Sunday, May 30, 2010

Holy Trinity


June 7, 2009

John 3.1-17

+ I think one knows one is a “church nerd” when one loves to preach on this Sunday. This Sunday is, of course, Trinity Sunday. Whenever I talk about this Sunday with some of my fellow clergy, they think I am crazy because I unabashedly enjoy this Sunday of the Holy Trinity.

But to be honest, I don’t understand why others have such an issue with it. Yes, I know the Trinity seems like some abstract theological concept to people. But to me, I think it is one of those amazing things in theology that, like an onion, as I unpeel, I just keep finding one more layer that amazes me.

But first, just a bit about why we have this Sunday and why it is important. It was on this Sunday in 1162—this Sunday after Whit Sunday or Pentecost Sunday which in 1162 fell on June 3—that Thomas Beckett was consecrated Archbishop of Canterbury. His first act as ABC was to consecrate this Sunday to as a new feast day in honor of the Holy Trinity. From that moment on, it spread through the Anglican Church and the world. Since then, Trinity Sunday has the status of a Principal Feast in the Church of England and is one of seven principal feast days in the Episcopal Church.

It was also on this Sunday that, in certain Anglican Church, particularly High Church congregation, the Creed of St. Anthanasius was recited. Now, I know some of you might be terribly disappointed to hear this, but we will NOT be reciting the Athansian Creed this morning. Though, if you are interested in perusing it, you can find it on page 864 in the Book of Common Prayer. It’s actually fairly interesting reading, especially in regard to the Trinity. But sometimes, when I read it—and yes, I do read it on occasion—my head starts swimming, especially when I come across statements like this:

“…we worship one God in Trinity, and Trinity in Unity, neither confounding the Persons, nor dividing the Substance
For there is one Person of the Father, another of the Son, and another of the Holy Ghost.”

Interesting reading, but I don’t know if it helps us celebrate this wonderful Sunday with greater understanding.

For me, I certainly see the Trinity as a mystery. I would even go so far as to the say that it is the ultimate mystery of mysteries. I see it also as the paramount belief we Christians have. The Trinity. God as Three-in-One—God as Father or Parent or Creator, God as Son or God Incarnate—God in the flesh— and God as Spirit or Sanctifier. It is difficult to wrap our minds around this concept of God. The questions we priests regularly get is: how can God be three and yet one? How can we, in all honesty, say that we believe in one God when we worship God as three? Aren’t we simply talking about three gods?

Whole Church councils—including the one Athanasius was a part of—have debated the issue of the Trinity throughout history. The Church actually has split at times over its interpretation of what exactly this Trinity is.

Certainly, I struggled with this concept for years. It was only when I was studying for the priesthood, in a systematic theology class I took, that I came across a book that broke down all the barriers for me. The book, by a nun of the Dominican Order, Mary Ann Fatula, was called The Triune God of Christian Faith. Now that title alone would turn most of us off. Certainly when I saw it on the syllabus, I rolled my eyes and thought to myself: Great, another dry, boring book on theology. But despite its title, this book was amazing. Fatula was wonderful in how she took this very difficult concept of the Trinity and made it accessible at least for me. Some of the points Fatula makes are downright beautiful and poetic in attempting to understand what the Trinity is:

She begins with the belief that our very beings are “etched with the signs of Trinitarian origin.”

In a sense, we have proof of the Trinity’s existence in our very bodies and minds. Our psyche, for example, is Trinitarian, made up of three distinct aspects. It’s still one psyche, but it makes its self known in three different ways: memory, knowledge and love. It, in a sense, reflects the relationship the “persons” of the Trinity have with each other.

Another way she attempts to help us understand the Trinity is that of the relationship of the Lover, of the Beloved and of the Love that unites them. The Lover, our course, is God the Creator, the Parent. The Beloved is Christ, God in the flesh. The love that unites them is the Spirit. She stresses that although they are the same, they are still distinct and different in what they do. The Son (Christ) and the Spirit, she explains, are exactly what the Father (Parent) is, without being who the Parent is.

