Fifth Sunday of Easter

Today’s readings are 1 John 4:7-21 and number 124 from The Whole World Is A Single Flower, “Let’s Drink Tea.”

1 John 4:7-21 (NRSV)

Beloved, let us love one another, because love is from God; everyone who loves is born of God and knows God. Whoever does not love does not know God, for God is love. God’s love was revealed among us in this way:God sent his only Son into the world so that we might live through him. In this is love, not that we loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the atoning sacrifice for our sins. Beloved, since God loved us so much, we also ought to love one another. No one has ever seen God; if we love one another, God lives in us, and his love is perfected in us.
By this we know that we abide in him and he in us, because he has given us of his Spirit. And we have seen and do testify that the Father has sent his Son as the Savior of the world. God abides in those who confess that Jesus is the Son of God, and they abide in God. So we have known and believe the love that God has for us.

God is love, and those who abide in love abide in God, and God abides in them. Love has been perfected among us in this:that we may have boldness on the day of judgment, because as he is, so are we in this world. There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear; for fear has to do with punishment, and whoever fears has not reached perfection in love. We love because he first loved us. Those who say, “I love God,” and hate their brothers or sisters, are liars; for those who do not love a brother or sister whom they have seen, cannot love God whom they have not seen. The commandment we have from him is this:those who love God must love their brothers and sisters also.

Let’s Drink Tea (from The Whole World Is A Single Flower)

Ko Bong Sunim went into Zen Master Man Gong’s room and bowed to him. “Welcome, Ko Bong. Let’s drink some tea.” Ko Bong then helped Man Gong, bowed, and sat down. Man Gong was very happy.

1. Man Gong said, “Let’s drink some tea.” At that time, what would you have done?

2. How did Ko Bong help Man Gong?

COMMENTARY: Ko Bong has two hands. Man Gong has one mouth. Teatime and dinnertime have already passed. Open the door and go downtown.

In this week’s epistle John gives us beautiful and inspirational language about the nature of God and the place of Jesus Christ in God’s plan for the world. To me the language is at once inspiring and uplifting, but also vague and bereft of specifics. It paints a wonderful picture of the cosmic order, but feels removed from the life and teachings of Jesus. How is it specifically that God’s love should transform our lives? What do we do with this love once we know it and experience it and live in it? This passage to me is both beautiful and difficult.

One beauty is its flexibility. John’s writing allows us to imagine in a way which is often cut off by a more specific text like the beatitudes or the ten commandments. When not restricted to a vision of God’s love provided by scripture or tradition or society, a passage like this allows us to open up to this very moment. It gives us permission to understand God’s love as the ground of all being, and to know that one way of accessing that love is through Jesus. This scripture offers a wonderful vision of the arrangement of creation (other religious traditions offer other, equally valid visions), and allows us to dream and imagine a world full of God’s love.

The flip-side of this is that in its very flexibility it is also is vague. What does it actually mean to love one another and all creation with all our hearts like God loves us? How exactly is Christ the atoning sacrifice for our sins? What does this love look like in our lived experience? In my own life the love of God is in competition with the powers and principalities of this world, which have often proven to be louder and more exciting than God’s love. It is difficult for me to respond lovingly in each moment.

Kong-an practice gives us a way to fill in the blanks, to take the story or scripture and become one with what is happening. This week’s story of Man Gong and Ko Bong is an excellent example. Man Gong invites Ko Bong into his room; Ko Bong helps Man Gong, they drink tea, and Man Gong is very happy. Why is Man Gong happy? The story doesn’t tell us – we don’t know. Perhaps the kindness Ko Bong showed him brought a smile to Man Gong’s face. Perhaps he sees Ko Bong’s deep understanding and wisdom. Perhaps Ko Bong happened to be the best brewer of tea at the temple.

I can’t help but wonder if something else is going on here. Small kindnesses like this can counterbalance the great despair so often present in our lives. Man Gong was a leader in Korean Buddhism during the Japanese occupation of Korea before and during World War II. Perhaps the day Man Gong invited Ko Bong in for tea was a bad day for him as a religious leader in an occupied land. Perhaps the joy on his face was forgetting his many troubles for a few minutes.

John invites us to imagine God’s love, if in a lofty and spiritual way. Man Gong and Ko Bong demonstrate how to care for one another in one moment. World War II destroyed the lives of millions, and in the terror of that time Man Gong was able to smile over a cup of tea with Ko Bong. Racism continues to destroy communities near my home, and an earthquake has ravaged Nepal. No single person can fix it all. Never underestimate the power of a cup of tea with a companion along the way. What does it mean to show God’s love today?

Two questions:
1.    In today’s passage John says God is love. What is love?
2.    We abide in God, and God abides in us. What does that mean?

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