The Rev. Kirsten Snow Spalding
We hear in today’s lesson some amazing promises from Jesus. 1) Your joy may be complete; 2) You will bear fruit that will last; and 3) The Father will give you whatever you ask him in my name. These promises are so awesome, that I have a hard time comprehending them.
What is complete joy? What would that look like in my life? How can I hold that sense of complete joy with the reality of suffering? In every person’s life, there are moments of hardship and trouble. And I look around and I see that people who are good to the core, people who have lived moral, blameless lives, still suffer.
What does it mean that I will bear fruit that will last. So many of my efforts are transitory. I try to do good things, but am I really creating anything of permanence? My writings, my committees, my sermons, these are all things that will be forgotten.
Then there’s the promise that all my prayers will be answered---the Father will give me whatever I ask in the name of Jesus Christ. I think about the prayers that I have been making for so many years—peace in the middle east, an end to homelessness, the preservation of this earth. Or even my little selfish prayers, comfort for a friend who has lost her mom, a resolution to an argument, clarity about a life decision. Sometimes I feel like I’ve been praying about these things for a long time.
So what am I to make of Jesus’ promises? Can I trust them, given my experiences?
I think that there is a truth in this passage that is truly beyond my understanding, beyond my experiences. Jesus speaks of a divine reality, his reality in which God the son abides in us and we in him. It is in this divine reality that these promises are kept. But I think that to say these are divine truths, does not mean that they are inaccessible to us. It just means that we have to get out of our worldly, earthly space and into the divine space to “know” these truths.
Our passage from Acts points to that when it talks about “conquering the world”. We are being shown a pathway out of our daily, earthly, human experience and into a divine experience. If we could fully abide in God, then our joy would be complete, we would bear fruit that would last and our prayers would be answered. But we don’t live fully in God, we live somewhere in between—striving to live in God’s love, but still bound by our humanness, by our worldly needs and worries, our human desires and selfish wants.
Jesus lays out for us exactly what it would take to receive these promises. He tells us that what is required is that we follow his commandments just has he has followed his Father’s commandments. He tells us that he has chosen us (it’s not our choice, we’ve already been chosen). He tells us that there is no greater love than his love for us because he has laid down his life for his friends. And we are friends—not servants because we know everything that he knows—he has shared everything with us, even his life.
And so it all boils down to the summary of the law—love one another as I have loved you. Love one another so much that you would lay aside your life—just as Jesus lay aside his life for us. This is the key, there is a doorway, an opening into the divine that comes through love. That doorway that is open to us requires divine love, loving one another so much that we lay aside our worldly, earthly life and step into the complete joy of loving another person. A love so great, that all suffering, all those things that are transient, impermanent, all unmet needs are satisfied.
I have this sense, that what Jesus is telling us is that if we could just let ourselves love one another without fear about our own physical beings, then we could experience the divine promises.
Maybe this is what happens in death—our love for one another is complete. The love that we have created with people and with God during our lives becomes eternal—not something that will go away. The prayers that we make for things in this world are met in God’s peace, God’s bounty, God’s clarity.
But while we are alive, we struggle to know God’s love for us, and we struggle to love one another. We go back and forth, sometimes having an ecstatic, supreme experience of God’s presence in our lives—and other times getting lost in the suffering, the hard realities of our humanness. Jesus knows this about us—knows our humanness because Jesus was human. But Jesus is trying to show us how we enter into perfect, complete joy. It is by loving one another that we enter into the divine realm.
I was thinking about images for this experience of both knowing our human suffering, our broken world and getting glimpses of the divine truths and I realize that maybe this is one experience of Mother’s Day. We can think about Mary, the divine mother of God, Jesus. She was called by the Father to bear a son. And even though she was afraid, she did as she was commanded and bore a son who would become the Savior of the world. That act of bearing a child, was an act of selflessness, she gave her womb, gave her body to God so that Jesus could be born. All of us have mothers who did that for us. Whether we grew up with our birth mothers, or other people who mothered us, whether we had children of our own, or provided care and love to people who are not our blood families. All of us, by virtue of having been born, have an experience of the selflessness of a mother’s love. Our divine selves know that there is a complete joy in our having been created. When we were born, there was a new life, a perfect and complete joy in that instant of our creation. At that moment of creativity, when the child is born, there is perfect love.
But mothering, giving birth to a new life is not the only moment of perfect love. Think about others—moments when people give of themselves, give beyond what is comfortable or reasonable, give to people who don’t reciprocate, or are ungrateful. In those moments of loving, we know a joy that is pure, not a gift exchange that trades one object for another object, but rather a pure giving that gives us a glimpse of God’s love for us.
I will conclude this sermon today by thinking about this promise from Jesus graphically. I think about a spiral staircase—a set of steps that go up and up. On the first step, we are born of a mother who gave herself so that we could be born. In that moment, we were chosen by God for love. We received the commandment to love one another as we are loved. We respond to that commandment, loving one another. We step up the staircase, heading towards God, experiencing joy as we know human love and care. Sometimes we step back down a step—feeling more suffering than love, knowing more about our humanness than we know about God. But there are our friends, the people who love us and they support us, showing us love and helping us step up the next step by helping us to love others.
As we step up the staircase, we are bearing fruit. Our loving acts, our good works, do last, as this love supports others who are also on the staircase, spiraling towards the heavenly Kingdom.
As we love one another, we answer prayers—the person who prays for an end to lonliness, or for comfort—that prayer is met when we send a note or make a call, or offer to listen. When we work for peace, we are answering the prayers of people who prayed for peace. When we help to heal people divisions between family members, or offer physical assistance, we are answering the prayers for healing. This staircase of loving one another leads us into the divine, it builds up God’s love in the world, it answers our prayers, creates love that will last, gives us perfect joy.
And so it is as we come to know God more and more deeply—giving of ourselves, following the commandment so we may know the love of one another, and the love of God.