I’ll repeat that: The Son (Christ) and the Spirit, she explains, are exactly what the Father (Parent) is, without being who the Parent is.

Are you still with me? Let’s look at it from another perspective: The Trinity starts with the Incarnation—our belief that Jesus is God made flesh—God made one of us—fully God, fully human.

“Because of Jesus,” Fatula says, “heaven will be joined to earth in our very bodies.”

In other words, because Jesus was both a part of heaven and a part of earth, in Jesus, we find a perfect balance. Heaven and earth have come together. The Holy Spirit, released at the death of Jesus on the cross, is now poured out upon us. Before this death, Fatula says, the Spirit was confined by the “opaque boundaries of Jesus’ human existence.” His pre-resurrection body could only “’contain’ rather than convey the spirit.” At his death, the dam broke, in a sense. The Spirit poured forth into our lives as a lasting presence of God among us.

This is certainly what we celebrated last Sunday on Pentecost. Jesus, after he was resurrected, after he ascended bodily into heaven, has left us his presence—his spirit—to remain with us. It was poured out on those disciples in the upper room and it continues to be poured out upon all of us still to this day. This Spirit, according to Fatula, is the Father and the Son’s embrace of us, “their kiss, their joy and their delight lavished upon the earth.”

By the Spirit, we come to know both God as our loving Parent and God as our redeemer—we are encircled and drawn close to God.

So, what are talking about here is not three gods, as some people seem to think. What we are talking about it one tri-personal God—a God who cannot be limited in any way, but a God who is able to come to us and be revealed to us in a variety of ways So now we’re getting a real idea of what the Trinity is. Now, all of this is, hopefully, very helpful. It helps us to make sense of this sometimes confusing and difficult belief.

But ultimately what we have here are symbols and analogies of what the Trinity is. They are ways of taking something incomprehensible and making them, in some small way, tangible. We can go on and on about theology and philosophy and all manner of thoughts about God, but ultimately what matters is not how we think about God, but how we believe in God. Or more important than that, how do these views of God help deepen our relationship with God and with each other? How do they bring us closer to God?

Because that is our primary responsibility: our relationship with God. How can all this talk about God—how can this thinking about God—then deepen our relationship with God? Our goal is not to understand God: we will never understand God. Our goal is to know God. Our goal is to love God. Our goal is to try to experience God as God wishes to be experienced by us.

I have experienced God in a variety of ways; certainly I have experiences God in that tri-personal way countless times. I have known God as a loving and caring parent, especially when I think about those times when I have felt marginalized by people, when I have felt ostracized and turned away by people. I have also known God in Jesus. Probably this has been my most common way of knowing and loving God. And again and again in my life I have known the healing and renewal of the Spirit of my life.

So, no matter what the theologians argue about, no matter what those supposedly learned teachers proclaim, ultimately, our understanding of the Trinity needs to be based on our own experience to some extent. The Trinity does not have to be a frustrating aspect of our church and our faith. It should widen and expand our faith life and our understanding and experience of God and, in turn, of each other. It should, like that onion, be revealed to us in layers that surprise us and amaze us and delight us.

So, today, as you ponder God as Trinity—as you consider how God has worked in your life in a tri-personal way— and who God is in your life, remember how amazing God is in the ways God is revealed to us. God can not be limited or quantified or reduced. God can only be experienced and adored and pondered. And, of course, loved.

Sunday, May 23, 2010

Pentecost


May 23, 2010


+ Today, of course, we commemorate the feast of Pentecost. It’s a big day in the Church Year. The fifty days of Easter are now officially over. By all outward appearances it is different. We are surrounded by the color red today in the church I often joke that this Sunday often feels like a Communist Youth Rally with all the red we have today.

