I wonder if you have noticed that just when there seems to be a great deal of intentionality put on in bringing in important measures for communities and the society at large that somehow an important piece gets left out.
As an example, I recall this story that allegedly took place in India. This was back when that country’s growth of population began to alarm not only her leadership but also the whole world in general. Their leadership believed that only by “birth control measures” could they cut the alarming upsurge of their country's birth rate. So they launched this program.
Volunteers were called by their Social Work Department and were sent out into the country and especially in remote villages that had the highest birth rate. These volunteers went to every house and gave them a “package” that was believed to control a couple’s inclination to get engaged in procreation.
The volunteers took notice of the time the package was left and told the couples that they’d be back in a year’s time to check how things are. So they left and came back a year later and were dismayed at the result. There were more babies that were born; more women were conceiving and the birth rate continued to soar high. The result was just so contrary to the projected outcome. They could not believe what happened and so they interviewed the couples and asked them if they used the package and they all said they did. One couple said: “See, the package is up there in the altar among the gods and we prayed to it not to have anymore babies. Why it failed, we do not know.”
You know the reason why? A very important piece got left out and the real reason for the failure of the program was that they were not told to read the instructions. They simply were not told how to use it and so, as customary in their community, and being a religious people, they prayed to it.
That may be the last thing you want to hear today but if you can just withhold your judgment for now, you’ll see its relevance in the reflection I am about to share with you this morning.
Last Sunday, I tried to develop the idea about how we could get to be the “faithful lovers” whom God would want us to be. I pointed out that not only are we to be “faithful lovers” to God who is the ultimate “Faithful Lover” but also to become the same for each other, for everyone. We were even given the command to do such; to abide and remain in Him and to love one another, just as He has loved us.
“Be Faithful Lovers”. This is the virtual “package” that has been left to us with the hope that the “world” will be a better place to live in; that God’s justice and mercy will “flow like a river” and that there will be no more dissensions between and among the peoples of the earth.
I could imagine this yearning for a better world to be a possible solution in restraining the growth of greed and envy, the two common motivators for those who add to and aggravate our world’s brokenness.
Our Lord Jesus figuratively gave this “package” to us but some have fallen to deaf or indifferent ears; at times, claiming that it’s simply difficult to follow or perhaps, laying it aside for now and it’ll be attended in due time. Fortunately, there are more of those who, early enough in their faith journeys, were able to “read the instructions”, the accompanying words of how our being “faithful lovers” could turn into reality, helping to transform our part of God’ Creation into becoming the Beloved Community.
Talking about the virtual instructions, Jesus included a good number of those in the Holy Bible, particularly through the words written down by the gospel writers. All of the canonical gospels contain sayings attributed to Jesus that are part of these virtual instructions I am referring to.
Our gospel lesson for this 7th Sunday of Easter is part of what is commonly referred to as the ‘High Priestly Prayer’ of Jesus. The 17th chapter of John contains a kind of ‘litany’ of prayers that Jesus supposedly said that evening when they had the Last Supper.
The verses in today’s gospel lesson talk about Jesus’ prayers for his own disciples. They were prayers for those whom he loved and cared. He prayed about their unity, about them not being taken out of this “world” and about them being sanctified in the truth. And then, towards the end of the gospel lesson, Jesus declares: "As you sent me into the world, so have I sent them into the world" (John 17:18 CEB). This particular verse is John’s way of saying that Jesus’ disciples were being sent out to the real world where they could become God’s “hands and feet”, instruments for the furtherance of God’s mission in the world.
We also find affinity to this scriptural passage. By our having become God’s children and having affirmed this commitment at our baptism, we are now given the instruction that we are to do mission in the outside community thereby enabling us to fulfill our calling as “faithful lovers” for others as well.
If we could just use some imagination here, imagine that you have in front of you this “package” labeled “Be Faithful Lovers” and you are encouraged to use it for the very purpose it was designed. If you read the “instructions” carefully, you will notice that it says “Not Just For Personal Use" but it also says: “To Be Used For Others” and you’d notice that at the end of the word “others” there is an asterisk (*) and further down it tells you who those others are.
