I was away at Jessica’s 20th college reunion last week, but I hear the confirmand class did a beautiful job leading worship. Today is Memorial Day; I just offered upon request a prayer at the Granby Memorial Day parade, a lovely event, that probably came off a little odd. I remain unsure as a pastor in this patriotic small town how to connect the Gospel to a desire among some in the community for the church to offer a kind of general blessing upon civic life.
On this seventh Sunday in Easter, we only brought Memorial Day into the liturgy by including veterans in our prayers; someone also decided to make “America the Beautiful” into our recessional music. But with this Sunday being the last in our regular Easter season (the pinnacle of the Christian sacred year), and with this also being the Sunday after Ascension, and the last Sunday in my “Life for Others” series, I had plenty to deal with in the liturgy.
1 Peter 4:12-14; 5:6-11 ; John 17:1-11
I am at week seven of my series on “Life for Others.” It’s not easy spinning out a seven-week series on three little words, especially when I’m using as much of the set lectionary Scripture readings as I can. Perhaps it has not been easy for you, either. In seven weeks, I think I’ve exhausted all the possible wordplays on “life for others,” except that at times this phrase has felt like a “life sentence” for us all.
But I have no regrets about having so much to say about “life for others.” The idea has been that this phrase conveniently distills the simple essence of Christian life. It really is that simple: being a Christian requires no elaborate mental gymnastics, no belief in arcane and mystical realities. Being a Christian is not primarily about mental belief. It is about your life taking on a certain shape: being for others. For those of you who are new to church, I hope it is helpful to see that at heart, being a Christian is at its most basic about how you live your life. That basic insight can also be a helpful reminder for us long-time Christians, too. In essence, what we are about here is very simple, and anyone is able to join us. There’s no great expertise required.
But to be sure, I also made the phrase “life for others” into a window into the deeper mysteries at the center of our worship. I do not think Christianity would be the same if we got rid of worship and our special, sometimes obscure language about God, Jesus Christ, the Holy Spirit, and if we left off the sacraments. I don’t think the sermon for every week could just be reduced to: “Go live for others!” (Although I can feel the lovers of short services begin to fantasize: “with no communion and a four-word sermon, we could be in and out of here in five minutes!”) So I made the case, at some length and requiring a good deal of patience on your part, that the phrase “life for others” implies and perhaps requires us to believe that Jesus Christ is life for others, even and especially in his death on a cross. It is mysterious but true, that because Jesus gave his life all to God for all, we do not have to sacrifice ourselves to God and give away our lives for others, because first off, God wanted to give us life to live and enjoy and share. But we in the church are also called, to various extents, to give ourselves to others in imitation of Jesus. This is not just a nice but idealistic gesture; it is a participation in the supernatural life of Christ that constitutes our eternal life. This is why 1st Peter tells us to “rejoice insofar as you are sharing Christ’s sufferings, [and notice that means that we do not have to share fully in his sufferings] so that you may also be glad and shout for joy when his glory is revealed.”
So even while we enjoy for ourselves the goodness of creation, we are called as a church to take on the self-giving life for others that Jesus perfected; and I’ll say more later about how this life for others is grounded eternally in God. It is because life for others rests on God’s own life that we really welcome all here, and why we continually try to reach out to the whole world, if only through small efforts of prayer and support for our denomination’s ministry to the far corners of the world.
But today, on this last Sunday before Pentecost when we celebrate the birth of the church, I want to talk about life for others as the unique shape of our community. For there is something particularly beautiful and inspiring about what we are called to be as a church community. And that is a community of mutual love. Because that is what you get when “life for others” becomes the shape of a stable, local community: mutual love. I live for you, and you live for me, and we all live for each other.
And isn’t that the kind of community you want to live in, deep down in your created nature? Isn’t that what everyone wants, deep down? At least, my faith tells me that this is what we all want. But I suppose that is only obvious to the eyes of faith. You know why? Because we’ve all been conditioned to think that what we actually want is that I live for me, and you should just mind your own damn business. That’s the gist of all our deserted island fantasies and our suburban utopia dreams. I’ll do whatever I want to do here, and you can do whatever you want over there, and if I decide I need anything from you, I’ll call your people and we’ll negotiate a deal.
