Truth-tellers are uncomfortable folk to be around. We proudly show Uncle John and Aunt Pat our church building. We do so with a certain amount of trepidation and particularly because they claim some sort of superior knowledge about church architecture. To make matters worse the rector bumps into us as we are going into the "worship space" and is very proud of the new Table and rearranged sanctuary. "O dear," groans Uncle John. "Frightful," says Aunt Pat. We pray that the floor will open and swallow us up.
Truth-tellers are uncomfortable folk to be around. They comment on our hair, our clothes, our books, our furniture, and delight in making us feel small. There are always a few in every parish or mission and we avoid them like the plague! To them nothing is ever right, except themselves and their opinions.
St. Paul has such bad press nowadays that we are not at all surprised to find him boasting that he just tells the unvarnished truth. In the second lesson this morning we find him saying: As you know and as God is our witness, we never came with words of flattery or with a pretext for greed; nor did we seek praise from mortals, whether from you or from others, though we might have made demands as apostles of Christ.
We've heard that before. "I just tell it as it is. I don't care what other people think, and after all I am older than you."
But wait a moment. Paul is full of surprises. He goes on to say to the Christians in Thessalonika (it's a place in what we now call Greece): But we were gentle among you, like a nurse tenderly caring for her own children. So deeply do we care for you that we are determined to share with you not only the gospel of God but also our own selves, because you have become very dear to us. Good old Paul is comparing himself to a woman. Wonders never cease!
St. Paul has just remarked that he had a terrible time when he was in Philippi. If he is referring to the incident recorded in Acts, Paul is remembering being beaten and thrown into jail. He might well have allowed his indignation towards his Jewish compatriots and the gentile authorities to harden and embitter him. Yet in all gentleness he brings the Good News to all the believers.
It's as difficult to think of Paul as gentle as it is for us to think of Jesus being tough. We have become so used to thinking that Jesus went around thinking, "I am God and I am meek and mild," that we can't see Jesus as being as human as we are, or should we say, Jesus as being as human as we ought to be?
The Gospel writer has been recording how those with power and authority sought to trick Jesus into saying something that would get him in trouble. Just as in contemporary society, people love to label themselves, or submit to being labeled, so it was during the ministry of Jesus. Today in the church and the nation we have conservatives and liberals, "gays" and "straights," men and women, Native American and Black, White and everyone else. Then, when Jesus lived, people identified with this or that and even belonged to groups labeled Pharisee and Sadducee and Herodian, "publican and sinner." The extraordinary thing is that even though they had grave differences, they were united in wanting to get rid of the Truth-Teller, Jesus.
We've all watched news conferences in which reporters seem as keen on tripping some one up as they are to discover truth. So it was then. Question after question is hurled at Jesus. He avoids each and then a Pharisee, rulebook in hand, asks Jesus which rule is the best. Jesus tells them that the most important rule is not a rule at all, but rather a way of life.
"Love God and love one another," Jesus replies, quoting their own Scriptures. And then he counters their claims to authority by stating that it is God's Chosen One, Messiah, Christ, whose authority is established by, with, and in LOVE.
We sometimes sing a song that contains these words: "You will know they are Christians by their love, by their love." Neither Jesus nor St. Paul confuses love with sentimentality-that love that avoids truth-telling. The love of the Gospel is a love that demands that each of us confront the truth about God and the truth about ourselves. And that's the sort of love we avoid.
It's interesting that Jesus avoids all the "nit-picking" questions thrown at him but confronts and silences his accusers by being a truth-teller about God and the purpose for which human beings have been created.
Our Old Testament reading is all about how the Hebrew people were to treat aliens. They were to treat aliens as they treated their own people. It's as if we are being reminded that we show love best when we treat those who don't belong as if they did belong. As Jesus reminds us elsewhere, it's very easy to be kind to those we like, our own sort. But how do we treat people who are different? We are Episcopalians, but how do we treat Episcopalians who don't think as we do? Episcopalians are notorious for taking sides and finding worthy reasons for labeling each other and disliking those who don't belong to our clan, High against Low, liberal against conservative, highly educated against the rest.
We find ourselves saying quite dreadful things about those who belong to another "faith group." There's still a good deal of snobbery among us. We still harbor racial hatred. We dislike foreigners.
Yet the Gospel, the truth to be told, tells us that there is a new kingdom among us, a very earthy kind of God-community, in which there is neither "Jew nor Greek, male nor female, slave nor free person." Our local church, our diocese, our national church, the whole church exists to show that there are no outcasts, no second class people; and even those who are caught up in evil are to be those whom we are to love gently as we tell the Gospel truth.
This is a very "earthy" message because it is not about our belonging to a "religious" group that exists to get us to heaven, and is all about liturgies and hymns and Sunday clothes, canons and bi-laws. It is all about a society whose purpose is to transform the world, most of all by the witness it gives to and in the world. That old motto, "Love Conquers all," tells us that in our loving God, we find the extraordinary truth that all creation is love-made, love-sustained, and love-fulfilled. When we divide, use power and authority to subject and push down, think that we are superior because we are Americans, or Anglicans, we inevitably dehumanize people, and de-sanctify everything that God made. When we practice sacrificial love we give back to God that which God has given us in Jesus, and that is the Gospel truth.
Paul and Jesus experienced how risky it is to tell people to live in accepting love, rather than in denouncing authority. When we truth-tell about love, we challenge those who find security in their own righteousness and pretended "control." Yet thousands of years after Jesus and his follower Paul, we meet together to celebrate and own a better way, whatever the cost of this discipleship. Soon today we will turn to each other and say, "Peace," having confessed to God our addiction to control, to superiority, and to self-love, and having heard again that it is love that "keeps us in eternal life." We will turn and touch each other, and start the "love way." God keep us in that way.