Love – caught not taught

Previously (as they say on TV)

Through the Lectionary for the Sundays after Easter, God has been initiating a conversation with us through the medium of John’s Gospel. From this conversation we have drawn the following insights into living the new life in Christ.

Despite John’s story of doubting Thomas, the enemy of faith is not doubt, but fear. John’s picture of the disciples hiding away behind locked doors on the evening of the resurrection day is a metaphor for the way we hide from fear by erecting walls and locked doors in our minds. You can refer back to my posting for Easter 2- Behind Locked Doors: A Sermon for Low Sunday

My posting for Easter 3 Lakeside Breakfast and Life Changing Conversation

explored the experience of Peter with Jesus at the lake shore revealing that along with grief, guilt and shame are also powerful fears that come between us and living the new life in Christ.

On reaching Easter 5, God’s evolving conversation with us moves back from the post resurrection appearance, to the events of the Last Supper in John 13.  John is not so concerned with depicting the sequence of events, as he is concerned to paint the theological picture known as the Farewell Discourses. During this extended conversation, Jesus reveals the nature of his relationship with the Father, and uses this as the model for how the disciples are to live in community. In the Farewell Discourses, Jesus begins to speak exclusively to the community of his disciples, preparing them for what is coming.

What’s new about the New Commandment?

Jesus gives his disciples a new commandment:

– love one another; as I have loved you, so you are to love one another. By this all will know that you are my disciples.

 Have you ever wondered why John has Jesus call this a new commandment? The commandment to love God and love your neighbor, as yourself appears also Mark, Matthew, and Luke, each presenting it as the Great Commandment summarizing the Law of Moses. The new element in John is that Jesus offers more than a repetition summary of the Law. John shows Jesus modeling for his disciples a vision of love arising from the experience of being loved.

John, alone offers us a vision of love as an experience conditioned by being loved. There is a logical progression at work here. As Jesus is loved by God, so he shares this love with his disciples. As the disciples are loved by Jesus, so they are to share that love with one another. The point here is that despite John’s use of the word commandment, love is caught, not taught. We are enabled to love, because we first have the experience of being loved.

Shared contexts across time

John’s community struggled with internal, probably irresolvable disputes and tensions. Therefore, the only way for John’s community to hold together was on the basis of relationships forged through love, not through common agreement. This makes John’s community rather like the Episcopal Church where, historically, our unity rested on a notion of right relationship experienced through our willingness to worship together in spite of the lack of political or theological agreement between us.

What does John mean by love? He uses the word agape. The best translation I know for agape is purposeful love. Purposeful love does not require attraction. Neither does it rest on mutual likeability. It does not demand similarity and for that reason is able to bridge across differences. Purposeful love simply recognizes that we must love one another because God has first loved us.

John’s emphasis is upon the internal stability and unity of the Jerusalem Church. Yet, the lectionary places the gospel from John alongside a reading from Luke’s Acts of the Apostles. The implication of Peter’s dream, directs us to God’s desire to extend purposeful love beyond the gathered communities of the like minded to embrace a widening of diversities present in the wider world. Of course this wider inclusiveness is the whole purpose of Luke’s writing.

The Episcopal Church rejects the false certainties that paint a world in hues only of blacks and whites. From the 19th Century struggles over slavery, throughout the 20th Century struggles for racial and gender equality, into the 21st Century battle to accept differences in sexual identity as God given, Episcopalians remain where Anglican has always stood. We stand in that place of tension between respect for the Tradition we receive and living with integrity lives that confront the challenges presented by contemporary society.

The Anglican Tradition of the Episcopal Church, shaped by dynamics similar to those faced in John’s Jerusalem Community equips us well for the task of being the community of love in the world of the 21st Century. Acts 11 shows us that God’s intention is wide and inclusive. Our experience as a tradition equips our Trinity Community as Christ’s disciples shaped and formed in particular by a vision of inclusive and purposeful love.

The nature of God’s conversation with us on Easter 5 points us to the need to read John 13:31-35 through the lens of Acts 11:1-8. I am grateful to the Rev. Amy Allen, an ordained minister in the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America and a fellow in theology and practice at Vanderbilt University in the area of New Testament and early Christianity for referencing in her blog the following quotation of the great Martin Luther King.

