Joy Made Complete, May 6, 2018, St. Paul’s, Vancouver
Acts 10:44-4; Ps 98; 1 John 5:1-6; John 15:9-17
“This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you.”
A question I often ask myself (and sometimes my wife if she’s nearby when the thought strikes me) is “why do people come to church?” I’ve attended a lot of churches over the years and sometimes I can tell what draws people to the church. Sometimes it seems obvious that it’s the compelling preaching. Sometimes it’s the incredible and beautiful music. Sometimes it’s the community of people who tend to gather there. Sometimes it’s all of these things and even more. And sometimes I just can’t figure out why people would bother coming at all—or at least why they keep coming back.
I recognize that everyone has their own reasons. Some people truly come to worship. Some people come to socialize. Some people may even come because they feel as though they are burdened with sin and are looking for relief and forgiveness. And, I have to confess, even though I lead the Confession and Absolution in the service and say the words along with you (“I, too have sinned against God, in thought word and deed, by what I have done and what I have left undone”), lately I’ve realized that I don’t really want to become more aware of my sinfulness. I know my usual and repeated sins, and I’m not really interested in going deeper. I’m not looking for more work. I don’t want to be a better person, because that would be really hard work. I’m much happier just being forgiven the usual sins and getting on with things. I’d be happier knowing that I’m okay as I am, and that that is good enough.
And I think that’s another reason why people come to church. They want to feel good about themselves.
I read an article on Facebook recently about church. The title of the article was “Dear women’s ministry: Stop telling me I’m beautiful.” The author criticized the leaders of conventions and workshops designed for women that repeated the platitudes like “You are a beautiful, chosen, special woman of God. There is no one in the world like you!” The point of the critique was that all Christians, regardless of gender, need to learn about God and marvel at who God is rather than focusing on their own self-worth.
And yet I’m sure that is another reason why people come to church—to be encouraged and comforted—to be told that they are good, and worthy, and a child of God, just as they are (which is, of course, true).
The reality is that I don’t know what motivates people to come to church—or to do anything at all for that matter. I can try to understand people and what they have lived through and what their life is like, but really, the only life I can fully understand is my own.
I don’t know what someone else is feeling or what they’ve been through. I like to think that I try, and that I have some kind of a social conscience—that I try to be a “good person.” I tell myself that I’m “one of the good ones.” But I also know that life is not fair—and that I often have the upper hand.
I was reminded of this earlier this week at the training we held on sexual misconduct. Many of the situations we discussed considered the age, gender, and role of people who were involved. As a straight, white, cis-gendered male in a position of influence, I’m holding a lot of the cards. I’ve got far more than my fair share of power, and not only in interpersonal relationships, but in society in general. My life is not a struggle on a daily basis.
And it is very easy for me to get comfortable with that. White men like me have stacked the deck in favour of future white men like me—but we have also pretended as though things are fair and that we got here on our own merits. I can convince myself that we live in a meritocracy where each gets according to their willingness to work hard.
But I’ve never been a woman [or a person of colour, or LGBT or Q, or differently abled, or…]. I can walk outside the downtown eastside at any time of the day or night and not worry too much for my safety. I can rest assured that I’m being paid 100% of my salary, and not 74% based on my gender. I can take comfort in the knowledge that if something dangerous were to happen to me, I could call the police and be reasonably sure that they would help me—and not have to fear even more for my own safety for them simply being there. I can make comments on other people’s inability to work hard, on the way they dress or present themselves, on their accent, on their size or shape, or on their romantic relationships without fearing that I will be judged by any of those same criteria.
And that’s not fair. But it’s easy—for me.
And some of you may share some of these privileges with me—though each of us is unique with our own circumstances and mix of advantages and challenges.
And yes, since I have all these advantages I might have even more ability to make the world a more fair place than someone who is already facing struggles—but that might make my life harder—AND it would be extra work for me!
Really, if I can just be happy the way things are, why cause a fuss? If there’s a problem, why can’t the people who have the problem do something to fix it?
As a Christian, I count Jesus as one of my friends. Jesus has my back. He’s got me covered. In fact, me being a Christian is a big reason why things are going so well for me. God is blessing me because I’m a good person. Right?
And what does it mean to be Jesus’ friend?
We heard today, from the gospel of John, “You are my friends if you do what I command you. I do not call you servants any longer, because the servant does not know what the master is doing; but I have called you friends.” We all know the commandments, right? Love the lord thy God, honour thy father and mother, don’t steal or commit adultery, etc. Piece of cake.
…And then Jesus gave his new commandment: “This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you. No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends. You are my friends if you do what I command you.” All of a sudden, this seems a little more complicated.
I read something very profound this week as I was preparing for this sermon. So often in the church we get caught up on “sins.” We think of Jesus as an “atoning sacrifice” for the sins of the world. We think that Jesus came down from heaven and suffered and died on the cross so that he might take the punishment that we all deserve—that Jesus might suffer so that we don’t have to.
But what I read this week cast the cross in a very different light. What if Jesus died on the cross simply to show us how far he would go to show God’s love for us? We often talk about how horrible crucifixion is, and sometimes we even recognize how awful it was that Jesus was deserted, and mocked, and beaten and tortured—all based on the insistence of the very people he was trying to help.
Is that what true love is?
“No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.”
Is that what Jesus was demonstrating? The extent of God’s love for us?
Jesus showed us that loves costs something.
It might not cost us our life—but there are other ways that it might cost us. To love others as Jesus loved us might make us uncomfortable. It might inconvenience us. It might make us lose our positions of influence or power. It might make our friends and family distant themselves from us. If we love others as Jesus loved us, it might make others like us call us traitors—for widening the circle to include others who have been left out. It might mean that we have unpleasant conversations with people we respect and whose opinions we value—we might have to let others know how their comments are degrading or disrespectful (even when the people being degraded or disrespected can’t hear what’s being said).
Because really, when we look at it, if it doesn’t cost us anything, if it can’t possibly hurt us, if we can walk away completely unaffected, is it really love? It cost Jesus everything. He had nothing left. No friends, no family, not even any clothing. Even God deserted him. Then he lost his very life. If he had anything else to give, he would have.
Perhaps most challenging of all, if we are to truly love others as Jesus loved us, it will probably (almost definitely) mean that we (read: I) still have work to do. None of us, myself included get to just take it easy and coast. We have to continue to learn and grow and struggle and admit that we were wrong. None of that is appealing. It is much easier to do nothing. To be complacent. For me, in my comfortable bubble, the joy that I think I have—it’s not real joy. It has not been made complete. For the real joy that Jesus promises comes from obeying his commandments: “If you keep my commandments, you will abide [remain] in my love, just as I have kept my Father’s commandments and abide [remain] in his love.”
And Jesus’ (not-so) simple commandment was this: love one another.
“I have said these things to you so that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be complete. This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you.”
Prayer: Gracious Lord, teach us to love one another as you loved us. Help us to give of ourselves in showing true love for others, even when it costs us. Grant that your joy may be in us and may be complete. We ask this, heavenly Father, as your son Jesus Christ commanded, and we ask it in his name. Amen.