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First Presbyterian Church, Nashville

Dr. Sandra L. Randleman

June 2, 2019

Every Act of Love

Psalm 139:1-18; John 17:20-26

            Our New Testament scripture reading begins with verse 20 of John 17.  Jesus knows that His betrayal and death will come soon, and He is praying out loud in the presence of His listening disciples.  Jesus is not speaking to His disciples but to God.  His disciples are permitted to listen.  Jesus has first prayed for His disciples, and He now prays for all those who will come to believe through the community of Christian believers.  Jesus prays with these words:

            “I ask not only on behalf of these [my disciples], but also on behalf of those who will believe in me through their word, that they may all be one.  As You, Father, are in Me and I am in You, may they also be in Us, so that the world may believe that You have sent Me.  The glory that You have given Me I have given them, so that they may be one, as We are one, I in them and You in Me, that they may  become completely one, so that the world may know that You have sent Me and have loved them even as You have loved Me.  Father, I desire that those also, whom You have given Me, may be with Me where I am, to see My glory, which You have given Me because You loved Me before the foundation of the world.

            “Righteous Father, the world does not know You, but I know You; and these know that You have sent Me.  I made Your name known to them, and I will make it known, so that the love with which You have loved Me may be in them, and I in them.”     

            Jesus prays for unity: the unity of the community of believers that is grounded and rooted in the unity of Jesus and the Father.  Jesus asks that the unity of the community serve as a witness to the world that Jesus was sent by God.  Unity is defined by love, the love of God the Father for Jesus and Jesus for the Father, the love of Jesus for the community, the love between members of the community that bears witness to the love of God.  Jesus is praying that God the Father, Jesus and the faith community will truly be one in love.  Jesus asks that this unity transcend time and history and last forever even into God’s new age.  Jesus prays that the love with which the Father has loved the Son may be in the community of believers.  It is this divine love of Jesus and the Father that will live in the community of believers and will define the very essence of the community.

            Jesus’ presence in the community will not end with His death.  He will continue to teach the community and share the love that unites the Father, Son and the faith community.  Jesus’ final words spoken to God in the presence of His disciples are the perfect introduction to the story that now enfolds.  After Jesus prays these words, He is betrayed, tried before Pilate, crucified, dies and is buried.  It is the ultimate act of love.

            The events appeared to most onlookers to be the end of the story of the life of Jesus, but, in truth, they lead to Jesus’ most triumphant hour.  In His resurrection and in the gift of the Holy Spirit to a band of trembling, frightened disciples, Jesus’ prayer is answered. The community of believers is united with God the Father and the Son and with one another.  Through the Holy Spirit, Jesus’ love is unleashed into the disciples.  The disciples are emboldened to share and defend their Christian faith despite persecution unto death.  They embrace the mission of living and sharing the divine love that unites them.

            We are among the ones Jesus prayed for in His final words of prayer.  We received the gift of Christian faith through the spoken and enacted message of love of a community of believers.  But Jesus also prayed for those who will come to believe as the Holy Spirit works in and through us.  Jesus prayed that we will live in union with God the Father and the Son, and that their love be in us.  Divine union is a daunting concept to our practical and rationale minds.  It seems to require human perfection, and we know that we will never be able to love God or any person as perfectly as Jesus, who died for us, loved us.

            I have long pondered a conversation I had many years ago.  I was still working as an attorney for a large corporation.   I had been struggling with a sense that God was calling me to a new chapter in my life, perhaps as an ordained pastor.  I was seriously considering taking a leave of absence from my job to attend seminary and spend at least one year focused on seriously considering what God was leading me to do.  Perhaps, after one year of study I would return to work as a corporate attorney or perhaps I would continue my theological studies and prepare for ordained ministry.  My supervisor advised me to talk with one of the corporate vice presidents who had once studied for the priesthood and then withdrew before taking his vows.  I went to see the vice president and described to him my sense of call to ministry and my struggle with whether this meant leaving my job to study at a seminary.  The vice president listened and then walked to his bookshelf and removed a book.  He read to me a principle from the spiritual exercises of St. Ignatius which included the statement that all created things in this world are gifts from God, created for us, to be the means by which we can come to know God, love Him and serve Him.[i]  But insofar as any created things hinder our progress toward our goal of loving service and union with God, we ought to let them go.  The writing included the challenge to hold ourselves indifferent to all created things.  Our one desire and our one choice should be the option that leads us to the goal for which God created us.  He told me that he had not taken his vows for priesthood because he had discovered that he did not love God enough.

