Saturday, May 16, 2009

The Sixth Sunday of Easter, Year B

What a Friend We Have in Jesus!

Readings: Acts 10:44-48; Psalm 98; 1 John 5:1-6; John 15:9-17

We live in a time and place in which cultures and peoples mix more than at any other time in history. There was an article in the Toronto Star this week reporting on a recent study of multiculturalism. Thousands of people were interviewed. What the researchers found was that skin colour, not religion or income was the biggest barrier to making immigrants feel as if they belonged in Canada. The darker the skin, the greater the alienation!

"We were surprised that religion didn't have more effect," said lead author Jeffrey Reitz. However, on two levels the statistics did not surprise me. First of all religion no longer has the credence of society. It no longer has the importance and sway over society that it once had. Secondly, society has its own ways of dealing with multiculturalism apart from any government or societal policies that could possibly be put into effect. Sometimes the response of society is to create closed communities that keep one’s way of living intact by excluding those who are different. Or we may create exclusive communities that are beyond the means of people who are not “like us”. We may ghettoize into communities as we did with our aboriginal peoples by segregating them on reserves. Or we may force people to change and become more like us. Many immigrants gave up their language and culture in order to become Canadian.

But the Christian faith gives us a third option, that of inclusion! Open the doors and welcome people in! However, inclusion runs risks. That is obvious from the reading from Acts. When you allow God to work through you, you lose control over who belongs and who does not. The passage follows Peter’s vision about clean and unclean foods that he had been commanded to eat. He did not understand the vision until he was invited to the home of Cornelius, a Gentile. He was speaking to the household when the Holy Spirit came over them. Just as on the day of Pentecost, they began to praise God in ways that the Christian church had assumed were exclusively theirs. The believers who had come with Peter were astounded that the Spirit of God should be given, not just to them, but to the Gentiles as well.

They moved into action. “Can anyone withhold the water for baptizing these people?” Peter asks. It becomes a time of renewal for the whole community as they welcome the newly baptized into their table fellowship.

The risks are obvious also from John’s letter. He is writing to a community deeply divided by a theological dispute. Many had left the community over the difference in opinion. Some had questioned the humanity of Jesus, saying that Jesus could not possibly have been born human; neither could he have died as a human. Schism threatened the existence of the community. John asked them not to seek revenge or to be bitter, but to love. “Everyone who believes that Jesus is the Christ has been born of God,” he said to them. It is an inclusive statement that we so often glibly turn around. It calls us to love all of God’s children, not simply those we consider to be God’s children.

The risks of inclusivity are real. You might have to accept people whom you deem unworthy of the name of Christian. You might have to worship side by side with people of a different colour, race, economic status or sexual orientation. You might have to accept that we are all made in God’s image. You might have to struggle with the issues that face the Christian Church in the twenty-first century.

If the passages from Acts and the letter of John point out the risks, the gospel surely lives out our call to be an inclusive and open community of faith. “This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you,” Jesus says to the disciples. He reminds them of the great love that he has for them. He reminds them that our love is a reflection of the love God has for us. It is not simply religious sentimentality; it is our call as Christians. The loving attitude we see in Christ is a reflection of the will of God just as our loving attitude is meant to reflect the love of Christ in whose image we are made. It links love and obedience. It makes our love of God and others intentional.

But then as always Jesus goes much further! “I do not call you servants any longer. You are my friends,” he says to them. It is a tremendous affirmation of who we are. Why should we have been chosen into intimate relationship with Jesus? Do you have a long list of reasons? I certainly do not. Yet we have been chosen! It is a friendship based not on our deserving, not on our merit, but on our acceptance of God’s love.

Friendship is such an amazing thing. This week I experienced the amazing grace that friendship can be when it opens us up to the love of God. I am on call at Credit Valley Hospital this week. I received a call from a family to come in to a woman in palliative care who was close to death. The call came from her son, but when I arrived at the entrance to the hospital I was greeted by a half a dozen women who were waiting for me to arrive. They introduced themselves as her friends. They began to tell me about their friend who was dying. They all had a story of what she had meant to them in their lives, about meeting her for the first time, about how she had been there for them, how she had encouraged them, how her faith and joy had constantly lifted their spirits. As they spoke about her, I knew that this was a person I would have dearly loved to have known. They took me to her room and introduced me to her son and daughter in law. They too had stories of the transformative love that their mother had instilled in them. They wanted to be there with her as a community as she journeyed from life to death.

I said some prayers and read from Scripture. Then I offered a blessing. A sense of real peace and love came into the room. It was a time of grace in the midst of suffering.

How do we create a community in which there is understanding and love in a life-giving, self-giving way? To create such a community would surely be risky on so many levels. It begins with responding to Jesus as friend. In doing so we would on some level “lay down our life for our friends”. It is unlikely that it would be the ultimate sacrifice. Yet we are called to ‘put our lives on the line for one another’. We are called to put others before ourselves. We are called to love in a life-giving way. It means being generous with other people, not just by providing bread but also by sharing the deeper gift of oneself. In the Eucharist we share the bread and the one cup with each other as a sign that in our daily lives we strive to share our bread, our blessings, and ourselves with others. It is in the doing that Eucharist becomes honest and effective.

Laying down our lives for one another may mean sacrificing time, thought, worry, concern, caring, sensitivity. It will result in abhorrence for the ways of the world, for the killing and alienation of the violent society in which we live. In the light of Christ’s Eucharistic sharing such things become even more abhorrent. Christ’s gift revealed in the Eucharist enables us to understand the unique value of human life and then respond.

How do we respond to Jesus? Do we respond as friend and brother? For we are blessed to have such a friend! Amen

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