A sermon preached on May 29th, 2011 based upon John 14:15-21.
“If you love me,” Jesus said to his disciples the night before he died, “You will keep my commandments.” If you search John’s Gospel, you will find Jesus giving only one commandment, and it is this: “Love one another, as I have loved you.” Which is to say, loving Jesus, or loving God can’t be separated out from loving other people. The two go hand in hand.
Earlier in that upper room, Jesus had given the most concrete example of what this love would look like: he knelt down on the floor before each of the disciples and bathed their feet. Pretty gritty stuff, this love he was talking about.
Among the twelve original apostles, John alone is said to have lived into old age, most likely in the city of Ephesus in Asia Minor. In his later years not only his body but also his mind became somewhat enfeebled. The aging evangelist John was eventually pared down to but a few words – indeed to a single expression—which he would repeat constantly. One may imagine the esteem and great reverence accorded this last surviving apostle of our Lord. On the Lord’s Day he would be carried into the midst of the congregation that had assembled for worship. The people would fall silent to hear his words. Then the old man would open his mouth. This is what the aged apostle would say: “My children, love one another. My children, love one another. My children, love one another.” Over and over again. Just this, the distilled essence of the Gospel.
The Gospel lesson this morning contains language that alludes to what is known as the doctrine of “the trinity”. God in three persons, blessed trinity: Father, Son and Holy Spirit. I must confess, I have never managed to get very excited over doctrine of the trinity. It has tended to strike my ears as an irrelevant abstraction that for some reason we were supposed to give credence to.
This week, however, as I read over this passage and did some reading in the “trinity,” I found myself captivated by an idea that I had never given much thought to, and is this: that in the very essence or “heart” of God, there is relationship, there is community, there is love. In Genesis one, God says, “Let us make human beings in our own image.” The divine image already contains community, relationship, love. The idea here is that before the universe was created, there already was relationship, community, love – between the three persons of the Godhead, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.
God is not to be imagined as self-sufficient, but rather, inter-dependent. When God says, “It is not good for man to be alone.” God knows of what he speaks.
To fully embrace this image, we too must live in relationship, in community, in love. Fully humanity, as with fully divinity, doesn’t exist alone. We need other persons to be fully human. And Jesus’ promise that he will not leave us orphaned is a reassurance in regards to our relational nature. We will not be left without family.
Interestingly, the Godhead isn’t made of just two persons: it is made of three. Relationships of two always have the potential of being self-absorbed in their own way. When three are involved, you have community.
Harold Gantert survived his year of captivity in a German prison camp — indeed flourished — by becoming creatively engaged in the community that he found himself dropped into. When the camp was closed down, and the prisoners were forced to go on a grueling march, he was sustained by his concern for his brothers stumbling beside him.
The Holy Spirit is the part of the God head that is specifically in charge of creating community. The Holy Spirit is better understood not as God within us, but rather God between us. It takes two to make a Christian. The only way to God is through other people.
There was a great 20th century Jewish theologian named Martin Buber who spoke of “I- thou” relationships. Rather than view the other as an “it”, in an “I –Thou” relationship the other is honored as mysterious and holy. The other cannot be controlled; the other is respected as free.
In spite of the fact that we live in a time in which the standard of living we enjoy would have been incomprehensible to people of any generation past, our happiness quotient hasn’t improved, and our loneliness and isolation is greater now than any other time. You cannot replace Thous with Its.
I remember Doris Bradley’s mother telling me that the happiest years of her life were, surprisingly, the years of the great depression, when, as a young mother she lived in a close knit neighborhood, with families getting together on front porches, sharing life together.
We don’t build front porches anymore. Nowadays, it is not uncommon for neighbors to barely know the names of who live next door. Yesterday I drove through a community of full of brand new big, gaudy mansions, with millions of dollars invested in living apart from others pretentiously. The ideal home has become one where there is plenty of privacy – little direct contact with your neighbors – and lots of big empty rooms.
The most disturbing thing about Harold Camping was his teaching regarding the church: that he counseled his followers to abandon the churches, to forsake relating to “Thous” and instead relate to its: TVs and Bibles.
You can, of course, relate to people as if they were “its”, but this is precisely what Jesus never did. And when the holy spirit is at work in our life it allows us to encounter holy thous where before we had turned people into its.
Sociologists point to the fact that in increasingly ethnically diverse settings, people tend to “hunker down” – to “pull in like a turtle.” What we are about here in this church where we strive to live in a way that remembers that there is always room in the circle is truly radical.
I want to finish with a story from a book I’ve been reading by a Jesuit priest who helped start a ministry called “Homeboy Industries” to young people trapped in gang life on the streets of LA:
“I had a twenty-three-year-old homie named Miguel working for me on our graffiti crew. As with a great many of our workers, I had met him years earlier when he was detained. He was an extremely nice kid, whose pleasantness was made all the more remarkable by the fact that he had been completely abandoned by his family. Prior to their rejection of him, they had mistreated, abused, and scarred him plenty. He calls me one New Year’s Day, “Happy New Year, G.”
“Hey, that every thoughtful of ya, dog,” I say.
(In street slang, to refer to someone as a dog is a compliment. A dog is someone who has your back. When Jesus refers to the Holy Spirit as being the paraclete, he is talking about somebody who walks beside us. In street slang, dog would be another name for the holy spirit.)
“You know, Miguel, I was thinkin’ of ya—you know, on Christmas. So whad ya do for Christmas?” I asked knowing that he had no family to welcome him in.
“Oh, you know, I was just right here,” meaning his tiny little apartment, where he lives alone.
“All by yourself?” I ask.
“Oh no,” he quickly says, “I invited homies from the crew—you know, vatos like me who didn’t had no place go for Christmas.”
He names the five homies who came over—all former enemies from rival gangs.
“Really,” I tell him, “that sure was nice of you.”
But he’s got me revved and curious now. “So,” I ask him, “what did you do?”
“well,” he says, “you not gonna believe this…. But…. I cooked a turkey.” You can feel his pride right through the phone.
“Wow, you did? Well, how did you prepare it?”
“You know,” he says, “Ghetto-style.”
I tell him that I’m not really familiar with this recipe.
He’s more than happy to give up his secret. “Yeah, well, you just rub it with a gang a’ butter, throw a bunch a’ salt and pepper on it, squeeze a couple of limones over it and put it in the oven. It tasted proper.”
I said, “Wow, that’s impressive. What else did you have besides the turkey?”
“Just that. Just turkey,” he says. His voice tapers to a hush. “Yeah. The six of us, we just sat there, staring at the oven, waiting for the turkey to be done.”
One would be hard-pressed to imagine something more sacred and ordinary than these six orphans staring at an oven together. It is the entire law and the prophets, all in one moment, right there, in this humble kitchen.” (Tattoos on the Heart: The Power of Boundless Compassion, by Gregory Boyle. p. 87-88)