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Last Words

Easter 5 | Jn 15:1-8

The Buddha died like any other human being. When I arrived in Kushinigar several years ago, the place where he died, I didn’t really know the story. When I read it, on plaque after plaque in the various stops along the Via Delorosa of the Buddha’s last day, I was shocked. It seemed so…normal, so mundane, even undignified. According to the story, he was served a delicious meal, but either the meat had gone rancid or a mushroom was poisonous—accounts differ, but the result was the same. The Buddha died from food poisoning.

Even though the effects must have been horrendous to take such a toll, he had the presence of mind to say a few last words to his community. He told them, “Don’t be anxious. Everything comes to an end. I’ve done what I could. Parting is inevitable. Be mindful. Be vigilant.”

I remembered that as I read Jesus’ last words to his community in our lectionary reading from John. It is the night of Passover, and Judas has set out to betray him. He is well aware of what is coming, and he wants to leave his community with something meaningful. They have shared a meal. He has shocked them all by wrapping himself in a towel, kneeling, and washing their feet. And in the intimacy of this moment, he invites them to imagine that he is a vine, and they are the branches of that vine.

It is an image rich with meaning. Just think about a vine—there isn’t much to it except branches, is there? It is just a bunch of branches, all sprouting from a common root. So Jesus is saying, I am the root, you are the branches, and the whole vine is me.

It is an image of oneness, and at the same time, vitality, growth, and even mission. Jesus was saying, “We are one being now. What I have done you will continue to do. My mission, my project, my ministry belongs to you now.”

When I realized that our Gospel reading was Jesus’ farewell discourse to his community on the night before he died, it was impossible for me not to think of my own farewell to this community. I mean, what are the odds that this reading should be placed here, now? God is weird, and sometimes this stuff gets spooky.

Anyway, I’m not comparing myself to Jesus, or even to the Buddha. I’m not in their league. Heck, I’m not worthy to be their bat-boy! But I relate with the emotions they must have been feeling. The intense sorrow. The Buddha’s simple acknowledgement that “everything changes.” The almost desperate desire for their communities to survive, to continue their ministries, and to thrive.

Of course, I want that for us, too. My love for you is not different from their love for their communities. I want Grace North Church to survive, to continue this ministry that we have built together, to thrive—even in ways that we couldn’t while I was pastor. But how to get there? As I meditated on the lectionary readings, I realized they each offered a piece of advice. None of them are news to us, but they’re things we need to hear again and again because they’re kind of hard to do.

The Acts of the Apostles is the story of how Jesus’ community carried on after his ascension, how it struggled, and how it triumphed. It's filled with great stories, but the section the lectionary editors chose for today—the Ethiopian eunuch—really speaks to our strengths, to who we are as a community.

In the era the New Testament was written in, the Jewish community was split between two mutually aggravating factions—Hebrews who spoke mostly Aramaic, and Hellenists who spoke mostly Greek. They’re both Jews, but as you might expect the Hebrews looked down on the Hellenists for not being “Jewish enough” and the Hellenists derided the Hebrews for not living in the real world, believing that, when it comes to Greek and Roman culture, they needed to “go along to get along,” conforming to Greek ways in order to gain influence and security and not be seen as so weird that they couldn’t be tolerated by the people with the big spears.

This conflict can even be seen in the early Christian community, when the book of Acts tells us that when the early church leaders were handing out supplies to the poor and needy, the Hellenist widows were being discriminated against and were sent away empty.

One of the early Hellenist Jewish Christians, Philip—note the Greek name—was sent by an angel to a strip of road between Jerusalem and Gaza. Philip went, and soon, a powerful Ethiopian man was passing by in a chariot, reading aloud from the scroll of Isaiah. The scripture says he was a eunuch, although I’m not sure how that would have been immediately obvious—perhaps eunuchs wore distinctive clothing to mark them out—who knows?

In any case, somehow Philip knew this was why he had been sent there, and he started running alongside the chariot, and asked the man if he understood what he was reading. The man threw his hands in the air and said, “How can I, unless someone helps me?” So Philip helps him, interpreting the passage for him, explaining that the suffering servant in the passage had come, died, and rose again. And along the way, the Ethiopian man was moved to believe, and said to Philip, “Here is water! What prevents me from being baptized?”

Well, according to some in the early church, lots. First of all, the man wasn’t Jewish, and many in the early Christian community believed that if you wanted to follow Jesus, you had to either be Jewish or convert to Judaism. And since this man was a eunuch, he would not even be able to convert, since he could not bear the mark of circumcision.

This story resonates deeply with who we are as a community. Like Philip and the other Hellenists, many of us have known what it’s like to feel like an outsider in our own religious communities. The Hebrews despised the Hellenizers for not being “Jewish enough.” Anyone ever get the feeling they weren’t “Christian enough” from their own church community? Yeah, me too. It isn’t pleasant. In fact, it’s pretty wounding.

Perhaps it's precisely because Philip knows what that feels like that he has so much compassion for the eunuch. And let’s talk about that eunuch—talk about an outsider! Right? This guy gets a hat-trick: he’s not Jewish, he’s black, and he’s non-gender conforming. And yet Philip didn’t bat an eye. He literally raced to assist him, loved him enough to tell him the Good News, and baptized him right there, joining him to Jesus and to the community of believers without asking anyone else’s “how-do-you-do”!

