SERMON PREACHED AT CHRIST CHURCH, WHANGAREI
SUNDAY, MAY 29th 2011
(SIXTH SUNDAY OF EASTER)
Readings: Acts 17.22-31
Ps 66.8-20 (ish)
1 Peter 3.13-22
Reverberating through the commands and instructions of God (in both testaments!) there is that powerful construction that is known to grammarians as the conditional tense. For Māori speakers here the same constructions is generated by use of the ka … ana formula, while in English it is usually generated by the combination of “if” and “then”. If you love me, then you’ll buy me an ice-cream. The “then”, though, is often hidden: if you love me, buy me an ice-cream.
In that childlike sentence, as in our biblical gospel passage, there is another hidden construction that we are going to have to take seriously if we are to extrapolate meaning for a twenty-first century multi-cultural, multi-dimensional, multi-optional world. For there, both in the child’s manipulative tantrum and our gospel-reading lurks that strongest of all tenses, the imperative. Often it is rendered in English with an explanation mark – and in spoken language with a raised or otherwise emphatic voice. In some forms it will earn a green wiggly line from Bill Gates, particularly when used with the verb “to be”: “be healed”, often appearing in the gospels, is an imperative, a command, whether or not Mr. Gates understands that to be so.
In our passage Jesus, as rendered by John, does not render the command to love as an optional extra. The construction is not a soft “if you love (aroha) me then perhaps you might give consideration to keeping my commandments”, which would be a conditional but not an imperative. Nor is it what we call an indicative, “because you love me you are keeping my commandments”. This is a conditional imperative, and as such it allows no wriggle room for the hearer or observer of the words of Jesus. It has a mathematical symmetry, too. “If you do not love me then you will not keep …”, and “if you do not keep, then you do not aroha”. These are stern, hard words of Jesus – so stern that some early scribes fudged and weakened them as they reproduced John’s writings.
They are stern words, but they are words issued with what a former prime minister of Australia somewhat bizarrely called “incentivization” – more normally known as incentive. They are words that lay a gauntlet at the feet of those who would follow Jesus. But – as some of us noted a week or so ago – the apostle John, like the apostle Paul, is well aware of the enormity and indeed impossibility of the interconnected tasks of loving and following Christ. To follow Christ is inevitably to fail – unless you rate better on the perfection scale than anyone else! Jesus, though, provides a promise: “I will not leave you orphaned”. It is of course a metaphorical promise – Jesus effectively picturing himself, in a rare departure from his norms, as our father who will provide, uncannily, an alternative parent. Language breaks down – our human parents can provide substitute guardians, but not, technically, alternative parents. John’s gospel is striving towards the Trinitarian language that became the language of faith in the centuries that followed, language that we jettison only at the cost of jettisoning orthodoxy. But – and the difficulties in the first and second centuries were not greatly different to our own – the emphasis is on the presence of the one John records as being called Paraclete, the one called alongside to make known to us all that we need of Jesus to carry on the journey to which he commissions us.
By opening ourselves up to receive that Spirit, by disciplining ourselves to obey the imperative of aroha – aroha well described by Paul in his First Letter to the Corinthians, the famous thirteenth chapter – we can experience the life-transforming benefits of relationship – eternal relationship, transcending even our mortality – with the Creator of heavens and earth. We will know ourselves to be immersed in that aroha, embraced by that aroha, and indeed channels of that aroha to those around us.