A Lectionary Reflection on John 13:31-35, 5th Sunday of Easter

Agape Love

This pericope is part of a larger section of the Fourth Gospel, described by scholars as the farewell discourse of Jesus, consisting of 13:1-17:26. In the discourse, Jesus is preparing his disciples for his suffering, death, and resurrection.

Prior to this pericope, Jesus predicted that Judas would betray him. Then Jesus speaks of his glory. Often in conversations, people will employ the word glory, glorious, etc., in association with power, respect, honour, success, and victory. For example: “What a glorious victory,” in reference to a hockey team winning the Stanley Cup. Or: “She basks in glory now that she has sold over a million copies of her book.” In the Gospel of John however, the word glory, glorified, etc., is associated with the suffering, death and resurrection of Jesus, which are the exact opposite of the ‘worldly’ meanings—albeit Jesus did win the victory over the powers of sin, death and evil, yet that victory came in the most unusual of ways, through his weakness, suffering and dying on the cross. Power in the world is often associated with military force or someone of great wealth. Respect and honour are often associated with outstanding achievements such as earning a PhD., excelling at a sport, becoming a Prime Minister, President, King or Queen. Success means becoming a famous movie star.

Reference to Jesus being glorified is also associated with what comes next in this pericope—his words concerning his departure from the disciples.

In place of his presence, he gives all of his would-be followers the love commandment in verses 34-35. He describes the commandment as “a new commandment.” Some might debate both those words “new” and “commandment.” For instance, the Torah teaches the faithful to love God and to love one’s neighbour, and Jesus himself sums up all of the commandments in the Torah by teaching the faithful to love God and one’s neighbour. Moreover, some would question whether love can be commanded—to command one to love may place conditions on loving, and true love is unconditional.

The word for love in this pericope is agape. Agape love is of the highest kind—it involves unselfish giving, loyalty, faithfulness, sacrifice, service. Agape love goes the extra mile, considers the needs and interests of others even before one’s own, is willing to face suffering, embarrassment, misunderstanding and even rejection at times for and with others. At its very best, agape love is prepared to die for another.

Such love is always there for us, thanks to the life, suffering, death and resurrection of Jesus. He calls us as his people to share it with the world, so that: “everyone will know that you are my disciples.”

In a world with more and more hatred, divisions, conflicts and wars, agape love is needed more now than ever. May the LORD help us all so to love!

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A Lectionary Reflection on Luke 15:1-3, 11b-32, Lent 4

Image credit: sharefaith.com

The introduction of our gospel picks up on a favourite theme in Luke’s Gospel—Jesus, friend of sinners and outcasts, and here he is associating with “…all the tax collectors and sinners [who] were coming near to listen to him.” This whole chapter is devoted to parables of the lost and found. According to Luke, Jesus in this chapter is criticized by a group of Pharisees and scribes for offering hospitality to and eating with sinners. In the ancient Eastern world, hospitality and eating together were signs of friendship and love of neighbour. Today too, they have the potential of—and sometimes succeed in—breaking down categories of various kinds that serve to divide people.

Our parable, verses 11b-32, in my Bible is titled: “The Parable of the Prodigal and His Brother.” Over the centuries the parable has been given a variety of names, and often the titles reveal what preachers focus on in the parable, for example: The Parable of the Prodigal Son, The Parable of the Prodigal Father, The Parable of the Loving Father, The Parable of the Waiting Father, and so on. Indeed, in my preaching over the years I’ve employed such titles. However, as I read and reflect on the parable now, I would title it “The Parable of Prodigals,” since I believe that both sons and their father were prodigals in one way or another. Speaking of titles, recently I read an article by Jewish New Testament scholar, Amy-Jill Levine, who had an insight that I never thought of before. She believes the father is a negligent one in that he failed to consult with the elder brother concerning how to handle the younger son. The elder son was left out of the decision-making process regarding the party that was thrown to celebrate the younger son’s return home.