This is not life for others, it is capitalism. It is business, it is commerce. And that’s ok. Once people no longer feel like they belong to each other, once we no longer love and implicitly trust one another, if we ever really did, capitalism can successfully step into the breach as a successful system for negotiating relationships of mutual benefit. And “mutual benefit” sounds almost like life for others, which I just described in the church as “mutual love.” But the difference is crucial. God in Christ has not offered us a mutually beneficial deal, even if in 1st Peter it almost sounds like we suffer so that God will pay us back; but in reality God has given himself to us so that we can give ourselves to God and to the world. We need to attend carefully to the difference, and insist upon it, because capitalism has been if anything too successful, so that it wants to imagine itself as the only system, the only way to be a community. Capitalism wants to recreate the whole world, including the church, in its image.
I was just talking to an acquaintance—a good guy—who is very successful at finance, and he is quick to talk as if everything we are or we do is a product, and everyone is in competition to make and acquire the best product. It’s a useful way to talk, in some contexts; maybe even the church can talk about our “product”—but in doing so we run the risk of losing our soul. Because at heart we are about loving and giving, not competition over products. Even the most ardent capitalist knows—God help him if he doesn’t—that our own families are not about products and competition. I am not offering Silas the product of fatherhood which he, being a child, is in the market for. That does sound absurd, right? I am his father; he is my son; we love each other, we give ourselves to one another, we belong to one another. The shape of our relationship is not producer and consumer; it is life for one another or mutual love. No one is foolish enough to let one’s relationship to a lover or to family become a commodity, although capitalism has no doubt encouraged us to see even love as something I choose to do because it benefits me. But any parent can see that this is false.
Capitalism has been an effective system, but it robs us of our deep belonging to one another; it cannot do love. When it tries, it ends up with prostitution. We don’t want that; we want real, authentic love. And so the community of mutual love that we are as a church is something that people will realize they really do want, eventually. We could call it our sure-fire “product;” but it is not a product, because you don’t own love, love owns you. And love is our deepest desire because God created us for love.
The Gospel of John develops this idea of love with a particular profundity. Our reading this week comes from the four chapters of the gospel in which Jesus is having a long, last talk with his disciples after the last supper. In chapter 13 he announces the great commandment that we celebrate at Maundy Thursday: “Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another.” That is the theme for the next four chapters of John.
In our reading today, Jesus is wrapping up his talk with a final prayer, that grounds this new commandment in God’s love. First he prays to God above, the Father: “Glorify your Son so that the Son may glorify you.” At the origin of everything Jesus does is a mutual love and mutual giving between the Son and the Father. As later theologians thinking about the Trinity would realize more deeply, this mutual glorifying goes well beyond the human Jesus, all the way back to a mutual relationship in God’s eternal being. Jesus prays, “Father, glorify me in your own presence with the glory that I had in your presence before the world existed.” That’s mysterious language. Let’s translate it like this: Jesus began as an intention or plan of God from before all time, called “the Word,” and then he was born in time according to that intention (“and the Word was made flesh”). He proclaims now that he has fulfilled God’s intention, for he sees the cross and resurrection right around the corner; and we rightly read this speech after Easter because it is as if Jesus is summing up his whole ministry in retrospect. Now he wishes to return to the eternal presence of God. But we should realize that he’s not literally talking about going back to some place in the universe whence he came. No: he’s talking about ascending into God’s power and presence to all times and places. God is everywhere and in all times. Now Christ is about to be everywhere and in all times.
And therefore, this eternal presence of God in Christ is available here and now to us. We get used to thinking of “eternal life” as some heavenly realm far away. And the allusions to “eternal life” in the Gospel of John allow for several different interpretations of what eternal life is; just read the end of chapter 17. But in this passage Jesus explicitly defines it as simply understanding this relationship of mutual love between God and Jesus: “And this is eternal life: that they may know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent.” Eternal life does not refer here to a place, or even a time. It is just knowing the mutual love that lies at the very heart of God, at the heart of the Trinity. I’ve written an academic essay about the Trinity, but don’t ask me to explain what this eternal love between the Father and Son at the heart of the Trinity looks like. But like I said last time, it means that for us, God really is love. God doesn’t just intend to love or desire to love. God’s very being involves an eternal love between the Father and Son, even though we can’t picture how that works.
