Division and Reconciliation

Homily for Sunday, May 13, 2018
Easter 7B
1 John 5:9–13
John 17:6–19

“That they may be one, as we are one.” — John 17:22

Christ_Taking_Leave_of_the_Apostles-Ducchio di BuoninsegnaOver the past weeks we have been “cherry picking” our way through the first letter of John, reading from chapter 1 here and chapter 3 there; from chapter 4 here and from chapter 5 there.  This “cherry picking” is understandable because the letter itself is not a model of coherence.  Unlike John’s Gospel—which came from the same early Christian community as did 1 John, and in which each and every word seems to have been thought through, weighed and intentionally chosen—the first letter of John seems “from the hip,” as it were: more emotional, with less concern for a formal cohesion; more—perhaps—defensive.

 

That said, there is a word in 1 John, the frequent usage of which may serve as an element of coherence.  In I John this word appears again and again and again.  In past weeks we have heard:

  • “For the love of God is this, that we obey his commandments.” (I John 5:1–6)
  • “God is love, and those who abide in love abide in God, and God abides in them.” (I John 4:7–21)
  • “See what love the Father has given us, that we should be called children of God.” (I John 3:1–7)
  • “Little children, let us love, not in word or speech, but in truth and action.” (I John 3:16–24)

By my count, the word “love” (including “beloved”) appears in I John 32 times—a high frequency for a letter only five chapters long.

Given the frequent use of “love,” one might think that the Johannine community was an extremely loving community. “Of course they would be!” we might say.  “Didn’t Jesus pray—as we just heard in today’s Gospel—‘that they all may be one?’”  But… there is another word used frequently in John.  In past weeks we have also heard:

  • “If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us.” (1 John 1:1–2:2)
  • “No one who abides in him sins; no one who sins has either seen him or known him.” (1 John 3:1–7)
  • “Everyone who commits sin is guilty of lawlessness; sin is lawlessness.”

By my count, the word “sin” appears 17 times in 1 John.

And John repeats many other words, too; intense words normally saved for strong statements.  Words like “the devil” (used twice), “deceive” (3 times), “antichrist” (3 times), “hate” (4 times), “light” and “darkness” (5 times each), “truth” (7 times), “lie” and “liar” (9 times), and “commandment” (10 times).

The closer I look at 1 John, the more I see a community that was not all love and roses, that had yet to attain the one-ness for which Jesus prayed.  The more I look, the more I see a community in which there were stark differences and strong feelings, not just competing points of view but even polarized camps.  John’s community had strong divisions over:

  • Whether or not Jesus was truly divine (4:15; 5:1; 5:10)
  • and—at the same time—whether or not Jesus was truly human (4:2).
  • They disagreed as to the extent that Christians are to be “of” the world or separated from it (2:15–17; 3:13; 4:5–6; 5:4)
  • They argued about sin and who was doing it, and what exactly sin was. Is sin hating one’s brother (2:9)?  Is it “the desire of the flesh?”  Or “pride in riches” (2:16)?  Is it seeing a brother or sister in need and yet refusing help (3:17)?
  • They disagreed as to what exactly it means to love. Does it mean to keep God’s commandments (5:2)? Does it mean to give one’s life for another (3:16)?
  • And what exactly are God’s commandments? The letter says only that his commandments are to “believe” in the name of Christ and to love one another (3:23).
  • And—perhaps most significantly—the community had a sharp division over who possessed truth. Was it those who have seen and heard what “was from the beginning” and who had been “anointed” (1:1–3 and 2:18–28)?  Was it those who did not sin and who “walked just as Jesus walked?” Was it those who did not hate (2:7–11)?  Who confessed Jesus’ humanity (4:1–6)?  Who confessed his divinity (5:1–6)?  Who had the testimony of the water, blood and spirit in their hearts (5:10)?  All of the above?

Giotto_-_Scrovegni_-_-21-_-_Massacre_of_the_InnocentsThe divisions in John’s community became so great that the community split— “They went out from us,” John says (2:19).  The letter’s strong language, it’s lack of formal coherence and its defensive tone (“We declare to you what was from the beginning…”  “They went out from us…”) come from a community that had just experienced a major family fight and was hurting, disappointed and confused.  The letter shows a community trying to reassure itself that it still knows something about love, that it has not lost touch with truth, that it still knows how to walk in the light, that it is yet faithful.

