In The Spiral Staircase, the book that tells the story of her life, religious writer and former Roman Catholic nun Karen Armstrong levels the claim that faith is less a matter of understanding than it is a matter of practice. She writes: “Religion is not about having to believe or accept certain difficult propositions; instead, religion is about doing the things that change you.”
Today’s gospel returns us, in the midst of this season of resurrection, to the night when Christ’s passion begins to unfold. Jesus is with his disciples; he has taken off his cloak and washed their feet and dealt with Peter and shared a meal – what will be his last, before his death – together with these friends he has known and trusted. He tells them about God’s glory, he speaks about it as though that glory has already been revealed, and he promises it will continue to be.
And then this: “Little children,” he says…it’s the only time he will address them in this intimate way in the whole of John’s gospel… “Little children, I am only here for a short time. You will look for me and you will not find me. I give you a new commandment: love each other. This is how people will know you, if you love one another.”
In this last conversation with the ones who follow him, Jesus offers no 613 mitzvot, no Ten Best Ways to Live, no two-part summary upon which hangs all the law and the prophets. In Jesus’ final moments with them at table before his passion finds traction and momentum, he gives them just one thing to do: love.
This past Thursday I joined a conversation with our bishop and priests from around the Diocese of Chicago. We began our time together by studying this gospel passage. And the thread that emerged for me in our discussion was the fact that this kind of love was probably never intended as a feeling, an experience, the kind of ephemeral-whatever-it-is that is supposed to emerge from a mysterious place once the stars have aligned and everything is in right order and people are all behaving kindly and you’ve had a nice day off and sufficient sleep and eaten a balanced diet that includes vegetables…the idea that if everything is in right order then the stage is set for a really good feeling to wash over you…that is love.
I’m here to tell you that vegetables and days off and right order and adequate sleep and kindness are all really good things, things we likely could use more of in our lives, but that’s not what’s going on here in this gospel passage. Jesus has just shared what will be his last meal of this life with his friends, and things are very much not in right order right now. “I’m only here for a little bit longer,” he tells them. “So love each other.”
Instead of a feeling, we talked around that table on Thursday about love as a verb. We talked about love as the manifestation of God in our actions, when those actions might in fact be the very last thing we actually feel like doing. The Lutheran preacher Nadia Bolz Weber describes this as agape love, the sort of love that is present with the indwelling of God’s spirit. “Agape one another,” she says that Jesus commands his friends. “Not try and create warm feelings toward the unlikable, the socially awkward, the unlovely. Jesus (knows) better than to imply that if his followers could only muster up enough niceness they (will) be up to the task of following him.” Love as a verb takes this command outside the frame of those fickle qualities we might want to constrain it to. And perhaps doing those things – whatever they might be – that serve for us as manifestations of God’s love, maybe those stand the power to change us. Living love as a verb helps us to know who we are, helps us to be known as God’s own, forever.
We find ourselves at an interesting moment as Church, right now at St. Augustine’s. I’ve described this time as St. A’s season of parties. We began on April 10 with the baptism of Benjamin Klock, and continued last Sunday with Bishop Lee’s pastoral visit to us, together with another baptism and reaffirmations and receptions. This particular season will continue through next Sunday, May 1, as we bless and send our beloved associate rector, Bryan Cones, into the next season of his ministry.
Today we celebrate and welcome the return of the Reverend Joe Mazza, who arrived as rector of St. Augustine’s at just about this time in the spring of 1970. We give thanks for the ministry Joe and his wife Susan and their children – including our own warden, Joy Witt – lived and shared in this place, the friendships begun and continued across generations, to today and beyond. I’m grateful for the ways that Joe called the people of St. A’s to live Jesus’ new commandment to love each other in real and practical ways, in ways that folks maybe didn’t always feel like doing, ways that changed St. Augustine’s to be more fully who we are, and how we are known, and who we are called to become.
Personally, I give thanks for the fact of one of those changes: in 1980, Joe and the leaders of St. Augustine’s called the Reverend Janice Gordon as the first woman priest to serve on a clergy staff in the Diocese of Chicago. I am so grateful for the foundation that he laid, together with so many long-time members of this congregation, some who came before us and have gone on ahead, some who are here among us now, who lived Jesus’ command to love in ways that established St. Augustine’s as a place that welcomes everybody.
Looking at this Church, living as a member of this Body, convinces me that Karen Armstrong has something real to say about faith. Much more than intellectual assent, it’s a matter of practice, one in which we try and fall short and try again. Much more than comprehending ideas that seem incomprehensible, for me faith is about mustering our own willingness to try and try again at practicing those things that stand the power to change us. It’s about living Christ’s commandment as agape, about doing love as a verb, about manifesting God’s promised presence in a way that helps us remember who we are. This is the inheritance of generations at St. Augustine’s, and the promise of the future that unfolds before us.
“I give you a new commandment,” Jesus says. “Love each other.”
 Karen Armstrong; The Spiral Staircase: My Climb Out of Darkness. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2004. 270.