On occasion—likely because I’m the eldest son in my family—I’ve sermonized in an empathic way concerning the eldest son. For example, if we take seriously the detail of verse 12, that the father “…divided his property between them,” then I believe the case can be made for the eldest son’s complaint at the end of the parable about the party—after all, the property, the food, and perhaps even the musicians and dancers were paid for from what rightfully belonged to the eldest son, since the father inherited everything to the sons. I realise this reasoning isn’t concretely substantiated in the parable; and that traditionally the eldest son often received more of the inheritance than other siblings—yet, there is something about this parable that doesn’t sit quite right with yours truly. After all, we’re told that the eldest son has been responsible all along—in fact, puts forth this complaint, the foundation of which seems to be one of a fair playing field and justice: “For all these years I have been working like a slave for you, and I have never disobeyed your command.” He has been a model son, working hard, accepting responsibilities, doing the right thing—albeit he seems to see it as slavery rather than being motivated by compassion. Hence, in this sense he too is prodigal, if his primary motivation is not based on love for his father. Prodigal too in that he seems to want to remain—reading between the lines—angry with and alienated from his younger brother, whom we note, he doesn’t call him by name, keeping his distance from him by saying: “this son of yours,” in verse 30. Indeed, after the eldest brother’s complaint, the parable leaves it open-ended as to whether or not the eldest brother listens to his father’s plea for compassion and forgiveness and joins in the celebration.

Coming back to the other two main characters, the youngest son and the father—I think we can identify with both of them as well. The youngest son has experienced “the university of hard knocks” so-to-speak in that he was humiliated in the far country by, out of desperation, having to accept a job of feeding the pigs; and if one can take him at his word, he was “dying of hunger.” If he was Jewish, having to accept a job feeding pigs would definitely not be kosher. “Dying of hunger” would certainly be no picnic either! So he hits bottom so-to-speak and plans his repentance speech and heads back home—hoping that his father will at least take him back as one of his slaves, since even they were better off than he was now. Notice however in his repentance speech that there is no mention of his elder brother. One question that we might ask is: Did the youngest son leave home in the first place because there had been a falling out with his elder brother? The parable doesn’t tell us, but perhaps that was a possibility. Another question we may ask is: Since the eldest brother is not mentioned in the repentance speech, is the silence an indication of a broken relationship between the brothers? Such questions, I realise are not answerable with any degree of certainty.

All those of us who are fathers or mothers I think can identify with the father in the parable. Sometimes children can “push the envelope” to the limits and then some. They can leave home and go off into “the far country.” Sometimes, tragically, children never come home again. There are countless stories of “waiting fathers and mothers,” and “loving fathers and mothers,” who agonize over broken relationships with their children. Sometimes those broken relationships fail to end with compassion and reconciliation, and that is truly tragic. Sometimes however parties are thrown and parents become prodigal in going all out with their celebrations—showing generosity and compassion beyond everyone’s expectations. That indeed is a fine picture of who our God is in his relationship with each one of us! For that, thanks be to God!

A few thoughts on 1 Corinthians 13

Although today, 1 Corinthians 13 is often chosen as a favourite for weddings, the apostle Paul, in writing his first letter to the congregation at Corinth, Greece was addressing some serious issues. Among other things, there appears to have been a division or some degree of conflict in the congregation.

One of the issues causing such division or conflict was that of human pride and sin. There seems to have been some congregants who thought themselves to be better than others. They may have come from wealthy families. They may have thought it was beneath them to associate with the poorer congregants. They may have thought that their education or their achievements in the workplace and community ought to give them certain privileges and entitlements.