But today, is important, because today we celebrate the descent of the Holy Spirit among the disciples. This feast today is not just a Christian celebration. The feast of Pentecost was celebrated long before Christians came on the scene. Originally it was a harvest feast celebrated 50 days after the Passover. The word “Pentecost” refers to the Greek word for 50. It was the feast on which the early Jews offered to God the first fruits of their harvests.

Now that is meaningful to us Christians and what we celebrate on this day—50 days after Easter. It is meaningful that we celebrate the Holy Spirit with this feast named after the feast in which the first fruits were offered to God. After all, those first Christians who gathered in that upper were truly the first fruits of the Church. But the real question we might find ourselves asking this Pentecost Sunday is: who is the Holy Spirit? After all, we in the Church—especially in the Episcopal Church—simply don’t talk much about the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit is one of those seemingly forgotten “persons” of the Trinity. We don’t think of the Spirit as we should. Whenever we talk of spirits or anything spiritual, we instantly think of heady, other-worldly issues. Most of us are pretty well-grounded. We can relate fairly well to God as parent. Or we can relate better to God as Incarnate God—as we discover God in Jesus—a God who takes on flesh like our flesh, who suffered like we suffer and died like we will die. Or we can even relate to Jesus specifically, though more often than in these last few years we have heard much talk about separating the so-called “historical Jesus” from the “spiritual Christ” and other such talk that really doesn’t help the mission of the Church much. But when it comes to God as Spirit, our first reaction, no doubt, is one of distance.

The Spirit seems to some of us like a wispy mirage in our thoughts rather than something solid that we can cling to when we need to. Over the years, I’ve heard some very strange explanations of who the Holy Spirit is and how we should relate to this manifestation of God. When I was in Sunday School (this was in the Lutheran Church) as a child, I remember very distinctly, a Sunday School teacher telling us that if we prayed to the Holy Ghost—that’s what we called the Holy Spirit back then—the Holy Ghost would leave us. Now, I have no idea where that woman got that idea, but it, of course, frightened me, because the Holy Ghost was difficult enough to figure out as a kid.

I, of course, now know better. We can pray to the Holy Spirit, since the Spirit is God, after all.

It wasn’t all that long ago that I heard—in shocked disbelief—an Episcopal priest I know describe the Holy Spirit as “something like Casper the friendly Ghost.” To be fair, I think she was trying to create an image of something gentle and kind for the people she was speaking to—which were adults by the way, and not children. But it just proved to me that even those of us who are priests in the Church might not fully understand who the Spirit is any better than anyone else. When it comes to the Holy Spirit, we all find ourselves grasping and struggling to define who and what the Spirit is in our lives.

The Spirit can be elusive and strange and sometimes we might have a hard time wrapping our minds around the Spirit. But it is clear from the words of Jesus before he ascends back into heaven what the role of the Spirit is: Although Jesus might no longer be with us physically as he was when he walked with the disciples, he does remains with us in his spirit.

And this Spirit comes to us often—for example, in our Eucharistic prayer today, you will hear me say, ‘We pray you, Gracious God, to send your Holy Spirit upon these gifts that they may be the Body of Christ and his Blood of the New Covenant.” The technical term for this action is the “epiclesis.” It is the action in which we call upon God to send the Spirit upon the bread and wine. In more High Church Episcopal Churches, a bell would be rung at that moment, to signal everyone to pay attention—something important was happening. The Epiclesis is important for us because it is a sign that the Holy Spirit is working here in our church every time we gather together for the Eucharist.

Jesus, at his ascension said that he will leave—we will not be able to touch him and feel him and listen to his human voice again. But he is leaving something amazing in his place. In a sense what happens with the Descent of Jesus’ Spirit upon us is the fact that we now have the potential to be prophets. The same Spirit which spoke to Ezekiel, which spoke to Isaiah, which spoke to Jeremiah, which spoke to Moses, also can now speak to us and be revealed to us just as it was spoke and was revealed to those prophets from the Hebrew Bible. That is who the Spirit is in our midst. The Spirit we celebrate today—and hopefully every day—is truly the spirit of the God that came to us and continues to come to us—first to those prophets in our Hebrew past, then in the person of Jesus and finally in that rushing wind and in that rain of burning flames and here at the altar in our Eucharist.

