Sixth Sunday of Easter
The reporter was interviewing an old man, a grandfather, who was obviously still in intense grief over the shooting death of his teenaged grandson. The grandson had been shot by in a robbery of the family's little neighborhood grocery store.
"Do you want revenge on those who did this?" asked the reporter. "Would you like to shoot the person who shot your grandson?"
The old man looked astonished at the question. "No, that's not possible," said the grandfather.
"I guess you don't even know for sure who did this," said the reporter.
"No," said the grandfather. "It's not that. It's that we are Christians. We are not permitted revenge."
Sometimes Jesus makes hints, suggestions. Here the case is different. Here he commands.
Sometimes the words of Jesus are obtuse, difficult to understand, demanding contextualization and explanation. Here the case is different. Here he straightforwardly commands.
Sometimes knowing the Christian thing to do in a given situation is tough. Life can be complicated; Christian ethics may suggest a number of possible responses. Here the case is different. Here Jesus simply, without options, commands us to love one another.
And to be a Christian, a follower of Jesus, someone who is baptized, means that there are some things for us which are not optional. A person who is a member of the Sierra Club is not a person who sets forest fires. A member of the Boy Scouts cannot be someone who refuses to build a campfire. It goes with the territory. Rabbi
Joe, who heads Hillel here at Duke, said (in a discussion on campus volunteerism) "A Jew is obligated to volunteer and perform works of charity. It's not optional."
Likewise, a disciple of Jesus is someone who, in every situation, tries to respond to other people as Jesus responded. There may be certain responses to the world which, in the world's eyes, "Make sense," or which can simply be justified by reference to, "everyone else is doing it." But Christians are those who, through baptism, have signed on, have publically committed themselves, to obey Jesus. And Jesus has commanded us to love.
Whether our obedience to this command will make the world a better place, or lead to deeper human understanding, or help to win friends and influence people, we know not. We only know, in today's scripture as well as so many other places in the New Testament, that this is clearly what Jesus commands us to do.
Not that it is always easy to know exactly what loving one another means. Sometimes our love needs to be that sort of "tough love," of which we sometimes speak. Yet hate, violence, revenge and the other means through which the world gets what it wants, are not options for Jesus' people, people who are commanded to love.
"Erich Honecker was deposed as East Germany's chief of state while the country was undergoing tremendous change. The turmoil in East Germany received a great deal of attention, but an unpopular act of Christian reconciliation went mostly ignored.
Honecker was widely hated by others. After being ousted from his position, he was not allowed to live in his luxury villa. A Lutheran pastor offered to let the homeless Honecker live in the pastor's gust room. The pastor even paid Honecker's expenses. This was especially surprising since Honecker had once persecuted the church.
"This move was widely resented. Many people threatened to quit the church (and some did). The pastor received vile phone calls. When asked why he did it, the pastor cited a passage of Scripture."
"All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ, and has give us the ministry of reconciliation...So we are ambassadors for Christ, since God is making his appeal through us; we entreat you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God" (2 Cor. 5:18,20).'" (Arthur Paul Boers, Lord, Teach Us to Pray, Herald Press, Waterloo, Ontario, 1992). It's a command. Be reconcilled.
John Dominic Crossan, the author of one of the more provocative of the new books on Jesus and one who shares a measure of the suspicion that the church has produced "Christs" that "mute, mitigate, or manage" the program of the true, historical Jesus, nonetheless acknowledges the limits of his method. Crossan is honest enough to know that Jesus does not just want our admiration, or even our agreement. He wants obedience. Crossan imagines a conversation between himself and Jesus:
"I've read your book, Dominic," Jesus begins," and it's quite good. So you're now ready to live by my vision and join me in my program?"
"I don't think I have the courage, Jesus, but I did describe it quite well, didn't I, and the method was especially good, wasn't it?"
"Thank you, Dominic, for not falsifying the message to suite your own
incapacity. That at least is something."
"Is it enough, Jesus?"
"No, Dominic, it is not."
("The Historical Jesus: An Interview with John Dominic Crossan," The
Christian Century, 108 (December 18-25, 1991), p. 1204.)
On my way out of the church later one afternoon, I was chagrined to see, coming towards the church down the walkway, a rather forlorn looking man with a small bag, obviously a wanderer, a vagabond, a drifter, obviously coming toward the church seeking a handout.
This is what you get for having a church situated near a busy highway. These drifters drift through about twice a week, seeking a tank of gas for their trip, a meal, a gift -- preferably in cash -- for their journey to who knows where. They always have some sad story of woe to tell but the end is always the same -- can you spare about $25.00 in cash.
I sighed as I watched the man approach. It had been a long day. I had a meeting to return for that night and I was anxious to get home. I would meet him at the door, head him off, give him the only cash I had -- a mere $15.00 as I recall -- and then send him, and me, on our way.
"What can I do for you?" I asked with some annoyance in my voice.
"I wondered if you might be able to help a fella' on the way South," he said. "I was headed down to...."
"Yes, yes," I said. "Well, I'm in a bit of a rush. So here is all I have. A five and a ten. That's all I've got."
The man took the money as I offered it. Looked at it. And without a word, he turned, and headed out toward the street.
Then he stopped, and turned toward me as I locked the church door. "I guess you think I'm supposed to thank you, to be grateful," he said with a surprising tone of defiance.
"Well," I said, "now that you mention it, a little gratitude wouldn't hurt."
"Well, I'm not going to thank you. You want to know why?" he sneered.
"Why?" I asked.
"Because you are a Christian. You don't help me because you want to. You have to help me because he [now thrusting his finger up into the air] told you to help me!" And then he left.
I stood there, stunned, angry. The nerve of these people!
On my drive home it finally hit me. He was right.
ENCOUNTERING THE TEXT:
Our exegetical insight is rather modest for this Sunday's gospel. What is the literary form of John 15:9-17? It fits in a larger context of Jesus' farewell address to his disciples which occupies such a large portion of John's gospel. Specifically, what we have here is not a subtle parable, a poetic statement, or history. What we have here is a command.
Jesus commands us to love one another.
Perhaps we preachers ought to be careful. On some Sundays, in order to secure the interest of the congregation in the assigned text, we use various artful rhetorical devices to engage them in the text. We contemporize, or psychologize, or dramatize, or whatever else we do to capture their attention. Sometimes, in all this hermeneutical work, we may call more attention to our sermon than to the scriptural text! Unwittingly, our sermon becomes another means of avoiding the text rather than listening to the text.
So perhaps there is justification for simply, straightforwardly stating the obvious thrust of the text. Here is a text which is a command of Jesus. It isn't a subtle argument, some engaging story, or some miraculous event. It is a command. Jesus commands us to love one another, even as he has loved us.
It is our hope that the direct, straightforward presentation of the text will lead to a
direct, straightforward look at ourselves in the light of Jesus' command to love.