Friday, May 07, 2010

To Witness Through Love

Acts 11: 1-18
Revelation 21: 1-6
John 13: 31-35

There are five little words at the beginning of the Gospel text that are very important to understanding what Jesus is saying. "When he had gone out. . . ." Just who is this "he"? Well, it is Judas. Judas the betrayer. Judas the traitor. In the verses just before, Jesus dipped his bread in the bowl and handed it to Judas, saying, "Do quickly what you are going to do." Judas then leaves the meal with Jesus and the other disciples, and goes out to lead the soldiers and others to the Garden of Gethsemene, where Jesus will be betrayed. Judas goes out, and the Passion of our Lord begins.

So why is it that Jesus then says, after Judas has left, that "Now the Son of Man has been glorified"? Haven't you ever wondered about that?

Jesus is proclaiming he is now glorified because his work on the cross has begun. In the Gospel of St. John it is made clear that Jesus' glory doesn't come only at the time of his resurrection, as wonderful as that is. Instead, his time of glory comes when he is crucified. It is on the cross that John 3:16 is fulfilled, that God sends his only beloved Son to save the world. It is the cross that makes salvation possible; the cross that re-unites all of us fallen, sinful human beings with the perfection and holiness of the Father. Jesus isn't defeated on the cross! Instead, he rules from the cross, as he carries out the plan of salvation, the light that shines brightest in the darkness of the cross and the grave.

Now the rest of what Jesus is saying to his disciples, and later to us as his followers through the church, can be clear. None of us can do the work that Jesus has been sent to do. We can't save anyone, not those we hold most dear, not even ourselves. We can't take on the work of salvation, neither through the good things we do, nor by the suffering we may face. Only Jesus can do that. So we can't go where Jesus is going: to the cross, to the grave, into death for others. Jesus does that alone, and he does it accomplishing all that needed to be done. His final words from the cross are "It is finished," meaning that the work of salvation has been completed, accomplished, finished once and for all in him.

But now, having been saved by what Jesus did on the cross, we are called by Jesus to live as witnesses to others of what he has done. And what does Jesus say is the way we are to bear witness to him? To live in love for one another. "By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another."

This love is both breathtakingly simple, and horribly complicated. Sometimes showing love means curbing one's tongue, swallowing one's anger, refusing to bear grudges and refusing to insist on getting one's own way. At other times showing love means standing one's ground, calling others (and one's self!) to repentance, citing the Law of God, and holding to standards and hard teachings.

Sometimes showing love means treating one another with gentleness and forbearance. Other times showing love means letting others experience the hard consequences of their actions, even rejecting the actions and decisions of others.

How is anyone supposed to know what is the proper way to show the love of Jesus to others in the church, in any particular situation? What does showing love to one another, to fellow disciples in Christ, supposed to be like?

And what if we disagree over this? What if we get it wrong?
Well, we will disagree! And we will get it wrong. That's a fact of sinful human life, whether inside the church or outside of it. Some will recommend the spirit of gentleness at the same time as others will recommend the Spirit of strength and reprimand. And sometimes it might be possible that both are right at the same time. Jesus asks for us to witness to him, and even he recognizes that he himself is a stone that others will at times stumble over. Jesus causes us to stop, and think, and question, in order to be led by the Holy Spirit sent from the Father to keep us in the way of the truth and the life. But Jesus is also the light, revealing always that it is not our love, or our faithfulness, or our getting this love right, that saves. Jesus saves. We follow and point to him in witness.

So Peter, a faithful Jew following the Law that God gave to Moses and his people at Mount Sinai, Peter is told to break that holy law and eat with Gentiles, eat their food, even eat unclean animals, in order to witness to the living Jesus among the Gentiles. Peter is called on the carpet for this, and has to explain that now showing love to those saved by Jesus will mean finding ways to welcome the Gentiles who have received the gift of the Holy Spirit. And at the end of the Bible, God comes to make his home among human beings, and the holy City of the New Jerusalem comes down to earth. God lives among us! God shows his love finally by dwelling among us forever!

In this time of Easter, in this time of synod assemblies, in this time of congregations looking for ways to live as faithful witnesses to the message of the living Word of God, Jesus Christ, we go back to Jesus' words in the Gospel. He is glorified when the time of his betrayal and crucifixion had come. He is glorified when we live trying to show his love to one another, because Jesus has asked us to do so. We try to witness to that love so that others can see that, even when we disagree with one another over matters great or small, we continue to live and act and speak out of that love that Jesus showed to the world, and continues to show to us. His love was willing to go to the cross for the sake of a world that even betrayed and denied and killed him.

In our love for one another, are we willing to go so far? Having been saved by Jesus, even though we do not deserve either his love or his salvation, can we live with one another, showing the love of Jesus to one another? What will our witness be to the world outside of the church, outside of the walls, outside of our circles of agreement and support? What will others see and know from how we treat one another, and them? Will they know we are Christians by our love?

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