Fifth Sunday of Easter


In my reading on the internet this week, I read this brief story. It was described as a true Presbyterian miracle – but it could easily be called a Lutheran miracle as well. The story tells of a man coming back to church one Sunday after the death of his wife. He came to the early service, to change the pattern he and Nancy had established of attending at 11:00. He thought there’d be people there he knew, to sit with, but he misjudged and arrived 10 minutes early for the service. He sat alone in the center of a pew, two empty pews behind him and three in front, a brave, sad, solitary man. But then the “miracle” happened. A couple slid out of their pew, six rows behind, and quietly moved down the aisle to slip in beside him. Two Lutherans had left their pew to move down closer to the front. We may chuckle, but the truth is, this little story offers us a view of ourselves. How set in our ways we can be. How difficult it can be for us to reach out to one another. “What will I say?” “What will he think of me?” “I don’t want to admit that I don’t know her name after all these weeks – I’d feel so stupid.” It can be uncomfortable to reach out, to see beyond our own families and responsibilities, to take a risk in living out our care for one another. But that’s just the risk Jesus asks from his disciples. Our gospel lesson for this morning takes us back to the days before Easter, to the story of the last supper. Jesus takes the role of a servant by washing his disciples’ feet. Then he tells them the point of his action: I am giving you a new commandment. Love one another. Just as I have loved you – have served you, have helped you, have cared for you – so you should do for one another. What is “new” about this commandment? The command to “love the Lord your God with all your heart and mind and soul, and love your neighbor as yourself” was already well known at the time of Jesus. Jesus even called it “the greatest commandment.” It is written way back in the earliest law code, in the book of Leviticus. What’s “new” about a command to love? Perhaps what is new is the model Jesus offers of self-giving love which is rooted in his relationship with God, whom he calls Father. Just as the first disciples were confused and scared by the command to follow in the footsteps of someone who died for what he believed in, so we can wonder what it might mean for us to love “as Jesus loved.” Are we, too, called to give up our lives for the sake of our faith? We can’t all be Mother Theresa, after all. Just what does Jesus want from us? Gail O’Day, in her commentary on the book of John, explains the call to follow the example of Jesus in this way: “the love to which Jesus summons the community is not the giving up of one’s life, but the giving away of one’s life. The love that Jesus embodies is grace, not sacrifice. Jesus gave his life to his disciples as an expression of the fullness of his relationship with God,  and of God’s love for the world. Jesus’ death in love, therefore, was not an act of self-denial, but an act of fullness, of living out his identity and vocation fully. To love one another as Jesus loves us is to live a life thoroughly shaped by a love that knows no limits, by a love whose expression brings the believer closer into relationship with God, with Jesus, and with one another.” In other words, when we love one another, truly and in action as well as in words, we live out the loving relationship we have with God. We can live out that love in all aspects of our lives, in whatever vocation or mundane daily task we practice. Last week the adult education group looked at a list in the Lutheran Handbook of the seven most important things Luther said, and what they mean. Number 3 is from an essay called “The Freedom of a Christian.” Luther begins the essay with these two sentences: “A Christian is a perfectly free lord of all, subject to none. A Christian is a perfectly dutiful servant of all, subject to all.” “By this,” the handbook explains, “Luther meant that Jesus Christ is a Christian’s only Lord – a Lord who commands us to love our neighbor as we love ourselves.” Regarding our salvation, our identity as Christians, we are perfectly free. Jesus Christ has saved by his self-giving life, death, and resurrection. We do not need to do anything – in fact, there is nothing we can do – to earn or gain salvation. It is a free gift from the God who loves us. You are saved. You are loved and forgiven. God has given you a new identity as God’s own beloved child. You can do anything you want to do. So, Luther asks, what do you want to do? That’s the clincher. If you allow your life to be shaped by the love and forgiveness of God, that love will shape what you do with your life. If you want to be a follower of Jesus – what will you choose to do with the perfect freedom Jesus offers? Jesus suggests that if you want to follow him, you will live out his love for all people. You will stop guarding what is yours – you will stop worrying about saying the wrong thing – you will stop being fearful or defensive – and you will begin to reach out to your neighbor in love. Last night my husband and I were talking about my sermon during dinner. In the living room my older son was watching a video called The Magic Schoolbus. If you are not familiar with the old TV series, it features a teacher named Ms. Frizzle, whose “magic schoolbus” takes the kids on amazing field trips to experience whatever they are learning about. In the videos Evan has, the class goes back in time to meet a dinosaur, gets launched from a volcano, and – in Evan’s favorite – takes a ride in a classmate’s bloodstream to learn about the immune system. As we talked about the freedom of a Christian, my huband said, “What is it Ms. Frizzle always says? Get out there – take chances – get messy. That sounds like what Luther was saying, doesn’t it?” What Ms. Frizzle advises for learning, can just as easily apply to growing in love and grace in our relationship to God. Get out there – outside your comfort zone, outside your routine, outside you self-consiousness. Take chances – greet a stranger – listen to a hurting friend – give something away that isn’t easy to give. Get messy – enter someone else’s pain, or need. Meet a homeless person, or a survivor of domestic violence. Register people to vote, participate in a peace march, or read to children in a Head Start program. Get involved. And while we do not have Ms. Frizzle and her magic schoolbus to bail us out when the going gets tough – we have something even better. We have a God who came to meet us, giving himself away to enter our frailty and need. We have a God who lived among us, healing the sick, loving the unlovable, following God in obedience even to death. “I give you a new commandment,” Jesus told his followers, “that you love one another just as I have loved you.” Following Jesus is rarely easy or comfortable. But it is life lived most fully in the grace of God, knowing that you are held in the palm of God’s hand. Go in peace. Take chances. Get  messy. Amen. Lutheran Church of the Servant                                    May 6, 2007

Photo is of a church on the island of Kauai, Hawaii

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