Friday, May 11, 2012

Easter 6B

The Sundays of Easter can be tough for a preacher, who week after week is faced with passages from John's Gospel, that – let's face it – have got a certain sameness about them.  No snappy parables to unpack, no improbable-sounding miracles to explain with a straight face, no confrontations between Jesus and his obliging sparring partners, the Pharisees, to get your teeth stuck into.  'Love one another', Jesus tells us over and over again.  'As I have loved you – as a shepherd who accepts the danger and hardship of caring for a mob of sheep – as a rootstock who sustains the life of the vine with nourishment drawn from the soil of God's love – notice this is not a guilt-trip sort of instruction.  Not – 'look at everything I have done for you, and this is all I ask ….' On the contrary it is an empowering kind of commandment – 'I have loved you, so now you can start to love one another with strength and integrity'.  But – well we started thinking about Jesus' final commandment way back on Maundy – that's from the Latin 'mandatum' or commandment – Maundy Thursday so spare a thought for the weekly preacher who by the sixth Sunday of Easter is starting to wonder whether there is a new angle here.

Have we got it yet?  A friend tells the story of a meeting between church leaders and aboriginal activists back in the heady days of the Mabo case and the struggle for recognition of native land title in the 90s.  At one point an elderly aboriginal woman got to her feet and looked around the room – at the white Church leaders – and said, 'it doesn't matter what the New Testament says, most Christians don't know what community is'.  And then she said, 'let's pretend you were really Christians.  You wouldn't hold on so tightly to what you've got.  You'd really love one another instead of just talking about it.  You'd treat each other like family.  You'd be different than other people.  Why don't you try that?'

When Jesus gave his disciples the command to love each other, the night before he died, the little community of men and women who followed Jesus was about to implode and self-destruct – fragmented and shamed by their own inability to stay with Jesus through the dark hours of his trial and crucifixion.  Seventy or so years later the little Christian community that the Johannine epistles are addressed to is facing its own trial of persecution and ostracism, and maybe they are tempted to close the doors, loving God of course, loving their sisters and brothers in the pews if they really have to, but keeping a safe distance from a world that has become hostile and critical.  This sort of ineffectual spirituality is called quietism, and when it happens it is always a sign of a church that has lost confidence, lost its way.  Because if Jesus calls us to love each other as he loved us – calls us, in other words, to love the same way he loved – then it's a very different ethic than the behind closed doors version of spirituality, isn't it? The risen Christ, in fact, appears to us whenever we huddle in a little community of the like-minded and tells us, 'as my Father has sent me, so I send you'. [1] What Jesus models for us is not the sort of love that judges or insulates itself from the world, but the sort of love that transforms the world.  The love of John's Gospel and the Johannine letters is not the self-affirming reassurance of the like-minded - but an ethic of love-in-action that prunes and grafts and tills the vine of shared humanity.

Like secateurs, Jesus' command to love has got sharp edges.  It gives us nothing less than a clear template for forming our values and framing our actions in every situation – it cuts though our 21st century sophistication with a directness that exposes our self-centredness.  Ask yourself this about every decision or plan, or about every attitude or opinion – does this grow out of love?  Is it based in love, or is it self-serving?  Is this going to bear the fruit of love for everyone Jesus insists is my neighbour, or is it just going to bear the fruit of self?  I'm not sure how well my inner life or my actions stand up to that test.  But it's the only test that counts.

The sort of love Jesus commands us to cultivate has got little or nothing to do with the glossy New Idea or Hallmark version, the essentially self-serving romantic mythology of the modern age.  The sort of love that the New Testament writers call agape means simply to be other-centred rather than self-centred.  This sort of love is not mushy or icky or slightly out of focus but strong and clear and life-giving – this sort of love is the opposite of legalism and social 'nice-ness' – as Jesus demonstrated over and over.  Agape love heals and includes and forgives – and critiques and tells the truth and stands up for justice.  But above all, agape love fulfils the command of Jesus by loving the same way Jesus loved.

An example from the early Church might help.  You see, once the disciples took Jesus at his word and decided to put his technique of collecting riffraff and hobnobbing with sinners into practise for themselves – the Gospel went viral in the ancient world.  It wasn't a religion of the polite and the well-connected, it was, quite frankly, a religion of slaves and undesirables.  Respectable commentators were horrified.  I'm not making this up.  Pagan philosophers despaired of this new religion of questionable morality.  Celsus, for example, in the second century, complains that while generally people who are invited to take part in religious festivities are the upright and moral, Christians go out of their way to invite anyone who is living an immoral life, or who is simpleminded or sinful – the more unjust the better, he claims, thieves and poisoners and graverobbers are welcome.  Why, says Celsus incredulously, if you wanted to put together the best gang of ne'er-do-wells you could imagine, just go along to one of their Eucharists.  The great Father of the Church, Origen, in reply to Celsus, simply agrees with him and coins one of the great phrases that has echoed down the centuries.  The Church, Origen says, is not a haven for saints but a hospital for sinners. [2]

Unfortunately, following the conversion of a thuggish Roman emperor a couple of centuries later, the Church lost its disreputable edge.  We became respectable.  If you've ever wondered, for example, why priests wear albs and stoles and chasubles it's because this is the dress of a senator at the height of the power of the Roman Empire.  This is very bad for the practise of agape love, which works – that is to say in including the marginalised and finding the lost and healing the wounded – precisely to the extent that we are prepared to stand where they stand.  To the extent that we are prepared to identify with the miserable and the oppressed, the refugee, the homeless, the drug-addicted and the guilty.  Thankfully, the tide is beginning to turn against Christianity.  Thankfully, it has become less fashionable and less sophisticated now to admit to coming to church.  We have a lot to thank the New Atheists for, people like Christopher Hitchens and Richard Dawkins who helpfully point out the moral and intellectual vacuity of faith.  Apparently atheists now call themselves 'brights'.  Which presumably means people of faith are again simpleminded.  Thank heaven for that – let's get back to the core business of associating with riffraff and practising Jesus' simple genius of agape love.

As an aside, the Anglican Church still struggles for respectability.  I'm not convinced, for example, by the recent edict of our insurers, endorsed by the bishops, that we can accept some released prisoners into our churches only if they are prepared to sign a legal document restricting their involvement in the life of the community.  By all means poisoners and robbers should leave their arsenic and cudgels in the foyer when they enter the church – the safety of little ones is not protected however by putting fences around Jesus' ethic of radical inclusion.

So what does it mean for us? What if we simply don't have the opportunity to get to know our local drug dealer or car thief?  What if our friends and family are all drearily law-abiding? How do we practise agape love then? Must we all volunteer at soup kitchens or needle exchange clinics?  Well, many Christians do.  A group of young people in Victoria Park right now are raising money for poor villagers in Papua New Guinea by accepting the challenge of living for a month like the poorest Australians by eating less than $2 worth of food every day.  That's agape love, identifying with the poverty of others and doing something about it.  Our own parish craft group is busily knitting squares for the Anglicare Winter Appeal, identifying with the needs of people in our own community who are going to be cold this winter.  That's agape love.  Smiling and talking with members of your own community in the local shopping centre – the young woman in the hijab, the young man covered in tattoos and piercings, the older man who looks as though he's been sleeping rough.  Getting to know the person sitting next to you in the pew right now who – frankly – looks and sounds a bit different than you.  That's agape love.

[1] Jn 20.19-21

[2] Origen, Contra Celsus, 3.59ff.