The Rev. Cynthia K. R. Banks; Easter 6—Year B; Acts 10:44-48; Psalm 98; I John 5:1-6; John 15:9-17
So last week, this theme of love started to sound, like 29 times in the passage from I John. And we heard things like “There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear.” And in the gospel passage, Jesus was talking to his disciples about what it means to abide. He told them that God was the vinegrower, “husbandman, tiller of the soil” in the greek, and he, Jesus, was the vine and his disciples, they were the branches. Jesus told them that branches can’t live if they aren’t connected to and drawing their life from the vine. Think about it, a branch lying on the ground can’t live—it gets dry and brittle.
Jesus told them, “Abide in me as I abide in you.” I love the word “abide.” It means “to remain, to stay, to continue to be present, to wait and await.” So there’s an aliveness to abiding, a steadfastness, a stability, even if everything is moving and swirling and spinning; there is this deep, deep sense of being anchored, and it is deeply relational. And there is also this sense of expectancy, of waiting, of awaiting the other, of open arms waiting for someone or something to fall into them. And Jesus does this twist—instead of just having this go one way, it goes both ways—he is inviting the disciples to abide in him just as he is already abiding in them. Jesus has already sealed the deal from his side—that happened when he entered our flesh. And he is waiting for us to embrace and claim what it means to abide in the fullness of his being. This is good stuff.
This week, Jesus picks up this theme of abiding and just keeps taking it deeper. This abiding isn’t just about being, but it’s about that thing that got named 29 times last week—it’s all about love. And this love is dynamic and flowing and electric and alive. “As the Father has loved me, so I have loved you; abide in my love.” Okay, stop. The punctuation in that sentence is a semicolon. God has loved Jesus and Jesus knows it and Jesus has loved us; [semicolon] and Jesus wants us to stay in that love.
Jesus continues, “If you keep my commandments, you will abide in my love, just as I have kept my Father’s commandments and abide in his love.” Uh-oh, that’s starting to sound conditional and like law, and not love; commandments sound like rules and duty and obligation, not love. But Jesus goes on, “I have said these things to you so that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be complete.” So, this commandment is about something different. If joy is involved, this has to be about something different. And then Jesus tells us that this isn’t really about a ton of laws, rules, duties, and obligations, but it is only about ONE—“This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you.” It is only and ever and always about love. And it’s all one love—God’s love to Jesus, Jesus’ love to us, our love to one another. The love has to flow; if it’s not filling and spilling over and flowing, it’s not love. And that little promise tucked in the middle there—did you catch it? “I have said these things to you so that my joy may be in you, and that your joy, your joy, may be complete.”
That Jesus’ joy may be in us, and that our joy may be complete. Could we just stop and meditate on that for a moment? What is Jesus’ joy? What does his joy look like? What does true, deep, abiding joy look like? When we talked about foreboding joy a few weeks ago, some of you indicated that joy is a hard thing for you too and not something that you can easily rest in. Well, what does joy look like as we see it in Jesus? (pause)
I think it looks like freedom, a sense of comfort in your own skin, the freedom to speak the truth you know, a sense of authority that is ground-truthed deep in your being when your being is rooted and grounded in Being itself, capital “B”, a.k.a. God. I think that joy looks like an absence of fear and anxiety which frees you to meet and stay present to the person right in front of you, whomever they may be. I think it looks like delight and pleasure and laughter and abundance and feasting—enjoying beauty and nature, relishing friendship, sharing in food and drink, maybe even dancing, no, surely dancing. This joy looks like delighting in all sorts and conditions of people. It looks like time and space to rest, taking sabbath, even in the face of profound never-ending need. It’s the freedom to circle back when you blow it without shame. It’s an un-self-consciousness.
Would you want some of that joy???
“It’s yours,” Jesus says, “I’ve said all these things to you so that my joy may be in you, my joy, and that your joy may be complete, whole.” Abiding in Jesus’ being is abiding in his love is abiding in his joy—we can’t pull these apart. We get the whole package.
