As I dashed through CVS the other day, my heart felt a familiar twinge of pain as it does each year as I walk past the Mother’s Day cards. The bright cheerful cards reliably filled with affectionate and sentimental words seemed to shine a spotlight on the loss I was feeling in my heart, for I am enduring yet another year without my mother.
And yet, honestly, there was also a sense of relief, for choosing a Mother’s Day card was never easy for me. It seemed my choices were ones gushing with a sickening sweetness which didn’t always fit our relationship. These cards seem to project a perfect mother, a perfect relationship, a perfect child, and although my mother and I shared a good and love-filled relationship, I wouldn’t describe it as perfect and those overly saccharin words never seemed to exactly fit. They didn’t represent real life, certainly not my life, and they didn’t represent real love, certainly not the love my mother and I shared. I wanted to be authentic in my expression of my love and appreciation of my mother through my choice of a card.
The other category of Mother’s Day cards were humorous, calling into light the absurdity of being a mother, of the menial and somewhat dirty tasks we so often must endure as good mothers, such as changing diapers or washing piles of dishes. It was as though that self-giving love, shown through the midnight diaper changes, was the deepest expression of love there could be, done only by someone crazy enough to take on this vocation of motherhood. That expression felt too shallow. Neither of these sets of cards fit. My relationship with my mother was deep, complex, challenging, joyous, life-giving and also at times filled with the infliction of pain on both sides, albeit not necessarily intentionally. It was a real relationship with struggles and joys, times of distance and closeness, times to forgive and times to be forgiven. Usually I ended up purchasing a card with a beautiful image on the front cover and blank inside so I could write something authentic to our relationship as mother and daughter.
I believe all relationships which have life in them, which means they are of and share love, are complex, and to authentically and accurately represent them, we must be real in honoring the fact that if love is involved, then there will be times of challenge as well as times of joy, of discord and concord, of moving toward one another and pushing away.
In the farewell discourse of John’s gospel, Jesus tells us that we are to love one another as he has loved us. It sounds simple, but we all know it’s not, for to love one another at all – no less as Jesus has loved us — is complex and often times complicated. Jesus instantly brings this conversation of love for one another down from the lofty abstract concept to a concrete reality by calling us his friends, which implies that as we know Jesus, we know how to love as Jesus loves, and therefore should in all our relationships. Jesus calls us his friends and we all know about friendships, that they can bring us immeasurable joy, and that they are also often a messy manifestation of love.
We all have friendships we have cultivated and nurtured and what a gift they can be to us. We know the few people we could call in the middle of the night who would rush to our side if we needed them. These relationships have required work, dedication, the prioritization of time together, and a sense of giving of oneself to one another that makes these friendships deep and special. Part of nurturing these friendships is taking risks for one another, enduring suffering together, holding steady and true during the hard times when conflict arises, continuing to search for the best of the person when they seem intent on showing only the worst of themselves to us, and to offer forgiveness, unequivocally, whether asked for or not.
Also, we all know of friendships which have become lost or broken. Some fade away because people move or get too busy to care about the relationship. Some friendships shift to an uncomfortable place because there’s spiritual growth in one person and not the other and those shifted priorities and intentions cause friction or distance and we can’t or don’t want to have to figure out what to do to bridge that gap. Sometimes judgment seeps into the relationship and we begin to create a distance between us and the other person because we feel we are superior on a number of different grounds. None of us is immune from this occurrence of judgment breaking a relationship. It seems a part of human nature, particularly if we’ve been hurt by someone, or have let someone down by our own behaviors. We may find we assume a judgmental stance in order to help us make sense of the distance that’s real between us.
My sense is that Jesus knew how hard it would be for us to love one another as he loves us, in our families, in our circles of friends, in our workplaces, in our classrooms, on the soccer field, and yes, even within our congregations or communities of believers. That is why, especially in the Gospel of John, Jesus’ Last Supper includes foot washing, that act of taking judgment away, of choosing to serve one another rather than judge one another, for Jesus knew and was showing us in real time that serving is a way of loving one another, and when we serve each other, we simply cannot judge or feel superior to that person. At least that’s my experience on Maundy Thursday when I wash someone’s feet or they wash mine, and we come into a communion that sets our hearts together, never to be pulled apart.
With our gospel story this morning proclaiming Jesus’ instructions of loving one another as he has loved us as the core message he is leaving with the world, words which meet us where we are in our sometimes-judgmental stance, we also hear today an interesting story in the Book of Acts. This text is considered the Pentecost to the Gentiles. Up until this point, Pentecost was considered a Jewish event, both the Pentecost festival which was part of the Jewish annual liturgical celebration, but also the event of Pentecost which we will celebrate in a few weeks, when the Holy Spirit descended upon everyone and they were given the gift of tongues and understanding of one another and the desire to praise of God for what Jesus had done. That event was considered to have occurred to Jewish people who then become baptized Jews following Jesus or Christians as we would classify them today.