In any case, the apostle Paul here in chapter thirteen reaches a beautiful crescendo in this often referred to as his “Love Chapter.” The issues may very well have been closely related to what Paul mentions herein: pride in speaking in tongues or languages, displaying prophetic powers, understanding all mysteries and all knowledge, all faith that brought impressive results, giving away of possessions, the giving of one’s body in some sacrificial (perhaps Paul had in mind marytrdom or being sold into slavery) manner. All of these things people may be tempted to take pride in—yet, without being motivated by and rooted in love, the apostle Paul says they gain absolutely nothing. According to Paul, none of these things, though seemingly impressive and valued, are not what in the end lasts. Love, on the other hand, lasts forever and is the greatest gift of the Holy Spirit.

What does the apostle Paul mean by love? The word he employs has a lot of baggage, it is in the Greek, agape. Agape love is different than romantic, sexual love (eros), or friendship and companionship (philos). Agape love is the greatest love of all in that it is not selfish, and is willing to count the cost by serving others whole-heartedly.

Paul goes on in this chapter to cite several examples of what agape love entails—if you haven’t read it before, I encourage you to do so.

Contemporary examples of agape love may include the following: anonymously being a generous benefactor—e.g., giving a large amount of money to a benevolent organisation without wanting others to know who gave the gift in order that the homeless may have a decent place to live, and funding education for the homeless to train them for employment so that they can be self-supporting. As a grandparent, providing childcare for a single parent mother. Visiting those in prison, hospital, seniors’ facilities, etc. Working without drawing attention to one’s self for a more just and humane society for every human being—with a special commitment to the weakest, most vulnerable citizens. Of course, in some nations of the world this is regarded as “criminal activity,” since it endeavours to remove despots, tyrants and dictatorial powers from office and replace them with humble, kind leaders who genuinely serve their people—especially the least, lost, last and forgotten in society.

Agape love also moves into the larger world that God created to care for: animals, birds, fish, whales, water, air, soil, etc. It lives with an ethic that there is enough for everyone when all of God’s creation is valued, respected and wisely, lovingly shared and cared for.

Agape love sees and celebrates the reality of the petition in the Lord’s Prayer: “Your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as in heaven.”

Book Review: Good News from North Haven

goodnewfromnorthhavenGood News from North Haven: A Year In The Life Of A Small Town

Author: Michael L. Lindvall

Publisher: New York: The Crossroad Publishing Company, A Crossroad Carlisle Book, 2002

189 pages, ISBN 0-8245-2012-2, Paperback

Reviewed by Rev. Garth Wehrfritz-Hanson

The Reverend Michael L. Lindvall was born and grew up in small-town Minnesota. He developed a love for the stories told by folks living in such communities. Therefore, it is not surprising that the stories he tells in this novel are set in North Haven, Minnesota and, at the very least, are implicitly autobiographical. The storyteller in this novel is Reverend David Battles, the minister of Second Presbyterian Church—and Lindvall himself is a Presbyterian minister.

The novel begins with a brief history of First and Second Presbyterian congregations—the former lost their building to a fire, and most of the members subsequently joined Second Presbyterian. As the novel unfolds, Reverend Battles is keen to tell what he refers to as “tales of grace” revealed in the “things that happen” in daily dramas (p. 19).

In his compelling narrative style, Lindvall introduces us to a host of eclectic and eccentric characters—similar to the sinner-saints we clergy meet in our parishes. There are: the “intractable, intransigent, unmovable…iron butterfly” Alvina Johnson, who is skeptical about this year’s Christmas Pageant after directing it for four decades; the inactive Roman Catholic barber who confides in Reverend Battles about growing up with an abusive dad; Reverend Battles learning that the little things in life like reading a bedtime story to one’s kids and kissing them good night are important “…because the mark a man or woman makes on this world is most often a trail of faithful love, and quiet mercies, and unknown kisses” (p. 37); Carmen Krepke the rebellious young biker-woman who had a vision of Jesus; the wise patriarch of Second Presbyterian, Angus MacDowell; the single-minded boat-builder Lamont Wilcox, and many more.

