Texts: Acts 10:44-48; 1 John 5:1-6; John 15:9-17
It sounds silly, and yet it’s true: Jesus himself reveals to us that, yes, God is indeed very fond of us. “You did not choose me,” he tells his disciples, “I chose you.” Similarly, we are not here worshiping and praising God because we choose to be, but because God has chosen us. I used to work with a woman named Trish, who say it like this: “I’m God’s favorite!”
The miracle in this is that love changes us, and God’s love most of all. What would it mean for us to go through our lives knowing that our primary identity is not about what we do for a living or where we live or who our family is, but simply in that we are the ones whom Jesus loves? How might we see ourselves differently? How might we see others differently knowing that they, too, are beloved friends of our Lord Jesus; that they, too, are ‘God’s favorite?’
And so Jesus gives us this commandment to love one another as he has loved us. He instructs us to love so that our joy may be complete, full, whole; for to love those whom God loves with the same love that God has shown us is a fulfilling act. It is a joyful act. It is a holy act.
It is this kind of love that has been on my mind for the past two weeks. As some of you know, Pr. Stephanie and I were in Gettysburg for a week at continuing education and my seminary class reunion. It so happens that the closest airport to Gettysburg is in Baltimore. We landed in Baltimore on Monday afternoon. As our plane touched down, the streets of Baltimore were filled with protesters angry over the death of Freddie Gray, who died of a severed spine while in police custody. That night, as we drove to Gettysburg and settled into our hotel room, in Baltimore shops were looted and cars were set ablaze.
Baltimore, of course, is not a new story. It is a tired repeat of what has already happened in Ferguson, in Staten Island, and in so many other places. Freddy Gray is one more in the long list of names who have been killed by a system meant to protect and serve. While in Gettysburg, we talked about Exile; people living lives isolated from families and communities, sometimes while in their own homes. I could not help but think of the black community in Baltimore and their exile, feeling occupied by a hostile police force that doesn’t look like them, one focusing their policing on containment and suppression.
As one whom Jesus loves, how do I make sense of what is happening to Jesus’ beloved friends in Baltimore? How do I love them as our Lord has loved me?
What we forget is that, as Martin Luther King, Jr. said, “Riots are the language of the unheard.” They are the last, desperate attempt to speak of people who have been too long ignored. We see the looting and the destruction and we shy away, because our Lord teaches us to love, to turn the other cheek, to walk the extra mile. What we don’t see are all the cheeks which have already been turned, all the extra miles already walked, because until now, we have not been paying attention.
The Rev. Bernice King, Martin’s daughter, tweeted during the Baltimore uprising (2):
Where we have failed—both as a society and as the Church—is that it has taken us this long to see what is happening. We might never have heard about these deaths unless things turned ugly. We have not been as shocked by the deaths of men and women as we have by the destruction of property we see in the aftermath. It turns us off, turns us away, because “we understand that we would never do something like that ... But we fail to ask that critical next question—if these people, who are in so many ways like us, would do something that we wouldn't think of doing, what must the conditions be like to drive that behavior?”(1) Our love for Jesus’ friends in Baltimore implores us to ask this question.
The word “love” appears 9 times in the 8 verses of today’s gospel lesson. It describes the Father’s and Jesus’ love for us and one another, and our love for each other. In this section, it never describes our love for God: the focus is completely on God and on God’s love and on what God’s love is doing. It is a sign of what Jesus says: “you did not choose me, I chose you.” That love of God is transformative: it meets us where we’re at, just as we are, but it doesn’t leave us there. God’s love changes us, and always for the better, always so that our “joy may be complete.”
We see this in scripture. God’s loving work in human history has been to liberate us. God elected Israelite slaves to be God’s chosen people, then led them out of slavery into freedom. When Jesus became incarnate, he came as a Jew in a Roman province, a carpenter rather than a priest or king, a Galilean and a Nazarene rather than a Jerusalemite. God has consistently chosen to identify with the outcasts and the oppressed, not because “God feels sorry and takes pity on them,” but because “liberation of the oppressed is a part of the innermost nature of God. Liberation is not an afterthought, but the essence of divine activity.”(3)
So, for us to keep Jesus’ commandment and abide in this love is to participate in God's divine activity of liberation. The God we worship “cannot be the God of [the oppressed] and will their suffering. To be [chosen by Jesus] does not mean freely accepting the evils of the oppressors;"(3) instead, it means joining together with these friends of Christ to bring an end to an unjust and broken system, a system that unfairly targets those on the margins of society, a system in which, whether we know it or not, we are complicit because we benefit from it.
When Jesus says that there is no greater love than for one to lay down one’s life for one’s friends, this is what he is talking about. We might understand “laying down our lives” to mean to be willing to die for somebody, but, personally, I think this is a cop-out. Few if any of us will ever be asked to die so that someone else might live. By only understanding the text in this one way, we can believe that we would do so if the situation ever presented itself, knowing we never have to prove it. No, to lay down our lives means not just to die for somebody, but to live for them. It means to do as Jesus did and really love people, be in personal relationship with them, call them friends. His love for us invites us to do as he did and to befriend the outcast and the oppressed, eat with the sinner and the tax collector.
So what does this look like for us? It starts with listening. Not just hearing the news reports or the pundits, but really seeking out and listening to the voices on the margins. It means hearing the distress of Baltimore and Ferguson and asking them how we can help. It means setting aside the privilege that we get from being complicit in an unjust and broken system for the sake of creating a society that is just and safe for all of Jesus’ friends, not just the middle-class or the light-skinned.(4) It means working to establish God’s kingdom on earth. That’s what resurrection is: from the ashes of death and despair, from the burnt-out cars and the smashed windows rises hope of new life, hope of God’s kingdom.
We can only do this because God loves us, because Jesus chooses us. We are the ones whom Jesus loves, God’s favorites! We are assured of this through our baptism, and we experience it every week in Holy Communion. When we see others of Jesus’ beloved friends crying out in pain and lashing out in desperation, it is then that Jesus’ command to love one another hits home; it is then that God’s love transforms us. How can it not? How can we as Jesus’ friends stand by as the friends of our friend, the loves of our love, are bearing the burden of injustice?
In Christ, we have the hope of resurrection to remind us that whatever we might lose or lay down in service to God and neighbor, God offers us so much more in return. In love, Jesus liberates us; whether from slavery to or from complicity in systems that harm our society and our world. That love of Jesus is a call to action: not to offer platitudes or cluck our tongues in sympathy, not to swoop in like a superhero and save the day, but to enter into relationship with those who suffer, just as Jesus did; to put aside our comforts and our conveniences and our privileges to be with those who need us. That is what it is to lay down our lives for our friends, for Jesus’ friends.
(1) The Dominant White Response to Baltimore Shows Why Black Residents are Justified in their Anger from DailyKos.com
(2) Bernice King ("Be A King") on Twitter
(3) Cone, James. "God is Black"
(4) Isasi-Diaz, Ada Maria. "Solidarity: Love of Neighbor in the 21st Century."
(3) and (4) from Lift Every Voice: Constructing Christian Theologies from the Underside (Thistlethwaite & Engel, ed). c1998, Orbis Books.
Other recommended articles:
“There is nothing ‘black’ about rioting”: Actor Jesse Williams unloads on Baltimore critics in passionate Twitter essay from Salon.com
Is It An 'Uprising' Or A 'Riot'? Depends On Who's Watching from NPR's CodeSwitch blog