It is through this Spirit that we come to know God in ways we might never have before. God’s Spirit comes to us wherever we may be in our lives—in any situation or frustration. God’s Spirit is with us, as Jesus promised, always. Always. And it is through this Spirit that God comes to know us as well.

For those of us who want to grasp these experiences—who want to have proof of them—the Spirit doesn’t fit well into the plan. We can’t grasp the Spirit. We can’t make the Spirit do what we want it to do. In that way, the Spirit truly is like the Wind that came rushing upon those first disciples.

So, how do we know how the Spirit is working in our lives? Well, as Jesus said, we know the tree by its fruit. In our case, we know the Spirit best through the fruits God’s Spirit gives us.

I can say I have, in fact, experienced the Spirit very profoundly many times in my life. For me, the Spirit of God comes to me not in a noisy, raucous way, but rather in a quiet, though just as intense, way. The Sprit of God as I have experienced it has never been a “raining down” so to speak, but rather a “welling up from within.” And more than anything, when the Spirit draws close, I am filled with a true sense of hope and joy. When the future seems bleak and ugly, the Spirit can come in and make everything worth living again.

No doubt everyone here this morning has felt a similar experience of God’s Spirit, although you might not have readily recognized that experience as God’s Spirit. Maybe it was the joy you felt when a child or grandchild was born. Maybe it was a sense of calm coming to you in the midst of a difficult time in your life. Maybe it was a comforting hand on your shoulder when you were sorrowing or a bit of advice you needed for some problem you had been carrying with you for some time. Or possibly, it is here at this altar, when we gather together and receive these gifts and then feel renewed and rejuvenated to go out form here and share that hope and joy that we receive here at this altar with others.

This is how God’s Spirit comes to us. The Spirit does not tear open the ceiling and force its way into our lives. The Spirit rather comes to us just when we need the Spirit to come to us.

So, during this week of Pentecost, look for the gifts of the Spirit of Jesus in your life and in those around you. Open yourself to God’s Spirit and let it flow through you like a caressing wind. And remember the true message of the Spirit to all of us—whenever it seems like God is distant or nonexistent, that is when God might possibly be closest of all, dwelling within us, being breathed unto as it was on those first disciples.

On this feast of Pentecost—this feast of the Spirit of God—give thanks to God for all the many ways the Spirit is manifested in your life.

Sunday, May 16, 2010

7 Easter


The Sunday after Ascension

May 16, 2010

Revelation 22.12-14, 16-17, 20-21

+ “Amen. Come, Lord Jesus!”

So…when was the last time we heard these words in church? If you said “Advent” you are very read. And I am very proud of you. If you didn’t…well, that’s all right. We all make mistakes.

But, yes, the last time we heard these words were at Advent. In fact, these words sort of give a theme to Advent. At Advent, we awaited the Christ Child at Christmas. We looked toward that coming of Jesus with hopefully expectation and joy.

But today—that Sunday after the Ascension and this Sunday before Pentecost—this last Sunday of Easter—the tone of these words has a different feel. Come, Lord Jesus takes on a different meaning today, but it is no less full of expectation and no less joyful.

Like those early followers of Jesus all that we have experienced in these last several weeks since Easter—all that we have encountered in our scriptures and liturgies—has been, to say the least, heady stuff. Jesus’ death, resurrection and, most recently, his ascension are all things that are not easy to wrap our minds around.

But now, we are preparing for another coming of Jesus. This one if very different than anything we have experienced up to this point. Next Sunday—Pentecost—we experience the coming of Jesus’ Spirit upon us.

And, today, between this feast of his Ascension and the feast of his return among us as Spirit, we are truly expectant.

Next week, on Pentecost Sunday, Jesus makes a triumphant return. That prayer, “Come, Lord Jesus” will be answered yet again, but in a very different way than those early followers or even us fully expect.

