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On Love and Interdependence

A Sermon on John 15:9-17 and Acts 10:44-48

This coming Friday, myself and four of the wonderful members of Abiding Peace will gather with approximately 500 other Lutherans from around New Jersey at this year’s Synod Assembly.

I am looking forward to it. For a person who grew up without a denomination and with a “just me and Jesus” mentality, it is inspiring to gather together with so many other people who share the Lutheran identity that I came to as an adult. It’s amazing to feel connected to this diverse community of people who are all linked together into the same tradition of faith, and the same present decisions about our Synod, that will move us forward as we share in God’s mission in New Jersey. Synod Assembly is inspiring to me.

But that doesn’t mean I am blind to the challenges that are the flip side of that feeling of connection. Because being connected means that we need to make decisions together – sometimes about matters on which we disagree. This year, the Assembly will be voting on three Synodical resolutions, plus a memorial to send to the ELCA Assembly next year. These four statements cover support for undocumented immigrants; gun violence & gun control; fair wages and benefits for church staff; and a celebration of women’s ordination, which raises the intersectionality of sexism, racism, homophobia, transphobia, and classism.

In other words, they cover important and complicated issues about which not all New Jersey Lutherans agree.

And roughly 500 of us are going to talk about and vote on these statements, only 5 of whom have spent the last year and a half developing “Commitments to Loving Dialogue” to help us talk together across our differences.

Based on the history of Synod Assemblies I am not expecting any fist fights to break out, but I’m also not expecting the conversation to look much like today’s reading from the gospel: with all of the abiding in love, and laying does one’s life for one’s friend,

and Jesus’s joy being complete in us.

I can’t even really imagine what that would look like. How does one love to the point of laying down one’s life for one’s friend… when one has friends on both sides of an issue?

We can, and should, seek to discern which side the gospel calls us to choose, but it’s hard to imagine how joy can be complete in that choosing, even if our side wins, when we are divided by the choice. We have too much experience with the bitterness and acrimony that arises on all sides of public debates that are framed as won-lose contests. In that kind of context, hearing Jesus’s command to love as he loved feels a bit defeating.

Because you cannot COMMAND people to love each other. Just ask anyone who has ever arbitrated an argument between children – or adults either for that matter! You can establish behavioral expectations, or "foundations for loving dialogue," but you CANNOT, by MANDATE, establish warm, self-giving feelings between human beings who are on opposite sides of an argument.

Love isn’t something that can be ORDERED, it can only grow – and debates don’t tend to make good soil.

But for this gospel command of Jesus to have meaning – for it to be more than just a sentimental pipe dream about Christian community – it has to apply in situations of argument. It has to hold true on the floor of a Synod Assembly debate over immigration, and on the floor of a US Senate debate over gun control, and in the kitchens of our own homes in the middle of a family fight.

So, in those contexts, what do we do with Jesus’s declaration that: “this is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you”? (John 15:12).

As I grappled with that question this week, I was drawn to our reading from the book of Acts. It’s not the scene of a public disagreement, exactly, but it does describe a potential crisis point in the gathering of two distinct groups of people: the Jewish believers, who were the foundation of the early church, and the Gentile converts who listened to Peter’s sermon, and on whom God’s Holy Spirit was poured out.

It was a sticky moment for the budding life of the new church because it violated assumptions about pecking order and membership requirements. The Holy Spirit represented power, and here God was… pouring the Spirit out willy nilly on people who didn’t know all the rules, and hadn’t even heard Peter’s whole sermon yet!

It was disconcerting to say the least for the existing church. There was a radicality to God’s welcome of the unorthodox converts that the established believers weren’t quite sure what to make of.

But the MOST stunning image for me in this story comes in the very last sentence:

Then they (the Gentile converts) invited him (Peter) to stay for several days.” (Acts 10:48.

With that one brief sentence, this story becomes something MORE than a story of inclusion… of God’s tent getting bigger, so that the unexpected people can be let inside.

