02 May 2010

Sermon for the Fifth Sunday of Easter - "I Want To Know What Love Is"

There’s a song from the ‘80s that’s been going through my head this week: “I Want To Know What Love Is” by Foreigner. The lyrics I remember go like this:

“In my life there’s been heartache and pain

I don’t know if I can face it again

Can’t stop now, I’ve traveled so far to change this lonely life

I want to know what love is

I want you to show me

I want to feel what love is

I know you can show me…”

This is the question I want answered when Jesus says, “I give you a new commandment: that you love one another.” I don’t know about you, but I’m not sure I’m qualified to understand exactly what it is Jesus wants us to do. So that’s the question for us this morning: what does it mean to love like Jesus wants us to love?

Jonathan Swift once said, “We have just enough religion to make us hate, but not enough to make us love one another.” [1] I’m sorry to say it seems sometimes as though he’s hit the nail right on the head. We have done some awful things in the name of Jesus through the centuries. We brought the Crusades to Jerusalem and Palestine. We tried to forcibly convert non-Christians through torture and the threat of execution in the Inquisition. We contributed to much of the conflict that led to the Thirty Years War. We used scripture to justify both sides in the Civil War, and in modern days, Christians took part in the Holocaust and continue to demonize certain portions of the population through the work of people like Fred Phelps and other hate groups. Now, you might say, “But Pastor Scott, I wasn’t part of those things.” Unfortunately, you were, to the extent that all of us are, through baptism, members of the body of Christ, to say nothing of the common creation we believe we all share as God’s children. God has been used to justify hate of nearly every kind and type for as long as human memory exists. It is woven into the very fabric of our bondage to sin. As writer Anne Lamott says, “You can safely assume you’ve created God in your own image when it turns out God hates all the same people you do.” (from Traveling Mercies)

Perhaps a bit of context would be helpful at this point. John 13 is the beginning of the end for Jesus. It’s the night before the crucifixion, and Jesus knows what is about to happen. As a matter of fact, just before Jesus said these things, he sent Judas out to do what he had to do. Judas went into the dark to betray Jesus, and Jesus didn’t hold him back. Once Judas was gone, Jesus launched into his last talk with the eleven disciples, and the first thing he said was, “Love one another as I have loved you.” Who knows how long it would have taken Judas to do his work? He might have had soldiers waiting right outside the door. When your time is running out, you make sure you say the most important things first, and for Jesus the most important message was this: “Love one another as I have loved you.”

So what is it Jesus is talking about when he commands us to love as he has loved? First off, we need to remember that this new commandment isn’t new! Jesus is quoting here, from what his faith and his church called the two Great Commandments: love the Lord your God with all your heart, all your soul, all your mind and all your strength, and love your neighbor as yourself. Those great commandments come from the Old Testament: Deuteronomy 6.4-5, known as the Shema, and Leviticus 19.18. This is a commandment every Jew would have known from the day they were old enough to talk. So, how is Jesus making this new? It isn’t the love that’s new, it’s the person who loves, and how he has loved and continues to love his people. In the Greek: it’s all one sentence: Jesus says, “Love one another as I have loved you.”

Now we can begin to look for how Jesus loves. The word is agape and its primary meaning isn’t “sentimental warm feelings toward one another.” Agape love is “self-giving love for one another.” Agape love is known as kenotic love – it empties itself our for the sake of another, like a water bottle pours its liquid down your throat to quench your thirst and give you life. Where does Jesus embody kenosis most clearly? On the cross. Gail O’Day says,

“To interpret Jesus' death as the ultimate act of love enables the believers to see that the love to which Jesus summons the community is not the giving up of one's life, but the giving away of one's life. The distinction between these prepositions is important, because the love that Jesus embodies is grace, not sacrifice. Jesus gave his life to his disciples as an expression of the fullness of his relationship with God and of God's love for the world. Jesus' death in love, therefore, was not an act of self-denial, but an act of fullness, of living out his life and identity fully, even when that living would ultimately lead to death.”[2]

The cross is where Jesus pours himself out for the sake of the world. It isn’t a sacrifice to satisfy a blood-thirsty God: it is a refusal to hold anything back, even unfair, horrific execution. John 13.2 says, “Having loved his own who were in the world, [Jesus] loved them to the end.” Later, on the cross, Jesus says “It is finished.” In other words, “THE END.” Jesus doesn’t call us to give up our lives: Jesus commands us to give away our lives, right up to the very end.

And this is, in the end, what it’s all about, isn’t it? David Lose says,

“What gives Jesus' statement power is not only its brevity but its focus. It's the one thing – perhaps, if push comes to shove, the one and only thing – Jesus wants his disciples to know and remember when he is gone: love one another. Not "Evangelize one another." Not "Keep each other accountable." Not "Give more money to the church." Not "Resist temptation." Not "Make me proud." Not any of the other hundred things we regularly hear lifted up as the pinnacle and priority of the Christian life, but rather this: "Love one another."[3]

Here our other readings today give us the picture we need, an incomplete foretaste of how it is that we are called to love. In the reading from Acts, the church is asked to consider a new vision: what does it look like when we live with one another as equals, the same, not as those divided by practice and prejudice? Peter’s embrace of Gentiles, people considered “unclean” by Old Testament standards, shows us that love sees no partiality. Jesus came to be a light to the NATIONS, not to A nation. Peter gets shaken out of himself into a new reality where circumcised and uncircumcised alike are beloved children of God. Put into terms we can understand today, the message is this: “We’ve always done it this way” is no way to love one another, especially when it constructs false boundaries between God’s children.

In the end, though, because of who we are and how we are bound to sin, the love we give to one another will be flawed and imperfect. Our best intentions cannot keep us from sin: sometimes they’re the very thing that leads to it. That’s where Revelation provides the ultimate picture of what is coming. Some have used Revelation as a means to frighten people into an intellectual faith based on fear and a “wager” that betting on God is the best insurance possible. Here’s what Revelation really is: a love letter to a group of people who are suffering, a reminder that they haven’t been abandoned by the God who loves them. Our reading from Revelation 21 presents a vision of heaven, but notice the first word from that reading: “Then.” Heaven is not a PLACE where people (the right people) go to dwell with God: heaven will be a TIME when God dwells fully with creation, with all of us and all of what has ever been. It’s not enough for salvation to be magnificent, in the eyes of the writer of Revelation. Notice what God is doing: God is wiping away tears from those who weep. Salvation is tender as well as incredible. Salvation means living in the love of a generous, passionate God willing to pour out everything for the sake of God’s children.

Do you want to know what love is? It is kindness, generosity, patience, forgiveness, mercy, compassion, joy, laughter, and even anger, sometimes and in the right spirit. It is all of this and more. 1 John 4 has another answer, more complete: “Beloved, let us love one another, for 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…if we love one another, God lives in us.” Love is all of us gathered here, and those we wish could be here with us. Do you want to know what love is? God is love, and we, we are God’s love to one another. May you live in love, now and always. Amen.

[1] Thoughts on Various Subjects; from Miscellanies -- 1711

[2] O’Day, Gail. The New Interpreter’s Bible: John. p. 734

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