If You Love Me and Keep My Commandments – Easter 6, 21st May, 2017

Jesus never stopped talking, in case you were wondering.

I’m saying that, because we hear the Gospel in bits, and we forget that these passages we are listening to over Easter, are from John, what we call the Farewell Discourse, when Our Lord, on the Maundy Thursday, the evening when he was arrested, tells his disciples the thigs they need to know as he prepares them for his death.

The theme is love, as it appears from the beginning, “if you love me,“ and the conclusion “those who love me will be loved by my Father, and I will love them and reveal myself to them “  of today’s Gospel. The disciples, terrified by the real possibility that the Master dies, are comforted by Jesus who opens their hearts calling them “friends“ and not ”servants,“ giving them the Eucharist and opening a new way: that of the love given to the world through the Cross. His Cross is the concrete revelation of God who loves to the full gift of self, and a sign of God’s unlimited presence in the world. On the Cross Christ does not fail but brings to the full the manifestation of his immense love: “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.”

Jesus teaches to his disciples that his donated love is the strength that allows not to be locked into a limited past, but to be opened to a future perceived as the space of their loyalty to him in a community and in the world. Only the disciple who accepts the reality of Jesus’ death can open up to a new relationship with the Crucified-Risen: the true “following” begins with Easter, an event that returns Jesus to the believer in a new way.

The Cross is not the end, but the beginning of a new path, and of a relationship with Jesus Christ that has become indestructible. With his death and resurrection he opens the “Way” leading to the “Truth” of the experience of God who is the “Life” in full.

On the evening of the first Maundy Thursday, the frightened apostles are consoled by Our Lord who, in addition to proclaiming his love, tells them “I will not leave you orphans.” That evening, Jesus seemed concerned not so much for himself as for his friends who would know the depth of their weakness, the great pain of abandonment, and would look for something to comfort them. Jesus himself would be consoled by the presence of an Angel during his agony in Gethsemane, at the time when the desire to escape the crucifixion will seem to have been born in him too. “Father, if possible, keep away from me this cup, but not mine, but thy will be done.”

Even today Jesus repeats to us: “I will not leave you orphans.” These words were, are and will always be a certainty for us who follow him, yesterday, today and always. He said these words at the most difficult time of his earthly existence and, almost becoming a voice of our fear of being abandoned by everyone, to the point of crying from the cross: “My God, my God, why did you abandon me?” The Risen Christ tells us that the One who loves is the home of the beloved: God brings him into his heart as his life. We have always been in God, who loves us with eternal love. If we love Our Lord, he is in us as we are in him.

“If you love me you will keep my commandments.” The words of this verse are repeated almost as a refrain in the later verses. This is not an injunction (you must comply) but a revelation of goodness: “if “you love, you will enter a new world. Everything begins with the conjunction “if”, a word filled with delicacy and respect: if you love me. “If”: a starting point so humble, so free, so confident that it helps us to understand that to observe the commandments of Our Lord is not to obey to an external law, but to live like him in love. We are moved to carry on the task of bringing to the world the love of God made flesh.

If we love Our Lord, he lives in our thoughts, actions and words and changes them. By doing so, we live his good, beautiful, and happy life. If we love Jesus and observe his commandment of love, we not only do not injure, betray, steal, escape and kill, but we help, receive and bless.

If it is true that today’s theme is love, as I said at the beginning but it is equally true that the dominant ideas are two. The first is that the most appropriate criterion for verifying the reality of love for Christ is the obedience to his will, that is, the concrete observance of the commandments, which in Saint John are reduced to the commandment of fraternal love. The second one is that the practice of love is the place where Jesus reveals himself.

Love is so that, when we love someone, the person is in our heart and in our mind and becomes the rule of our life. We know what he or she thinks, what he or she does, and we do what he or she does because we too love what he or she does: love is not only a feeling, it concerns all our being. When we love someone, we know we love, we want to do good for that person, and it inspires us to do things for that person.

Love is a communion in the deeper being, it is a union of intelligence, will, and action that makes us like Christ, the Son of God, with the same intelligence, with the same will, with the same actions.

In addition to the conjunction “if”, I would like to draw attention to the possessive pronoun “my.” Our Lord says “my” commandments. It is as if to say: the Commandments are mine not because prescribed by me, but because they make clear who I am and your future. They summarize me and my whole life. If you love me, you will live like me and with me.

If we love Our Lord by observing his commandments, he lives in us and changes our thoughts, our actions, our words into thoughts, actions and words of good. Then we participate to his freedom, his peace and to the joy of his living in love.

But remember, Jesus does not stop talking. Learning about the love of Our Lord is a conversation that never ends, we have to listen and listen again. Love is the never-ending conversation we have with God that challenges us and grows us as we struggle like the frightened disciples did in that room so long, long ago, as Our Lord prepared them for his death. Let’s not stop listening.

