Sunday, May 9, 2010

Love, Suffering, and Story

(A sermon preached at All Saints' Episcopal Church. Littleton, NH, on the Fifth Sunday of Easter, 5/2/2010)

Two weeks ago, I passed over the great story of the Conversion of Paul (Acts 9:1-21) in order to talk about that weird epilogue of the Gospel of John. You remember: no fish, lots of fish, naked Peter who puts on clothes in order to swim to shore, and so on into the strange and stranger. (John 21:1-19)

I now wish to go back to Paul’s conversion story. After Paul, or as he is known at the moment, Saul, encounters the Lord Jesus and is blinded, a man named Ananias gets a vision of the Lord about going to Paul and laying hands on him to restore his sight. Ananias, rather boldly, says to the Lord “I have heard from many about this man, how much evil he has done to your saints in Jerusalem; and here he has authority from the chief priests to bind all who invoke your name.”

The Lord responds “Go, for he is an instrument whom I have chosen to bring my name before Gentiles and kings and before the people of Israel.” That’s pretty straightforward. The Lord, however, continues to say: “I myself will show him how much he must suffer for the sake of my name.”

Every time I hear those words, I do a double take. I’m not sure how comfortable I am with ever hearing what sounds like punishment proclaimed by a vision voice from God. This is especially true when the speaker is the Risen Christ.

Now, we know some things about Paul. He self confesses that he violently persecuted those proclaiming Jesus as Lord before his conversion. Since he was a Roman citizen, he was living a pretty comfortable life, and had more than a little power. One could say that after this conversion, he suffered personally with things ranging from persecution, imprisonment, and his eventual execution in Rome.

I guess that it’s not unreasonable to assume that this is what the Risen Lord meant in saying “I myself will show him how much he must suffer for the sake of my name.”

However, I think that there is a better explanation that is voiced by today’s Gospel.

Jesus says: I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.’ (John 13:34-35)

I have to wonder what is really new about this commandment. “Love your neighbor as yourself” does not originate with Jesus. Remember, we heard Jesus quote this Jewish commandment earlier in Luke’s Gospel, along with loving God, when a lawyer asks about inheriting eternal life (Luke 10:25-28). In Mark’s Gospel, the same answer is given by Jesus to the scribe’s question over which commandment is greatest (Mark 12:28-33).

The command to love one another is clearly not new. Perhaps, then, it is the degree of loving that Jesus lived out, and is drawing his disciples into.

I think this is in part a command to respond out of love in all things.

Another part is seeing everyone...even someone who is our neighbor.

And, perhaps, Jesus is acknowledging the connection between love and suffering.

I want to talk about this connection by first insisting that I’m not suggesting that love is about taking abuse from people. The church has taught this at times, and it is a poor understanding that has led to people staying in abusive relationships of all sorts. That’s not what I mean by suffering.

Now that I’ve made this point, I want to insist that it’s still a reality that having love for one another opens us up to suffering of all kinds. Loving means being vulnerable to hurt feelings and disappointment. Loving means caring about what others think, feel, and encounter. Loving means experiencing pain when others are struggling, or ill, or dying. Loving means caring when tragedy strikes...our heart breaking...whether it’s happening here, or halfway around the world.

Loving as Jesus also means that we may have to face trials, or scorn, or persecution; because loving this way means standing up for what is right.

Having love for one another risks suffering.

Paul becomes committed to loving as Jesus has loved. Doing so exposes him to suffering that he had, before, closed himself off from. This isn’t punishment. Instead, this gives him a way forward...a way to live in love.

There is an additional point I wish to make this morning, and to do so I must refocus on the account from the Book of Acts of Peter and the early Jewish Christians. (Acts 11:1-18)

Peter’s remarkable vision from God, and the following encounter with the Gentiles from Caesarea, is a story that is told in its entirety twice, in back to back chapters. It is critical to the early Christian community, and for us today.

What we have this morning is the second telling, and the context is a storm cloud of criticism from the Jewish Christians. “Why did you go to uncircumcised men and eat with them?”

Their revulsion at this change from the accepted norm could cause a serious divide in the early community.

It’s interesting to note that Peter does not use theological debate to persuade them to change their thinking. Instead, Peter simply tells them his story, and what he experienced.

The text says, “When they heard this, they were silenced. And then they praised God!”

The revulsion over particular Gentile practices is no longer what holds ultimate importance. Instead, they have listened to Peter’s experience that changed his heart...and recognized what God was doing within these people’s lives. They saw that this was cause for celebration, and not a cause for hardening of hearts.

Professor of Theology Lewis Mudge writes that “revulsion, in the ancient world or now, does not respond to theological argument. A change of heart comes when one sees the Spirit at work in the stories of strangers, recognizing in them the same Spirit that is working in one’s own life. People need first to see God at God’s surprising work. Theological reflection comes afterward, either to bring what has been seen into coherence with past thinking, or to make a reasoned break with that thinking.... An important lesson to be learned from this episode and its consequences is that, while conversion changes the convert, the convert also brings a new perspective to the message. Bringing people of a new culture into the faith community calls for restatement of the gospel in terms that speak to that new culture, and so it has been throughout church history. It is extremely significant that an authorization of such cultural restatement lies here, within the New Testament narrative.” (Feasting on the Word, Year C, Vol. 2, Ed. David Bartlett & Barbara Brown Taylor, eds., p.452)

This echoes again the Gospel of John, and a new way of loving each other: love amidst change. Change is a necessity in the Christian life, because our understanding of what God is doing is forever widening.

Thanks be to God.


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