We all have experienced situations in which there are strong differences and strong feelings, in which people divide into “we” and “they,” in which there are accusations of “sin” (or similar), and those adamant that it is they who are right.  Though 1 John was written nearly 2,000 years ago, its circumstances are yet familiar.

I wonder if the beautiful prayer we hear Jesus pray in this morning’s gospel is a response to the strong differences within the community.  In this prayer—“All mine are yours, and yours are mine;” “I guarded them, and not one of them was lost;” “That they may be one as we are one”— John emphasized that they all belonged to God; that in the end they were one just as God is one.  And John reminds them that they are the ones who now have God’s word, that they are the ones who now bear Jesus’ truth, that they are the ones who have been appointed and sanctified and who are to go out into the world.  Their unity matters.

Dorsey McConnell, formerly the Rector at Redeemer, Chestnut Hill, and now the Bishop of Pittsburgh, tells of visiting a Baptist colleague in that colleague’s study.  The pastor took down a hefty tome from his shelf:  “This is the directory of all the Baptist churches in the United States,” he said.  “It was printed last year, and already it’s out of date.  Some of the new churches not included here are new church plants, intentionally started by the Convention.  But the majority of these ‘new’ churches are churches that split off from old churches because they couldn’t get along.”  “What Satan does,” said the pastor, “is divide and divide and divide.”

hand-1917895_960_720The beautiful prayer Jesus prays in this morning’s gospel is a prayer, not just for John’s community, but for us, too.  Jesus prays for us to be one, to live reconciled with each other, so that he may send us into the world.  Reconciliation takes a lot of courage and a lot of practice. The practice of reconciliation—be it on church-wide level (like the Episcopalians talking to Methodists, for example), or on a local level (like our relationship with St. John’s) or on a personal level with each other here in the parish, or even more personally with others in our own household—the practice of reconciliation is key if our energies are ultimately to be focused outward rather than inward, if we are to truly to be one and to be sent into the world, as Jesus prayed.  And to live reconciled—to be one as Jesus and the Father are one—is not only a great witness in our polarized world, but is also extraordinarily satisfying to our souls.  Yes, reconciliation is a lot of work, but I pray that we may know a spirit of forgiveness, and may have the courage to practice reconciliation, in our families, in our parish, and in the world.  Because our unity matters.

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Going Back

Homily for Sunday, May 5, 2018
Easter 6B
Acts 10:44–48
John 15:9–17

“While Peter was still speaking, the Holy Spirit fell upon all who heard the word.”
“Just as the Father has loved me, so I have loved you.”

bakery-3056086_960_720I am a fan—and as of this moment an out-of-the-closet fan—of the New York Times’ “Modern Love” column, which I read every Sunday.  A year ago January, one Betsy Verecky, now in Nashua, New Hampshire, but at the time living in Brooklyn, chronicled her crush on the hipster owner of a local bakery.  In her essay, “Boy, What a Fabulous Baker” [Jan 20, 2017], Verecky tells of her first visit to the bakery where she was smitten, not only by the baker’s friendly manner and muscular forearms, but by his bread: Continue reading

Paying Attention

Homily for Sunday, April 29, 2018
Easter 5B
John 15:1–8

hospital bed-Matthew Perkins

Photo credit: Matthew Perkins

In October of 2016, the New York Times printed a letter from the Boston writer Peter DeMarco to the staff of the intensive care unit of the CHA Cambridge Hospital, thanking them for their care of his wife, who at age 34 was first hospitalized and then died from an asthma attack. DeMarco writes:

 

 

As I begin to tell my friends and family about the seven days you treated my wife […] they stop me at about the 15th name [… of] the doctors, nurses, respiratory specialists, social workers, even cleaning staff members who cared for her:

“How do you remember any of their names?”  they ask.  How could I not, I respond.  Every single one of you treated Laura with such professionalism, kindness and dignity as she lay unconscious.  When she needed shots, you apologized that it was going to hurt a little, whether or not she could hear.  When you listened to her heart and lungs through your stethoscopes, and her gown began to slip, you pulled it up to respectfully cover her.  You spread a blanket, not only when her body temperature needed regulating, but also when the room was just a little cold, and you thought she’d sleep more comfortably […] Continue reading