And what is especially wonderful is the fact that every time we pray, “Come, Lord Jesus” we find that he truly does. He comes to us in his Spirit and descends upon us. All we have to do is ask. All we have to do is pray that simple prayer. And he answers. Every time.

The coming of Jesus’ Spirit is truly a glorious event that happens again and again in our lives. It happens here at Mass, when we call down that Spirit of Jesus into the Bread and the Wine. It happens when we feast here at this altar on his Body and Blood. But what we are feasting here on more than his Body and Blood. We are feasting here on his Body, Blood and Spirit.

We also experience it our prayers lives. As some of you know, I am regular practitioner of Centering Prayer. Centering Prayer is a surprisingly simple form of prayer in which one simply opens one’s self up to God and allows God to become fully and completely present.

During Centering Prayer, I often find myself praying for Jesus to come to me. And it really does happen. When I open myself to Jesus’ Spirit to come to me and be with me, Jesus truly does come. And that experience with Spirit is an indescribable, incredible, wonderful experience.

So, let this prayer—“Come, Lord Jesus”—be our prayer, not just at Advent, not just at Pentecost, but always. Let is be the most powerful prayer we know. Let is be the prayer of our lips, our breathes, our heartbeats. And let us always know that it is the prayer that is always answered—again and again—with in an overly generous outpouring of the Spirit of Jesus into our lives.

Sunday, May 9, 2010

6 Easter


May 9, 2010

Revelation 21.10, 22-22.5

+ Lately I have been re-reading the great, and sadly unknown, Episcopal theologian, William Stringfellow. If you do not know Stringfellow or have never read him, I highly encourage you to do so. Stringfellow was not your typical theologian, by any sense of the word. As a lawyer, he defended poor black and Hispanic people in Brooklyn in the 1950s. In the 1960s he defended such unpopular causes as clergy who marched on Selma, as well as Bishop James Pike when he was brought up on heresy charges. In the 1970s, he actually subpoenaed Presiding Bishop John Allin regarding women priests presiding in churches He called for the resignation of Richard Nixon’s presidency years before Watergate. And he spoke out openly against the FBI

His private life too was very radical for its time. Stringfellow lived openly and unashamedly from the 1960s through the 1980s with his partner, poet Anthony Towne. In 1967, he and Towne moved to Block Island, off the coast of Rhode Island, where they developed a semi-monastic life together and were eventually wholeheartedly welcomed into the somewhat insular year-round community at Block Island. But in addition to all of this, Stringfellow was also, brace yourselves, an Evangelical Episcopal Christian. He was an ardent student of the Bible and wrote extensively on how our lives as Christians must be based fully and completely on the Word of God. Mind you, he was no fundamentalist. He was no Bible-thumper. Rather he was a theologian who simply saw all life through the lens of scripture. Or to be clearer: he was, in a very real sense, a prophet. He was the conduit, at times, through which the Word of God was proclaimed.

Stringfellow, who died in 1985, was and is an important theologian for us still to this day. Stringfellow was often described as a stranger in a strange land. I love that description. Let me tell you, I have often felt that same way. Maybe that’s why I like him so much.

So, why this talk of Stringfellow? Well, Stringfellow is important to me because it was through Stringfellow that I began to re-read the Book of Revelation. He helped me claim—or re-claim it—and helped me to read it anew.

In our reading this morning from Revelation, we find some very strange esoteric images—not an uncommon thing when we read Revelation We find this morning these images of angels, of the holy city of Jerusalem, of a place without moon or sun, but a place of incredible light. It is a glorious vision of what awaits us in that place in which God and the Lamb dwell. It is a place of beauty and glory. It is a place of unending life. And that is the important thing to take away from our reading today.

