A Loving Church

Date posted: Wednesday 18 May 2022

Fifth Sunday of Easter
John 13:31-35
Synod Assembly 2022


Grace and peace to you in the name of the Living God, Jesus Christ, crucified and risen. Amen.


On March 13, 2020 Governor Tim Walz declared a peacetime emergency and told us to go home and stay home, because of the rising rate of Covid-19 infections in Minnesota. There were a few exceptions for essential workers, but the rest of us were to stop gathering with others beyond our household. It wasn’t clear how long we needed to isolate in this way, but traffic pretty much stopped, and a hush came over our communities.


When the governor’s announcement came, several of us were working in the synod office. One-by-one we headed home. I tried to think what I would need. My laptop, of course. We were just finishing the edits on the videos for the Planting Hope campaign, so I took a big stack of campaign files home with me. I thought I might need a copy of the ELCA’s constitution, because – Keith Fry – you never know when a question might arise. I remembered to take a stack of note cards and stamps so I could send notes to some of you, having anniversaries that month.


And then, before I carried things out to my car, I sat and looked around my office. I realized this might be the last ordinary day for a long time. I had never been in a public health emergency before. I felt a flood of uncertainty about what lay ahead. It seemed as though the air had been sucked out of the building.


Perhaps you have experienced times like that, too, not only at the start of the pandemic but other times when you have not known what was coming next. Maybe that was how you felt when you finished emptying out your parents’ house and paused in the doorway, surrounded by memories, wondering how your family life would now be changed. Some of you may have felt that way after enlisting in the military, knowing that you were shipping out in the morning but not knowing if or when you would return home again.


For each of us, there are such times of profound transition and grief and longing. Times when we are simply bereft.


This morning, we began our worship with a service of prayer for the children removed decades ago from their Native families and taken away to boarding schools; taken far from relatives and their homeplace in this world. Though leaders at the time – including church leaders – spoke in lofty terms about the benefits of such removal of children from their families and their culture, we recognize today how unjust and brutal this re-education initiative was for these children, all their relatives, and the generations to follow. Some children never returned home. Only many decades later, are the bones of children, who died away at these boarding schools in Canada and the United States, being repatriated to their Native communities.


I pray that the prayers we offered, the sound of the names being read, and the haunting music of lament and remembrance and honor will stay in our hearts so that we never allow any culture, any people, any nation – to be torn asunder again in our world out of false notions of superiority or beneficence. For this sin, we confess and repent.


This morning the Gospel text from St. John carries us back to the final evening of Jesus’ life. Before the night is over, those closest to Jesus will feel their own profound sense of loss and disorientation. Judas has left the room. Now, the action will move forward at a dramatic pace through betrayal and arrest, mocking and violence, and a conviction on a trumped-up charge.


Jesus knows what is coming. He tells the eleven that they cannot come along where he is going. Poised for that ultimate departure, he says to them – “love one another … by this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.” (John 13:34-35).


Two thousand years later – love one another – sounds like a cliché; a non-controversial sentiment for getting along. But, when he speaks, Jesus means something deeper and more costly than putting up with one another or adding a polite gloss to our distain for people unlike ourselves.


Love, he says. “Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another.” (John 13:34) Love, the way Jesus sought out the blind man, who had been driven away by the religious establishment, after his sight had been restored. Love, the way Jesus stayed at the table and learned from the Canaanite woman, after she out-sparred him in a verbal debate. Love, the way Jesus invited himself over to Zacchaeus’ house. Love, the way Jesus asked for a cup of restoring water from the Samaritan woman at the well. Love, the way Jesus relaxed at-home with his friends Mary, and Martha, and Lazarus and then wept so hard when Lazarus died. Love, the way Jesus lifted up foolish Peter when he was sinking beneath the waves. Love, in real time. Love, real people. Love, with a heart turned inside-out for God’s sake.


Friends, did you notice that Jesus really leans into what he has to say in this Gospel text? He does so to highlight the importance of these words for Christians in every time and place. “I give – I gift you -- a new commandment that you love one another.” But how can a commandment be a gift, not a burden, not a crushing obligation?


Jesus spoke these words when the disciples were about to become as bereft as we are at the low-tides times of our lives. Soon, Jesus will not be with them in the way he has been present from those first days in Galilee to these last days in Jerusalem.


But, Jesus will be present – will be known in their midst – when they love one another. This new commandment is no harsh, demanding rule. This is a benediction – a hope-filled promise. Both those outside the church – and we within – discover the presence of the Risen Christ when we live out our love for one another, as followers of the Living God.


Friends, I know how much you have missed being together. Me too. When I have been in your congregations since we have been able to gather in person again, I’ve watched how you greet each other. I have seen you open your arms, even if we have not yet returned to full hugs and handshakes and close-up greetings. I have seen you welcome newcomers, as though they were long awaited friends. I’ve seen you at a community meal, where free food and a hot dinner were carried to a long line of cars in the rain. There was love in your actions.


What people crave today is not an argumentative church. Not an excluding church where some are insiders and others are left out. Not a judgmental church, or a self-serving church, that simply echoes the assumptions of a dominant culture.


What people long for is a servant church. A church where love is stronger than hate and division and despair. A church of disciples where the love of Jesus is woven into all we do and echoes through the alleluias we sing. The church for which Jesus died and now lives. Thanks be to God. Amen.


Bishop Patricia Lull