Solidarity With the Other

“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.”

Such a deceitfully simple statement, and yet, there is so much to unpack from these words that we have heard so many times in our lives.

Echoes of a hymn that we used to sing back in high school, when I was convinced that my future would be as a Franciscan nun in Minnesota, kept circling in my head as I sat down to write this sermon.

“Un mandamiento nuevo nos da el Señor, que nos amemos todos como él nos amó.”

Oh, and we sang it so often–every time we had mass in the chapel. And yet, did we mean it? Did we truly take it to heart? I don’t think so. There was bullying, there were mean girls, there was envy, there were unfair teachers, there were social differences that reared their ugly head even in a school where our uniforms aimed at making us all look the same…

Jesus gave his disciples a new commandment, but it may have sounded a bit familiar. These words from Leviticus were ones that the people of Israel were supposed to live by: “‘Do not seek revenge or bear a grudge against anyone among your people, but love your neighbor as yourself.”

The nuance in John’s version is that Jesus set himself as the example of how his disciples were to love each other. The word used in the Greek text is agape, which means unconditional love; it is love that is abundant, and inexhaustible, just like the one Jesus displayed. It is the steadfast care of others for their own sake. This is the kind of love that we followers of Christ should be displaying at all times, in all places, and toward everyone. And yet, it is so hard to do.

Another nuance that is lost in translation is the word “another.” In Greek, the word used is allelous which means “different.” From its root allos, we have such words as “alien” or “alienate.” So if we dig deeper into what Jesus really meant when he said, “Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another,” we understand that he meant everybody, not just those who belonged to the inner circle, not just those who looked like them.

And this is where today’s reading from Acts comes into sharp focus. I love that it is Peter, dense, hard-headed and, at times, hard-hearted Peter, who finally got Jesus. He finally understood what it meant to love one another, emphasis on “the other.” It meant that the Jesus movement would include all kinds of people, all kinds. For them back in the first century, it meant receiving, accepting, and loving the Gentiles, those who were not circumcised, who didn’t eat the same food –those who were radically different from them.

In Peter’s words, “And as I began to speak, the Holy Spirit fell upon them just as it had upon us at the beginning. And I remembered the word of the Lord, how he said, `John baptized with water, but you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit.’ If then God gave them the same gift that he gave us when we believed in the Lord Jesus Christ, who was I that I could hinder God?” When they heard this, they were silenced. And they praised God.”

All differences became irrelevant when they finally understood that before God they were all just human beings. And yet, as has been proven time and again throughout history, differences can and do become irreconcilable, and despite best intentions, people still continue to be divided and separated by tribal ideas of us versus them.

I am reminded of Loretta Veney’s powerful sermon last week and in particular her story of not being able to go back to the neighborhood where she was born and where she lived for 26 years because she didn’t feel welcome, because when she was parked on the street in her car across from her former home, some neighbor called the police, in an incident that she described as “sitting in a car while Black.” We were all horrified, and during Sermon Seminar and after the service people expressed their disgust at this act of aggression against a fellow parishioner, a fellow human being. We were expressing our solidarity.

And yet, we know that this is not an isolated incident; we know that the reason this happened to Loretta is that many White people have moved to different neighborhoods in DC, displacing Black people who then were forced to move away from their homes, their streets, their city, and who then are treated as persona non grata when they try to come back home. They are unwanted in their old neighborhoods because although many of us would want to have a fully integrated world we still live segregated lives. The problem is systemic and needs to be addressed from its very roots.

Similarly, if you noticed, today’s Gospel has the word [crowd] in brackets. What is actually in the text is the word “Jews.” The Episcopal Church has vowed to remove the use of the word Jews from many biblical texts, especially in John, because these readings fomented hate against the Jewish people and led to their persecution–from pogroms to the Holocaust, to attacks on synagogues even now. Christians have much to atone for, beginning with all the evil perpetrated against Jewish people in the name of Jesus–an abhorrent travesty if I’ve ever seen one! By removing the word “Jews” from the texts we stand in solidarity with the other, in this case with our Jewish sisters and brothers. With this gesture we are trying to redress the balance, to make up for the sin of anti-Semitism that so many Christians have committed largely because of ignorance.

I have been reading a wonderful book, The Fourth Gospel: Tales of a Jewish Mystic, by bishop John Spong, my theological hero. Here is what he has to say about this:

“The word “Jew” meant a citizen of Judea. “The Jews,” the citizens of Judea, […], become in the Fourth Gospel the name of the enemies of the Christian movement. John uses the phrase “the Jews” in his gospel to stand for the hierarchical religious leaders of the Temple and synagogue, who have by this time excommunicated the followers of Jesus from the life of the synagogue. The split with (and then within) the Johannine community was so severe that John no longer defines himself as a Jew, which he surely was ethnically, instead reserving the word for the enemies of Jesus.”

As I always say, context is everything. So, of course, it was not the same to be a Jew in first-century Palestine struggling with matters of identity and faith, as to be a Christian in Medieval Europe or in 21st-century America reading about it. We need to understand this and educate ourselves continually.

John’s gospel, as I’ve said before, is not easy to grasp, and this is why this book has been so painfully misinterpreted. Even bishop Spong states that for years he avoided this gospel like the plague. He didn’t like it because he didn’t understand it. All that changed when “John’s gospel began to unfold before me as a work of Jewish mysticism and the Jesus of John’s gospel suddenly became not a visitor from another realm, but a person in whom a new God-consciousness had emerged.”

With this new understanding, Spong sees the inscrutable first part of today’s gospel in a different light:

“John has Jesus say: ‘Now the son of man is glorified and in him, God is glorified; if God is glorified in him, God will also glorify him in himself and glorify him at once.’ It is a strange sentence, but what it [means] is that when Jesus reveals that he can give himself away totally [in love], people will see God’s glory in him… In Jesus’ full, unbroken humanity—the divine presence will be revealed. The human and the divine are not two separate realms. God is not external. God does not have to enter the world from some other realm. When a human life is open to all that humanity can be, humanity and divinity flow together as one.”

This is how mystics understand the world: God is love, but love in action is God.

Talking about Jewish mystics, this past week in centering prayer, we read about the life of Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, and we learned that in addition to being an activist for civil rights and for peace, he was also a mystic steeped in the Hasidic tradition, who believed that God needs human beings. He thought that God had placed us humans in the midst of an unfinished creation so that through our work we could help fulfill God’s plan. That’s why we were created and why our deeds and our prayers can never be separated–in other words, we need both action and contemplation.

Here at St. Mark’s, we set our intention of loving one another by praying and doing. We come here on Sundays to worship together. We play different roles in the liturgy, which is literally the work of the people. We pray, we are fed physically and spiritually, and then we are sent out into the world to continue the work of creation, “to love and serve the Lord”. When we leave here, we need to remember that the love that we are called to give is deep and real; it is agape. It requires that we be aware; that we set an intention beforehand.

We also have online worship like centering prayer and morning prayer which inspire and encourage us during the week. These are holy spaces where we truly care for one another–places that have become the spiritual home for many throughout the pandemic where we find hope and where we set our intention to continue the work of helping God perfect creation.

As we reflect and discuss in today’s worship pillar meetings, let’s remember that liturgy is the work of all of us—whether new to the church or a veteran in liturgical matters; whether young or old, male or female, gay or straight, Black or White, all. It’s work done in love, following the example of Jesus’ love, which we then take with us out into the world.

Let’s remember that God is love, but also that love in action is God.