And somehow, this deep, deep joy that’s tied to this deep, deep love gives birth to a deep, deep courage, even a willingness “to lay down one’s life for one’s friends,” Jesus says.
So, now, we need to circle back to a year ago. It was this Sunday a year ago—
Good Shepherd Sunday—when Boko Haram had just kidnapped those school girls in Nigeria. We talked about Jesus being the shepherd that would know those girls’ names, who would close a sheepfold around their souls, who would enclose a space around their hearts that those thieves and bandits couldn’t touch. We set our energy and intention and prayer toward that vision. It seemed hopeless at the time, utterly hopeless; our prayers seemed so small in the face of that vast horror. But fast forward to this week. Close to a thousand women, girls, and boys rescued by the Nigerian army. It’s not clear yet if, among those rescued, are those exact school girls taken a year ago, and even the rescue had its tragic elements, but there was this one story—maybe you heard it, too. Melissa Block, the news anchor, was asking the reporter, Michelle Faul, if one story stuck out to her, and this is what Faul said:
“Bingta Ibrahim (ph)—she was 16 years old when she was abducted and taken with her sister-in-law and two other sisters to a village where she found three children who’d been abandoned in the warzone. But she knew the parents of these kids, so she took them under her care. Now, bear in mind, she’s 16 years old. This was 13 months ago. Six months ago, there was an air raid on the village where they were, and her sisters said, let’s go. We can escape. There was pandemonium, chaos – let’s go. And her sisters escaped, and she didn’t. She said, ‘How could I abandon those children again?’
“And what really touched me about this,” the reporter said, “Bingta is a Muslim. The three children that she brought to safety at that refugee camp are all Christians. Now the Islamic uprising in the Northeast has really polarized Nigerians across the country on religious lines. And here’s this young girl. When I said to her, you know, how do you feel about the kids? She says, ‘I love them like they are my own.’ And she, like, beat her chest with both her fists to show how deep her love is for them.”
The news anchor asked, “What happens to them from here?”
The reporter responded, “Well, she’s hoping that there are parents alive out there that she’ll be able to return the children to.”
Talk about a Mother’s Day story!
Jesus says, “No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends. You are my friends if you do what I command you…You did not choose me but I chose you.”
And what is that command? “Love one another.”
And in that complete gospel twist that Jesus so often throws our way, the woman who acted as Jesus’ commands, who laid down her life for these children, who abided with them and in them, even as they abided in her, who enfleshed what it means to love one another, she is a Muslim—you might as well say, “Gentile” or “Samaritan” to drive the point home. The Spirit blows where the Spirit blows, and Bingta icons for us today what happens when love drives us and joy fills us and courage is set free.
In the midst of all the bad news across the world, in the midst of prayers uttered in this place a year ago from a place of abiding hope, comes a story that reminds that hope is not futile, that love is stronger than death, and that joy can reign, even in most tragic, horrific, broken, pained of places. Can we, with Bingta, rejoice that these women and girls and boys have been set free, can we taste this joy just for a moment? Jesus surely would.
I cannot fathom the courage of this young woman, but then, I bet she couldn’t fathom it either. She just knew that love compelled her to do what she did.
What, in your life, has been abandoned that Love is compelling you to love? Where is Jesus inviting you to abide? And if you leap into that place, what crazy joy might you discover that will take your breath away?
We live in a world that is so full of death and brokenness right now, and yet, we also live in Easter time.
Jesus keeps calling us, awaiting us, yearning for us to remember, that Love is come again.
This is our only hope, and in that hope is our greatest joy, and in that joy, we will be set free for courage beyond our imagining, and with that courage, as the angel always says, nothing is impossible.
With that courage—our hope, Jesus’ hope, God’s hope is never in vain. Amen.
The Rev. Cynthia K. R. Banks
St. Luke’s Episcopal Church, Boone, NC
May 10, 2015