            The words of this conversation have remained with me.  I wonder if perhaps God had simply led this gentleman in a different direction where he could be used for God’s good purposes right where he was.  Perhaps his gifts were best suited for the vocation in which he was serving.  He had certainly given me a valuable gift: the message to seek first and foremost the end for which God had created me.  Perhaps the place and the way we serve are far less important than our acceptance of how God chooses to use us wherever we may be.

            When I enrolled in divinity school to begin my studies, my advisor discussed with me what classes I should take during my first semester.  I told him I was in a period of discernment as to what God was leading me to do.  My advisor gave me very valuable advice, “Then you better take the class on prayer.”  Jesus certainly spent much time in prayer to His Father, and His time of prayer, undoubtedly drew Him closer to the Father’s love and to understanding and fulfilling His mission while on this earth.  Jesus’ example of a life with dedicated times for prayer gives to us an example of our need of prayer.

            Jesus prayed for our union with God and for His love to be in us.  Fortunately, divine union does not mean human perfection.  Theologian Richard Rohr wrote that the choice for divine union is always from God’s side and our response is always partial and feeble.[ii]  Jesus modeled for us divine union in this world, and divine union is God’s choice for us in our very imperfect world.  But fortunately, divine love has no trouble loving imperfect humans.  Otherwise God would not have any created person to love.  The message of God’s love for imperfect human beings is the message of Jesus’ life and death.   Even as we earnestly seek to live in union with God, we will not be transformed into perfect human beings, at least not as long as we live upon this earth.

            Before Jesus’ final words to His disciples and His prayer, He had washed His disciples’ feet as an example of how His followers are called to humbly serve one another.  Then Jesus taught His disciples, giving to them a new commandment to love one another as Jesus has loved them.  As Jesus delivered His final words of teaching to His disciples, He was preparing them for the life they will be called to lead in the days to come when Jesus is no longer physically present to them.  Jesus painted a picture of how they are to abide in Him.  “You are the branches,” Jesus said, “and I am the true vine, and my Father is the vinedresser.  Abide in Me.”  The power of love and abundant life that flows from the Father into the Son flows also into the community gathered around Christ.  Who can tell exactly where the vine stops and the branches begin?  But because of the union of the community with Christ, the community will bear fruit, creative and loving fruit.

            In my yard, I find ivy creeping up some of the trees.  I have found that if I cannot pull the vine from the tree trunk, I can simply cut the creeping vine at the base of the tree and disconnect it from the roots that provide the nourishment it needs to grow.  The branch disconnected from the vine withers and dies.

            Mystic Meister Eckhart wrote that a plum brings forth plums not by an act of will but because it is its nature to do so.[iii]  The community abiding in Christ is nourished by Christ and will produce fruit that reflects the nature of Christ: fruit of love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control.  The community bears fruit according to its nature, the love of God, the love of Jesus Christ at work in us and through us.  The same power and the same love that raised Jesus from the dead are at work in us.  There is more power than we can imagine in every act of love because, of course, it is God’s power and God’s love and not our own.

            I will never forget the experience of participating in one of our church mission trips to Rwanda ten years ago.  We journeyed into the beautiful hills of Rwanda to visit Hannah Ministries, a ministry to orphans.  Many young children were living together with siblings in small huts of mud, sleeping on rags on dirt floors, surviving as best they could.  The children were very, very poor and in terrible need of medical care.  They lacked clean water and good food, and their clothes were ragged and dirty.

            We were greeted by the children singing and dancing and by their smiling faces.  In the distance we saw a group of eight pigs and a number of dairy goats.  Hannah Ministries had purchased the animals with funds provided by our church as gifts for the orphan children.  An animal was given by Josephine, the director, to those households able to care for a goat or pig.  The goats would provide milk and much needed nutrition.  All the animals would reproduce and provide food and serve as an income-producing asset for years to come.