For me, personally, the term “To be used for others” simply means our being “sent into the world” in a manner akin to what Jesus told the disciples in his “High Priestly Prayer”. “To be used for others” is a phrase that alludes to our involvement with those other than ourselves. This phrase connotes “commitment” which is a necessary ingredient if we are to uphold the welfare of others. This ingredient was very much present in Jesus’ relationship with his disciples.
We learn from Holy Scriptures that Jesus was totally committed to the welfare of his disciples and through them, the welfare of others. For example, Jesus had miraculous powers but he used these powers more to help others than to help himself. There was also the time when people were hungry in a deserted place so Jesus multiplied bread to feed them, but when he himself got hungry in the desert he would not turn stones into bread to feed himself. And there was that occasion when Jesus was tired and needed some rest so He took off in a boat to a place of retreat but on arriving there found that the people had arrived before him looking for him. Seeing how these people looked like sheep without a shepherd, he immediately deferred his planned rest and began to minister to them. Concern for others was the hallmark of his life and ministry. His ministry was, indeed, premised by the instruction “To be used for others”.
The imageries of being “faithful lovers” and “To be used for others” have actually taken some concrete form. It is dominant among those who believe that for this to come true, Christians should be actively concerned for the material and spiritual well-being of the less fortunate of the world. Their interpretation of “To be used for others” has given rise to what is called “social gospel”.
There are churches that are involved in efforts to eradicate poverty and disease wherever they’re found and, undeniably, they are in abundance, and in doing their ministry, they reflect the spirit of compassion and selfless interest for others that they see in Jesus. They have truly put the phrase “To be used for others” into action especially in communities that lack material comforts.
Back again to our virtual instruction imagery, the common tendency is to get attracted to what the fine line says and in the example given above, that's what the asterisk is all about. In so doing, the first instruction could very well get ignored. And, what is the first one? It says: “Not just for personal use”. Ah, so there is the personal aspect in being “faithful lover”.
In other words, it’s not all for others’ use but also for our personal use. Notice the last verse in today’s gospel lesson. "I made myself holy on their behalf so that they also would be made holy in the truth.” Jesus, in his prayer, affirms that being made holy or personal sanctification is also an essential element in the whole business of being a Christian.
While some churches do nothing else but social ministries, there are, fortunately, many that give importance to the “personal” part. And it’s good because it counterbalances the first inclination. Salvation is not just about bread, not just about educational and health programs and definitely, more than just liberation theology. Jesus was always there for other people, yet he did not forget to sanctify himself. And we should learn from that delicate balance in order that we avoid taking the ‘either or’ stance.
A common tragedy in presenting the Good News with the ‘either or’ stance is in presenting it, either, on the one hand, as purely social gospel or, on the other, as something purely personal. The truth is that there are people who are so involved in helping others that they forget their own inner life with God. They subscribe to the social gospel alone. They see only the “To Be Used For Others” part of the virtual instructions and or misread the “Not Just For Personal Use”
Too much of either one could be detrimental in our calling as “faithful lovers”. And so perhaps, we can learn from today’s gospel lesson. It means that when we talk gospel talk, we engage our proclamation of the gospel observing that delicate balance; social gospel and personal gospel and not social gospel or personal gospel. The whole instruction says: “Not Just For Personal Use” and “To Be Used For Others*”.
This has been our stance, by the way. The Episcopal Church is famous for the term ‘Via Media’ which is Latin for ‘Middle Road’ or more appropriately ‘Middle Way’. The Episcopal Church likes to balance things. We know for a fact that we operate like on a three-legged stool wherein Scripture, Reason and Tradition each plays an important part.
And so, my dear brothers and sisters in the Lord, as we continue to live out the promises we made in our baptismal covenant, may we be reminded of Christ’s words in his ‘High Priestly Prayer’ and keep a good balance of our concerns both for the sake of others and for ours as well.
C’mon, read the instructions very carefully.