The novel is also worthwhile for its humorous stories of Reverend Battles’ “short trip” on Easter Sunday while climbing the stairs to the communion table with the offering; Reverend Mitchell Simpson’s comments which he thought were spoken in private, but were heard by the congregation because his cordless microphone was turned on, when he thought he had turned it off; when soprano choir member, Emma Bowers’ spiked high-heeled shoe got tightly lodged into the heating grate, when choir member, Elsie Johnson was “raptured” during a recessional hymn, and more.

The final heart-warming story is the baptism of single mother, Tina Cory’s son, James; the whole congregation “stands with” James during the baptism as an act of love, acceptance and grace.

I highly recommend this delightful novel to the general reader, and especially to the clergy who serve in small-town and rural churches. The Reverend Lindvall shares a great deal of his folksy wisdom, insights and humour in these stories that instruct and inspire.

Spirituality & Wholeness Workshop 2015

On September 11, 2015, I attended a Good Samaritan Society Workshop with keynote speaker Dr. Stephen G. Post, Ph.D., titled: “The Good Samaritan and the Giver’s Glow: The Paradox of the Simple Act of Giving.”

Dr. Stephen G. Post, Ph.D. is the best-selling author of The Hidden Gifts of Helping, in addition to Why Good Things Happen to Good People: How to Live a Longer, Healthier, Happier Life by the Simple Act of Giving, and his work with Alzheimer’s outlined in The Moral Challenge of Alzheimer’s Disease: Ethical Issues from Diagnosis to Dying. Dr. Post has worked at the University of Chicago Medical School, Case Western Reserve University School of Medicine and is currently at Stony Brook University School of Medicine, where he is the Founding Director of the Center for Medical Humanities, Compassionate Care and Bioethics. Dr. Post has received the Pioneer Medal for Outstanding Leadership in HealthCare from the HealthCare Chaplaincy Network and the Kama Book Award in Medical Humanities from the World Literacy Canada.

In 2001 he founded the Institute for Research on Unlimited Love, a free-standing non-profit whose goal is to research and distribute knowledge on selfless love. You can visit his website at: http://www.stephengpost.com and http://unlimitedloveinstitute.org

Dr. Post gave four talks, with the following titles and outlines: “Rx: It’s Good to be Good” Dr. Post introduces his philosophy of intentional giving. Discussing the positive effects it has on happiness, health, creativity and longevity.

“The Ten Ways of Love, Giving and Flourishing” Learn a simple way to apply the philosophy of intentional giving in your everyday life, using the ten ways to love.

“Who Benefits From Compassionate Care?” Dr. Post shows how resident care as well as their health improves with compassionate care and how living with the philosophy can prevent depression and burnout in healthcare professionals.

“Hope, Love and Caring for the Deeply Forgetful” Discover how applying compassionate care can help caregivers to recognize enduring self-identity within those with dementia. Discuss the ethical issues involved in caring for individuals with various forms of dementia, through the stages from diagnosis to dying.

One of the opening bits of information that Dr. Post shared with us was artist Norman Rockwell’s “The Golden Rule.” He pointed out that it consisted of people from various racial and religious backgrounds and ages. Observing their faces, one is given the impression of a sense of peace and well-being. Such outward reflection of peace can also influence the well-being of others.

Dr. Post pointed out that the words medicine and meditation come from the same root medi, which means balance. Life and health is about balance.

The biblical concept and practice of love is now being confirmed by scientific research. According to Michael McCullough in Beyond Revenge, 2008, “When we help others we cannot maintain a vengeful attitude.” According to P. Wink & M. Dillon, In the Course of a Lifetime, 2007: “300 pre-teens in the Bay area followed every ten years since the 1920s. The one third who identified contributing to humanity as important were healthier and happier 50 years later, protected from depression & some physical illnesses.” In AA: The Big Book, p. 20: “Our very lives, as ex-problem drinkers, depend upon our constant thought of others and how we may help their needs.”

