And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying,
“See, the home of God is among mortals. He will dwell with them as their God; they will be his peoples, and God himself will be with them; he will wipe every tear from their eyes. Death will be no more; mourning and crying and pain will be no more, for the first things have passed away.”
Our readings for the fifth week of Easter, from Acts, Revelation, and John’s Gospel, challenge us in two ways: first, the idea that Death can and will be defeated, that “death will be no more,” as John says; and, second, the commandment that in order to be Jesus’ disciples, we must love as he does.
These readings suggest that it is through Jesus’ perfect love, and not through the use of force, that he will defeat death.
St. Paul reiterates this when he says in 1 Corinthians that the “last enemy that shall be destroyed is death” (1 Cor. 15:26). This is what they call a “hard saying.”
We live in a world in which death is ever present. Lived experience and our prayers for the the souls of the departed are constant reminders of death’s presence.
We grieve our lost loved ones, and we know that we too shall die. A good friend once told me in the year following her husband’s death that nothing is ever promised to us when it comes to life and death. This is a grim reality.
St. John and St. Paul do not shield us from the grimness of death. They don’t see death through rose colored glasses. Instead, they treat it like the enemy that it is.
John associates Death with mourning and pain and tears. It runs against the grain of what God intends for his creation. It is the undoing of that which God calls good.
J.K. Rowling confronts this question head on in the final novel of the Harry Potter series. On Christmas eve, Harry and his friend, Hermione, travel to the town in which Harry’s mother and father died many years prior. On his parent’s tombstone, Harry finds Paul’s saying, “the last enemy that shall be destroyed is death,” and indeed, it is a hard saying for him.
He initially thinks that it is a pro-Voldemort slogan—Voldemort, whose name means “flight of death,” aspires to be the master of death.
Fortunately, Hermione gently corrects Harry, explaining that this is about life after death. But I think Rowling’s point goes deeper than this: for her, and eventually for Harry, there is something more powerful than death and brute force. Ultimately, Harry’s struggle reveals that Death too shall die.
In the reading from Revelation, John describes death as part of an old order. John then tells us that Death, and its accomplices, will be no more. “Death shall have no dominion.”
These things will pass away, to be replaced by a new order. John hears the voice of Jesus, saying, “See I am making all things new. I am the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the end.”
This new order is the restoration of God’s good earth, of God’s original desire to bring all things into relationship with himself.
And, as today’s gospel reading tells us, Jesus is already bringing about this new order through his disciples, specifically in their love. “I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.”
Now, Jesus doesn’t just tell his disciples, and us, to love one another. Jesus commands us to love as he loves. This too is a hard saying!
Jesus is also bringing about his new order through the Church. We see today that for the new church at Jerusalem, Jesus’ command to love means tearing down borders that had previously divided the Jews from Gentiles. The Jewish Christians are amazed that God’s gift of redemption is extended even to unclean people. This should be a startling revelation to us, the idea that the Church not only crosses borders, but calls their very legitimacy into question.
But the difficulty goes beyond loving more people who aren’t part of our crowd, class, or nationality. The difficulty is that we are supposed to love each other the way God loves.
How can this be? How can we love like God? God’s love is perfect, self-less, never ceasing. Doesn’t Jesus understand that we just aren’t capable of this kind of Love?
And, in fact, we aren’t capable. At least not by our own strength and inclinations.
Jesus, of course, knows this. He understands that, left to ourselves, we humans are selfish and vain, that we look to our own interests, and expect others to serve us. He knows that we are fond of borders and distinctions, that we like to classify things, and that in doing so we sink further into vices of our making.
Just before Jesus gives the disciples his new commandment, he gives them an example of what this love looks like. He washes their feet. He tells them, “if I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet.”
Jesus! Yet another hard saying.
Jesus’ love is exceptional. It is self-giving, and not self-seeking. His love takes the form of service, acting in humble and menial ways. His love makes itself vulnerable to betrayal. It leads the lover to self-denial and even death.
His love is perfect so that our love, which is weak, insecure, and prone to failure, doesn’t have to be perfect.
In his incarnation, death, and resurrection, Jesus loves us perfectly because we can’t. In love, Jesus crossed the ultimate border to make his home among mortals. This singular act of divine self-sacrifice reintroduces humanity to perfect love.
But this doesn’t get us off the hook. We are still called to emulate and participate in Jesus’ perfect love, even if we can’t do it perfectly. We are called to love each other through acts of service, through self-denial, through counting the other better than ourselves.
We are called to love through welcoming the stranger and outsider, the one that we might consider unclean and unworthy. We are called to imitate Jesus in crossing our own borders, those things that we cling to out of comfort, but that stifle Jesus’ love from being shared.
By acts of service, self denial, and hospitality, Jesus says, “everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.”
May we be strengthened in Christ’s love that we might show that love to one another through self-giving, that we may be known as his disciples.
Easter 5, 2016
St. David’s Episcopal Church