Bob, I was listening.”

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