Agape does not begin by discriminating between worthy and unworthy people…It begins by loving others for their sakes” and “makes no distinction between a friend and enemy; it is directed toward both…Agape is love seeking to preserve and create community.”( Accessed 04-15-13)





Lakeside Breakfast and Life Changing Conversation

Jesus breaks through the walls and doors that the disciples have set up to hide behind.  Through the post resurrection appearances of Jesus John paints a theological picture revealing of the fear that the disciples experienced following the events of Good Friday and Easter Day, neither of which events, they seemed to have understood.  From our 21st century perspective we can see that the walls and doors that the disciples hide behind are the mental walls and doors erected within their minds to protect them from emotions of grief and loss. Like all human beings, the disciples  are afraid that their grief and loss if not repressed, would overwhelm them.  This is why fear, not doubt is the enemy of faith, and I refer those interested to know more about what I mean by this to Behind Locked Doors or the Trinity Face Book site  for the full published text of last week’s sermon.

There are four post resurrection appearances in John’s Gospel. So we can assume he thought them to be important. The first, is to Mary in the Garden with the second, and third, to the disciples in the upper room. John is painting a theological picture through the way he constructs these narratives. What does John wish us to understand through these stories? Perhaps more to the point, what is God drawing our attention to as we receive these Gospel texts gathered for worship at the Table of Our Lord?

Limited Expectation and Perception

John seems to imply that the disciples experienced Jesus continuing to come and go in their lives following his death and resurrection. It is only three weeks later and the disciples are back to life as usual. They are out fishing – picking-up the threads of their lives prior to their adventure with Jesus. So the boundaries of normal awareness with all the limitations of their conventionally conditioned imaginations have closed around their minds once again preventing them from expecting to see Jesus. It is well attested that human beings only recognize what they expect to see. They see the man standing by the fire on the shore and yet they don’t recognize him. It is not until the disciple Jesus loved –John’s code for himself, identifies him to the others. Perhaps we see here a little self congratulation going on here.

Commentators on this text all note that it resembles Luke’s Jesus calling his disciples to follow him as he observed them fishing from the shore of the Sea of Galilee. In Luke’s theological picture the call of the disciples comes at the outset of Jesus’ ministry. Yet, John places it at the very end following his resurrection. Luke’s positioning makes more logical sense, but John conveys a deeper theological truth through which God addresses us as the Christ following community sitting at the intersection of Roosevelt and Central.

Post Resurrection Discipleship

In John’s theological picture, Jesus’ call  to discipleship is made by one who bears the scars of his wounds. Whatever, seemingly magical qualities, Jesus’ post resurrection body possesses, it’s a body that still bears the scars of  the wounds inflicted by the Cross. Fear limits the disciples expectations and so they can’t see through the veil of illusion built up to protect them from their fears. They don’t see what is in front of them. In each post resurrection appearance, Jesus comes and breaks through the veil of illusion in order to reconnect the disciples with what they once knew, but have forgotten because of grief, and repressed because of guilt.

The second scene in John’s story concerns Simon Peter. While in the boat when the beloved disciple points out that it is Jesus, Peter recognizes his nakedness, hurriedly dresses and then jumps into the lake.  Of course we are left wondering – so why get dressed first? At first I interpreted Peter’s actions as another example of how he needs to be first and the center of attention. On reflection, I have come to see Peter’s clothing and jumping into the lake not as an attempt to get to Jesus first, but as an attempt to hide his shame. For it is his shame that Jesus seems to have come to address.

What follows is Peter’s rehabilitation from the failure and betrayal when last he sat warming himself before a fire in the court of the High Priest. For me, a rather interesting question arrises here. Is Jesus saying to him: Peter, regardless of the scars of your failure and fear I still call you?  Or is he saying: Peter, because of your wounds I call you?


Jesus offers Peter to an opportunity to  repair the damage of betrayal. For any of us the events of shame and guilt from the past can never be undone. We, and those we have hurt will always bear the scars of memory.  We cannot undo the past, but we can alter the damage flowing from the past through actions we take in the present. Reparation is the most far reaching of all the psychological mechanisms available to us. Reparation allows a different future to unfold from the one made inevitable by the flow of unresolved guilt and shame from our past,into our present and on into our future. When acts of reparation are not enacted in the present our futures end up being only ever a repetition of that which remains unresolved in our past. Here, Peter is offered the possibility of reparation.

