5th Sunday of Easter
Texts: John 13:31-35;
Rev 21:1-6; Acts 11:1-18
THE CRAZY STORY . . . THAT LOVE WINS!
Matthew, Mark, and Luke each have a story of Jesus being asked about the greatest commandments. To which Jesus answers — or he elicits the answer from his questioner — that it all boils down to love. The two greatest commandments are: Love God, and love your neighbor as yourself. We will read Luke’s version of this in worship mid-summer — or today in our Bible study after worship. (Please join us.) Luke skillfully expands on these love commandments by Jesus adding the Parable of the Good Samaritan. It’s a parable about how God’s kind of love crosses usual human boundaries. . . .
. . . just like Luke’s story in Acts 10-11 about Peter coming to the home of the Gentile centurion Cornelius. In today’s First Reading, we catch the follow-up to Peter’s encounter, where his fellow Jews question his doing such a thing. Peter explains to them how God had to resort to giving Peter a wacky vision of a large sheet of unkosher animals being lowered before him, with the message, ‘What God has made clean, you must not call profane.’ When men appear at Peter’s door telling him to go to the home of a Gentile, the home of a supposedly unkosher person, Peter hears the Holy Spirit tell him, “not to make a distinction between them and us.” Here, again, in a nutshell is what I consider to be the very core of a revitalized Gospel message: There is no longer Us and Them; there is only Us. As followers of Jesus, Peter and the early apostles are examples of what we are still learning together, namely, how God’s kind of love helps to heal all the divisions of the world. It all boils down to love.
In John’s Gospel, the greatest commandment is boiled down even further from two to one. It’s simply, “Love one another as I have loved you.” How has Jesus loved us? Today’s Gospel Reading comes right after Jesus has stunned them with a nitty-gritty object lesson of he, their master, washing their feet. It’s from the same reading we read last month on Holy Thursday. In John’s Gospel, the Last Supper carries on for five chapters, John 13 through 17, because Jesus gives them a long Farewell Address. It begins with the lived-out parable of Jesus washing their feet, followed by this love commandment, “Love one another as I have loved you.” A few minutes later he will make the meaning of this even more explicit:
This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you. No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends. You are my friends if you do what I command you. (John 15:12-14)
Love, in other words, is a spirit of serving the needs of others, on a spectrum from humble acts of service like washing others’ feet to actually giving up one’s life on behalf of others. The very next day Jesus will, in fact, do this by letting himself be tried by the Jewish Council and the Roman Governor and then executed on the cross, the Roman instrument of torture and death.
But especially in John’s Gospel, the truth of the power of love is portrayed as a collision with this world’s view of power through Jesus’s dialogue with Pontius Pilate. They pointedly discuss both truth and power, as we read last month on Good Friday. Pilate thinks he has power, as demonstrated by his ability to hand down a death sentence on Jesus. Jesus basically tells him that his power is an illusion; for we know that Jesus is knowingly and willingly letting this all happen, precisely as the advent in our world of God’s true power of love. It’s the power not of determining the fate of others by imposing force on them, but the power of love to serve the needs of others, even to the point of giving one’s life for friends. The contrast of these two views of power couldn’t be more different! One seeks to control others by force, from a position of unequal powers of commanding wealth and military might. The other is about the equality found in friendship to mutually serve one another’s needs by the giving of one’s life in service. The one power is about seeking to command the power of death over others. The other power is about seeking to enhance life, to see that all life flourishes.
I believe that the core message of the Bible comes down to this contrast. Which power do we worship? The power of the imperial gods to visit death upon others? Or the power of the God of Jesus to abide in us with the power of loving service, which seeks to make all life flourish? It is such a startling contrast that it often takes bizarre actions and images to get it across, like Peter’s vision of being commanded to eat unkosher foods, or Jesus being the master who washes his friends’ feet. In the end it takes God’s Son letting himself be duly tried and executed, giving up his life for friends . . . and then God raising him back to life in three days in order that he may return to his friends as the true way of peace, the way of loving forgiveness.
Two thousand years later we are as ever in need of the kind of jolting visions which brought Peter and the early apostles to new insight. When the emperor Constantine made Christianity the imperial religion in the fourth century, the church began a long process of having that contrast of powers become muted or even invisible. At our worst moments, Christians have even come to worship that imperial power of being able to force others, especially our enemies, to conform to our wills. And so we also often make love a quaint feeling to bind us with friends and neighbors, reducing its status from the power of the true God of Jesus to bring healing to world, seeking to help all of life to flourish. We get duped by the beast of imperial power — symbolized throughout the Book of Revelation — to see love as something else than the power it truly is, the power of life itself, the power which brings life into being and continues to do so.
