Brief synopsis of the readings: As we journey through the Acts of the Apostles we see Paul and Barnabas continuing to visit the cities of Lystra, Iconium, and Antioch. During these journeys they encouraged the faithful and told them that they would have to suffer hardships before entering the Kingdom of God. After that they went to Pisidia and Pamphylia before going to Perga, Attalia, and Antioch. John’s Gospel described a scene in the Last Supper after Judas left. Jesus tells his disciples that they must love one another as they are loved by Jesus. Only by this love will his disciples be known as disciples of Jesus.
I’ve spoken of this before, but the season of Easter gives us a fascinating view of Scripture. In most of the year we get our first reading from the Old Testament, but in the weeks after Easter we read from the Acts of the Apostles. During Easter our first reading actually occurs after our Gospel reading.
Today John’s Gospel describes an event during the Last Supper (about the year 30 CE) while the events in Acts take place about 20 years later. And Acts describe events that those gathered at the Last Supper wouldn’t have expected to happen.
I wrote about this last week, but when the followers of Jesus recognized that he was the Messiah, they thought they were living in the end of history. They, along with all Jews, believed that the Messiah would make all things right. He would expel the Roman occupiers and restore the glory days when King David ruled and all was right.
But 20 years later, when Paul and Barnabas traveled beyond Jerusalem to areas that we now recognize, things were different. It was becoming clear that Jesus’ return wasn’t imminent and those who recognized that he was the Messiah needed to figure out what to do in the meantime.
We can recognize that Paul and Barnabas began the hard work of assembling the church that we now take for granted. They reached out and “opened the door of faith to the pagans.” They wouldn’t have needed to do this if Jesus’ return was going to happen in their lifetime.
Were those who expected Jesus to return soon wrong? Clearly they were, as we read these events nearly 2000 years later. But why were they wrong? Non Christians can easily answer this in the belief that Jesus wasn’t the Messiah and his followers simply dreamed that he rose from the dead.
And so for those of us who believe that Jesus was the Messiah, where do we go with our belief and the reality that he rose from the dead twenty centuries ago and we’re still here?
Maybe, just maybe, Jesus didn’t rise from the dead to give us the Kingdom but instead gave us the tools to build the Kingdom ourselves. This goes against the grain of many Christians who await the Rapture. They believe that at some point in time God will declare the end of the world, where all the righteous will immediately be taken to Heaven and the rest will endure the time of tribulation. At the end of this time some will be saved and some will be condemned.
I don’t believe this for many reasons, but at the end of the day I don’t believe it because I think God has better plans for us.
When I look at readings from the Gospels, particularly today’s Gospel from John, I think God loves us better than this. I don’t think God wants us to wait for a time that God will end the world and I don’t think we are called to interpret Scripture to predict when this will happen. In 1970 Hal Lindsey wrote a book called The Late, Great Planet Earth. He argued that we can look at the Bible (mostly the book of Revelation) for clues about when the end of the world will happen.
Instead, I think God wants us to take seriously what Jesus tells us at the Last Supper: “I shall not be with you much longer. I give a new commandment: love one another; just as I have loved you, you must love one another. By this love you have for one another, everyone will know that you are my disciples.”
The call to love isn’t a call for emotion because I don’t think loving someone is an emotional choice. I believe that the call to love is a choice. We all love people who don’t attract us. I love my wife and I’m attracted to her but I also love my parents, my sister, and dozens of friends.
In today’s Gospel when Jesus commands us to love one another he isn’t calling us to attraction or to feel good about someone. I think he is calling us to choose look at another person and want salvation for him or her. I think Jesus loves us enough to give us the the power to love those who have hurt us and grant them the power of redemption.
I know this goes against the power we have to hold grudges and demand revenge, but if we live in a world that allows for forgiveness can we agree that we will live in a world that fulfills what Jesus asked for us?
I think we’ve all had experiences where we felt (or feared) we couldn’t forgive. But there’s no way around it: forgiveness can be hard and exhaustive work, and it isn’t for wimps. We know that God will not demand of us something we simply cannot do; according to legend Mother Teresa once said the she knew God wouldn’t give her more than she could handle, but she wished God didn’t trust her so much.
That line always gets a chuckle. But I also think it speaks to a larger truth: sometimes we don’t know what we’re capable of until we’re challenged to do what’s hard. Not only are we called to love everyone we’re told that the ability to love is what makes us disciples: “By this love you have for one another, everyone will know that you are my disciples.”
Let us continue to work on loving each other.