Yet, reparation depends  upon our acceptance of a responsibility to change and become different. Jesus is not content to receive Peter’s three-fold protests of love. Each time he lays upon him the charge – feed my sheep. Healing finds expression only through accepting responsibility for action and service in the here and now.

As with Peter, when we accept Jesus’ call to discipleship, we accept responsibility to act and serve in the world around us. We also relinguish being in control of the ultimate direction of our lives. Where once we buckled our own belt and walked where we wanted to walk, once we accept the call to discipleship, God buckles our belt and we walk where God needs us to go. In this lies our healing and salvation.

They know the Lord when Jesus breaks bread with them as he does in Luke’s Road to Emmaus story, or here in John when he offers them breakfast. So it is for us as we gather to make Eucharist.  Here we come to know the Lord Jesus who time and again breaks through the limitations of our expectations in the intimacy of the breaking of the bread.

Behind Locked Doors: A Sermon for Low Sunday

Random Thoughts

What a strange name – Low Sunday? The origin of the name is shrouded in the mists of time. Yet, for me at least, it resonates with my mood. I took a couple of days out of the office this week. This was not really time-off, although no self-respecting priest in the Church of England is anywhere to be seen in Easter Week. However, the workaholism of American life, frowning on the need for time-off as a sign of personal weakness, exacts its toll. So I took two days out, which I hasten to add, were not exactly time off. I continued to work, but at least at a different pace thus providing me with some mental space for profound thoughts as I approach the task of preaching on Low Sunday.

In an email response to me this last week, Canon Dombek wished me a blessed 50 days of Easter. That’s nice, I thought to myself. I was about to move-on when the notion of celebrating the 50 days of Easter caught me like a catch in the back of the throat.

Whether we do much about it or not we mentally and emotionally resonate with the 40 days of Lent. But come Easter Day, the feeling is, thank goodness all that is now over for another year! Each year, I am pleased to note that a few more of our community take Lent and especially Holy Week to heart and discover the empowerment of a liturgical journey that orients us to the experience of Easter in new ways. You can’t parachute into Easter Day unless you have trodden the path of the Passion expressed through our community liturgy. Many of us have yet to grasp the essential point of being Episcopalian – which is to be a community of Christians to whom God primarily speaks through our celebration of the liturgy.

During this Easter Season, which runs until Pentecost Sunday, we will be hearing John’s Gospel proclaimed in the Sunday liturgy. I wonder what kind of conversation God will be seeking to have with us as we journey with John. As I have noted before the sermon is the community’s conversational response to God speaking through the lectionary. The preacher leads this conversational response by virtue of his or her Godly learning, as the Prayer Book of 1789 phrased it. In my case, this is supported by the fact that I am rarely thinking about anything other than our Trinity Community.

From time to time I need to stand back and take a breather in order to refocus upon what I am intuiting and sensing. Community is like a pond of water, fed by a strong underground spring. Turbulence gushes from the mouth of the spring rising to cause ripples and sometimes rather turbulent waves breaking the surface. As pastor and dean, my role is to gaze and reflect upon these ripples and waves. I am looking for the sense of where God is moving upon the face of our waters which are the reflection of our struggles to be faithful in our life as a community of Christ’s Body.

Conversing with the Text

When it was evening on that day, the first day of the week, and the doors of the house where the disciples had met were locked for fear of the Temple authorities and their henchmen, Jesus came and stood among them and said ‘Peace be with you’.

It has been a long, bewildering, exhausting day. Amidst the devastation caused to the their hopes and dreams by the events of Good Friday, the disciples begin this day discovering the body of their slain teacher removed, by whom they do not know. Harrowed and blinkered by grief, they have forgotten what Jesus had spent three years trying to show them and so his death on the cross is a loss to them, the implications of which are literally mind splintering.

They do what human beings do in such circumstances – they lock themselves away. Secluded behind doors of wood and walls of plaster they seek that feeling of safety amidst a hostile world. Yet, the doors of wood and walls of plaster are emblematic of the impenetrable walls and doors within their minds. These, they have erected to shield themselves from their suffering. Profound suffering and loss is like a feared tsunami threatening to burst upon them and obliterate them in a torrent of fearful rage and grief.

I am perplexed by the way John depicts the first two of Jesus’ post resurrection appearances. Next week I will explore the wider meaning of the post resurrection experiences.  The central theme for John seems to be the need to have faith. Faith is complicated by fear and doubt. Yet, while in my view fear is the more serious antithesis to faith, John emphasizes doubt.