The Book of Revelation tells exactly this kind of story, of how easy it is for us human beings to get taken in by the power of emperors to control wealth and wield death. It basically portrays all of human history as a clash between the beastly empires and now the power of the Lamb slaughtered to bring about the true power of the world, the power of love. It is a power that shows itself through the opposite of trying to control others — namely, the power of lovingly serving the needs of others, even to the point of giving one’s life. Throughout most of human history, we have basically worshiped the power of the Beast as true power. It has proven challenging for us to truly worship the power of the Lamb slain.
When we begin our worship with the songs to the Lamb slain in the Book of Revelation, do we realize how truly revolutionary these songs are? That they are about worshiping a completely different and even opposite kind of power than human beings normally worship? “This is the feast of victory for our God, for the Lamb who was slain has begun his reign. Alleluia! Power and riches and wisdom and strength, Blessing and honor and glory and might be to God and the Lamb forever. Amen.” That’s complete craziness to sing! . . . If you think about it. I generally have to remind myself that, in this world which goes by a completely different and opposite kind of power, I’m trying to sing my faith into being and truly live into my believing such craziness.
Perhaps it’s time to begin studying the Book of Revelation in more earnestness. I need its vision of a completely different kind of power as winning out in history, especially now in this era that the imperialistic, authoritarian kind of power is on the rise once again. In today’s reading from Revelation, we’ve skipped over many chapters of the terrifying battle between powers and see now the vision of the ending — not, mind you, of people going to heaven, but of heaven coming to earth in terms of the new epitome of a human city, the New Jerusalem, if you will. And Revelation is so clear about juxtaposing the two different kinds of power, imperial power and Lamb power, that it portrays it as a completely different heaven and earth — essentially, a new heaven and a new earth. Yes, we might put studying the Book of Revelation on our list of things to study together while I’m here as your pastor — if nothing else than to get a better idea of exactly what we’re singing about most Sundays in our liturgy songs from this amazing book of the Bible.
In the meantime, let me suggest a modern work of literature which I believe is a contemporary version of the kind of story the Book of Revelation gives us. I’m talking about the massive Harry Potter series of books (more than 4,100 pages). I believe J. K. Rowling is presenting us with the same choice between Lord Voldemort’s imperialistic ways of death and Dumbledore’s way of self-giving love, as is Revelation between the imperial Beast and the Lamb slain. They both use fantastical imagery and symbolism in telling us the basic story of human power. Dumbledore never shrinks from the fact that one must stand against such evil ways as Voldemort’s. But he also persists in teaching Harry that the most powerful force in the world is that of love, the kind of self-giving love which his mother showed in dying for him. Shortly before Dumbledore gives his own life to save others, he has the essential conversation about the two kinds of power. He tells Harry that it will take “uncommon skill and power” to defeat Voldemort, and we read,
“But I haven’t got uncommon skill and power,” said Harry, before he could stop himself.
“Yes, you have,” said Dumbledore firmly. “You have a power that Voldemort has never had. You can —”
“I know!” said Harry impatiently. “I can love!” It was only with difficulty that he stopped himself adding, “Big deal!”1
At this point in the saga, Harry, too, thinks Dumbledore’s vision to be craziness. How can love win out over the kind of power which Voldemort wields to bring death and the power to control others? But J.K. Rowling is truly faithful to the Christian vision by bringing us precisely to an ending in which the power of love does win out. Harry never tries to kill Voldemort. Voldemort is ultimately defeated by his own power of death rebounding back upon him — literally. I won’t give other details that might spoil things, if you haven’t read these books. I do highly recommend them as one of the greatest Christian sagas ever written, one that matches the story of the Book of Revelation in its using fantastical storytelling to proclaim the victory of the power of love.2
Brothers and Sisters in Christ, we need these kinds of stories to gain the vision and courage it takes to stand in nonviolent, loving resistance to the forces of coercion, violence, and death which are on the rise once again in our world. We need to keep singing about the victory of the Lamb Slain, even when it seems crazy. Above all, we need faith. Not faith in the sense of believing certain things about Jesus in order to get into heaven. No, we need the kind of faith which is trust in Jesus and his power of love to ultimately win the day over the terrible powers of sin and death. The reign of God has begun in this world! Let’s join the battle armed only with the power of love! Amen
Paul J. Nuechterlein
Bethlehem Lutheran Church,
Muskego, WI, May 15, 2022
1. J.K. Rowling, Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince (Scholastic, 2005), page 509.
2. For more on the Harry Potter saga and its championing of love, see my unpublished paper “Harry Potter and the Power of Love.”