May 6, 2018

Sixth Sunday of Easter, Pastor Bradley E. Schmeling

John 15:9-17

Gregory of Nyssa was a bishop and theologian in the fourth century.  He died in 395 CE.  He said, “We consider becoming God’s friend the only thing worthy of honor and desire.”[1]  For him, friendship was the model for understanding God’s ongoing presence in our lives. Maybe it’s not a surprise that Gregory was largely forgotten in Western Christianity where obedience, rather than friendship became the model, both for our relationship to God and our relationship to the body of Christ, the church. We have inherited a theology that understands the universal order as hierarchical.  God over humans.  Humans over the animals and plants.  Animals over the bugs.  And, of course, in its darkest form:  male over female, straight over gay, white over black, citizen over immigrant, human over planet.

The 20thcentury has rediscovered Gregory of Nyssa.  What if the model isn’t about subservience or dominance or a ladder of importance, but something relational, like friendship, interdependence, mutuality?

There’s an Episcopal church in San Francisco named St. Gregory of Nyssa whose mission statement is “Becoming God’s Friends.” They say, we invite “people to see God’s image in all humankind, to sing and dance according to Jesus’ lead, and to become God’s friends.”[2]They work at practicing a church that is modeled in friendship: friends of God, and friends of one another.

They also dance around the altar.  It’s more like they move together in rhythm.  Before the last hymn, after everyone has received communion, they teach the dance.  Step-Behind. Step-In Front.  Step. Kick. Step. Kick. Each Sunday, they learn it together, recognizing that there are always newcomers who are learning the steps.  They also hold songbooks and sing a regular hymn. It’s seems very complicated at first. Dancing.  Singing.  Moving Together in step.  All, in a series of concentric circles, with their hands on each other’s shoulders.

On the rotunda above the table is painted concentric circles of those who have danced with God, saints and sinners, Christian and non-Christian, even a bear, with the sun and moon, all dancing, frozen just as they make their kick. One of their rectors, Donald Schell, says, “Occasionally, when you’re doing the dance, you catch a glimpse of the saints, just when you’re making your own kick, and you see that this dance is cosmic. Human life shines with God’s light.” The whole creation is dancing together.

It’s beautiful. Their dance around the table is the embodied metaphor for their mission.  It’s also the perfect metaphor for the Gospel of John.

First, friendship with God requires other people.  You can be a Christian in your head and by yourself, but only for a very short time.  Eventually, being a friend of Jesus means you have to risk being in a community that stumbles and steps on each other’s toes.  You have to show up and risk being human with other humans. The disciples didn’t need a reminder to love Jesus.  They needed a reminder to love on another. The fullness of Christian love really only comes when you risk joining the dance.  After all, God has chosen to join human life through Jesus and through all of us.

Second, love isn’t something you think about, or even feel, it’s something that you choose to do. We tend to think of love as a feeling.  It’s in the heart.  I “heart” you.  I “heart” Minnesota. But in the Bible, love is an action.  Love is a choice for the good of another.  The followers of Jesus choose to love the neighbor.

Third, love needs practice.  The church is the place where we practice love so that we can do it in other places. If you practice enough, you do learn the steps and they become, over a lifetime, unconscious and natural.

Fourth, love is circular dance. We’re all equal. We learn from one another, which means recognizing that you have something to teach AND something to learn.  Because of that, the community is never complete unless everyone participates, AND we are not complete as individuals unless we are part of the community. “You” in the Gospel of John is always plural.

That also means the church is a circle, not a pyramid.  The first Christians gathered in homes around the table. It’s really too bad that the church, when it got respectable in the eyes of the Roman empire, adopted the Roman basilica as its model architecture, where an expert or an official presided in the front of a room of spectators. Over the centuries, clergy became the actors and the people became the audience.  If the writer of John showed up today to see our buildings, he would probably say, “What happened?”  You were supposed to be friends, but you switched back to being servants.

Finally, joining the dance, practicing love, giving and receiving, won’t save us, but it will show us something of the God who does save us. This is the mystery of the Christian gospel.  God is most fully known in the movement of ordinary things:  bread, wine, water, words, and the people in the room with you. The way we can experience the full presence of Jesus is to experience him in community.  Love one another.

Christ is leading this circle-dance of stumbling lovers. Occasionally, there will be moments, when we’re stumbling through the steps, when a moment is frozen in time, when we catch a glimpse of the saints who are dancing with us, and it’s cosmic.  All the love of God is somehow, some way HERE.  And we’ve been part of it all along.

One last thing:  after we’ve been fed, before the last hymn, I’ll invite you to dance with me.  No pressure.  You don’t have to.  I’m fully prepared to risk being silly by myself. I’ll teach you the steps.  It’s simple. You’ll probably stumble and you may not feel confidant or competent.  But, I promise, you’ll laugh and there will be grace.

[1]Gregory of Nyssa: The Life of Moses, trans. Abraham J. Malherbe and Everett Ferguson (pp. 131-132).

[2]https://www.saintgregorys.org.