You can listen to my sermon here –
or read it below.
In our Bishop’s office, there are a lot of beautiful pieces of art hanging around. Centuries old vestments hang under glass. His ordination certificates, ornately scripted and bearing wax seals are proudly displayed. Icons, paintings, sculptures, and pieces of pottery are all around. To enter his office is, in many ways, to enter a mini art museum. His collection is striking, but one piece always catches my attention. It hangs almost inconspicuously on the west wall of his office, behind a corner from the door most often used to enter. It hangs below another piece, sitting almost at waist level, and it contains nothing but calligraphy text. It is the visual representation of Bishop Duncan’s Apostolic Succession. Beginning with his name, it traces the laying on of hands by a Bishop all the way back to Peter. It draws a direct line between his ministry and that of Peter, the Apostle to whom Jesus promised the Keys to the Kingdom, and the rock upon which he would build his Church. Apostolic Succession has long been a hot topic among denominations, and we won’t go into that here, but what I appreciate about that unassuming piece of parchment in Bishop Duncan’s office is the reminder that his ministry and by extension my ministry and yours – our collective ministry has a direct tie back to Jesus himself, and it is something we ought take very seriously.
In this morning’s Gospel lesson, we have another version of Apostolic Succession to ponder. This one is less concerned with the laying on of hands and the wearing of funny pointed hats, but it ties us directly to Jesus none-the-less, through the Apostolic Succession of love. “The Father loves the Son. The Son loves us. We love each other. When we are loving to one another in deeds of humble service and sacrifice, we can draw a straight and direct line from that love all the way back to the great God of the universe. There is a holy pipeline of love that connects us right to the Holy Trinity of God.”1 And it all goes back to that word that Father Keith helped us understand last week, abide.
As the Easter Season rapidly draws to a close, as the school year winds down, and the busyness of spring prepares to be replaced by the fast-paced relaxation of summer, we are invited by the Lectionary to abide generally in Jesus’ Farewell Discourse, more specifically, we are abiding in John 15. The Lectionary split up seventeen verses for us, perhaps modeling what it means to abide. We’re tarrying in the first part of John 15, soaking in the details, enjoying our time in its midst. Last week, the invitation was to abide in God, this week, we are invited to abide in love: to remain, to stay; to live, to dwell; to last, to endure; to set a spell in the self-giving agape love of God. In a very practical way, we are invited to slow down and fully engage what it means to be loved by God. Which is, quite probably, something most of us don’t do on a regular basis.
We know, conceptually, that we are loved by God. We’ve sung it since we were little kids, “Jesus loves me this I know, for the Bible tells me so,” but have you really ever sat down and considered what it means that God loves you? That the life, death and resurrection of Jesus was as much for you as for any one else in God’s creation? That the dream of God for his Kingdom specifically includes you within it? That you are a child of God, beloved and cared for even as you were being knit together in your mother’s womb? Have you ever sat in that knowledge and let it pour over you like the falls of Pisgah National Forest or the waves of the Gulf? Jesus invites us to abide in that love…
… And then, we are invited to share it. “If you keep my commandments, you will abide in my love,” Jesus goes on to tell his disciples, “This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you.” We abide in the love of God, until, like Psalm 23 says, our cup overflows, and then we are encouraged, prodded, commanded to share that self-giving agape love with one another, with our neighbors, even with our enemies. By self-giving action, we model and share the love of Jesus with the world that God created, restored, and loves. Often, we fail to live up to this commandment. Often, we end up looking hypocritical. Often, we exhibit hate rather than love. But, from time to time, the Church lives fully into its Apostolic call to abide in love, and the whole world is better for it. This past week, The Episcopal Diocese of Maryland lived up to Jesus’ commandment of agape love.
On Thursday, May 3rd, a homeless man named Douglas Jones, reportedly angry for having been turned away from the food pantry at St. Peter’s, Ellicott City, Maryland for abusing his privileges, entered the parish office and shot the Parish Administrator and Co-Rector before returning to the woods behind the parish, where he lived, and turning the gun on himself. The Parish Administrator, Brenda Brewington, died on the scene and Co-Rector, The Rev. Dr. Mary-Marguerite Kohn, fatally wounded, died a few days later.
In two short days, by Saturday, May 5th, The Diocese of Maryland, home of St. Peter’s Ellicott City, meeting at its previously scheduled 228th Annual Convention, passed a resolution entitled, “Expression of support, condolence and hope in the midst of tragedy,” that read, in part: “RESOLVED: That this Convention expresses our deepest condolences to the families and friends of Mary Marguerite and Brenda, and pledges to support them in their grief. RESOLVED: That this Convention prays for the repose of the souls of Brenda and Mary Marguerite; and, in the pattern of the Christian Faith, [and] extends our forgiveness and prays for the repose of the soul of Douglas Jones, so that in our hearts grace may overcome bitterness, and love may conquer fear.”2
As if that wasn’t a profound enough statement of God’s overflowing love, on Wednesday, May 9th, the Associated Press reported that several Episcopal parishes situated near St. Peter’s had extended to Jones’ family the offer to hold funeral services for him. Quoted in the story was a parishioner at St. Peter’s named Anne Pounder who said, “In many ways, I think he [Douglas Jones] was as much a victim as anyone else and if we’re the Christians we profess to be, we should all show up at his funeral as well.” Another member of St. Peter’s, Sallie Roberts went further to say, “There’s a room for everybody in the kingdom.”3 Apart from God’s love, quotes like these, forgiveness like this, it just doesn’t happen.
So much of the Christian story that we hear about these days is an attempt to constrain God’s love to a select few, but what I’ve learned over the last ten-days as I’ve abided in John 15 is that the only way God’s love can be constrained is if we refuse to share it. We can insulate ourselves from God’s overwhelming love by means of anger, bitterness, fear, and partisanship, but when we start to draw lines of who’s in and who’s out of God’s Kingdom, the first person we exclude is ourselves. Instead, we are called to tap into our Apostolic Succession and model our lives after the love God has for the Son, the love the Son has for his Disciples, the love Peter has for the Gentiles, and the love the Diocese of Maryland showed even to Douglas Jones.
Abiding in God’s love is scary. It is messy. It is full of gray areas. But it is God’s commandment, it is our defining factor as Christians, and it is the tie that binds across 2000 years of Christian history and more than 34,000 denominations world-wide. Jesus, in John 15, couldn’t be more clear – the Christian life is summed up in fourteen words, “This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you.” My brothers and sisters, abide in that love. Amen.
1Scott Hoeze, http://cep.calvinseminary.edu/thisWeek/index.php