Probably the best aspect of Stringfellow, for me, is his view on the fact that death is not a part of Christian life. Stringfellow saw again and again in Scripture the defeat of death. Or as Stringfellow called “authority over death.” He saw it most profoundly in the life of Jesus. There we see this authority over death most profoundly. We see it every time Jesus healed the sick, calmed the storms, cast out demons, ate with sinners, cleansed the temple, raised the death, carried the Cross. And of course, in the Resurrection.


This view of life over death speaks to us most profoundly during this Easter season—especially on this Sunday in which we plant our Peace Pole, we bless the seeds, and soil and water for renewed life, on this mother’s Day in which we celebrate the woman who gave us life. During this Easter season, what we have found most vital to our understanding of living into this Easter faith is the startling fact that death, truly does not have power over us. We, as Christians, cannot let the power of death control and direct our lives. The world in which we live does, in fact live in a death culture. We are surrounded by death in various forms.

And we, as a culture, give death the ultimate victory. We are a culture that proclaims and holds up war. We are a culture capable of death and destruction with the touch of button or the stroke of a pen. We are a culture that, at times, flies in the face of death, but even by doing so, we deny death. We pretend in those moments, death doesn’t exists—or rather than death for us as individuals doesn’t exists. In those moments, we are allowing death free reign in our lives. In those moments, we are not being truly defiant to death. We are simply ignoring death and deceiving ourselves. Ultimate victory over death is when we can face death honestly. True victory over death is when we can see death only when the light we hear about in today’s reading from revelation, is cast upon death.

Only then do we realize, death has no victory over us. Because of what happened on Easter, because of the Resurrection, because Jesus did die, yes, buy he rose from that tomb, and walked victorious upon the chains of death, we know now death does not have the last word in our lives.

Stringfellow was devastated when, in 1980, he suddenly lost his partner Anthony Towne. It shook him to his core and turned him inside out. But, Stringfellow maintained, he would not allow death to win out. And as long as he was stuck in his mourning pattern—as long as he continued to cling and clutch after Anthony, he was allowing death the ultimate victory. Stringfellow could not grieve forever over Towne. If he, he wrote, “the power of death would not only have claimed Anthony in the grave but would also seize me. Stringfellow refused to let “grief define my living.” Only when he could let Anthony go with Christ and be with Christ did he fully realize the ultimate victory over death.

We all get stuck in mourning patterns. Mourning patterns sometimes—and most prevalently—involve losing a loved one to death. But we also get ourselves in mourning patterns when we devolve into unhealthy nostalgia. In the Church, we hear it all the time.

“Oh my,” I hear people say all the time, “The 1950s and 1960s were the best time to be a Christian in this country. The churches were filled. It was a glorious time.”

Or, we hear: “Back in nineteen-seventy-so-and-so we did this and this and this and that really worked very well.”

What we don’t realize with this kind of thinking is that such hindsight is always through a narrow tunnel vision. And the fact is, if we look back at past years as being so much greater than where we are now, we are not able to look forward to the glory that can await us in the future. It is not 1955 or 1960 or 1977—and it never will be again. That time is gone. It had died and there is no resurrecting it.

But 2011 and 2016 and 2020 do await us and they are filled with potential and hope at what the Church as a whole can be. They filled with a hope and potential at what we, as humans can do. We can stand up against death. We can stand up against war. We can proclaim peace now so that can truly prevail in the future. And when we are doing so, when are looking ahead to those glorious events, when we, like William Stringfellow, the prophet, can see visions of an existence of peace and life, we are truly living. We are striving for a future of life, rather than looking back in sadness and loss.

I, of course, am not saying that we should forget the past or that we shouldn’t celebrate where we were and what we did. We should always keep where we are in perspective to where we’ve been. But, the fact of the matter is, we can’t do things like we did then. Now is now and the needs are different than they were 30 or 40 or 50 years ago.

Faith and the Church and society changes. Thank God they change! And moving forward is essential to life. Yes, living our lives fully and completely can be frightening. We are, after all, heading into the future which is unknown to us.

