Year B — The Sixth Sunday of Easter

 Sumus paenitet!

Sometimes, the Bubbas just get busy. We, too, are working pastors and the Lectionary Lab deadline occasionally gets pushed back for other “life events.” We’ll try not to be late on future editions, but, as Forrest Gump said about the doggie deposit on the bottom of his running shoes: “It happens!”

Commentary for May 13, 2012
Click here for today’s readings

Acts 10:44-48
“Surely God just can’t bless THEM!”

The “them” blank has been filled in with lots of suspects in Christian history. There are always people that “we Christians” are just sure reside outside the grace of God. In Acts 10, it was the uncircumcised believers; in our time, it could be Republican believers, or Democratic believers; upper 1% believers, or 99% believers; gay believers, or straight believers; “Muslim-loving” believers, or Christian-supremacist believers.


Of whom might it be said that you (or your congregation members) would be astounded to know they had received the gifts of God by the Spirit?

Psalm 98
Isn’t the Bible just absurd sometimes? I mean, come on — seas “roaring” and waves “clapping their hands?” Will the earth really “break into song” and put forth a few paeans of praise? Everybody knows you can’t take this stuff literally — right?


I love Bible texts like Psalm 98, precisely because they are absurd — absurdly wonderful! Let us join the cacophony of praise!

1 John 5:1-6
Well, I hope we’re getting the idea the “love” is important to God! These Eastertide readings from John — nicknamed the “Beloved” disciple — have emphasized over and over again just how tightly bound God’s presence in the world is to our expressions of love.

What’s love got to do with it? Everything, apparently.

John 15:9-17
Key points from John 15:

  • Jesus’ love for us is his imitation (much more than the sincerest form of flattery!) of God’s love for him; that is to say, Jesus learned love from the one he named his Heavenly Father. When he loves us, he’s just passing along what he’s always known!
  • Keeping the commandments of Christ always issues forth in one distinguishing way: love for others. If our actions and/or words are not loving, oughtn’t we pause to consider where they might be originating?
  • Jesus gives loving one another the force of a commandment (it’s not a suggestion, or merely an example.)
  • Jesus chose us — not vice versa.

Sermon
by the Rev. Dr. Delmer L. Chilton
 

Writing in USA Today, Presbyterian Pastor Henry G. Brinton made a helpful “two kinds of Christians” argument. Or rather, he argued that each of us carries two, often contradictory, religious impulses: 1) obligation-keeping and 2) liberation-seeking.(1)

I have found this a helpful tool for thinking about my faith. I have begun to ask myself: “Which of my religious notions is based in obligation-keeping and which are rooted in liberation-seeking?” Pro-life or pro-choice, peace-activist or military defender, capitalism versus socialism, science and religion; which impulse rules in what areas?

This week’s lessons pose an interesting opportunity to play with this question. In both the second reading from I John and the gospel lesson from John 15, we get a lot of obligation keeping language, “I command” and “obey his commandments” and “You are my friends if you do what I command you.”

On the other hand, the Acts lesson is about all kinds of liberation. Peter becomes liberated from his notions about the Gentiles and their need to follow certain rules and regulations in order to be accepted by God. And the gentile believers get liberated from a potentially very uncomfortable surgical procedure and a restrictive diet. Peter also discovers that God pours out the Spirit on whomever God chooses, strangely ignoring us and our traditional notions of other people’s readiness for our level of holiness.

Peter verbalizes this shift from obligation-keeping mode to liberation-seeking mode when he says “Can anyone withhold the water for baptizing these people who have received the Holy Spirit just as we have?”

The tricky thing is balancing somewhere on the tightrope between obligation keeping and liberation seeking. Most of us know that pure obligation-keeping religion leads to an oppressive, stifling, regimented legalism that creates communities of faith with blinders on, unable and unwilling to respond either to the world or to God’s new movements of the spirit.

On the other hand, pure liberation-seeking leads to “tossing to and fro on the winds of doctrine,” seeking the next new thing (whatever it is) that will turn us loose from whatever restrictions we wishes to be released from.

When I was in college I was what I now jokingly call a Metho-Bap-Terian, a generic mainline Protestant with a toe in several churches and my heart and commitment in none. Feeling called to ministry, but not knowing which “company” to sign up with, I went to one of my religion professor for help. He didn’t give me an answer but he did give me a tool for thinking. (Good professor, right?)
He told me that almost any decision in life is about finding a balance between two equally valuable things: freedom and security. Basically the freer you are, the less security you have and vice versa. A system whereby clergy are appointed to their churches is very secure, but there is little freedom. A pure call system is very free with an almost complete lack of security.
Many times we try to increase our feelings of security with God by trying to restrict both our and God’s freedom. We try to draw inviolable lines of what’s okay and what’s not okay; of who’s in and who’s out; of what God can and can’t do.
And it is very scary to embrace the freedom that comes with realizing that those lines are fuzzier than we thought, and that God, being God, is free to do as God pleases and to love whom God loves whether we like it or not.

The command to love is probably as good a balancing point as any. My Mama told me once that Jesus had to command us to love one another, because love is not easy sometimes. If it were easy, no commands, no orders would be necessary. As it is there are times when we need the command to love so that we continue to behave in loving ways, even when we don’t feel like it. Thanks Mama.

G.K. Chesterton said somewhere, “Jesus told us to love our neighbors. In another place, he told us to love our enemies. This is because, generally speaking, they are the same people.” Again, the command is very, very clear because the task is very, very hard.

So, what is it that the gospel calls to today? Some of us may need to think about establishing a few guidelines, obligations so to speak, for our lives. A little discipline never hurt anybody. Think of it as diet and exercise for the soul.
But most of us need to think through and change whatever attitudes and behaviors we are carrying around that may be protecting our own feelings of security but which are hampering the God-given freedom of others.
The story is that sometime during the early days of the reformation, someone insisted to Luther that the “obligation” to go to confession and to attend mass every week had to be retained. “If we don’t require it, people won’t come,” they said.
Luther replied, “Well, that is just the risk we will have to take for the freedom of the gospel.”
The question today is, “What risks are we called to make for the freedom of the gospel?”
Amen and amen.
(1) USA Today, May 8, 2006

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