In the Spirit's way

May 11, 2009

The reading from Acts offers a foretaste of Pentecost, only two weeks away. After Peter receives a vision
telling him that nothing is unclean, the same revelation is given to
the community—this is the movement of the Holy Spirit. The gift of God
is poured out "even on the Gentiles." The people exhibit the visible
signs of God's favor (tongues, praise), and Peter is moved to declare
that "surely no one can stand in the way" of their being baptized in the
name of Jesus (echoing Gamaliel).

How do we
stand in the way of the Spirit's movement? How do ideology, prejudice
and tradition lead us to resist what God is creating? As preachers, an
honest response means confessing that at times we ignore the stirrings
of new birth. At times we are fearful or derisive.

John's epistle strikes a continuing refrain: To love God is to keep God's commandments. In Mudhouse Sabbath,
Lauren Winner reflects on Judaism from her perspective as a Christian
who was raised in the Jewish faith. She writes that "practice is to
Judaism what belief is to Christianity." To love God is to keep the
commandments, to repeat the practices of the faith.

This week's
Gospel lesson echoes this: Jesus commands his disciples to love one
another. The theme of love is prominent in John's Gospel and in the
letters of John: God so loved the world. God is love. Since God loved us
so much, we ought to love each other. Love one another as I have loved
you.

Love is the core of the good news about the life, teaching,
death and resurrection of Jesus. Although we are exposed to inferior
models and descriptions of love at every turn, true love is worth
recovering, both in the church and in the culture. For Christians it's
about giving, about "laying down one's life for one's friends."

John
redefines love as communion, the experience of community. But
individualism presents a significant obstacle to community, say Robert
Bellah in Habits of the Heart and Robert Putnam in Bowling Alone.
In the longer narrative from which this week's gospel passage is taken,
Jesus presents himself as the vine and us as the branches. We are
connected, and the life that flows from the vine into the branches is a
life of love.

There are no individual, solitary Christians. I
cannot be a Christian without you, and you cannot be a Christian without
me. God designed it this way. So a part of our conversion is into the
communion, the believers, the household of God.

In Life Together,
Dietrich Bonhoeffer writes from a Nazi prison cell about the communion
that we share with each other—and the temptation to take our life
together for granted:

It is true that what is an unspeakable
gift of God for the lonely individual is easily disregarded by those who
have the gift every day. It is easily forgotten that the fellowship of
Christian brothers and sisters is a gift of grace, a gift of the Kingdom
of God that any day may be taken from us, that the time that still
separates us from utter loneliness may be brief indeed. Therefore, let
the one who until now has had the privilege of living a common Christian
life with other Christians praise God's grace from the bottom of his
heart. Let us thank God on our knees and declare: it is grace, nothing
but grace that we are allowed to live in community with Christian
brothers and sisters.