Only after he prays to God above, the Father or Mother, does Jesus turn to praying for his disciples. This gets to the central insight of John’s gospel: our life for others as a mutual love here in the church is based on the reality of God as mutual love within the Trinity. In our acts and attitudes of loving one another, we are participating in God’s eternal life, this eternal love on which all things have been founded and created.
When Jesus finally gets around to praying to God for something on our behalf, the request is simple: “Holy Father, protect them in your name that you have given me, so that they may be one, as we are one.” Do you see how he connects our love to his own love within God’s being? We, Jesus’ disciples, are part of the mutual giving between the Father and Son. “You [God] gave them to me,” says Jesus. And then Jesus taught us who God is: “The words that you have given to me, I have given to them.” So by sharing with us his intimate knowledge with God, we disciples are led from the Jesus we came to know in person, and the words and stories in scripture, to the inner reality of God that defines who Jesus most truly is. And so Jesus wasn’t really making us his disciples. He was showing us God the Father, and making us to participate in the eternal loving and mutual giving between God and the Son. It’s not so important that we memorize all of Jesus’ words, or preserve every fact about him: how he dressed, how he ate, remarkable things he said or did. Muslims have the delightful hadith about Mohammed, which are the stories collected about him outside of the Qur’an. We Christians have nothing like this about Jesus. But it doesn’t matter. What matters is living this life for others that Jesus showed us, this mutual love of giving ourselves to one another, for in doing so, we are participating in the shape of God’s own life, the mutual giving and glorifying between Father and Son. So we are not just followers of Jesus, we are participants in God’s eternal life. He prays to the Father: “All mine are yours, and yours are mine; and I have been glorified in them.” We are the glory of Christ. And because we are Jesus’, we are God’s.
This participating in God’s own life is not ours as individuals. It’s is not a divine spark that is found within each one of us individually. (That’s an inside joke with Connie Brown, whom I am shamelessly teasing because I am a rascal. Connie deserves a better pastor.) God is not in me and then again in you. I am told that the Hindu greeting, “Namaste,” means something like, “The god in me greets the god in you.” That’s lovely, but it’s not what John’s Gospel is talking about. It is not as if we each individually are God or each have our own piece of God. We only participate in God by loving one another. Jesus prays to God that his disciples “may be one, as we are one.” The ultimate reality of God is one. Not as we sometimes picture God, a grand paternalistic old man sitting alone on a throne in heaven. The oneness of God is an act of loving. If we could see this oneness of God, it wouldn’t look like a single person or thing; we would only see something like a Mother or Father, a source or origin, and a Son, or expression of that invisible origin. There is not one person in God, one entity, as we often think. There is ultimately a oneness but it is itself love: the mutual giving and receiving, the sharing of these two. This is what God finally is for John’s gospel, and we have to think of this love that is God as existing before any distinction of Father and Son—but now we are into deep and mind-blowing mysteries.
Because we inevitably think love comes second. First there’s me. And I meet some attractive girl and then we decide to get married. And then from the two of us come some children, and then I love them. But that’s not the truth./ You may think that you visited this church one day, and you liked the people and the reverent but informal worship. The sermon was long and ponderous, but you endured it, and finally you decided you love this place. Maybe you even thought you had found a bargain: you’ll pledge some money, maybe volunteer here and there, and in return you’ll get that communal good-feeling and a place for your child to learn some wholesome values. But that’s not the truth. That’s not what is really happening, according to John. The love that we enact here is a participation in God’s eternal life that has preceded us and our decisions. That’s why Jesus can talk about “those you [God] gave to me.” The love we participate in here stands at the origin of all things, and that love is more real and enduring than your calculations and decisions about how to spend your time and where to raise your kids. That love has created all the mutual giving in our cosmos: the mutual attraction of neutron and proton in each little atom of your body, the mutual attraction between sun and earth that makes all life possible, the explosive giving forth of the Big Bang as it continues to fan out in loving encounters across the universe. It’s all love, because the eternal loving trinity has created it all. And what we do here when we love each other, in our life for others, is to further show forth that eternal love, here and now. We know the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom God sent. Next week we’ll add the Spirit, and then we got the whole shebang.