Rev. Dr. Martha ter Kuile
Sixth Sunday of Eastertide
May 9, 2021
Psalm 98 (from The Inclusive Bible)
Sing a new song to God,
who has worked wonders,
whose right hand and holy arm
have brought deliverance!
God has made salvation known
and shown divine justice to the nations,
and has remembered in truth and love
the house of Israel.
All the ends of the earth have seen
the salvation of our God.
Shout to the Most High, all the earth,
break into joyous songs of praise!
Sing praise to God with the harp,
with the harp and melodious singing!
With trumpets and the blast of the shofar,
raise a shout to God, Ruler of All.
Let the sea and all within it thunder;
the world and all its peoples.
Let the rivers clap their hands
and the hills ring out their joy
before God, who comes to judge the earth,
who will rule the world with justice
and its peoples with equity.
The gospel reading this morning is from a long passage in John called the Farewell Discourses. We find Jesus and the disciples sitting around the table after having eaten their Last Supper together, just before Jesus is arrested. As Jesus says goodbye to his closest companions, he gives them this parting advice.
As the Father has loved me, so I have loved you; abide in my love. If you keep my commandments, you will abide in my love, just as I have kept my Father’s commandments and abide in his love. 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. 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. 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, because I have made known to you everything that I have heard from my Father. You did not choose me but I chose you. And I appointed you to go and bear fruit, fruit that will last, so that the Father will give you whatever you ask him in my name. I am giving you these commands so that you may love one another.
When Jesus calls the disciples his friends rather than his servants, he is saying a lot. But he is not saying what we would be saying – to Jesus a friend wasn’t just somebody you liked and enjoyed spending time with and could tell all your troubles to. In the ancient world of Palestine, friends were bound together by ties of loyalty and duty. Even obedience. Friendship implied obligation as well as fellow feeling – to the point of death if necessary, as Jesus points out. He says that because they are his friends, he has told them everything he knows. Jesus has not held back any knowledge of God or the world that he has. He is not asking for blind obedience. He is offering to share the heavy burden of seeing the pain that lies ahead. When he says to them – or to us – love one another as I have loved you, he is saying – let the ties that bind you be based on honesty, even when that is difficult. Let love mean that you tell the whole story.
This is probably a good reminder on Mother’s Day, when it is tempting to think only in terms of flowers and sentimentality, and to gloss over the harder parts of love. People often struggle with motherhood in one way or another, either as children with their mothers, or mothers with their children, or would-be mothers, or stepmothers, or grandmothers. Struggle with difficult or broken relationships, with loss or bereavement, with anger or abandonment or antagonism – there is a kind of mother-sorrow that most of us can tap into even in the spring sunshine. On Mother’s Day we give thanks for the extraordinary individuals who have mothered us in so many different ways but we also acknowledge and remember that God’s love encompasses sorrow too. We don’t often imagine Jesus and God as women, but when Jesus says abide in me as I abide in God’s love, the analogy to gestation is clear. It is an offer of that mothering love that holds and nurtures through difficulty as well as joy.
Being held in that love makes it more possible to withstand the challenges that life presents, not just in our personal lives but more broadly. It gives the resilience that is required and the capacity to share that love in the world. But he wouldn’t have called it a commandment if it were just a matter of warm feelings.
Somehow, human beings have got this so wrong that we often find reasons for not loving more readily than for loving. Human societies put up barriers between people and justify them on flimsy grounds. Rules abound: rules about who you can love, rules that we think of on Mother’s Day about who can have a baby, and who can look after a baby. This afternoon’s service of Apology and Lament for the church’s role in coerced adoptions tries to address some of that – but at the same time we give thanks that adoption is possible, and now by same sex parents, and by single people.
Racism is another constructed barrier, a method of not loving that has touched all our lives. In our anti-racism study group, the books we have read have shown us some places where racism is insidious and almost hidden, but still quietly flourishing. The upswing in anti-Asian racist incidents in the last few months has drawn attention not only to the bias that exists today, but also to the history we share in Canada of exclusion and prejudice. In this month that celebrates the Asian heritage – or should we say the Asian heritages – that have so enriched our country and our church, it is humbling to recognize that the church has not always spoken up for love. There is a mixed history, on the Chinese head tax and exclusion act in the 20s, on the internment of Japanese Canadians in World War II, and on racialized immigration impediments through the decades.
In the Psalm that Audrey read we are called to sing a new song, the song of Jesus’ commandment to love. What Jesus says is that loving first involves sharing what you know. To reach out in friendship is to offer a truthful assessment of the past and the present. It is an invitation to share the deepest insights life has brought you, no matter how painful.
Love one another as I have loved you, he said, as he prepared to leave them. May we be blessed with the strength and the courage to do exactly that. Amen.
Image Credit: Masako – Japan