But that, again, is what I love about Revelation. What Revelation promises to us, through all that poetry and imagery, is that death will lose, hatred will lose, violence will lose, evil will lose, war will lose—and goodness, and holiness and LIFE will be victorious. That isn’t wishful thinking. That’s isn’t being na├»ve. Rather, this is what it means to be a Christian. This is what it means to follow Christ.

Yes, following Christ means following him to the Cross and to that dark tomb. But it also means following him into the great unknown on the other side of the Cross and the tomb—into that glorious, light-filled, unending life that swallows up death and darkness and war once and for all.

“And there will be no more night,” John tells us in his Revelation. “they”—we—“will need no light of lamp or sun, for the Lord God will be [our] light, and [we] will reign for ever and ever.”

Those are words of absolute and glorious victory. But more so, they are words of life—of a life that goes on forever and ever.

As we travel through these last days of Easter, we celebrate the planting of our Peace Pole, as we bless and celebrate growth and spring, as we celebrate our mothers, whether they are here among us or in that place of light and life, as we head into this week in which we celebrate Jesus’ ascension to that place of life and light, let us do so with true Easter joy. Let us do so rejoicing from the very core of our bodies. We are alive. And as we heard in our collect today, God has truly prepared for us “such good things as surpass our understanding.”

Amen.

Sunday, May 2, 2010

5 Easter



May 2, 2010

Acts 11.1-18; John 13.31-35


+ As hard as it is to imagine, I know, I once actually had someone take offense at my preaching. Several years ago, a parishioner (at another church) made a point after Mass of saying to me, “Answer me one thing, will you, Father? Why do you always preach about love?” Now…I have to have admit, I was a bit taken aback this. I am usually prepared for criticism such as: “Why do you preach so fast? Why do you preach such short sermons? I don’t like it when you preach about universalism or the Virgin Mary or that strange brand of liberal Socialist Anglo-Catholicism you seem to be so fond of…” But to be asked about why I preach about love really did sort of throw me for a loop.

My answer wasn’t particular eloquent, I can say. All I could say was: “Because…Jesus did.”

Her response was so beautifully low-church Protestant Episcopalian. “”Well, of course he did. But, still, it all just seems so…fluffy and emotional for my tastes.”

Now, you can imagine how I reacted to this. At first, I reacted to it as I do to all nit-picky, non-constructive criticisms I might receive (and let me tell you, I receive a fair amount of nit-picky non-constructive criticism—it’s just part of the job). But as I pondered it, I realized that this parishioner actually had a point, as difficult as it was for me to admit it.

Preaching about love, speaking of love, striving to love one another—which Jesus does command us to do again and again—does have the danger of becoming somewhat sentimental and “fluffy.” We are, as Christians, commanded—and that’s very important to remember—we are commanded to love. We don’t have an option here. There are no choices for us on this point. If we are Christians—if we choose to follow Jesus—we simply MUST love. And we must love everyone. We must love each other as Christians. We must love others who are not Christians. We must love our enemies. And, sometimes this is the hardest one of all, we must love ourselves. There are no “ifs,” “ands” or “buts” about it.

However, we run the risk, with all this talk of love, of becoming frivolous. When we—in our society—think of love, we think of romance, of cupids and hearts, of sentimental images.

But when Jesus speaks of love—as he does in today’s Gospel—it isn’t even remotely the same image. Christian love is not sweet, sentimental, fluffy love. Christian love is hard, difficult love. Because, as hopefully most of us here this morning, know: love is not easy. Love is actually quite hard. Yes, love has moments of being wonderful and beautiful and all-encompassing at times. But love also can be difficult and full of complications as well. As any of you who have been in a committed relationship for a fairly long period knows: love is very, very hard at times.

When we chose to love, we also choose to give up certain freedoms in ourselves. When we love, we are no longer the center of our own universes. When we love, we realize that others are important in our lives.

