4/24/2016 Fifth Sunday of Easter The text is John 13:31-35.
Grace and peace to you from God, our Father, and our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. Amen.
Today’s gospel should sound familiar to all of us, and it should be especially familiar to those of us who attend services on Maundy Thursday for it is a shortened version of the same Gospel used during Holy Week as we remember our Lord’s last supper with his disciples and celebrate Holy Communion.
As the last supper was drawing to a close, Jesus spoke these words about love: “If you have love for one another, then all will know that you are my disciples.” Jesus also laid down the criteria upon which this love is to be based as he told his disciples to “Love one another. As I have loved you…”
When Jesus says love as you have been loved, he means, of course, as we have been loved by God. Jesus is not talking about some sort of puppy love, the love that only lovers know, the companionship of elders or the love of lovers. As love, God comes down from heaven to live among us in Jesus Christ. Jesus calls us back to a relationship with God and to a new relationship with one another. The nature of this relationship to which we are called is characterized by love.
“All we need is love,” that is what music icons of the ‘60s told us and we really believed it. Even though we never really understood the meaning of love. For that generation, love was wrapped up in sayings like, “Make love, not war;” “when you’re not with the one you love, love the one you’re with;” and “free love.” It was a generation that decided to listen to their emotions and block out their reason.
Yet, the love which comes down from heaven in Jesus Christ, the love which is infused into our very being through the Holy Spirit, is different from the love that a man has for a woman, and it is more dispersed than the focused love that a mother has for a child. Jesus embodies a love which is broad enough to include all of us, a love which is self-sacrificing, a love which forgives sins and looks past faults, an unconditional love which empowers service. It is this love that Jesus calls on his followers to carry in their own bodies down the generations. Of course, this love is not a trophy to be placed on a mantel somewhere. This is a love that is to be shared and demonstrated in our relationships with others.
But, it’s extremely difficult for us to love without putting strings on that love. We would never want to admit it, but often our loving someone has to do with what we can receive from that person, rather than what we can give him or her. Silently, we may say, “I love you as long as you are nice to me and don’t demand too much in return. I will love you as long as you meet my needs. I will love you are long as you are always happy and cheerful. I will love you as long as you never disappoint me or betray me. I will love you as long as you gratify me physically.” But, when Jesus tells his disciple to love one another, he wants us to love with a love that embraces God’s grace. And God loves us even when we disappoint and betray, and even when we fail to love God in return.
It would be difficult to find a more striking picture of Christian love at work than in a congregation in Rome in the third century. In that church, seven deacons had been appointed to implement the ministry of care for those in need. Saint Laurence was the leader of this group. When the pagan prefect of Rome heard rumors that the church was receiving generous offerings, he ordered Laurence to produce “the treasures of the church.” Laurence promised to have them assembled together in three days, at which time he showed them to the prefect. What he had gathered together were the poor, the sick, the widows, and the orphans who were supported by the ministry and offerings of the congregation. These, not gold and silver, buildings and coins, were presented as the “treasures of the church.” The prefect was so enraged by this that he ordered Laurence executed as punishment for embarrassing him.
Unfortunately, today it would be unusual to find a congregation which finds its treasure to be in the people whom it serves. Today, if asked to present the treasures of the church, it would be the beautiful buildings, grand organs, valuable property, a large budget or a sizable endowment that would be presented. Yet, what ought to be treasured most is the love that is shown to one another and those in need. For how will people know the followers of Christ? Not by the denominational label of a church or by a baptismal certificate. The followers of Jesus will be known by the love of Christ which flows from them and touches the lives of others.
The command or invitation to love is the foundation of Jesus’ teaching. For, love is not just what Christians are to do, it is who God is. Love is not just an ethical or humanitarian activity; it is the way of making God present in the world today. If loving and not loving were a choice that was entirely up to us, we might decide for a path of least resistance and opt for not loving. Love is hard work and it’s not always fun. Just ask the mother of a colicky baby, or the child of a parent with Alzheimer’s disease.
In the wake of the “Hallmark card” trivialization of love, we should remember Dorothy Day’s challenging words, “love is a harsh and dreadful thing.” We may try to reduce and restrict love to a sentimental feeling and gushy twinges in the stomach. We can try to contain it by attempting to make it a little more than some customary and expected words. But, the love to which Jesus is calling us is quite adult, demanding and sacrificial. It is a love grounded in God’s faithfulness.
To truly love one another means that we must be willing to take a risk. As Essex Hemphill writes, “to truly love another, we must be able to initiate, put ourselves out there, walk onto the ledge a bit, without all sorts of defenses.” When we love, we are willing to go forward, risking potential of loss.
As we consider what Jesus has done for us, we recognize and embrace the riches and depths of God’s love. We live confidently, assured that we have been blessed by a gift that we have neither earned nor deserved. It is from that love that we are given the power and the patience to love one another and to accept one another as God has loved and accepted us, warts and all, through his Son.
You know, the music icons of the ‘60s were right – all we need is love. All we need is the love that God has given us and continues to give us, a love and a peace that the world cannot give. Know, my friends, you are loved and let that love shine through you in Jesus’ name. And may the peace of God, which surpasses all human understanding, keep your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus. Amen