6 Easter A—5/17/20
Acts 17:22-31; 1 Peter 3:13-22; John 14:15-21
Pr. Scott Kramer
Recently, I’ve been wondering how our current pandemic stacks up against pandemics of the past. Doing a bit of digging, I found that from the time our Christian scriptures were written until now there have been at least twenty major pandemics around the globe. Measured by the number of people who have died, it turns out that COVID-19 to-date ranks #15 on this list of twenty.
What caught my attention more than that statistic, though, is the pandemic that ranks #5 all-time. It caught my attention because that pandemic, like COVID-19, is going on this very minute. In fact—here’s another clue–it’s been with us for almost forty years. Do you know which pandemic I’m talking about? It’s HIV/AIDS. Since 1981, HIV/AIDS has claimed the lives of at least 25 million people worldwide. Of these who have died, over 700,000 lived in the U.S.
Now, we might expect that size pandemic, especially so close to home, to make front-page news. Well, it did forty years ago. But it doesn’t make front-page news today. Most days, it doesn’t make the news at all, even though there is still no vaccine. Some experts predict that a realistic target for an HIV/AIDS vaccine is still ten years away.
Well, that leaves us all kinds of implications to ponder, not least of which the sobering notion that in our lifetimes there is an ongoing pandemic for which a vaccine takes fifty years to develop.
Can you imagine a situation forty years from now in which the experts are saying that they’re still working on a vaccine for COVID-19?
Well, the differences between HIV/AIDS and COVID-19 may be obvious. COVID-19 is equal opportunity. It’s very contagious. As far as we know, anyone can get it, although not all have symptoms.
Another difference, though, might be called “the elephant in the room.” Those most susceptible to HIV/AIDS have tended to live in Africa, and within our own borders tend to be populations that have never enjoyed equal status, respect and care of the dominant culture.
In our reading from John’s gospel, Jesus says to his disciples:
If you love me and obey the command I give you, I will ask the One who sent me to give you…the Spirit of truth, whom the world cannot accept since the world neither sees her nor recognizes her; but you can recognize the Spirit because she remains with you and will be within you.
Here Jesus affirms the one commandment that sums up all the others: You shall love God with all your heart, soul, strength, mind, and your neighbor as yourself. Love of God and love of fellow human being cannot be separated.
Love is the hardest work we do as human beings. It’s not hard to water down that commandment so that it applies mostly to those we care for anyway. It’s easy to edit the love commandment to exclude those we dislike, dismiss, or judge to be a lower social priority, or, unworthy of love. LGBTQ+, people of color, intravenous drug users know what it means to be treated as second-class. Or less.
But the law of God—the law of love—makes no such distinctions. Those who desire to embody this love, Jesus promises, have access to nothing less than the very power of God. On that day you’ll know that I am in God, and you are in me, and I am in you. Those who obey the commandments are the ones who love me, and those who love me will be loved by God. To practice love is a step toward becoming one with God.
Our human experience is not naïve about the challenges involved in loving others. But from beginning to end, our scriptures point to what is the greatest obstacle to love: fear.
With good reason we can point to hatred, selfishness, ignorance and narrow-mindedness as enemies of love. But often–maybe always–beneath all of these is the deeper problem of fear: fear of what is different. Fear of what we might lose. Fear of change.
It is to this that our reading from 1 Peter is addressed: Who will harm you if you are eager to do what is good? But even if you do suffer for doing what is right, you are blessed. Do not fear what they fear, and do not be intimidated, but in your hearts sanctify Christ as Lord.
There are many things in our human journey that compete with Christ for the title of “Lord.” In times of crisis, those things tend to rise to the top, exposed for the false gods they are: Selfishness masquerading as individual freedom; riches for the well-off disguised as concern for working people; the economy as an excuse to cut services and benefits for the poor.
No, when Christ is Lord, love prevails. Love for all people, especially following the example of Jesus himself, those who have been ignored, sidelined and feared by those in power.
One of the scripture passages I have found most reassuring and challenging over the years is this: There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear…and whoever fears has not reached perfection in love (1 John 4:18). It is this perfect love that is beyond the reach of mere human power—but it is the habitat, and in fact, the very being of the God who first loved us. It is the practice of this love, as Jesus taught, that opens our eyes to the unity we share with all people, and in fact, which unites us with God.
Do not fear what they fear, and do not be intimidated, but in your hearts sanctify Christ as Lord.
As each of us remain restricted in our movements, maybe with a bit of extra time at home, one useful spiritual exercise might be to take an inventory of what we’re afraid of. What would it look like to draw up a list of personal fears, and explore how those get in the way of practicing the love of Christ? Without judgment or shame, how might we acknowledge those fears and invite what Jesus calls the Spirit of truth to heal us and move us past our fears?
As this Easter season draws to a close and we move toward the season of Pentecost and the power of the Holy Spirit—the Spirit of truth–may the God of love instill in each of us an urgency to love as we are loved!