What are we to make of doubting Thomas? We need, I think, to see Thomas not as the doubting disciple, but as the personification of all their doubts.doubting-thomas

I like this more contemporary version of the famous scene in John, published by Zondervan Press.

The epithet Doubting Thomas has become a name heaped on those who cannot rise to the demands of being true believers. In the story of Thomas, doubt is posed as the opposite of faith. This unfortunately has come to obscure for us the curious relationship of doubt to faith.  The story about doubting Thomas completely distracts us from recognizing the corrosive relationship of fear to faith, which is so strongly portrayed between verse 19-23. Thus the majority of Christians in this country are taught from an early age that doubt is the enemy of faith. To be a true believing Christian is to banish doubt, while encapsulating our fear, locking it away behind  blast proof doors deep in our minds. The denial and locking away of our fear so that we are no longer in touch with it is, for me, the principle explanation for the continued persecuting style of so much contemporary Christian rhetoric. A wonderful example is currently being played out before us as strident anti gay Christian voices now on the defensive, seamlessly move from victimizing others in the name of freedom of conscience, to seeing themselves as the victims of others who seek also to exercise freedom of conscience. However, John seems less interested in fear and more in doubt. He has his reasons, which I will explain later.

The popular attitude among many Christians concerning doubt evokes for me the conversation between Alice in Wonderland and the Mad Hatter. Alice proudly tells the Mad Hatter that: Sometimes I believe as many as six impossible things before breakfast.  The Hatter replies: That is an excellent practice.

Thomas, it seems would strongly disagree with both Alice and the Mad Hatter. He defiantly declares that unless he sees the proof he will not believe.

So John reports Jesus coming back the same time the following week seemingly to put Thomas right (note the cheers from the true believers in the background).  Yet, despite what Jesus tells Thomas- do not doubt but believe and blessed are those who have not seen and yet believe, the process in play here is one in which Thomas comes to faith because he has the courage to voice his doubt!

John has a purpose in focusing on doubt rather than fear. He reveals his purpose in the last verses of Chapter 20. He writes here that his recording of these events is but a snapshot of many events not recorded. He records these events so that successive generations may believe in Jesus Christ as the Son of God and so have the life that comes from faith. So his emphasis is on his Gospel as the living proof taken on faith for generations yet to come. He has a reason for the story about Thomas. It is to denigrate doubt as a desire for immediate here and now proof, in favour of received faith. Yet, to doubt is to be human. I think it is to misread John as a denial of this natural propensity for human beings to doubt what they are told. Paradoxically, Thomas comes to embody this human dilemma in a way that endears him to many.

The Anglican Tradition encourages us to give voice to doubt in matters of faith. It recognizes that deep human truth – to be human is to have doubt. For Anglicans doubt is not the enemy of faith. On the contrary, as we see with Thomas, doubting is very often the road to faith. No belief is possible unless we have arrived via the road of doubt. Therefore, Episcopalians understand doubt more as the process of doubting. To doubt is not to deny what is true, it is to go in search of what is true in order that you may find it. Doubting is a necessary process that enables us to finally accept truth. What upsets other Christians is that faith is not a packet to be lifted from the spiritual shelf. Coming to faith is a process. That process leads via the road of doubting. Coming to faith will take as long as it needs to take. What matters is not arriving at faith as if like a destination. What matters is being on the road that leads to faith. The seeds of faith are always sown in the rich soil of doubt.

For me, the only effective enemy of faith is fear. It is the disciples fear that has enclosed them not only behind locked doors made of wood and walls of plaster. Jesus moves through the locked doors and walls erected to protect them from being overwhelmed by their grief. He stands among them and says peace be with you. He then shows them his wounds. It’s interesting that Jesus’ post resurrection body still displays the marks of his suffering.  Jesus is coming to as one wounded, yet not vanquished, by grief and death.

As we journey in intentional conversation with God through the 50 days of Easter, our first task is to become aware of those places deep within where we have locked away out fear. Fear, out of sight- out of mind, is a dangerous thing. While, walled away in unconsciousness fear continues to drive our actions.  The message of the Resurrection is that through Jesus God promises us new life and new life casts our fear. Yet, in our new life we will still bare the scars of the wounds caused by our fear. Scarred and wounded we might remain, but we will be no longer afraid.

Jesus is saying to us Peace be with you! My peace I give you!

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