Last week, my beloved friend (and fellow former Hildan) Shancia Jarrett and I had the opportunity to preach a sermon together as part of the orientation for this year’s incoming YDS class. I cannot say how joyful an experience it was to compose and preach a sermon with another voice—to know that I was preaching words which weren’t just my own, and to experience preaching with company. Here’s the text.
As the Father has loved me, so I have loved you; abide in my love.
In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.
Shancia: Here we are in a place of Joy—rejoicing and giving honor to Our Lord for blessings of peace and ministries of presence and hospitality. Although, many of us have not shaken hands, as the BTFO leadership team travels through the hallways we honor your presence—I’m smiling even if it does not appear on my face because I am rejoicing in your decision to attend Yale Divinity School. An incoming student body of approximately 140 students with 30 amazing small group leaders gathered to welcome you into YDS, the university, and the City of New Haven. In this, Lord we give you thanks, especially to Dean Lewis,Dean Randall, Herron Gatson, Ann-Marie Piscitelli, administrators, the Leadership team, small group leaders, and all who prepared for BTFO.
In today’s Gospel, John 15, Jesus uses a comparison of a vineyard, a place of cultivation infused with aspirations of flourishing and growth. A place where farmers or groundkeepers faithfully care for their produce while anticipating to harvest, to taste, and to reap the benefits of their labour. I am aware that your first day of classes has not arrived, but some of you are anticipating that day. The day when you will taste, harvest, or reap the benefits of your labour; the day of graduation. But do not worry—soon and very soon that day will arrive. Yale Divinity School, like Jesus’ image of a vineyard, is dually a metaphorical and an actual place of cultivation. A time and a space of joy; to be a part of Christ’s desire to create and to sustain a place of cultivation. Until then we shall labour!
On the other hand, if I’m in a more cynical mood, I find it highly impractical for someone to toil or to labour daily in a field, caring and watering their crops so that it may wither away. And so I likewise try to remember that as God loved the Son, so has Christ loved us—so that we may abide in His love. We witnessed the frequent usage of the word love and theme of friendship in the Gospel of John. Love used as a noun and love used as a verb. This word is used more times in this Gospel than the other three combined. And here it is a concrete, divine love shared between God, the Father and Incarnate Son, Jesus Christ and we also hear of that divine love being bestowed by Christ unto His disciples or His followers.
Ed: It may well seem hard to think of love and friendship when we think of the world right now. To name the most visibly vicious evil we have seen of late, let us again turn our hearts to the white supremacy which has risen from being, as it has still long been, unspoken and implicit, to spoken and explicit. And let us ask; is there love in the faces of the zealots who marched in Charlottesville? Is there friendship in the deeds, both legal and concrete, that lead to gentrification, gerrymandering, de facto segregation? Can there be love or friendship in a body-politic into whose very fabric the fracture of white supremacy is stitched?
The terrible answer is yes. For it is possible to love evil, and so live according to an evil love. It is possible to befriend demonic powers, and so become demonic in the name of friendship. I believe that the very hardest thing to comprehend about the truth of white supremacy is that those of us who enact it do so with love in our hearts. But it is true. The character of our love is given by its object—in the first great commandment, Jesus could not have just said ‘love,’ instead of ‘love the Lord your God.’ And this means that when we say ‘love trumps hate,’ we haven’t in fact said anything at all—because hate too contains love within itself; hate too uses love to its own ends. We may want to say that this love is not love in a true sense. But then, that’s a part of the point; our love cannot guarantee its own truth, such that it is possible for our love both to be and to be false. As a friend of mine said to me a couple of nights ago, then: there’s more work required of us than ‘love.’ The Beatles got this one wrong.
What, then, can it mean to abide in love? And why should it matter? Let us turn again to those words, ‘as the Father has loved me, so I have loved you; abide in my love.’ The love Jesus is talking about here is not an abstract, unqualified love; it has an object. It is the love of God for Jesus Christ, then the love of Jesus Christ for us. This is a love literally fleshed out in the wholeness of God. This love is God’s righteousness as God’s grace, and God’s grace as God’s righteousness. It is God’s justice as God’s mercy, and God’s mercy as God’s justice. It is wrath as forgiveness, and forgiveness as wrath. It is all this in Jesus Christ, its significance revealed through Scripture as testimony to God’s history in this world.
