Carried by love: a sermon for the Sixth Sunday in Easter

“If you love me, you will keep my commandments,” Jesus says at the beginning of today’s Gospel reading. 

That’s an arresting first sentence. And many of us stop reading or hearing after the first sentence, don’t we? Especially if it leads to deep thoughts or more questions. I was in a Bible study with some other clergy last week via Zoom and one person never even got past the first word. “If.” 

But others went further, at least into the sentence. If you love me, then you will keep my commandments. How many of us stop here to wonder: Am I keeping Jesus’s commandments? His last commandment was “Love one another as I have loved you.” He frequently cited “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and strength and mind and love your neighbor as yourself” as the greatest commandments. But remember what happened after he said that to a man who was asking Jesus for guidance. The man said, yes, but who is my neighbor?

There are always more questions. Am I loving? How am I loving as Jesus commanded? How will I know if I’m keeping the commandment? Is that every day in every situation, or are there some situations that are more important than others? What does Jesus mean by “love” anyway? Is it how I feel? or what I do? Or what I do in spite of how I feel? Or maybe it’s the other way around?

Overthinking is an issue. Especially in a time of pandemic. I suffer from this, too. How many times should I wash my hands if I haven’t been outside the house all day? What about wearing my shoes into the house if I have been out? How long can I stand in line at Target before I’ve been inside too long? Should I put stuff back on the shelf after I’ve touched it? Overthinking is paralyzing.

So, I would like to introduce you to the paraclete, the advocate, the Spirit of Truth that Jesus is telling his disciples about today. Jesus is continuing to ready his disciples for his departure. He is now promising them that although he has to go away, he is sending this Spirit of Truth to abide in them - to be with them forever. This Spirit of Truth is what we call The Holy Spirit when we are using Trinitarian language. But for a lot of reasons, I really like calling this third person of the Trinity the Spirit of Truth, especially in this time when the concept of truth has become pretty wobbly.

We Episcopalians are fond of talking about incarnation and an incarnational faith. The incarnation is of course that God became flesh and lived among us in the person of Jesus. And that because of our reverence for the incarnation of God, we are called to live out our faith in our lives, among people. The water of baptism, the bread and wine of communion, the anointing with oil - our faith is lived out not just in our heads but also in and through our bodies.  In our time of being away from church, being away from each other and from communion, the incarnational part of our lives is feeing a little thin.

Just so in our story today as well. The incarnation of God is leaving the earth. Jesus will no longer be physically present with his disciples. But, Jesus says, take heart because this Spirit of Truth will walk with us in our daily lives as sort of a bridge between our bodies and our heads and our hearts. 

This week I discovered that I needed to go for a long walk outside. I used to do this a lot, but not in a long time. And as a result, I have found myself living in my head way too much. Especially in this time of staying at home, distancing ourselves from family and friends, no hugging, no touching I’ve found myself spending too much time in a place of anxiety, trying to figure everything out in my head.

So I drove for two and a half hours to the Back Bay National Wildlife Refuge on the Atlantic Ocean and walked 5 miles through the meadows and woods and 5 miles back along the beach. I took my camera and I took my time, determined just to walk and listen to bird song and ocean waves and to just be a creature of the earth myself. And I experienced the embodied creation and my physical connection to it. I marveled at the butterflies balancing themselves on flower heads and how spiky thistle flowers fade into silvery feathery down as they age. Little parachutes of down randomly flew through the air even when no thistle was in sight. 

I watched an osprey carry its dinner, a fish nearly as big as the bird, from the ocean to its perch across the dunes, and a dramatically clothed black bellied plover pulling a sand flea from its hiding place for lunch. I giggled at the way the wind blew the royal terns’ crown feathers into spiky mohawks and laughed out loud at how the little sanderlings hop up and down on one leg as a group when they get anxious. I noticed the similarity of the weeds on the side of the trail to the weeds I remember on the side of dirt roads from my childhood. And although I was alone, except for the occasional bicyclist coming by or another hiker headed the other direction, I felt embedded in creation in such a way that I truly felt I was walking with that Spirit of Truth beside me, pointing out this truth to me, that the world is a marvelous place full of beauty and wonder, that it is teeming with life, and that everything is all woven together in one fantastic society of living things thriving among the elements of earth, wind and water. It was holy ground, every bit of it, every intricate flower, every complex organism, every tide pool rippling as the wind - the same word in the Bible as Spirit - blew across it, every peeping bird and gliding bird and flapping bird and crawling turtle and even that snake sunning itself on the road that shook its tail and opened its mouth at me as I crept by on the other side of a large and friendly cyclist who came along just at the right time. The sparkling water, the blue sky, the white clouds, the smell of honeysuckle, the taste of salt on my lips, the buzzing of bees among the blackberry blossoms - as I walked among these things I felt that they were part of me. They abided me in and they allowed me to abide in them, too. I loved them and I felt loved by God, understanding that our mutual creator made these marvelous things and invites me to be delighted, comforted, and strengthened by being among them. I felt rebalanced.

I still worry about truth, what is the truth, how do I know what’s the truth, all that. I worry about being loved and being loving, whether I’m doing it right. I feel anxiety about the word “if.” I am still very aware that there are dangers in the world much more insidious than that cottonmouth on the path and that there is great suffering in our world still and probably always. There are earthly realities and there are also thoughts and worries and philosophies and words and feelings. It’s all mixed up together. That’s life.

But after my long walk I remember now that the truth is that our creator has set us down in a garden of earthly delights and it is ours to tend and ours to enjoy and it is there to sustain us. I remember now that the Spirit walks with me every day and will lead me into truth when I can let go my anxieties and can be open to discernment, even if that discernment takes me down a long and winding path. I remember now that I am not left alone to figure everything out by myself. The Spirit of Truth is among us to remind us that above all else, God is love and love is the most powerful force in the universe. And if we let ourselves be carried by love, we will be all right.