In an INCLUSION story, insiders are challenged to question our rules about “who gets in” and to recognize that it’s GOD who is in control of the guest list, not us. But there can still be a subtle condescension in the way we hear such inclusion stories. A certainty that we are already inside the clubhouse, and perhaps a sense of self-congratulation that we are big enough people to let others into the club too.

But in this story from Acts, it’s the GENTILES who host the party. It’s the NEW believers, the outsiders who offer hospitality; and it is the recognized leader who receives – who gets invited to stay. The power dynamics get turned on their heads, and we see the respected apostle as someone who NEEDS – Peter needs a place to stay, and food, and inclusion in the community.

In fact, we see a picture of the church as truly INTERDEPENDENT – a community in which ALL of the members NEED each other, and not just the outsiders. The converts need Word and sacrament it’s true (the abbreviated sermon and baptism), but the circumcised believers need a lesson in how it is God and not the rules that save, and Peter needs hospitality. They all need each other.

Interdependence is one of the six core values of our Synod – and the one that is perhaps most directly invoked by the Synod Assembly. This is how that core value is described:

Synod literally means to walk together. Our journey together is experienced as accompaniment, committed to collaboration, marked by multiplication, and blessed with synergy as we engage in God’s mission.

By our very name of Synod we confess that we need each other in the journey – we need partners, we need collaborators, we need multipliers with whom to undertake the journey of faith, and with whom to discover a synergy that we can’t accomplish on our own.

A similar understanding of interdependence is expressed by the South African philosophy of ubuntu. Anglican Archbishop Desmond Tutu describes ubuntu in this way:

“In South Africa, ubuntu is our way of making sense of the world. The word literally means humanity. It is the philosophy and belief that a person is only a person through other people. In other words, we are human only in relation to other humans. Our humanity is bound up in one another, and any tear in the fabric of connection between us must be repaired for us all to be made whole. This interconnectedness is the very root of who we are.”[1]

In South Africa, this interconnectedness is the way they make sense of the world, but interdependence is profoundly counter-cultural to the American value of INDEPENDENCE. Our culture teaches us to take pride in pulling ourselves up by our own bootstraps, in NOT needing help from other people.

But that’s not a value in Christ’s church. Because Jesus calls us to interdependence – to knowing that we need each other, and living our lives according to a love that puts the other first.

I wonder whether the connection to interdependence is at the heart of why LOVE is so difficult – because it requires us to recognize how much we NEED each other. To reject any claims of superiority, of the prerogative of being the ones to offer welcome, and instead to recognize that loving the other who is hard to love is not a FAVOR we offer, or a good deed – it’s a necessity. It’s life by the principles that “any tear in the fabric of connection between us must be repaired for us all to be made whole.”

But if that kind of vulnerability and interdependence IS at the heart of why it’s so hard to truly love as Jesus loved, perhaps it is also at the heart of how this love could actually transform our lives.

The command in today’s gospel to “abide in (Jesus’) love” follows immediately from last week’s gospel reading, which called us to abide in Jesus as our vine, of which we are the branches.

Of course, we are interdependent! We are all part of the same vine! There’s no “just me and Jesus” in God’s garden. We really are all connected. And that connection is to LOVE. Love is not fundamentally our command, it is our source.

One of my favorite commentators, Debie Thomas, responds to today’s gospel this way:

“My problem is that I often treat Jesus as a role model and then despair when I can’t live up to his high standards. But abiding in something is not the same as emulating it. In the vine-and-branches metaphor, Jesus’ love is not our example; it’s our source. It’s where our love originates and deepens. Where it replenishes itself. In other words, if we don’t abide, we can’t love.”[2]

We’re not supposed to be able to generate love for each other out of the depths of our own hearts, because we aren’t the ones who generate life or love! We grow from it.

And part of the beauty of God’s love for us, is that in order to grow, we need to stay connected to the love that also grows so many others. And once we realize how essentially connected we are – how we cannot pull away from others without tearing ourselves from our own source of life – then, maybe, we actually can obey Jesus’ command to love.

Thanks be to God.

[1] Archbishop Desmond Tutu, The Book of Forgiving.


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