The event we hear about in our first reading today is a Pentecost event to the Gentiles, non-Jewish people, who did not become Jewish to then become followers of Jesus but were Gentiles who received the Holy Spirit and were baptized directly into the body of Christ. The only other example of this direct conversion from Gentile to Christian, not Gentile to Jew to Christian, was with our eunuch of last week.
Now none of us may know of a time when Christianity wasn’t available to us, when we would have been the outsiders, the unclean, the ones not worthy to receive the grace of God. But that was the case when the early church began. The Jews following Jesus believed Jesus, as their messiah, was for Jewish people only. We, as non-Jewish people, would have been the ones marginalized, the ones judged by others as unacceptable, the ones prejudiced against due to our skin color, our ethnicity and our lack of the “right” belief or orthodoxy.
Now sadly, there may some of you who may have experienced this judgment and discrimination within a Christian denomination which told you weren’t worthy of Christ’s love because of your lack of “right belief” or orthodoxy or your ethnicity or your skin color or your sexual orientation and that grieves my heart and I imagine that has grieved God’s heart too.
I believe this because our story from Acts is a very good reminder that the Holy Spirit’s response to potential judgment and discriminatory behavior by the Jewish people of the non-Jewish people (who would have been us) was to tear down those barriers and say God’s reconciliation project has begun in earnest and it includes everybody. The Holy Spirit’s actions seemed to say the people you want to marginalize or feel justified in naming as unworthy or appear threatening to your belief system are the very ones I’m placing with your community, offering them the same gifts, the same baptism, the same grace, so you can love each other, as difficult as that may be, as Jesus loved you.
Peter, when seeing the Holy Spirit had fallen upon the gentiles, asked the question “Can anyone withhold the water for baptizing these people who have received the Holy Spirit just as we have?” and he immediately ordered them to be baptized. In last week’s story, when the eunuch exclaimed, “Look, here is water! What is to prevent me from being baptized?” Philip immediately went down into the water and baptized him.
Loving each other as Jesus loves us stretches us to notice and release the demon of judgment which creeps into our souls as we view groups of people whom we identify as different from us, or complete strangers we meet in the store or along the street, or those within our closest circles of friends, family members, or within this community of believers. None of us is immune to judging others. But if we are to love one another as Jesus loves us, then we are to notice our judgments and work to release them.
In John’s Gospel, Jesus says no one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friend. Maybe it’s not literally laying down one’s life for one’s friend, but maybe it’s laying down one’s judgment for one’s friend, or a stranger we meet along the way, or one’s family member.
We often wonder how we can do this.
It’s interesting that in this week’s chapter from The Mystic in You, the book we are exploring on Wednesday evening, letting go of judgment is one the spiritual practices offered and connected with the spirituality of the Desert Mothers and Fathers. The author suggests that the first step is to be aware of your judging and then to substitute a blessing, for offering a blessing connects us to the grace of the divine needed in all situations and offers us a kinship with all of humanity. I tried this spiritual practice this week. I found most of my need for blessing others happens when I’m driving in my car, which probably speaks louder about me than about others.
Yet when I and you do the harder work, when we look at the “tight” places in our relationships with people who matter to us, when we notice the points of conflict, or the heavy places in our hearts and wonder how to let God into them, I think the most helpful thing to remember is that the Holy Spirit is always out ahead of us, like she was with Peter and Philip, pulsing through the connections in our lives, guiding us toward love, instructing us on how to build up, not to tear down, helping us to notice when judgment creeps in, and assisting us in changing our hearts. That’s right – rather than thinking we need to change someone else’s heart, the Holy Spirit will change our hearts so we can choose to bear witness to Christ, not to conflict, so we can stop drawing lines in the sand of what or who is righteous and not, so we can be known for the love we profess in our lives.
Sometimes to do that, we need to know first that God actually loves us dearly and the annoying yet revelatory part is that God also actually loves dearly the very folks that make us crazy.
And the only way to change people or heal broken relationships or bring out the best in people who seem other than us is through grace, not demands, through acceptance, not criticism, through drawing them nearer not creating a chasm between them, through loving not hating.
God gives us the opportunity and ability to bear God’s grace to each other, to be God’s love and grace to each other. It’s a huge responsibility and a gift. It’s something of a miracle each time it happens.
Love, with all its complications and challenges is what will bring us joy. That’s what Jesus in John’s Gospel today speaks to us about – we abide in Jesus’ love to love one another so that we may experience joy. This is the gift of the Holy Spirit who draws us ever nearer to the life-giving love of God through Jesus.