In a faith and leadership on-line newsletter I received Tuesday, two of the headlines read: “Notre Dame, long a symbol of Catholicism in Europe, becomes a picture of its collapse.” And the second was “Telling the Passover story in the shadow of the Pittsburgh massacre.”
As I thought about those stories, it made me think about who we are and what we’re about as 21st Century Christians. My first thought was that we are part of a living tradition; our buildings and our worship are not merely empty traditions that we follow. Our buildings are places where we gather to worship, engage in meaningful rituals, celebrate our living community, and live our faith with vitality and hope. The story from Pittsburgh of the Jewish people celebrating Passover in the aftermath of the killings that took place there is a testament to the fact that like the Jews, we, too, are part of a living faith of courage, love and hope.
Maundy Thursday is not a mere commemoration of an event that took place over 2000 years ago. Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, Easter and what we do as Christians every week and every day in our lives are about a living relationship with a living God, with the living Spirit enlivening us and calling us to gather as the living Body of Christ. We wash one another’s feet as an act of service and love that is as relevant to us today as it was to Jesus’ friends. We celebrate communion as living worship and invitation to transformation rather than as a mere form that we’ve observed for 2000 years. We celebrate community because we are part of a living faith, a vibrant faith that calls us into community and calls us to love… a sacrificial love that is open-ended, steps into the gaps where there is conflict and struggle, hardship and even violence—like the vigil organized in Penticton, and welcomes people into a deeper relationship and to overcome barriers of separation.
During Lent, at Nelson United Church—like you at Ascension on Wednesday nights—we followed a Lenten study practice. We watched a video presentation by Dr. Alexander John Shaia called The Four-Gospel Journey: Revealing the Path of Transformation and Deepening Love. Shaia gave the background of each of the Gospels as a description of one stage of the journey of transformation to love, to overcome fear and hate.
With respect to John’s Gospel, Shaia said that John wrote his Gospel late in the 1st century or early in the 2nd in Ephesus. According to historians, Ephesus was a major seaport and the 4th largest city in the Greco-Roman world. It was the capital of the Asian provinces of the Roman Empire, was culturally diverse, and had a thriving population. A little-known fact was that it derived much of its economic value from slave-trading. Under the city, archaeologists found caves with iron rings in the walls, which was where slaves were yoked together; these slaves were traded and sold off to the ends of the empire. John wrote his Gospel in this setting.
Paul had already established the church in Ephesus and John nurtured that community some 30 to 50 years later. John built on Paul’s ideas of community and love. Remember Paul’s words just before the famous chapter 13 of 1 Corinthians, the chapter about love? Paul wrote, “And the best way of all is,” after describing all kinds of ways to overcome fear and separation. Then comes the chapter about love. Ephesus faced many of these same problems as the city itself was diverse and not unified.
Shaia interprets John’s Gospel from a cosmic perspective, pointing to God’s divine breath animating every atom of the cosmos and the defining vibration or energy of these atoms—of which life is composed—is love. But more than just being a mystical treatise on the Word or Breath of God being with God at creation’s birth, it is the idea that as love is part of our DNA, our atomic structure, we are called to live from that source. We are called to see our kinship with the earth, with people, with the sun, the moon and the stars and far away galaxies. We are called to proclaim this Gospel of love so that we, with others of a like mind or spirit, break open walls of separation and sow seeds of hope and community. And more than proclaim it, we are called to live it with acts of service like washing one another’s feet, or entering into another’s pain to bring hope, or standing with others to advocate for climate justice and telling politicians and leaders that life is composed of God’s breath and is not to be used up frivolously by us humans; or we stand in the breach between a vulnerable community and others bent on doing them harm, or speak truth to power, especially when power is based on lies and deception, or welcome into our country those who can’t find hope and life in their own.
As John wrote his Gospel in that cosmopolitan city of Ephesus, where there were separations and divisions among the people, where elitism flourished and slavery was encouraged, he wrote about the mandate to love and later offered those famous words in a prayer that Jesus prayed, “That all may be one.” There is to be no division among human beings. There are no slaves and rich. There are no Romans, Greeks, Jews, Egyptians and Arabs. There are no women, men, trans and differently gendered. There are no divisions; we are one. And of course, the rich, the successful, the powerful, and the Roman elite didn’t want to hear that they were of no more and no less significance that a slave in the bowels of the city.
We gather here tonight because we are part of a living faith and we need to be reminded in these living worshipful acts that in service, in the celebration of communion, in the very gathering together, we are a living community of hope—we embrace one another and welcome all to this table and we wash one another’s feet no matter how smelly or unsightly we think they might be. These living traditions inform how we will live today and what decisions we will make.
Moses laid it out when surveying the Promised Land. What will you choose, he asked? Choose life, he urged. Choose community. Choose to stand in the jaws of hate and fear and speak of love; speak of hope. Speak and invite all to be transformed in the power of God’s love to change the world where all might prosper. Here now, we choose life and not just for us, but for all that has the Breath of our Creator in it. In choosing life, the actions of our lives will speak the gospel of love loudly and clearly!