Shancia: The love of God is entirely singular and rich. It is love that divinely and carnally manifests itself into compassion, care, truth, joy, perseverance—even a sacrificial love. What manner of love is this, that a Father sends His only begotten Son to suffer death upon a Cross? Yes, I am aware of the Resurrection, but the humiliation, the rejection, and the chastisement of Christ, our Lord and Redeemer, challenges dominant theories and visions of love—visions which emerge as fantasies of beauty and wealth. The ministry and Death of Christ is love. It is love with God as its object, and through God the whole of humankind. And not only this, but the story of Christ’s life, Crucifixion, and Resurrection is the story of a Father’s love for His Son—and in his Son, his Love for creation. It is this story which reveals to us the truth of God’s love, in which we must abide. In this story, we are loved by God despite of who we are and what we do. We are loved by God, even those who distort the goodness of God’s love through love of hatred and evil. In verse 11, the Evangelist writes that Jesus proclaimed these things, so that His joy may be in us, and that our joy may be complete. The particularity of this love is proclaimed so that, as we abide in it, we may receive the grace of eternal life, and create fellowship and community with our Lord, especially in difficult situations.
And we all know; we are in a difficult situation. We live in a world that has been built through the glorification of hatred, of the abuse and enslavement of black, brown, and impoverished bodies in the name of wealth and ‘prosperity.’ We live in a fallen world where what is counted good and what is called love is distorted from the start. The events of Charlottesville—and for that matter, Charleston, Baltimore, Ferguson, Los Angeles, Detroit, My Lai, and Amritsar, to name just a few names, not to mention the massacre of Mayans, Native Americans, and Aborigines—were not random or chance occurrences. The Robert E. Lees of history are timeless, and they are everywhere, especially in the way that their views have shaped contemporary grammars of what is good and worth glorifying. A dear friend, during book club, was explicitly enraged and disappointed that a statue of Cecil Rhodes was removed from the University of Cape Town in South Africa. He protested and stated, “this man is a wealth of knowledge and his love of the arts is immeasurable.” Deep down, I wanted to say, “just be quiet!” But instead, I closed my eyes and took a breath. I replied, “Cecil Rhodes may have been those things to you, the founder of the DeBeers diamond company and the funder of the prestigious Rhodes scholarship, a lover of the arts—but his joy was at the expense of Blacks—their resources, their flesh and blood in the diamond mines. What you glorify comes with a price; the statue represents the death and the exploitation of South Africans as well. Fellow brother in Christ, are you willing to accept those things as well?” What he loved represented centuries of evil. And to this day, we are friends and I love him. And no, it was not Ed Watson.
Ed: No, it wasn’t me. But it could have been. Some of the buildings in the college where I was formed (and which I love deeply) were built with Rhodes’ blood money, and there is a small statue of him looking over the Oxford High Street, which became the object of a #rhodesmustfall campaign. The architecture of my formation was founded upon white supremacist ideology, and that ideology has structured the depths of my self—possibly deeper than the words with which I seek to denounce it can at present reach. But can the love of the Father for the Son abide the love of Rhodes and Lee for whiteness and the supremacy of the white race? No. And so if I am to abide in the love of God, the object of this other love must be cast down, the ‘love’ itself transfigured. This is a branch fit only for the fire. I must love the lord my God with all my heart. I must lay down that other love, and so the life that it entails, if I am to love others as friends. I must pray that Christ did indeed proclaim these things so that His joy may be in us, in me, and our joy complete.
We are here to do a lot, dear friends. But we are also here to do this: to be transfigured within community, to cultivate a true love in this space, in the hope that we might come to truth then make it known. We are here to abide in the richness of the mutual love of God and Jesus Christ—the love which admits no antithesis between one and many, admits no hierarchy of difference. We are here to abide in the particularity of this love, which brooks no idols, knowing that love in abstract can be love of evil.
But precisely because this is the love in which we must abide, there is indeed more work required of us than love alone. Enfolded together in the totality of God’s being, enfolded in all our richness and all our particularity, we must learn to abide as a community shaped by the totality of God’s limitless possibility. We must speak truth with our tongues, not death. We must be true friends, not play at this. In many cases, this will mean that we are lifted up in liberation, in defiance of that idol of whiteness as wealth and rationality. In others, it will mean that our idols must be cast down, fundamental aspects of ourselves transfigured. In all cases, what matters is not just that we love—we will do that—but what we love and how. Both lifted up and humbled, we must learn to love each other through God, to know each other as friends through God’s love, so that our lives of love might have justice, grace, and righteousness enfolded into them.
We have started this work already. But this is just the beginning, and we must look forward to our purpose. There is a reason why we are here, there is a reason why we are seeking to do what we’re seeking to do. There is something stimulating our commitment to living out the intertwining of theology, justice, and wisdom. I believe this something is our faith in the love that is more than love; the love of God for Jesus Christ, and Jesus Christ for us—”as the Father has loved me, so I have loved you; abide in my love.” And as we abide, we can do so with in hope that the hope we cannot now see will slowly become visible; that as we are formed by this love, futures will be opened up beyond the fractures currently blinding the sight of this fallen world. Let us abide, together; let us fight, together; let us bear the fruit of the true vine. Let us be liberated and transfigured.