John 15: 9-17
I like snowshoeing. It’s good exercise and it allows me to continue to be immersed in nature even in the winter. I’ve skipped the last couple of weeks of course, 30 below is little too cold for me. However, when the temperature rises there’s another obstacle to snowshoeing. Deep snow. The first time out after a big snow is difficult. I have no means to “groom” my trails, so I have to trudge up and down the hills, breaking the trail as I go. But here’s the thing. One the trail is broken, once the snow is packed down, snowshoeing becomes much easier and dare I say, more enjoyable.
There are also some obstacles to overcome as we approach our text for today. Jesus says, “This is my commandment: love each other just as I have loved you.” Easy-peasy …right? This path is already packed down and ready to go. Love each other, got it! But do we …have it? I mean, it’s easy to love those who look like us, those whose lifestyle matches our own. But what about the person who makes our blood boil? What about the neighbor who complains all the time? What about cranky people who are unapologetically rude? What about the ones who attacked and defaced our capitol building on January 6th? How do we love them? What about those who are not only under the spell of the QAnon cult but are actively trying to recruit others? What about the Proud Boys, or the KKK, or any of these hate groups? Do we love them? I think this commandment is just got a little more difficult.
But, difficult doesn’t mean impossible if we approach this command with integrity, faith, and a sound theological understand of the context surrounding it. And that context begins with a Latin phrase: Pax Roma, (the Roman Peace)
Now, on the surface “peace” sounds great, right? Well, maybe not so much. You see, Rome believed that peace could only come through conquest by means of military force. The formula went like this: Religion + War + Victory = Peace. But how did they get there? Well, historically speaking, Rome actually began its rise to power as a republic. There was no king, no emperor, no Caesars. It was a representative government that allowed two representatives called “consults” from each conquered territory to speak for their constituents. Understand, however, that these two consults were limited to a 1 year term, thus, limiting their power.
But, as is often the case in national politics, differences arose along with power struggles, resulting in a civil war that lasted 20 years. Which ended only when Octavian (later called Cesar Augustus) defeated Anthony and Cleopatra. Now the Roman citizens hailed Octavian as their “divine” liberator and savior, because he brought peace to the land. Hence the four-fold path to peace – religion + war + victory = peace. This was the birthing of a new theological and political era for Rome through the promotion of Cesar Augustus as the Divine Emperor. Divine in the sense that he was not just ordained by God but that he actually was a god, a god incarnate in human form here on earth. Sound familiar to anyone?[i]
So, to review, the Roman way to peace, Pax Roma, was to gain power by crushing those who would oppose them. Peace through fear. Peace through pushing down those who are already on the lowest rung of the ladder. This is the backdrop of our reading for today. This is the society that Jesus was born into and the foundation of the system that he opposed.
You see, Jesus had a different way of viewing peace. His path was a loving one. His path to peace was to gain power through non-violence, through lifting every person up, outsiders and those on that bottom rung alike. Jesus and his followers didn’t adhere to the pattern of the Pax Roma. His formula for peace went like this: Religion + Non-Violence + Justice = Peace.[ii] Which brings us back around to loving our enemy.
When we read this very important passage in John’s Gospel, I think we become laser-focused on the “love one another” part and we tend to ignore the rest of the thought: “…as I have love you”. What do I mean? Well, think about how God has loved us. God forgives us even when we cannot forgive ourselves. Even when we’re quote-unquote “unrepentant” God continues to offer us opportunity after opportunity to turn around, to move in a more compassionate, outward looking direction, and God is still around when we finally do. We see over and over again a Jesus who heals and restores wholeness to a diversity of people. He loved the poor, the sick, the outsider, and the marginalized alike. He invited those of other religions, and ethnicities, and races into fellowship with God.
And that’s the kind of love John is talking about. He isn’t saying we should condone the actions of the domestic terrorists on January 6th anymore than he’s advocating for the Pax Roma. You and I both know that affirming or ignoring bad behavior won’t fix the behavior. That’s not loving someone. But neither is demeaning someone, or writing someone off. Yes, we sometimes have to distance ourselves from a toxic relationships, but that doesn’t mean our task is to destroy that person. Our path to peace, inner peace or global peace, simply cannot be the Roman formula of religion + war + victory = peace. There’s finally no joy in crushing those who oppose us.
But my friends, there is joy, long, hard-earned joy, in Jesus’ way to peace. How do I know this? Well, personal experience for one, and common sense, and by understand the actual teachings and tradition of the Church, which come to us through the words of Jesus himself: “I have said these things to you, so that my joy will be in you and your joy will be complete. Or, to use the sentiment of the Psalmist, Joy comes not in darkness, not in violence, but rather, “joy comes in the morning.” Joy comes when our religion demands non-violence and when it seeks justice for all people and all of creation. A justice that leads all of us to that deep, abiding and lasting kind of peace that Paul espoused.
My friends, the path before us is deep with snow. But let us not be deterred. My hope and my prayer for all of us is that we put on our snowshoes and start breaking that trail toward peace. Because you know what, if we do that hard work of creating a non-violent movement toward justice now, the path for those who will come after us will be packed down and their way will be easier.
Jesus said, “I give you these commandments, so that you can love each other”. May it be so. Amen & Amen.
[ii] Ibid Borg and Crossan.