A sermon for the Sixth Sunday of Easter, May 13, 2012. The lectionary readings are Acts 10:44-48, Psalm 98, 1 John 5:1-6, and John 15:9-17.
I have a friend who greets today with enormous relief. Earlier in the week, he was in trouble. He’s been married for just under a year and his in-laws have not immediately welcomed him into the family. My friend’s wife casually suggested that he send a special mother’s day card to his new mother-in-law. A little worried before he went to the store, he was even more worried after seeing the card selections. Though there were obvious headings, “from both of us,” “from son-in-law,” headings more fitting might read, “sappy, sentimental, religious, mushy, cold, detached, formulaic, ethnic,” and some that could only be described as “vulgar.” From the aisle of the card shop he made reservations at a restaurant and hoped his wife would understand.
But the question lingered for him: What did he feel for his mother-in-law? “Love” is too strong a word. He doesn’t dislike her, and he hopes to love her one day, but that’s not how he would name the feeling after ten months of being her son-in-law. Would “affection” be appropriate? What about “duty,” or “kindliness?” Being a lover of language, he thought about the word “amity,” as being just the right word, but unless he wanted to sound like a Victorian, he’d better not use that one. WWJS, he laughed to himself—“What would Jesus send?”
Various “loves” find their way into our worship today. The scriptures speak of love, but it’s a love of a very particular kind. Many of you have probably heard before that scripture talks about different kinds of love, especially in the Greek New Testament. These are different kinds of love that lose their distinctions when they are translated into English and are all simply described as “love.” There’s romantic, passionate love. There’s love that is dispassionate and virtuous. There’s love like a parent has for a child. And then there’s unconditional love. It’s all as complicated as the headings of the greeting card section, if you think about it.
In today’s Gospel Jesus says, “Love one another.” It sounds simple, even as it sounds overwhelming. I realize the words seem impossible when I begin to be honest and admit that I don’t always like everyone. Some people are difficult. I can try to see the good in some people and even try to pretend I feel something charitable towards them, but before long, such feeling become the stuff of confession, as I feel defeated, hypocritical, and dishonest. We read that the earliest Christians were known by the love they showed for each other and then we look at our church or denomination or the fragmented state of Christianity, and—again, we can easily feel defeated, as we measure ourselves against that earlier ideal. I recall our former senior warden, Nancye Suggs, who often said, “I know Jesus tells me to love my neighbor, but sometimes I can only do that from across the street.”
Love wasn’t always so straightforward for Jesus. Especially in John’s Gospel, there is a lot of complexity around this idea of love. John uses different words to talk about love—there is the love that is really more of a simple affection for someone. There is another kind of love that has to do with brotherly love or sisterly love. There is eros, (not really erotic, in the way our culture uses it), but eros is the romantic love that involves feeling, romance, and a kind of longing.
And finally there is the love John talks about most for Christians, the love of agape.
Jesus doesn’t call us to feel eros toward everyone we meet. We are not created for, nor expected to feel warm fuzzies every time we encounter someone. He calls us, he commands us, to love one another, but he commands us to love with agape love.
Agape love describes an attitude. This agape love has to do with a willingness to yield to the other, a kind of availability for others. In full expression, it has to do with giving of one’s life in sacrifice for another. Agape seeks to serve others and moves out of oneself into the realm of others—quite honestly, whether we like them or not.
This agape love is powerful stuff because it begins with God, not with a good feeling you or I might have. God gave himself to the world. God’s love came to live with humanity in the work and person of Jesus. That love of his has been let loose in the world making it possible for that same love to move through us, if we let it.
This is the love of God moving through us, and it has nothing to do with how nice I am, or how holy I am, or even how good we might be--- it is the pure and perfect love of God that flows through us, sometimes in spite of ourselves. Agape love doesn’t even depend on the object of its loving power. This kind of love loves the other person not because they are worthy or good or in any way inspire love, but simply because it is the nature of God’s love to love. And that unloving person, by the grace of God’s love, can eventually be loved into being loving.
Ralph Waldo Emerson said that when someone says, “Do you love me?” They’re really asking, “Do you see the same truth?” Or at least, “Do you care about the same truth, as I?” C. S. Lewis elaborates on this in his little book, The Four Loves. He points out that the person who goes through life simply looking for friends may never make any. This is because the very condition of making friends is that we should want something beyond the friendship. The friendship must be about something. Those who have nothing can share nothing, and those who are going nowhere can have no fellow-travelers. Lewis points out that when friendship is based on agape love, the friendship doesn’t depend upon the particulars of this person or that. We become friends without knowing or caring about whether a person is single or in a relationship, how the person earns a living, or where the person lives. The real question remains, “Do you see the same truth?” “Do you care about the same truth?” Lewis suggests that friendship based in agape love is a little like world leaders from independent states who meet on neutral ground. In the neutral space they are freed from their contexts. They are freed to be something new.
Jesus says, “Love one another.” The good news is that these words need not be terrifying, but freeing, as we come to realize that love (that is from God) does not depend on our mood, our senses, our opinions, our prejudices, or our attitudes. It depends upon our will. To love one another as Christ commands means that we wish and will the very best for each other.
Would Jesus send a greeting card? I don’t know, but I do think that the love of Christ is usually more complicated than the card companies allow. The love of Christ is not a kiss to be caught, but rather, a willingness to look beyond the self for a truth that can be shared. To love one another means to give of ourselves—our money, our talents, our minds, our hearts, and to give to others that they may be loved into loving. This is how we will be saved. This is how the world will be saved.
Thanks be to God for the love of Jesus Christ that moves through us, that changes us, that brings us to God.
In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost. Amen.