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Do You Love Me?

Sermon
Sermons on the Gospel Readings
Series III, Cycle B
Nikos Kazantzakis gives us a disturbing and beautiful story in his book, The Last Temptation of Christ. There is an unforgettable scene between Jesus and John. They are sitting high above the Jordan in the hollow of a rock, where they have been arguing all night long about what to do with the world. John's face is hard and decisive. From time to time his arms go up and down as though he were chopping something apart. Jesus' face, in contrast, is hesitant and tame. His eyes are full of compassion. "Isn't love enough?" Jesus asks. "No," John answers angrily. "The tree is rotten. God called me and gave me the ax, which I then placed at the roots of the tree. I did my duty. Now you do yours; take the ax and strike!" Jesus says, "If I were fire, I would burn. If I were a woodcutter, I would strike; but I am a heart, and I love."1 I think these words of Kazantzakis are an answer to a question all suffering people ask.

We know that life involves suffering. From the earliest times, human suffering has been so severe that Saint Teresa of Avila reportedly said to God, "No wonder your friends are so few, considering how you treat them." We also know that suffering can produce virtues. Facing painful problems head on can lead to emotional maturity. The pain we experience -- if it doesn't destroy us -- may cause us to grow stronger. I suspect this is why some of us are willing to take on hard things in life. We go to evening meetings that last until midnight and attend rehearsals with endless repetitions. We take on projects that may never show results, and we throw ourselves into workouts at the gym that turn us into limp noodles. We do this because we have learned that it is the hard things -- not the easy ones -- that change lives.

There are a number of quotes that are supposed to make us feel better about this. One quote says, "Those who cannot feel pain are not capable either of feeling joy." Oscar Wilde said, "Where there is sorrow, there is holy ground."2 Syncletica was a fifth-century Christian mystic. She said, "In the beginning, there are a great many battles and a good deal of suffering for those who are advancing toward God and afterward, ineffable joy." She then gives us an image for this process. "It is like those who wish to light a fire; at first they are choked by the smoke and cry, and in this way they obtain what they seek ... so we, too, must kindle the divine fire in ourselves through tears and hard work."3

The divine fire was kindled on Pentecost Day. In the fire of the Spirit that invaded the hearts of people that day, there was also an answer to the question raised by suffering. The disciples had suffered. Their leader had suffered. He died a terrible death. He shocked them by coming back from the grave. Then he left a second time. His followers were brokenhearted, wondering how they were going to live with such a crushing blow. The wind and fire and Spirit were the answer. They were a powerful demonstration of something Jesus had already said, and that day the disciples finally heard the answer. They were so filled with the Spirit, so filled with joy, that they looked like a bunch of happy drunks in the middle of a sober world. Three thousand people were baptized. But perhaps the greatest miracle of all was that a motley group of bumbling followers had turned into an inspired band of fearless leaders. They had received an answer.

Martin Luther King Jr. said, "The ultimate measure of a man is not where he stands in moments of comfort and convenience, but where he stands at times of challenge and controversy."4 We see a picture of that in the Chevy Chase movie, The Invisible Man. Chase becomes invisible after an industrial accident. Afterward, he can only be seen when rain pours down on him or powdered concrete or something that falls on him from above. That's true for us, too. We don't really know the value of a person until something drops down from above. God dropped something, and it was so powerful we couldn't miss it. God grabbed our attention and showed us one more time how much he loves us. The irony is that God's answer comes in suffering. Job told us all about it. When we are suffering, pushed to the limits of our endurance, we ask questions. Perhaps it is when we are suffering that we are better equipped to listen for an answer. Job asked a lot of questions. I think Job, Jesus' disciples, and all people who suffer are raising questions that can be summed up in one great big basic question. When we cry to God out of our suffering, it is simply our way of asking God, "Do you love me?" Pentecost was God's definitive answer to that question.

In today's gospel text, there is a lot of coming and going. It sounds like Jesus is describing a great big house with a great big disorganized family, where everyone is running around bumping into each other. The Father is in Jesus and Jesus in the Father and both in us and us in them and all of us one, abiding and loving and rubbing shoulders with each other in all of the coming and going. We keep bumping into each other until, finally, we actually recognize each other as family. Family is the place where suffering gets shared. It is the place where love is always waiting. And the absolute security of that ever-present love entering into our suffering is what gives us courage to enter the world's suffering in order to change it in whatever way we can. Jesus had already answered the question, "Do you love me?" In case the disciples hadn't heard the answer clearly enough, the fire and wind of the Spirit at Pentecost proved it. They proved it forever.

James Baldwin, in his book, Another Country, tells of an incident that expresses our longing for love.

The joint, as Fats Waller would have said, was jumping. And during the last set, the saxophone player took off on a terrific solo. He was a kid from some insane place like Jersey City, or Syracuse, but somewhere along the line he had discovered that he could say it with a saxophone. He stood there, wide-legged, shivering in the rags of his twenty-odd years, and screaming through the horn, "Do you love me?" "Do you love me?" the same phrase unbearably, endlessly, and variously repeated with all the force the kid had ... the question was terrible and real ... and somewhere in the past, in gutters or gang fights ... behind marijuana or the needles ... he had received a blow from which he would never recover, and this no one wanted to believe. Do you love me? Do you love me? The men on the stand stayed with him cool and at a little distance, adding and questioning ... But each man knew that the boy was blowing for every one of them.5

Can you hear the wind of the Spirit blowing? It is the breath of God whispering, "I love you, I love you, I love you." Amen.


____________

1. Nikos Kazantzakis, The Last Temptation of Christ (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1960), pp. 241-242.

2. Oscar Wilde, De Profundis, 1905, in John Bartlett's Familiar Quotations (Boston: Little, Brown, and Company, 1955), p. 770.

3. Syncletica in Laura Swan's The Forgotten Desert Mothers (Mahwah, New Jersey: Paulist Press, 2001), p. 43.

4. Martin Luther King Jr., Strength to Love (New York: Harper and Row, 1963), p. 20.

5. James Baldwin, Another Country (New York: Vintage Books/Random House, 1993), pp. 8-9.
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