            Before any goats and pigs were given, each recipient was carefully instructed that the first offspring was to be given to another person in need.  “You are blessed by this gift,” Josephine told them, “that you will be a blessing to others.”

            We also heard another message, a message for you, the members of First Presbyterian Church, “Thank you.”  A message of gratitude is heard again and again as we travel on mission trips and as we interact with representatives of local missions in our community that your contributions to First Presbyterian Church support.  God’s fruit, through you, is bearing fruit that will bear fruit for generations to come.  Every act of love bears more fruit than we can imagine.

            It is not what we do for Christ that bears eternal fruit.  It is what we do with Christ that makes eternal significance.  Only branches connected to the vine bear fruit.  In Trevor Hudson’s wonderful book, A Mile in My Shoes, he says, “Compassion lies at the heart of the authentic Christ-following life….  The critical test of our relationship with the Holy One always involves the quality of our love for those around us.”[iv]  Human branches nourished by Christ, the true vine, bear fruit of God’s love.

           We simply offer to Jesus our hearts in response to His love.  The personal emblem of theologian John Calvin was a picture of a flaming heart held up in a hand with an inscription that reads in English:  “My heart I offer to you, O Lord, promptly and sincerely.”

            The love and power of Christ that nourish our love for God and our relationships and actions for others also provide for our needs.  We receive love and patience not just for others but also for ourselves.  We receive peace to calm our fears.

            I often share these words of St. Frances de Sales:

            “Do not look forward to what may happen tomorrow; the same everlasting Father who cares for you today will take care of tomorrow and every day.  Either He will shield you from suffering, or He will give you unfailing strength to bear it.  Be at peace, then, put aside all anxious thoughts and imaginations, and say continually, ‘The Lord is my strength and my shield; my heart has trusted in Him and I am helped.  He is not only with me but in me and I in Him.’”

            The gift of abiding in Christ is strength for the day and bright hope for tomorrow.  We trust in God’s faithfulness to provide all that we need, day by day.  If God has the power to raise Jesus from the dead and if God has such love as to give to us the promise of life eternal, surely He has the power and sufficient love to help us with any problem we encounter as human beings living in an imperfect world.  “Peace I leave with you,” Jesus told His disciples.  “My peace I give to you.  I do not give to you as the world gives.  Do not let your hearts be troubled and do not let them be afraid.”  How do we receive such peace?  “Abide in Me,” Jesus invites us.  “Just abide in Me.”  Draw near to God, and He will draw near to you.  Jesus promised to be with you always, to never forsake you.

            The world and our lives may seem filled with troubles, but Jesus is the light that shines in the darkness and the darkness does not overcome His light.  The light of Jesus is the power of His love, the love He and the Father share as the Son abides in the Father and the Father in the Son.

            Every Christmas Eve we turn out all the lights in the sanctuary.  Everything is dark except for a single candle, the Christ candle.  Then we light another candle and another and another until each candle held in the hand of a worshiper is lit and the whole sanctuary is illumined.  God’s love is more powerful than all the darkness of the world, and we are given this love and called to be the light to one another and to the world.  We are called to be witnesses to the Light of the world.  We are called to be people of hope not because of our frail human strength, but because of the One who abides in us as we abide in Him.  We gather in this sanctuary each week to worship God as a church community and when we leave, we are called to be the church in the world, not in our own power, but in and through the power of the One who abides in us.  As you depart today, remember: every act of love, God’s love, lights another candle that the darkness can never overcome.

            Go out into the world to abide in Him and to be the light that illuminates His love.

 

[i]   James W. Skehan, S.J., Place Me With Your Son: Ignatian Spirituality in Everyday Life, 3rd ed. (Washington, D.C.: Georgetown University Press, 1991), p. 24.

[ii] Richard Rohr, “Daily Meditations: Week 18, Heaven Now,” April 29, 2019.

[iii]   Susan Palo Cherwien, “Living by the Word, May 3, Fifth Sunday of Easter,” Christian Century, April 29, 2015, p. 20.

[iv] Trevor Hudson, A Mile in My Shoes (Nashville: Upper Room Books, 2015), p. 71.

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