St. John’s Episcopal Church, Kirkland, WA
Easter 6A, John 14:15-21
What if I stood up here today and told you that everything you have been taught in school, on the news, in the papers, by your parents, was wrong?
What if I stood up here and said that the things that your elected officials wanted you to believe and do were lies?
What would you do?
Jesus is essentially doing that with his disciples today. He didn’t just say it behind closed doors, he said it right out in public to the crowds that came to listen. It’s what got him in trouble with the authorities; it’s what ultimately got him killed.
Power protects itself. The empires and the powers of this world, from the Babylonians, to the Romans, to those in power in our own empire want to keep things the way they are. And so they need you to be afraid of certain people, and hate certain people.
They need you to stick with your own kind, and distrust the different. If you’ve got money they need you to believe you got that money yourself through your own hard work, just like they did. If you’ve got power they need you to believe it’s because you earned it, not because of your name, or your skin, or your gender.
They want to be sure you know your place, and you know everyone else’s place as well. And that you work hard to keep everyone in their place.
Into a world like that God put on flesh and blood.
God didn’t come to play the game. Because the way things are, isn’t how things are supposed to be, not in God’s vision for the world.
God did not play the game of power, God did not claim privilege, God did not use violence.
Jesus sits with his disciples, his earthly ministry nearly done and he sees and feels the power of Empire looming over them.
He sees the women he has so carefully taught glancing over their shoulder for the fathers and husbands who will drag them back to their “proper place,” he sees the tax collectors and the scribes in his little band already starting to try to put the poor illiterate fishermen in their place.
He sees the sick, and the elderly sitting around the edges of the room and eating last. He sees them turning away the stranger with suspicion. He sees empire creeping slowly, slowly in.
And so he gives them this incredibly simple teaching. That it shows up in John is even more striking because nothing in John is ever simple. But it doesn’t get simpler than this. Love one another. Now it’s John so he doesn’t say that, he says, “keep my commandments.” Which means: Love God by loving your neighbor. And your neighbor is pretty much everyone.
It doesn’t get simpler, or more difficult because it goes against everything his disciples will run into in every part of our lives.
John’s Gospel was written for people who lived in a world much like ours. No, they didn’t have cellphones, or the internet, or cars. But they lived in an age ruled by Empire. They lived in a world in which great powers played dice with the lives of everyday people.
Where those inside the power structure of their day enjoyed safety and privilege without even knowing it, while those outside it were subject to violence, terror, and fear. The difference of course is that John wrote for people who lived lives of violent oppression at the hands of that imperial power, while we mostly lead lives of privilege, created by that same power. But the frame of our worlds is still the power of Empire, and the trap of privilege is sticky and dangerous.
For Empire power is weapons, marching boots, strict social order, economic stratification, and division.
Alan Paton tells a story about Empire and Love in his book about Apartheid South Africa (Ah, But Your Land is Beautiful). In South Africa whites and blacks could not even worship together in the same churches. Isaiah, a black pastor, visited Judge Oliver, who had shown himself to be open to reconciliation in the past. He asked the judge to participate in the Good Friday service at his black church, where the congregation would observe Jesus’ practice of washing the disciples’ feet. He asked the justice to wash the feet of a congregant who had been a servant in the judge’s home. Martha Fortuin had raised the judge’s children had cared or them and certainly washed their feet. Judge Oliver agreed to attend. When the time came for the judge to wash Martha Fortuin’s feet, Oliver came forward and washed and dried her feet. And then, in a gesture far beyond what had been asked of him, he took her feet in his hands and gently kissed both of them. Paton describes the tears on the faces of the congregants who witnessed the gesture, the healing that began that day; and he described how word of the incident cost Judge Oliver the position of chief judge.
When the pastor called Oliver to apologize for the damage the invitation had done to his career the judge said that taking part in the service had been more important to him than the position of chief judge.
All Jesus asks of his followers is that we embrace the love he lived among us as the goal for our own lives. For Jesus, and for John, the definition of power is not coercion, wealth, violence, glory, or control. It is love.
When we view the world through the lens of love we change. Our priorities change, our choices change. That which is “inconvenient” becomes important. That which others view as accomplishment, becomes meaningless.
But Jesus doesn’t leave it at that. Because Jesus knew every well that using the lens of love in a world ruled by empire would be very, very difficult. And so he promised that we would never be alone.
The Spirit of God, the breath of God that animates all things, the Wisdom of God who has continually sought out humanity to teach us her ways, is with us. She is in every moment of our lives, sustaining, supporting, empowering, if we look for her.
For Jesus love is not a philosophy to be debated, it is not rule to be followed, it is action. Jesus fed the hungry, he healed the sick, he touched the leper, he sought and spoke with women as equals. He lived his love. He spoke out fiercely, and unflinchingly against the ways empire abuses and destroys.
Jesus invites us to a different sort of Kingdom, he invites us to listen to the Wisdom of God; to her call for justice, and mercy, to love lived out in our everyday lives.
For each of us that will look different, but it will all look just a bit the same. We who have been loved by God, regardless of who we are or what we have done, strive to build a world where the well being of all people is our highest value and love is our only weapon.