This is a mystery for us to wonder at and revere. Our community has thrived because we welcomed the outsider. Most of us here, in our own ways, are outsiders. There are a lot of churches who would not welcome us. But we have found welcome here. There isn’t a litmus test of who’s “Christian enough” to belong. We don’t quiz you on your theology—although we do like geeking out on it. I certainly wish we were more racially diverse, but when it comes to theological and sexual diversity, I think we’ve done pretty well.

Perhaps the invitation in this reading is for us to consider who we do not extend such a radical welcome to, and how might we be more welcoming to those people, too? We all have our blind spots, and I’m sure that, as a community, we do, too. Perhaps we might pray about it—perhaps God will send an angel to tell us who we should go to, whom we should open our hearts and doors to that we’re not thinking about now.

In John’s epistle, he’s writing to a Christian community that is torn apart by both religious extremism and spiritual elitism—which often go together. Some people in the community thought that they had been made “perfect” by their mystical experiences and were now “without sin,” and had begun to teach doctrines that were very different from the preaching of the apostles. Of course, there were others in the community who didn’t go along with any of that, and the rift in the community was severe. John strongly exhorts them, in no uncertain terms, that if they cannot love one another, that they do not know God—no matter how powerful their mystical experiences might be—because God IS love.

This is a powerful message for us. Not only are we being exhorted to love the outsider, but to love those within our own walls as well. This is sometimes harder to do. Ironically, it’s sometimes easier to love people we don’t know well, because they haven’t yet had the opportunity to irritate us.

But this is a surface love, not real love. Real love is messy. Real love is hard. Real love means being kind and forgiving and going the extra mile not once but over and over, even for people who rub you the wrong way. This is an exhortation for family, specifically, for a church family.

But this, right here, is the beauty and the power of being church. We don’t get to control who walks through the door, or who signs on to our zoom room. But we do have control over whether we reach out to them, whether we love them well, whether we forgive them and serve them and help them. This is the very definition of spiritual practice. Loving is a choice, and when we choose to love each other, God picks up the slack and helps us to love even more, even better. It’s a collaboration. But it starts with us saying “yes” to Jesus’ very basic commandment, made here in his last words to his community, when he said, “Love one another.”

Is there someone who irritates you or rubs you the wrong way? Is there someone you have trouble loving? If not, you must be one of those perfect people I have never met. But if so, and I suspect that it’s so for most of us, then I invite you to reach out to that person. Invite them to go for coffee, or for a walk, or shopping, or whatever. Getting to know them is a step toward starting to love them. They might still irritate you, but that doesn’t mean you can’t choose to love them, and with some effort, love them well.

Finally, in our gospel reading Jesus tells his community to “abide in me” no less than eight times. It’s an odd phrase. To “abide” is to live in or with, to dwell in or with. To stay with.

There are many ways I have failed you as a pastor. I haven’t always known the right thing to say in the moment. I have blind spots and didn’t always see when someone wasn’t feeling loved. I am a conflict avoider, and sometimes chickened out when I needed to say the hard thing. But I hope I have done this one thing right—that I have told you, again and again, the Good News that Jesus is alive, that he loves you desperately, and that you and he can share one spirit and one life, that you can share an intimacy with him so deep that words cannot describe it.

And any attempt to describe it risks sounding like the emotionalism of the evangelicals—but to be fair, this is something the evangelicals get right. I have known what it is like to fall desperately in love with Jesus, and to feel this love returned. It is possible to live in and out of that love. Not as an intellectual construct of the brain, but a romantic experience of the heart. It is possible to abide in Jesus because only when we live in him and he lives in us can we truly do the work that he did. He isn't inviting us to be wise or moral, he's inviting us into a deep mystical union—where your life flows into his and his life flows into you. And because you share his life and I share his life, our lives flow together as well, no matter how far apart we might physically be from one another.

I’ve been feeling a lot of stress and anxiety over what my last words are going to be to you. It should be something memorable, but I’m terrible at generating that kind of thing out of thin air. But our readings have done a fine job of reminding us what’s most important, what we need to remember when the leader of a community moves on:

First, love the stranger, no matter how strange. Love them like God loves them. Because if you do, you’ll heal them. And you’ll grow.

Second, love each other, no matter how hard that is. Because if we don’t succeed in loving here, we have no hope of succeeding elsewhere. If we don’t know love, we don’t know God. So do the hard work. Reach out to whomever is hard to love and LOVE THEM. Do it. This is the real stuff.

Third, cling to Jesus like there’s no tomorrow. Make him the center of your life. Spend time with him. Share your most intimate doubts and fears and joys and hopes with him. Let him love on you, because that will heal you, too. Abide in him, and let him abide in you. And if you don’t know how to do that, ask him for help. Because he is kind, and he loves you with a fierce and desperate love that just isn’t going to let you go.

Love the stranger. Love each other. Cling to Jesus. Nothing else needs to be said, really.

Let us pray… God, my heart is heavy as my time here grows short. I have tried to love your people well. In some ways I have succeeded, and in others I have failed. I ask you to empower this community with your Holy Spirit. Send them a pastor whose heart is as tender as their own. Help them to love people well—especially those people society rejects. Help them to love each other well—even when it’s hard. And help them cling to you, to Jesus, to the Spirit. Abide in them and with them and make them one with you and with each other. For I ask this in the name of Jesus, the vine whose branches we are. Amen.

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