Dr. Post said that research has been done on the cause of Schizophrenia, and it is now being viewed as connected with experiences of separation anxiety. He mentioned that environmental changes can cause separation anxiety—for example, when a person graduates from school and moves into a workplace.

President Abraham Lincoln suffered from melancholy and depression, and once said: “When I do good I feel good: When I do bad I feel bad.” Dr. Post pointed out that, from his own experiences, it does not necessarily follow that when you do good or love others or propose projects for others to do good and love others that it will go easy for you. People will resist you and crosses still find you.

One of Dr. Post’s favourite definitions of care/love comes from Harry Stack-Sullivan: “When the happiness, security and well-being of another person matters to you, you care for that person. When these things are as real or more real to you than your own, you love that person.” According to Stack-Sullivan: “Love cures mental illness.”

In study by Howard Brody & Franklin G. Miller, “Lessons from recent research about the placebo effect,” in The Lancet, Vol. 375, 2010, pp. 686-695: “a warm interpersonal relationship independently” adds “substantial therapeutic benefit” in the placebo effect. According to WB Malarkey, DK Pearl, JK Kiecolt-Glaser, R Glaser, “Influence of academic stress and season on 24-hour concentration of ACTH, Cortisol and Beta-endorphin,” Psychoneuroimmunology, Vol. 20, 1995, pp. 499-508: “Abrupt dismissive interactions elevate stress and slow wound healing.”

According to JW Mack, et al. “End-of-life discussions, goal attainment, and distress at the end of life,” J of Clinical Oncology, Vol. 28 (no. 7), 2010, pp. 12-3-8: “Compassionate communication with family members whose loved ones are dying decreases anxiety, depression, post-traumatic stress, and decreases use of the ICU at the end of life.”

During Dr. Post’s discussion on healthy aging and Alzheimer’s and dementia prevention, he suggested that the following factors may be significant for some: Diet (fruits, vegetables), exercise, social and intellectual engagement, avoid protracted stress (possible role of spirituality), walk peacefully with friends to a Greek restaurant (i.e. the Mediterranean diet) and then hit the library to read and meditate.

In Dr. Post’s “Alzheimer’s & Grace,” First Things 2004, he offers the following wisdom: “As caregivers, we should talk even to the most cognitively disabled, calling them by name (which, sometimes surprisingly, may come). We should speak with a warm and calm voice, with a joyful facial expression, bending down to make eye contact, communicating with them rather than around them. We can use pictures, music, hymns, Scripture, poetry, meaningful symbols, and short simple prayers.”

I agree with Dr. Post 100% on these practices. It has been my experience as a chaplain working with Alzheimer’s and dementia residents that they respond the best with music. Often music calms them, reduces fear and anxiety, gives them peace and contentment, and even helps them to express themselves verbally in a more lucid way. As Martin Luther once said: “Next to the Word of God, the noble art of music is the greatest treasure in the world.”

Nelson Mandela: A brief tribute

Receiving Doctor of Laws Degree at Ryerson University, Toronto

Receiving Doctor of Laws Degree at Ryerson University, Toronto

Yesterday, December 5, 2013, Nelson Mandela died at the ripe old age of 95 years. What an incredible life he lived! He started out in a rural area of South Africa as a humble animal herder. He then moved to one of the nation’s urban centres to eventually become a lawyer and begin his long fight for freedom and democracy against the South African Apartheid regime. His fight for freedom and democracy landed him in jail for 27 years. His time in prison however gave him an opportunity to grow richer and stronger in character as a human being. After his release from prison in 1990, he continued his long struggle as South Africa’s most gifted and inspirational political leaders, and eventually was elected as the nation’s first black President in 1994. A year earlier, he and President deKlerk were awarded the Nobel Peace Prize.

