May 25, 2014
1 Peter 3:13-22
I mentioned last week that our Gospel was part of a multi-chapter passage from John’s Gospel called “The Farewell Discourse.” It took place on Maundy Thursday evening, just after the Last Supper, but before Jesus and the disciples went to the Garden of Gethsemane where Jesus would be arrested. Today’s reading picks up where last week’s reading left off. Jesus has just said to his disciples, “A new commandment I give to you: that you love one another as I have loved you.” Now Jesus announces that if his disciples love him, they will keep his commandments. If were to read on a little farther, we’d hear Jesus proclaim, “By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.” Do you think Jesus wanted to send the message that it’s really all about love?
If we want to create a method of prayer based on the Gospel of John, we could narrow it down to only one question to ask ourselves at the end of the day: “In what ways did I love or not love today?” Reflect on all that has happened since you woke up in the morning. Offer all of it—the good, the bad, and ugly—to God. That’s it. I invite you to try form of prayer in the coming weeks and see how it impacts your relationships with God, with other people, with yourself, and with the world.
How will you know if you’ve been loving or not? It isn’t about being sugary sweet all the time. Love is not so much about feeling as it is about behavior. Perhaps as you look back on your day, you see that you were pretty angry at your family, grumpy with co-workers, and down-right hostile to strangers on the street. But did you still make sure there was dinner on their table and a warm bed for them at night? Did you speak up to defend a person or group being harassed or bullied or oppressed, even though you had no emotional investment in those people? Or did you say, “Not in my backyard, not my problem”? To ask if you have loved or not loved on any given day might be similar to asking, “Did I do something not for my own benefit, but for the benefit of others today?” For that is what love is.
This kind of praying can be both uplifting and hard, because it opens our eyes to what needs changing, both within and around us. In church lingo this might be called repenting, turning around. The down side of such prayer is that it can also sometimes leads to merciless self-criticism and condemnation. That’s not the point. Nor is the point of this kind of praying to see how good you are compared to other people. God wants the whole world to be loved and whole, including you. But not just you.
What is called for when we come across ways we have not been loving, is recognition that we are seeing simply a diagnosis, not an end result. OK, so you weren’t perfect today. Or yesterday. Unlikely you will be tomorrow either. But in your baptisms, you have been sealed by the Holy Spirit and marked with the cross of Christ forever. You are precious and beloved of God, even if when you make mistakes. Let seeing ways you loved others nurture further demonstrations of love. Let examining where you’ve failed to love inspire you be more loving, not to dissolve into despair.
The Good News is that we are not left on our own to deal with our loving and failing to love. Before Jesus leaves his disciples, he made sure to wash their feet and show them how much they were loved. And then he fed them with his own body and blood, and assured them that they would not be abandoned orphans. Jesus guarantees they will not have to navigate the issues of sin and failure, of hope and courage and change, all by themselves. They will have an Advocate. The Holy Spirit will stay with them.
My hunch is that the disciples did not find much comfort in that idea, at least initially. They knew and trusted Jesus. They didn’t know the Holy Spirit, and they had no understanding of how God might have different incarnations. Many people have a harder time grasping the idea of God as Spirit than God as a Creator or God as Jesus. While people can compare God to a loving parent or a faithful friend, it’s trickier to capture the essence of the Holy Spirit. Even when the Bible tries to give us instances of the Spirit taking on some sort of form—a dove, a rush of wind, tongues of fire—there isn’t a solid concept to hang onto.
That’s why it’s easier to talk about what the Spirit DOES than it is to talk about what or who the Spirit IS. The Greek word parakletos is translated in our text today as Advocate. That is one way to explain the Holy Spirit. Think of the legal term advocate. It’s someone who defends a person on trial, who speaks on behalf of someone else. Parakletos can also be translated in other ways– Comforter, or a Counselor, or Helper. Parakletos is really all those things at the same time. I think it’s wonderful to try to use all those images together to create a picture of who the Holy Spirit is. But, like love, which is identifiable by actions, rather than words, we can understand the Holy Spirit better by looking at what is animated by the presence of the Holy Spirit.
In John’s Gospel, the Holy Spirit is said specifically to teach, remind, abide, and testify about Jesus. Like Jesus, the Holy Spirit deals in truth. And since we know that the Holy Spirit moves in us while we pray, we can rest assured that whatever we uncover about ourselves by asking the question, “How have I loved or failed to love today?” the Holy Spirit will comfort, counsel, teach, and help us in moving toward a more loving life tomorrow.
The Good News is that even when we don’t act in loving ways, or even want to try, the Spirit of God abides with us, stays with us. Through ups and downs, and successes and failures, the Spirit won’t leave us. Jesus promises: “Those who love me will keep my word, and my Father will love them, and we will come to them and make our home with them.” In our baptisms, God and Christ have made their home with us, have named and claimed us as part of the family. The Paraclete, our Advocate, pleads for mercy on behalf of the world God so loves.
Sometimes the most loving thing we can do for our neighbors is to tell a story about how we felt loved and cared for when there was no good reason for it. Was there a time when love called your name and you didn’t do anything to deserve it? We call that grace. Peter, in the second reading for today, calls loving and serving others in Christ’s name a way of being ready “to give an accounting for the hope that is in us.” People who are longing for love don’t need to hear platitudes and pie-in-the-sky “everything happens for a reason” explanations. They need to hear you say, “I know there is a God because once upon a time THIS happened to me. Or I did this. And I knew God was by my side.”
Who do you know who needs to hear that message today? Who needs to hear that he or she is loved beyond any reason? At whose feet can we make ourselves vulnerable enough to kneel and wash, showing their honor and dignity and worth? Who needs to taste and see the goodness of the Lord, and what stories can you share that would demonstrate that kind of love? What do we need to do for God’s sake? I mean literally for God’s sake. How can Trinity facilitate love-in-action—together and individually?
How can we worry that our own failures will block the actions of God? Nothing distances God from the world that God so loves. God is faithful. God is loving. God is present. God is active. God is in our desire to be more loving. God is in the love we share. God IS that love! God is in us and we are in God. What more could we hope for?