Difficult Widows: Easter 5, 14 May, 2017

When you look at the New Testament the positon of Luke and Acts is unique. Luke wrote a Gospel and then the Acts: yet they are part of one story. During Eastertide, we tend to have a lot of readings from Acts as we explore the development of the early Church. Today has one such passage in our first reading.

The first thing I would like to say about this passage of Acts 6 is that it really does not make sense as it is now.  Instead of the translation we have used today from the I would like to read another version, the Word English version: It goes:

1Now in those days, when the number of the disciples was multiplying, a complaint arose from the Hellenists against the Hebrews, because their widows were neglected in the daily service. 2The twelve summoned the multitude of the disciples and said, “It is not appropriate for us to forsake the word of God and serve tables. 3Therefore select from among you, brothers, seven men of good report, full of the Holy Spirit and of wisdom, whom we may appoint over this business. 4But we will continue steadfastly in prayer and in the service of the word.”

They then select the seven.

The problem is we have had no idea till this time that there was some sort of distribution of food was going on, and it is never mentioned again. What also is this waiting on tables that is mentioned? Why were the widows being neglected? To make the background seem even odder, the seven who are selected, such as Stephen, then go onto preach to people and have nothing to do with table waiting.

The problem is that we don’t know what the daily service actually means. The editors of the version we use in our readings presume that it means some food, because of the mention of a table. But other commentators think it could have been a Christian service of worship with food, which we know did exist. This would then make sense of why Stephen then goes into evangelism and preaching straight away. But in what way were these widows being neglected? Because they were women? Because they were Hellenists? Because they were widows? Because they were not being invited to lead?

The reason why I am exploring this is that at times Scripture is not easy to understand because we lack so much of the cultural references that belong to it. But at times an interpretation becomes a foundation text, and this text has been used for the start of the orders of deacons and even the reason why women can talk in business meetings for those interested in headship arguments. But that’s another story. It can carry a lot of baggage. But when a passage does not make sense to you straight away when you hear it, don’t be afraid, often we are not sure ourselves.

One fascinating part of this passage is the way that it introduces the first sense of discord in the Church. Before that we heard that the Church held everything in common, but now we are introduced to some sort of Church dissention. Luke has a special treatment of widows. We meet widows like Anna in the Temple with the baby Jesus, the parable of the widow and the unjust judge, the healing of the son of the Widow of Nain, and now we meet these Hellenist widows. Widows in the Old Testament had a special relationship with God, they were one of the minority groups who were often victimised and who God specially looked after as a result. Luke also shows this special treatment of widows and points to this status with the Widow of Nain and the Widow with the Unjust Judge.

So the way the Twelve deal with this crisis is interesting. They don’t come out of it very well. Instead of seeing it as a means of service to the widows they step back and wash their hands by appointing the seven to deal with them. They claim a superiority of preaching over menial things like serving. It’s not in the pattern of Our Lord, the servant king at all. Jesus would come and heal the needy, and John even remembers him washing the feet of his disciples to emphasise the need for servanthood. The Twelve here are a long way from this message. But we are only up to Acts 6.

We then go forward to the next collection of widows in Acts, which is Acts 9. Here Peter is at Joppa, in the house of one deceased Tabitha. We are given two names for her, she is also known as Dorcas, which seems to indicate that Tabitha is also a Hellenist. We meet here the distressed widows who show to Peter the garments Tabitha has made with them. Tabitha seems to be the leader of some sort of sewing collective, and her death may mean the ruin of the widows. Peter this time listens to these widows and restores Tabitha to life, and by extension, restores the widow’s support group. This time Peter helps the widows. After this he then gets the vision about how Christ is for the Gentiles as well and visits the house of the Cornelius the centurion.

Now also remember that Luke is writing in Greek for Greek readers: in other word for Hellenists.

What Luke seems to be exploring in Acts is that the early church, with the Twelve and later with Paul, had to learn what it meant to be followers of Christ. There was a continual tension to divide into those who wanted to only observe the Law and those who were Gentiles. There was also a continual tension as to what it meant to lead the Church and how the leaders had to continually learn. Luke shows this by the story today when the twelve just get it wrong what leadership means and ignore their duty to the widows. It would take a lot longer to learn the message of Jesus was to all people and that it also meant service.

Ministry as Christians is something that we all share. Ministry is also something we all must continually learn. It means service, ad it means that we will be continually challenged as to how that service works out. Luke presents the early Church not as a perfect group who always got it right, but rather as a group who continually had to learn what it meant to be leaders, and to learn from groups who were often on the fringe, like the widows today. Luke is not interested in showing us a perfect Church: Luke is interested in showing us a Church which learns what it means to follow Our Lord. In the same way we too are continually challenged as to how to learn to be Christians. It may not be here at Church. It may be even from those we expect the least. But if the great and mighty Twelve had to continually learn, we can expect nothing less for ourselves.