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Do What I Command You

  • May 6, 2018
  • 08:00 AM

Sermon for May 6, 2018 (Pascha 6, Year B)

Offered by Nathan Ferrell at The Episcopal Church of Saint Mary

Texts:             Acts 10:44-48; Psalm 98; John 15:9-17

Title:               Do What I Command You

Alleluia! Christ is risen! The Lord is risen indeed. Alleluia!

“This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you…You are my friends if you do what I command you” (John 15:12,14).

Years ago, it is said that one of our Navy ships was patrolling the South Pacific when smoke was spotted on the horizon in an area without any known inhabited islands.

A search party was sent ashore to investigate, and the sailors could see that the smoke was rising out of one of three small huts which were built together on the tiny island.

They also discovered one solitary American sailor who had been shipwrecked on the island years earlier and had somehow managed to survive there all alone.

When the sailors came ashore, the survivor was ecstatic. “Praise God that you finally found me! I’ve been living all alone on this island for more than 5 years!”

The officer in charge replied, “If you’re all alone, why did you build three different huts here?”

The survivor answered, “Yes, well, you see, I live in one and I go to church in another.”

“Okay…but what about the third hut over there?” the officer wondered. And the man replied, “Oh, that old place? That’s where I used to go to church!”

My friends, how are we doing as the friends of Jesus who love one another as he loved us?

If you were to give yourself a grade – a letter grade like A,B,C,D,or F – how would you grade your own attempts to keep this command? You don’t have to share it out loud, but keep that mark in mind.

Now, how would you grade Saint Mary’s – this parish community? Some of you are fairly new, but try the best you can. Use your best judgment.

Ok, now let’s go big picture. How would you grade the Church in keeping this command? Meaning the whole Church, the entire Body of Christ. How have we done?

In order to answer these questions, to judge at least somewhat accurately, you need to know what the standard is, correct? That’s how letter grades are given out in school, right? According to some kind of standard? At least, we hope so!

So what does it actually mean to love one another?  What is the standard?

The Lord seems to give it to us in his own example, and when he said, “No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends” (John 15:13).

But, wait a minute, that’s pretty much an impossible standard, isn’t it?

When was the last time you faced a scenario in which there was an opportunity for you to lay down your life for a friend? And that, after all, is like a pass-fail scenario, isn’t it? You only get one shot to lay down your life for someone else!

Is it possible to even give yourself a B- or C-grade for laying down your life for a friend? I don’t think so. You either do it, or you don’t.

So practically, realistically, in our everyday lives, what in the world does it mean for us to love one another?

Is it about our feelings, about how we feel for one another? No, that’s not it. Feelings come and go. They are as fickle as our Maine weather (for sure!).

I don’t know exactly what it means to love one another as Christ has loved us. But I DO know that the Church in general has done a very poor job of it!

Perhaps we can start with the simple step of giving one another the benefit of the doubt. Do you agree that this step will get us moving in the right direction?

Abba Theodore in the desert once said that “There is no other virtue like not belittling.”

Not belittling. Not denigrating. Not disparaging someone else.

It sounds like such a simple little thing, doesn’t it? But experience proves that it’s not quite so simple after all.

When I was at the Naval Chaplaincy School in March and April, there was one Anglican priest with me in our class of 21. Steve Lanclos from Alabama.

I like Steve. We naturally gravitated toward each other, because we come from a similar perspective. The Navy automatically lumps us in with all the Protestant chaplains, but Steve and I would protest and say, “You know, we really should be in a separate category, because we do things like the Roman Catholics but we are not Roman Catholic, and we’re sort-of-Protestant but not really most Protestants.”

The Navy doesn’t know what to do with us. So this Anglican chaplain, Steve, and I would talk about these things together. The problem is that Steve is part of the Anglican Church in America. The ACIA. This group broke away from The Episcopal Church over issues related to gender and sexuality, and the deciding issue was the election of Gene Robinson as the Bishop of New Hampshire in 2003.

In case you were blessed enough to miss that inglorious chapter of church history, Bishop Robinson was the first openly gay person to be consecrated as bishop within the Anglican Communion. And this caused quite a stir – as the “first” of anything always does!

In response, the Anglican Church in America declared their independence from The Episcopal Church, labeling us as heretics and rebels who are leading people astray. Although in every other way we practice our faith in exactly the same way!

So, down in South Carolina, I joined this Anglican Chaplain Steve in attending the Anglican Eucharist on base – again, which is 98% exactly like a normal Episcopal Eucharist.

However, when I invited Steve to come with me to the local Episcopal church for Palm Sunday, he refused. After all, how could he dare to take Communion from a bunch of heretics like us?

OK, he did not exactly say those words, but that was certainly the message received. And I tried to ignore it and not let it affect me. But, to be honest, it’s not easy.

Just knowing that this person standing right here, Steve – who acts like my friend, but actually thinks of me as deficient, as flawed, potentially even as destined for hell because of my so-called heresy – to be honest, that’s not so easy to overlook.

Again, he never spoke those words aloud, but I know that if he were pressed on it, Steve would be forced by his convictions to label me in that way.

To be honest, it hurts to be denigrated and disparaged like this. How can I actually be friends with someone who looks at me in that way? Do you know what I’m saying? I am sure you have had a similar experience.

A group of leaders from the Roman Catholic Church and the Anglican Communion met last week in New York and New Jersey to talk about how we can move toward unity. That’s certainly a tall order!

They began by discussing the famous papal bull of Pope Leo XIII in 1896 which declared that Anglican and Episcopal ordinations (like mine!) are (and I quote) “absolutely null and utterly void.”

Wow! You know, that kind of language makes it really difficult to work together.

Words matter. Perhaps the first step toward actually loving one another as Christ has loved us is simply to not belittle each other. To give each other the benefit of the doubt. To never assume the worst about another.

Truth be told, this entire idea of loving one another may have been straightforward and fairly simple when there were only 11 apostles in the room, and in those early days around Pentecost. When the circle of who was in and who was out was easy to draw.

But it got a lot more complicated rather quickly. Just look at today’s story from the Acts of the Apostles. The circumcised ones were astounded that God was growing the circle, pushing the boundaries far beyond what they had thought as possible or even permissible.

You see, Jesus commanded his people in the clearest possible terms to love one another! BUT what he did NOT do was to define this love or how to draw the circle! He did not define who qualifies as part of his people – and who falls beyond the pale.

And so what Christians have been doing ever since is drawing little circles around who qualifies as deserving of this love, and who does not.

And God keeps coming along and blowing up those carefully drawn circles.

Because God’s vision is so much larger than our own.

So, my friends, this is our question: how do we draw our circles? How do we decide whether or not others qualify as deserving of our love?

And, perhaps more importantly, will we allow God to stretch and expand our little circles until they break? Until no one falls beyond the pale?

May it always be so among us here. Amen.

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