The readings for the Fifth Sunday of Easter are:
First Reading Acts 8:26–40
Psalm Psalm 22:25–31
New Testament 1 John 4:7–21
Gospel John 15:1–8
Hal David wrote the lyrics, Burt Bacharach the music, and Jackie deShannon sang the song. Sure it was sappy and idealistic, but the nation needed it as it witnessed the first 3,500 American combat troops being sent into the gaping monster that was the Vietnam Conflict while thousands of their brothers burned their draft cards. The nation was hungering for sappy love as hundreds were having their heads bashed in on Bloody Sunday in Selma, Alabama because they marched for the rights of Black folk to vote.
What the broken and bleeding world needs is love, sweet love.
Perhaps the song was; but is love itself really so idealistic? Is it not the most practical thing we can do? When our heads swim with all the contrary proposals we need to fall back on something solid. When every call to awakening is shot full of holes by the opposition, isn’t it time to hear of the single, simple thing we all need if we are going to listen to each other and cooperate? Perhaps the solid, single, simple thing we need to build upon is love.
It’s downright startling that the Psalm Mark and Matthew tell us Jesus prayed from the cross—the lament that starts, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” ends with one of the strongest affirmations of universalism in the Bible (Psalm 22:25-31). God holds dominion over all space and time—over all nations and families around the world, and over all the dead and the coming generations. God owns them, and their whole purpose is to serve God—so, the Psalmist and Jesus stake their lives on this: “I will live and die for the ultimate destiny of the universe.”
At this stage in my long life, I embrace such universalism. I like it. Yet many would disagree. “Surely we must make exceptions. Surely God’s dominion doesn’t include everybody and everything! Surely some people and things are out of bounds.”
I also like Acts. “Look, water! What’s to prevent me from being baptized?” says the Black, Ethiopian eunuch to the Hellenized Jewish Jesus follower who is on a wilderness road to Gaza (You remember Gaza, where tens of thousands of Palestinians live like prisoners in their own land?). Here too is a call to universalism that I find powerful and persuasive; but you may disagree. Where are the months of catechesis that the church requires? Where are the creeds? Has this man been reborn? Does he have a personal relationship with Jesus? Does he really fully grasp the meaning of Scripture or of the sacraments when he only has the Old Testament to study? And how can this Hellenized Jew, who, like Stephen, probably doesn’t think God dwells in the Temple, begin to teach about the Temple-centered Scriptures?
But Acts is a bulldozer of a story of the Spirit doing things in a windy, unpredictable, and unmanageable way. The Word of the Lord grows as it blows past boundaries of geography, language, culture, religion, politics, and base human jealousy. Nothing seems to prevent baptism when the Spirit is in charge. Sometimes the Spirit is poured out and so we then baptize. The protocols are all blown apart. Sometimes the baptism comes first and we must catch up and lay hands and impart the Spirit.
It’s a universalizing jumble, and I like that too. But you may disagree.
And I like John 15 and the image of the vine and the branches. I like it because it talks about abiding—a word that, both in Greek and in English, is vague. What does it mean to “abide” in Jesus as he “abides” in us? It means to stay in one place, but for how long? A day or two? A year? Or for now on?
I like vague; and the Bible is very often vague. But this may not please you at all.
That’s why, of this week’s lessons, I like 1 John the best. The Bible is vague and hard to figure out. For every solution that people shout about from the streets, and every solution that Biden recommends, there is a smear and a jeer and a think tank full of contradictions thrown up. How far do we go with defunding police? How fast do we go in cutting down on greenhouse gasses? How hard to we push to make people get the vaccination and wear masks?
Legend says John the Evangelist grew old and worn out and couldn’t say much when they moved him from church to church to preach—the last of the living disciples. So he boiled all theology and his message down to these words: “God is love, and those who abide in love abide in God, and God abides in them.”
Whether it was the same guy or not, who wrote both the Gospel of John and 1 John, I like to think the letter does benefit from further thinking. In the Gospel there is no ambiguity. It is light or darkness, life or death, God or Satan. In the Gospel the cross of Jesus is not shame but glory. It is not defeat but victory. Nobody takes Jesus’ life from him—he gives it up. All very neat.
But in the letter, the very community that wholeheartedly subscribed to all of that is confused and divided. People find plenty of grey areas and things to disagree about. And, I think the author of this letter is saying, “Yeah, we can choose to believe different things, but we have no choice when it comes to love. Because God is love.”
If the pandemic has taught us one thing it is that we are confused and divided. And from our silos—each with its own separate reality—we come up with vastly different solutions. But there is a special power in 1 John’s argument that what the world needs now is love. And when we get right down to brass tacks all of us think with something ultimate in mind—a Higher Power—an ideal worth fighting and dying for, or a god. But 1 John says we must not cling to any ultimate that is not love.
And abiding in love may seem vague, but isn’t it an invitation to give it a chance? Whenever you find your instinct telling you to despise and belittle the person with a different solution, try love instead. Whenever you find yourself confused when someone says, “Follow the science,” and another says, “Well my science proves you are an idiot,” try a little love.
Don’t try it for a fleeting moment. But abide in love. Stay there a while; after all, it’s the only way for love to be love. And, if you believe in Christ, and God, and the cross, and the resurrection, you will find that when you are loving, there is both the cross and the risen Christ right by your side.
The Apostle Paul put it all together for us back in 1 Corinthians 13. He was writing to a bitterly divided congregation and he pulled out all the stops of his theological mind to say, “Everything God has done in history and in Christ was to build us up and make us one people—one Body. So, if you have problems with what I say, that’s fine; just remember: now we see things in a mirror, darkly. One day we will see face to face. One day we will know it all—not now. One day we will know completely. Today we must find peace in being perfectly known by God.
The Corinthians are all in a tizzy about who has the biggest array of spiritual gifts, but Paul says boldly in chapter 13, there are lots of gifts, but just three that abide—faith, hope, and love; and the greatest of them all is love.
The wounds of division that have crippled our nation and world, and keep us from being global about tackling the global pandemic, have come about because love has dropped out of our conversations and debates. We are seduced into believing those we disagree with are not people, but enemies. They are not of a different opinion, but ignorant, evil, and a waste of time to deal with. But any “gift” we imagine we have, of always being the wisest and best, cannot stack up to love, the greatest gift of all. That’s becau se with love we can keep working with each other.
Global problems like pandemics, injustice, and racism, must be solved globally. And that’s why what the world needs now is love.
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