A Horizontal Path

Homily for April 22, 2018
Easter 4B
John 10:11–18

Naoya Hatakeyama-Slow

Slow, by Naoya Hatakeyama

The Japanese photographer Naoya Hatakeyama is known for his photos of cities and cityscapes.  To take his photos, Hatakeyama walks—and walks and walks—and he says that, as he walks, everything in his field of vision reduces to two things: things standing up, and things lying down.  Hatakeyama writes: Continue reading

Season of Forgiveness

Homily preached by the Rev. James La Macchia
Trinity Parish of Newton Centre
April 15, 2018
The Third Sunday of Easter—Year B

Acts 3:12–19
Psalm 4
1 John 3:1–7
Luke 24:36b–48

Duccio di Buoninsegna-Appearance while the Apostles are at Table

Appearance while the Disciples Are at Table —Ducchio di Buoninsegna

My Friends: If we post-moderns often find it difficult and challenging to appreciate and to understand fully the events described in the New Testament’s narratives about Jesus’ post-resurrection appearances, imagine the astonishment and consternation of those first witnesses to these things.  Our reading this morning from the Gospel according to Saint Luke is made even more pointed and dramatic when we recall the incidents that immediately precede and follow it.  When Jesus suddenly appears in the midst of his disciples in this morning’s Gospel, he finds them already in excited conversation around his earlier appearances to a handful of them on Easter morning and subsequently to two of them on the road to Emmaus that evening.  Then, following the incident described in this morning’s Gospel, Jesus brings his motley band of followers to Bethany—just beyond the Mount of Olives—blesses them, and, to their great astonishment, is taken up into the full presence of God before their very eyes, no longer restricted by time and space and matter.  Imagine the massive assault upon the ordinary hearts, minds, and imaginations of these disciples as a result of these unprecedented events and all of this extraordinary talk about what came to be described as Jesus’ “Resurrection” and his “Ascension”! Continue reading

Pay attention!

Homily for Sunday, April 1, 2018
Easter Day
John 20:1–18

empty_tomb-Saint_James_the_Greater_Catholic_Church_(Concord,_North_Carolina)Long before John crafted his resurrection story—an 18 verse masterpiece that includes an empty tomb, a missing body, a foot race, angelic messengers, a woman weeping, a case of mistaken identity and a joyful reunion—the Holy Trinity was wondering how to best script and cast the resurrection story. Continue reading

Crushing Disappointment

Homily for March 29, 2018
Maundy Thursday

Next to the blackboard in the Latin classroom at Newton South is a poster with the quote that some say is the most beautiful in all of Latin: “Forsan et haec olim meminisse iuvabit”, which means: “Perhaps one day the memory of even these things will bring pleasure.”  The quote, from Vergil’s Aeneid, is delivered aboard ship by Aeneas to his companions after a series of crushing disappointments: the long and tragic war with the Greeks, the death of Aeneas’ wife as she and Aeneas fled Troy, leaving their homeland, arduous sea journeys, the failed founding of not one but two cities, plagues, the jealousies and intrigues of the gods, and finally—the circumstance that led to Aeneas delivering his famous line—as they drew near to Italy so that Aeneas might found Rome in accordance with a prophecy, jealous Juno sent a devastating storm that sank some of the fleet and drove the survivors away from the coast:  “Forsan et haec olim meminisse iuvabit,” said Aeneas then to his companions.  “Perhaps one day the memory of even these things will bring pleasure.”

Mount Feake CemeteryAs I consider Jesus at the institution of the Eucharist, which we remember this evening, I can’t help but think of all that had happened to Jesus to this point in his life.  Though at first Jesus had high hopes for his ministry and for making converts and for establishing the Kingdom of God, by this time on that Thursday evening long ago, it would have been difficult not to see his mission as a failure.  Gone were the crowds that had followed.  He had established no kingdom.  The religious authorities were closing in to arrest him.  One of his inner circle would soon betray him.  Another would deny knowing him, not once but three times.  The rest would desert him in his moment of need, and…  Jesus intuits, he knows, that he would soon die the painful and humiliating death of a criminal on a cross.  Imagine the crushing disappointment Jesus must have felt this evening… Continue reading