Wednesday, April 27, 2016

Father Riley's sermon from April 24

[Father Riley's Episcopal class continues Sunday, May 1st at 9am in the Parish Hall.]

EASTER V - C - 16                          JOHN 13. 31-35

How does anyone know that you are a Christian? As Episcopalians we have something going for us - our church’s logo. The Episcopal shield is so distinct that it is easy to spot on the rear window, or the rear bumper of the vehicle in front of you. I see it often when I am traveling on I-20.
But only another Episcopalian would readily recognize it and know that they had just passed or been following a fellow churchman.
Then there are the yard signs different denominations give out to their members to display in their front yards that announce the name of the church and the statement: “this family worships at…” or something to that effect printed on the face of it. But the fact is, one has to drive by that particular house and read the sign to know that the family that resides there is Christian.
Finally I would be remiss if I failed to mention the display of religious jewelry, namely the cross. All I have to say about this subject is that too often those who wear religious symbols are more interested in making a fashion statement than announcing their faith. Let’s return to the opening question. How does the world we live in know that we are Christian?
At the Last Supper, when Judas had gone out to conclude his act of betrayal, Jesus delivered the 11th Commandment. “I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.”
Sounds simple enough doesn’t it? But we all know that it is difficult at times to put into practice the kind of love Christ is calling us to, even with those who are the closest to us - our family and friends. We are called to love one another, as Jesus loves us, but lets be real, there are some people only God can love!
Remember the question Jesus asked Peter on the beach? “Do you love me more than these?” In this Jesus was referring to the others disciples, Peter’s closest friends. And the word Jesus used was “agape,” a higher form of love than what normally passes between friends. Jesus meant, “do you love me as I love you?” Christ’ love is a sacrificial, self-emptying love that God has for each of us and that we can only hope to obtain through maturing in God’s grace.
That question to Peter came on the beach after the resurrection. Jesus’ commandment in today’s gospel is given in the upper room to all of his disciples prior to his arrest, trial and crucifixion, but it is the same love Jesus asked of Peter, and the same question Jesus asks of all who would follow Him today. Christ says, “you also should love one another, just as I have loved you.”
OK, we say, I understand the kind of love I am supposed to have for others, but that still does not tell me how to love as Christ loves us. First of all, it doesn’t come natural. It’s kin to forgiveness. If someone has wronged me, hurt me, persecuted me, I don’t find myself in a loving attitude towards them, on the contrary. The natural reaction to that kind of situation is to say “I don’t care for that person. I don’t like them,” or simply “I have no use for him or her.”
Or in the case of forgiveness, we say, “I will try and forgive them, but will never forget what they said or did.” By this kind of action we place them in the category of “unlovable.” But is this really the behavior that defines us as Christians? Will others be able to guess that we are followers of Jesus by that kind of attitude? Does not the self come to the forefront here?
It didn’t come natural for the disciples in the beginning either. Peter responded to Jesus’ question with the only kind of love he knew at the moment, even when Jesus was asking more of him. “Yes Lord, I love you, the same way in which I love them,” that was all Peter could give. Many religions and philosophies teach people to “love one another.” What makes Jesus commandment new is the measure required of our love.
We must love as Christ loves us with a love that does not discriminate; a love that sometimes calls for “sacrifice,” and a love that always requires the emptying of self in order to put the other person first. To love as Christ loves us has to be learned and put into practice over and over again until it becomes a spiritual habit. It is not something we can choose to use on occasion. We learn it by experiencing it.
Peter experienced it on the beach, when with each question of love he was forgiven. In today’s Epistle he gets a chance to put it into practice. Afterwards he defends his actions before the elders in the church at Jerusalem. “The Spirit told me to go with them and not to make a distinction between them and us.”
Out of obedience, Peter set aside his natural and personal prohibitions and followed the leading of the Holy Spirit that brought the love of Christ to those who heretofore had never know it. It was the love of God that sent Peter to the Gentiles, and the love of God in Christ that Peter proclaimed without prejudice that brought about their conversion.
Peter’s willingness to proclaim Christ’s love opened his eyes and the eyes of the early church to the fact that God desires that all should come to Him, both Jew and Gentile alike.  And the “way” to God is through faithful obedience to God’s commandments, not the least of which is learning to love as Christ loves us with a sacrificial and self-emptying love that can be readily seen and recognized for what it is.
May our learning to put into practice, by God’s grace, the love of Christ, become for each of us a spiritual habit that is best shown, not through signs and symbols, but through a life lived in faithful obedience to Christ’ command.
“By this,” Jesus said, “everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.” AMEN+

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