The Rivers Shall Clap Their Hands

Easter 6B-24

Immanuel Lutheran, Chicago

“If I speak in the tongues of mortals and of angels, but do not have love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. And if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing. If I give away all my possessions, and if I hand over my body so that I may boast, but do not have love, I gain nothing.” (1 Corinthians 13:1-3).

If I provide my child with security, shelter, all manner of clothing and ample food but do not have love for them, no one will call me father or mother and my house is not a home. If I am generous in my tithe, regular in worship, and can recite scripture from memory but do not have love, I do not abide in Christ’s church nor do I match stride with the beloved community.  If I pay taxes, vote in every election, mow my lawn, and return all library books but do not have love, I cannot call myself a neighbor, let alone a good neighbor, but I am like the priest and the Levite who crossed over to the opposite side of the road to pass by the suffering Samaritan laying in the ditch.

Jesus did not merely say, but commanded us, to love one another. (John 15:17). Love your frail self. Love the sick and the lame. Love the Jew and the Muslim, the Israeli and the Palestinian. Love the gay and lesbian person, the transexual and every kind of queer person that we have begun to see belong and always have belonged to God’s good creation.

Love is not merely what God expects of us. It is the operating system which God has woven in, with, under, and above everything.  Psalm 98 inspired the famous Christmas hymn “Joy to the World” (ELW #267). In the psalmist’s vision of the universe, the sea and rivers are not alien elements that need to be tamed by humans but are equal partners in celebrating divine salvation. In a beautiful image that seems straight out of a Disney movie, the hills ring out with joy, all the lands sing with trumpets, and the whole Earth and rivers join the party, clapping their hands to celebrate the redemption of the Lord. God is present in the world for the purpose of establishing justice and setting things right on a world-encompassing scale, including “equity” among all “the peoples.”

In nature, love is an open, as opposed to a closed system. Likewise, the Easter church opened the doors of their upper room and entered the streets. They were propelled, not by their sorrows, but by their joy. The church, just as in nature, is renewed and re-vitalized by the energy and resources, people and ideas that come from the outside.

Peter, Paul, Philip, and the rest of the early Jesus community did not set up an attractive yard sign. They put themselves out there.  They carried the gospel upon their lips.  Peter got up and preached to Cornelius, a Roman Centurion of the Italian Cohort.  He lived among the Gentiles. Philip sat beside the Ethiopian eunuch.  Paul went among the diverse peoples of the Mediterranean world.

A casual look across the landscape makes it obvious the creator values diversity. God finds beauty in the harmony of contrasts. Ecosystems of diverse plants and animals, leads to greater stability and resilience.  These diverse communities also have a distinctive aesthetic quality. They are beautiful, fragrant, and fertile. Why on earth have so many Christian congregations and denominations stubbornly insisted on being monocultures?

It is distressing how many Christians are untethered from the gospel. They are not accountable to the law of love but rally around their civil religion, ethnic purity, exclusion, and conformity. They would impose their will through the power of the government, through autocracy and theocracy.  “The problem with theocracy is that everyone wants to be Theo” (Bill Leonard, Wake Forest School of Divinity). This rise of religious authoritarianism is not merely an American problem, a 2024 problem, but a global phenomenon. Beloved, simply in loving your neighbor and your enemy as yourself, we are a prophetic church, we are a living sanctuary of hope and grace.

Abide in my love. Make a home for yourself in my love. Jesus said, ‘Love one another as I have loved you’ (John 15:9 & 15). Today we head Jesus pray for the disciples.  In his final hours before arrest and crucifixion Jesus prayed—not so they would create an orthodox system of beliefs, but that they would foster a very unorthodox way of being in the world. (Robin Meyers, Spiritual Defiance, A Beloved Community of Resistance

Yet we resist.  We are like trees that withdraw from the sun or like an infant child that flees from its mother’s embrace or a petulant teenager who slams the door on caring friends. Who does that?  We do that. Jesus prayed and continues to pray that we make a different and more natural choice.

But we say, ‘Who can we be ordered to love?  Does love obey decrees?  Is Jesus being like that exasperated parent commanding their kids from the front seat of the car to love each other? “Why can’t you all just get along?”  “Share your toys.” “Say sorry.”  “Don’t hit.”  “Use kind words.”  No. Jesus offers an alternative. Once again, we hear Jesus offer a single, straightforward answer: “Abide in my love.”  It is an extension of last week’s Gospel about the vine and branches. Jesus calls upon us to rest, to cling, to make ourselves at home.  Not simply in him, but in his love.

“Jesus’s love is not our example; it’s our source.  It’s where our love originates and deepens.  Where it replenishes itself.  In other words, if we don’t abide, we can’t love.  Jesus’s commandment to us is not that we wear ourselves out, trying to conjure love from our own easily depleted resources. Rather, it’s that we abide in the holy place where divine love becomes possible.  That we make our home in Jesus’s love — the most abundant and inexhaustible love in existence.” (Debi Thomas, “It’s All About Love, Journey with Jesus, 5/2/21)

“Letting go into God is coming home to our true selves” (Ilia Delio, Oneing, Fall 2023). As is so often the case in our lives as Christians, Jesus’s commandment leads us straight to paradox: we are called to action via rest.  These are finally not two separate actions.  They are one and the same.  We are called to become love as we abide in love.  Drink your fill of the Source, which is Christ, let your cup run over to bless the world, and return to the Source for a fresh in-filling.  “This is our movement, our rhythm, our dance.  Over and over again.  This is where we begin and end and begin again” (Thomas).

This is the fountain of our joy.  Joy that exceeds all happiness. Joy that cannot be manufactured or purchased.  Joy in Christ which does not depend on things going well but may arise amidst our pain. Joy that springs forth from us in love. Joy that flows from the presence and promise of God fills our heart with a new song. Let the Sea and what fills it resound. The rivers clap shall their hands and the hills ring out with joy. God has triumphed. Alleluia. He is risen!  (He is risen indeed, alleluia.)