Jesus said to his disciples, “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.” John 15:9-17
We human beings have a tendency to hold on to the past, do we not? What we know, what is familiar, and what has been – make life predictable, manageable and safe. But when yesterday holds more appeal for us than tomorrow, we have a problem. When maintaining the past becomes our reason for living we render ourselves moribund. And where death rather than promise informs the horizon, sadness becomes the air we breathe.
Deep down, we know that nothing lasts and that change is inevitable. As the ancient Greek philosopher Heraclitus observed, “The only real constant is change.” It is the only thing we can really count on. In addition to being inevitable, change is also essential to there being a future. If we hold on to what must and will change, we hold on not to bedrock but to straws.
Some of us are better with change than others, but even those most reluctant to and resistant to change are hard wired to negotiate and survive even the most dramatic changes that life can offer up, like the loss of a limb, the loss of a spouse, the loss of a parent, and even the loss of a child.
And so, it is always more true to say, that we won’t change rather than that we can’t change. We can negotiate our way through any change, if we choose to do so. And we can be undone by any change if this is all we allow.
But life, real life, is not just surviving life’s changes but rather it is most healthfully and heartily lived when it is about anticipating change, planning for change, birthing change, embracing change, supporting change and learning from change.
Change is the catalyst that makes life exciting. It is what keeps us on our toes. It is what keeps us dancing. As sadness is the companion of being dead in the water, joy is the fruit of change and certainly the fruit of the change of that Jesus is addressing in this morning’s gospel as He anticipates his death, resurrection and His taking leave of them in the way that they had known Him.
I just made reference to the birthing of change. We are celebrating Mother’s Day. Mothering provides an apt metaphor to reflect upon change and upon the change that Christ invites. It is only a fool who would decide to bring forth new life and not anticipate doing so as one of the most significant and far reaching changes that a woman and a couple could unleash within their lives.
To give birth to a child is to be called into a future over which one has very little control. Tomorrow will always be new, different and filled with unexpected surprises. And it is for this very reason that good parenting requires both the early establishment of limits, which in proper time and in due course, is paced with the ongoing experience of surrender.
Yes, they will live their own lives. I will have been a good parent, if, along the way, I equip them with the wherewithal to discipline themselves, and if along the way I have modeled that kind of surrendering that will ripen into a fully disciplined surrender to the otherness of my child.
The only thing that can make so great a change possible is love and the only thing that can make such a change successful is a disciplined love. The planning and anticipation of motherhood is an act of love. The birthing experience is an act of love. Embracing, disciplining, supporting a child are acts of love. And the discipline involved in letting go of a child is an act of love.
This morning’s gospel is taken from the last supper discourse of Jesus. It is a birthing moment. Jesus is speaking his final words to his disciples. He is preparing them for a most significant and dramatic change in terms of their experience of him and in the kind of presence they have enjoyed with him. He is preparing them for life without his physical presence. He is preparing them for sharing Risen life with Him.
He now addresses them as friends. He reassures them of what he refers to as an abiding presence that will transcend the physical presence they have known. It is a connection that will remain in spite of the changes, because it is a communion brought to birth by a laying down one’s life kind of love. The ground, their only ground moving forward in the face of momentous change, will be Jesus but not in the way they have had and held Him.
So where is the Christ for whom we are always searching. Where is the ground rather than the straws for which we too often settle, when we need it the most: in those moments we want something to hold on to, something to comfort, encourage, and reassure us.
The change that is Resurrection or risen life is that we are the Christ whom we seek. We, his friends, are what bear His presence. This is what that mutual abiding as all about. He has given birth to us. For are we not reborn in His spirit?
We, His disciples whom He now calls friends, will always remain the last thing He touched. We were the ones to whom he gives His final instructions. “Love one another as I have loved you.” We are the ones who receive his words “I love you”. Our lives, our actions, our very beings and our shared love are what carry his presence. The connection is, was and always has been within us and not to be found in the straws that we are tempted to clutch.
Sadness, fear, and desperation often cause us to grasp for straws in one form or another. We stuff them into our pockets and purses hoping and trying to create a connection, maintain a presence, and hang on to a love. But that connection already exists. That presence is already eternal. That love is already immortal. With each straw we collect we forget or maybe even deny that our lives embody the shared and mutual love of Christ and one another. In that love is the fullness of presence; a presence, the disciples will learn, that transcends time, distance, and even death.
At some point we must throw away the straws we hold on to, both as individuals and as a community, so that we can live life, such that our actions carry and reveal the presence of divine love.
As a nation are we not standing at a critical threshold? The water has broken, and we are poised to give birth to new life. But it takes painful pushing does it not? Will we band together as a company of midwives, if you will, to birth the change that love requires at this juncture in our story as a people?
Change that dismantles the entrenched culture of white supremacy. While it is apparently difficult to admit, we are a racist nation. The enslavement of people of color is a continuing experience. We must face this truth, if we have any hope of bringing forth just policing practices and the much-needed reform of our justice system. And society’s real criminals must see their gilded gages replaced with prison cells. Wealth and power can no longer protect the indefensible.
Change that embraces a gospel inspired economic paradigm that lifts up the poorest and guarantees the rights of all to decent housing, adequate food, quality health care, and free access to educational opportunities.
Change that tears down walls and opens pathways and even highways to those fleeing exploitation, violence and death. Yes, we need to invest in the overhaul of our humanitarian infrastructure and build one that owns service to human need, both local and global, as its first priority.
Imagine what it would be like to live in a nation that placed a greater premium of being first in compassion rather than first in military might.
Jesus does not give us something, rather He says we are something. We are the gift. We are the connection. Listen to what he tells the disciples:
- I love you with the same love that the Father loves me. You have what I have.
- I give to you the joy that my Father and I share. You are a part of us.
- You are my joy, my life, and my purpose.
- I want your joy to be full, complete, whole, and perfect.
- You are my friends, my peers, my equals.
- I have told you everything. Nothing is held back or kept secret.
- I chose you. I picked you. I wanted you.
- I appointed, ordained, commissioned, and sent you to bear fruit, to love another. I trust and believe you can do this.
It’s all about us in the best sense of those words. We are the love of Christ. Our faith in the words of Jesus changes: how we see ourselves, one another, the world, and the circumstances of our lives. That faith is what allows us to keep his commandment to love one another. When we know these things about ourselves our only response is love. We can do nothing else. We are free to live and more fully become the love of Christ.
Who are we? We are the love of Christ. What are the connections that will sustain our lives? The sustaining connections are the love of Christ. Where is my place in this world? My place is the love of Christ. As St. Julian of Norwich prayed, “In, by, with, and through the love of Christ all shall be well, all shall be well, every manner of thing shall be well.” Let us together breathe deeply, push harder and give birth to the change that a new tomorrow requires and that God invites and even demands.
The Rev. Frank J. Alagna
May 9, 2021