And that is essential to being a Christian as well. Christian love reminds us again and again: it is not just about me all the time. It is about us. ALL of us. And if love doesn’t motivate us, if love doesn’t compel us, if love doesn’t spur us on to serve fully and completely in this world, then it’s useless. It’s pointless. And it isn’t Christian love then. It isn’t the love Jesus commands us to carry out.

It’s important to remember the fact that the love Jesus commands is not sweet, sappy, romantic love. Rather, love, in this sense, means essentially, friendship. We are, in a sense, commanded to be friends to one another. And that recognition only complicates it all the more. Friendship, like any committed relationship, as well all know, is hard too. Essentially Jesus is telling us that we need to be friends with each other.

Or to take it a step further, we need to be family to each other. And neither, as well know, is easy. In being family to each other we know full well that it doesn’t mean we have to “like” each other all the time. As in any family, we can’t like each other all the time. But like and love are too different things. Just because we might not like our family and friends and spouses sometimes, we do have to love them all the time.

That, I think, is what Jesus is getting at today. I certainly get the impression that Jesus didn’t always like the Sadducees, the Romans, the crowds, or even his own followers. At the beginning of our Gospel reading today, we find that little comment, “when Judas had gone out.” So, Judas, as Jesus is talking about his commandment of love, is going out to betray Jesus to those who will arrest him and murder him. I’m sure Jesus had a very hard time liking Judas at that moment. But, at no time, can we ever doubt that Jesus stopped loving even Judas. Throughout his life, we find that Jesus loved them all.

And even now, we find Jesus loving us as well—all of us, no matter who we are and what we are. That kind of love is a completely non-judgmental love. It is a love that is blind to whatever WE might think separates us from that love.

In a few weeks, this wonderful Easter season will come to an end with a flourish. On Pentecost Sunday, we will find Jesus’ Spirit descending upon those early followers—and upon us as well. That Spirit, like the love we are pondering this morning, is not some wispy, ephemeral ghost. That Spirit of Jesus is a fire. It is a fire that comes upon and consumes us. It is a raging flame that burns within us and rouses us in ways we never knew we could be roused. That Fire of Jesus’ Spirit is, truly, love manifested.

As we heard in our reading form Acts this morning, when the Spirit descended upon the apostles and the early believers, the Spirit made no distinction among those followers and the Gentiles. The Spirit, as a flame of burning love, burns away any distinctions we have among ourselves. And that is what love does. It makes us equal. It makes one. It binds us together and causes us to be blind to whatever might separate us from each other.

This is what we should be praying for in these last days of the Easter season. This burning desire for love should be propelling us forward to the great Pentecost of Jesus’ Spirit upon each of us. And it should be burning within us so we can go out and serve each other in love—even in those moments when we might not like each other. Especially in those moments when we might not like each other.

Yes, I’m sure that parishioner, wherever she is this morning (and I actually do know where she is this morning), probably rolled her eyes a little when she heard this Gospel. She probably still thinks it is frivolous of us to continue preaching about love. But, for me, I do so unashamedly. I, without embarrassment, preach loudly and strongly about love. I can’t imagine being a Christian without love. Without this burning love Jesus commands us to feel, I would become a bitter, angry person. I would be eaten up by self-pity and anger and frustration. I know I would.

But, with this commandment of Jesus loud in my ears, I find that my pitiful efforts at loving both those people who are easy to love and those people I might not like who are hard to love, really do make a difference. I might fail in my attempts at my love (and I have) But as long as I try, as long as I strive to love, to respect others, anger and self-pity and frustration simply lose their strength.

“I give you a new commandment,” Jesus continues to say to us again and again. “love one another. Just as I have loved you should love one another.” This is how we show that we are Jesus’ followers in this world. This is how each of us makes a difference in this world and, maybe changes it, bit by bit, for the better—even in very small ways.

So, let us love without fear or embarrassment. Let us love without distinction to anyone. Let us love freely and fully. Let us love until our anger, our resentment, our fear and our loneliness is burned away to nothing within us. And let that love burn like the Spirit’s all-consuming fire within us and within all of our actions.