 

Mandela has been described, among other things as: The African Lincoln, noble yet humble, Father of the nation [i.e. South Africa and/or of the whole continent], prophet, brilliant leader, courageous peacemaker, and so forth. We Canadians awarded Mandela an honourary citizenship and made him a member of the Order of Canada, we also named a school after him. Of course, in many respects Mandela was also not only a citizen of his own nation, but a citizen of every nation-especially regarded as such, I think, because of his political wisdom and compassion for humankind.

 

Without question, he was an inspirational exemplar and hero of the black citizens of his nation, and of blacks in general in all of Africa and around the globe. Yet, he had feet of clay like the rest of us, and he at times was the first to admit it. He had, in his earlier years, intimidated and bullied an East Indian leader, removing him off the stage at a public gathering. In humility that bespeaks repentance, he admitted on one occasion publicly that he had failed as, and had been a poor husband to his first wife. He also publicly spoke words of compassion rather than condemnation regarding his second wife, when he was asked about an alleged adulterous relationship with another man.

 

Yet his charisma and sense of doing the right thing at the right time in a symbolic way, earned him the respect of even his worst enemies-including P.W. Botha’s wife, whom he visited shortly after her husband’s death.

 

I think the most significant thing we as Christians can learn from the life of Nelson Mandela is his brilliant capacity to forgive and work for reconciliation with his enemies. In this regard, he was extremely successful, and deserved winning the Nobel Peace Prize. South Africa could have devolved into a brutal civil war, however against all the odds, Mandela’s brilliant leadership led the nation into a state of forgiveness, peace, justice and reconciliation. In this way, most likely he was influenced by such non-violent peacemakers as the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., and Mohandas K. Gandhi, [and, most of all, I would like to think, Jesus himself our Saviour and Messiah].

 

May this legacy of Nelson Mandela live on in the history of South Africa, as well as the history of humankind! In closing, I would like to let Nelson Mandela speak for himself, I believe the following quotation epitomises the man and his life: “I have fought against white domination, and I have fought against black domination. I have cherished the ideal of a democratic and free society in which all persons live together in harmony and with equal opportunities. It is an ideal which I hope to live for and to achieve. But if needs be, it is an ideal for which I am prepared to die.” REST ETERNAL GRANT NELSON MANDELA, O LORD; AND LET LIGHT PERPETUAL SHINE UPON HIM.

 

Daily Prompt at The Daily Post @ WordPress.com

http://dailypost.wordpress.com/2013/02/02/daily-prompt-global/

 

“Think global, act local.” Write a post connecting a global issue to a personal one.

One could write a lot on this theme, however I believe it begins with the love of God towards us and all of creation. God loves us more than we are able to comprehend and God loves creation, delighting in its beauty, complexity and diversity.

   Since we are created in God’s image; since God is love; since we have been loved and are loved by God; we can respond by also loving God, one another and caring for the whole creation. One of the most important ways we do this is by living peaceful lives.

   The book of Isaiah gives us a beautiful vision of perfect shalom-peace; of a world where weapons of war are turned into tools for peace—spears into pruning hooks and swords into ploughshares; a world where we shall no longer know—or engage in acts of—war anymore; a world where even natural predator instincts will not exist and enemies will live in peace and love together. Jesus epitomised this vision while dying on the cross and praying for his enemies: “Father, forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing.” (Luke 23:34)

   When we live with the vision of shalom-peace, then we endeavour to: love God and our neighbour and yes, even our enemies, solve conflicts through respect and honest dialogue, be responsible stewards of creation by reducing our carbon footprint, planting more trees and gardens, supporting local-grown economies rather than exploiting cheap labour with appalling working conditions in the two-thirds world, slowing down to smell the flowers rather than living in the fast lane, caring for, respecting and protecting the most vulnerable in our midst including the elderly, differently-abled and children, working to support freedom, democracy, education, healthcare, along with the basic needs of food, clothing and shelter and meaningful work for everyone in the world. A tall, perhaps naïve, and impossible order, yes, and for human beings alone impossible, however with God’s help and activity, all things are possible.