When we loved as Jesus loved, there is room for the outsider
Sermon on the occasion of the Rev. Gail Greenwell’s installation as Dean of Christ Church Cathedral, April 26, 2014
“This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you.”
The passage from John’s Gospel that we just heard (15: 12-17) hurls those who are following the Christian calendar backwards out of Easter to Maundy Thursday, when Jesus is delivering his last will and testament to his disciples on the night of his arrest. The theme is love, and more particularly, friendship.
What an appropriate focus for this service, as we install a new cathedral dean and invoke God’s blessing, not only on her ministry, but on the ministry of all who worship here. A cathedral is meant to be a gathering place, where all kinds of people and communities come together to forge friendships and work together for the common good.
This is the ideal that was also sounded by our reading from the Hebrew Scriptures. “In days to come the mountain of the Lord’s house shall be established as the highest of the mountains, and shall be raised above the hills; all the nations shall stream to it” (Isaiah 2:1) In this ancient text, Isaiah is talking about the temple in Jerusalem, but he is proclaiming a principle that would become central to Jews, Christians and Muslims alike. The essence of true religion is universal. Our various religious practices may be quite distinct, but they are geared to the promotion of reconciliation and friendship across all lines.
This principle comes through loud and clear in our second reading from the Letter to the Ephesians: “Christ has broken down the dividing wall…in order that he might make one humanity out of two” (Ephesians 2: 14-15). The reference here is to the unity of Jews and Gentiles, which was a huge issue for the early church. But all walls are implied here, save those that protect the weak from abuse. It is a tragedy of incalculable proportions that the fledgling Christian community proved unequal to this challenge, but, thanks be to God, it is never too late.
After two millennia of self-absorption and infighting, the Christian community still finds itself called by Jesus to break down walls. That’s easier said than done. We know well enough in Cincinnati how racial, ethnic and political divisions can both paralyze and polarize.
That’s no surprise. As a species, we human beings are hard-wired for community. But sadly enough we are also skilled at using our capacity for community as a way to hurt one another. All too easily, our life together becomes a stage on which we vie for power, and our fellowship with one another becomes an occasion to put down communities different from our own.
No wonder, then, that we often confuse closeness with God with escape from community. As David says in Psalm 55: “Oh, that I had wings like a dove, I would fly away and be at rest; I would flee to a far-off place and make my lodging in the wilderness.” Get me away from people, from treachery, from the dynamics of position and territoriality and grudge.
But as religious people we are called – perhaps counter-intuitively – into deeper engagement with one another, in order that our capacity for community may be redeemed.
I say “counter-intuitively,” because it’s hard to see how to engage more deeply with one another without hurting one another, or becoming a closed system that keeps other people out.
Even our Gospel passage could be taken to promote such an in-group mentality. “I call you no longer servants, but friends, says Jesus. In the tight group gathered around him at the last supper, what room is there for strangers?
That’s a real question. I remember a conversation I had some years ago with a theologian I respect very much. She expressed concern that John’s Gospel is too inward turning, too focused on Jesus’ inner circle. Her discomfort has stayed with me, and has become all the more acute as I have come to know the seventy-some congregations that make up this diocese. There’s no parish, large or small, that doesn’t feel the tension between inside and outside. How do we get close to Jesus and to one another without turning our back on the world around us? How do we love each other without excluding others?
How do we get close to Jesus and to one another without turning our back on the world around us? How do we love each other without excluding others?
Of course, the answer is that John’s Gospel is profoundly focused on the world. It all depends on what Jesus means by “love” when he says, “Love one another as I have loved you.” We know this love cannot be exclusive, because Jesus has said earlier on that through his crucifixion and resurrection he will draw all people to himself. And having drawn us to himself, he sends us out into the world to bear fruit that will last.
That is to say, Jesus loves us in a way that frees us to embrace our connection to one another without lording it over one another or conspiring to get the better of others. He loves us despite our failures and betrayals, and in so doing, breaks the whole system of debt and recrimination that plagues so many of our relationships.
As a result, there’s more love to go around. If I know God loves me despite my self-centeredness, I can leave any guilt I have to one side and love my brother or sister without being complicated about it. By the same token, if I’m not preoccupied with my status vis-à-vis the people I am already close to, I can pay attention to the stranger who may be standing at the door, awaiting a word of hope.
Which is to say, the more we love one another without any agenda of our own, the more room there is for people and communities we do not know. When we love as Jesus loves, a space opens up between us for the outsider.
The more we love one another without any agenda of our own, the more room there is for people and communities we do not know
This is what Dietrich Bonhoeffer meant when he insisted that if we want to be truly present to one another, we must invite Jesus to stand between us, helping us to rediscover each other in his light, and ensuring that our love for one another will turn our hearts to the stranger or the forgotten other who is always longing to be seen.
What does that mean for Christian congregations in practical terms? It means that the love Jesus commands us to have for one another is not a private love. As individuals we are to give each other space – space for each other to follow Jesus and space between us for the stranger to find a place. As congregations we are to ensure that the fellowship we enjoy is opening us up to partnerships with other communities of good will, however challenging and game changing those partnerships may be.
We should not underestimate the challenge here. We are made for community, but our connection to one another is precisely the tool we use when we want to hurt or take advantage of one another. Nevertheless, Jesus is always calling us into more community, not less. To be the church is to be an ongoing experiment in the embrace of connection, facing the dangers of exclusivity and abuse in order to be formed, by God’s grace, into the body of Christ.
This is the challenge faced by every parish in this diocese, but by none so clearly as by this cathedral, called as it is to order its internal life in such a way that it will be utterly and completely available to everything and everyone around it. It has not been an easy road.
My brothers and sisters, you have struggled and debated and kept many a vigil, determined to understand what it means to be a community of Christians turned inside out in service to a city and a diocese. And you have demonstrated your determination to be fully available to the world that surrounds you – the young adults, the spiritual seekers, the homeless and the working poor, the eager visionaries – by calling Gail Greenwell as your third dean. I commend you for this call.
Gail, you have been here almost six months, so you have a clear understanding of what you have taken on. You came to us already knowing how the love of Jesus works: total devotion to one another combined with total devotion to the newcomer and stranger. And you have already shown your courage in insisting publicly that all are welcome and respected in God’s house. May the joy and power of Christ, crucified and risen, sustain you daily, as we walk with you into resurrection light.