Lessons: I Jn 4:7-21; St. John 15:9-17
“As the Father has love me, so I have loved you; abide in my love. If you keep my commandments you will abide in my love….this is my commandment, that you love one another….I am giving you these commands so that you may love one another.”
I’m not really sure that I am picking up what Jesus is laying down here. It’s kind of vague and mysterious. Unless…….wait a mo……..perhaps, just perhaps He is telling us to actually love each other. “By jove I think he’s got it.”
So while it is abundantly clear that He calls us to love one another, how can He put that in the form of a command? It would be nice if it turned out that we really did love each other but how can you command someone to have a feeling. When I first met Beth I could not command her to love me. Right? I had to trick her into it. And who has not had the experience where “you’ve lost that loving feeling, now its gone, gone, gone, whoa, whoa, whoa”? You can’t command love to come back, can you?
Well, yes you can if you understand that principally, love is not a feeling. After Jesus gives the command to love, He tells us what love truly is.
First Jesus connects love to obedience. “If you keep my commandments you will abide in my love just as I have kept my Father’s commandments and abide in His love.” But some might object that this sounds like love with strings attached. Isn’t genuine love supposed to be unconditional?
Think of it this way. When I was a child, if I told my father that I loved him but that I was not going to do what he told me to do, there would have been two results. First my disobedience, which is also disrespect, would have proven that my love was hypocritical. Second I would not have lived past my childhood.
The notion that unconditional love frees you from responsibility and accountability is wrong headed but it is not a new one. The attitude that says “I am a believer and I know that God loves me so I can do whatever I want to do” was what Paul was addressing in his letter to the Romans. Some even went so far as to argue that since grace abounds where there is sin, we should sin all the more to receive more grace. As ridiculous as that reasoning is, it is equally ridiculous to separate love from obedience. We demonstrate our love for Jesus by doing what He tells us to do, just as a child demonstrates his love for his parents by honoring them and being obedient to them.
This understanding of love actually gives the lover power. I say that because if your love is primarily related to a feeling then you are powerless. Feelings come and feelings go and you have little or no control over them. But if your love is related to obedience then you don’t wait for a feeling to come before you act. You act because it is the right thing to do. You act because you are keeping the commandments and that act is love.
In the parable of the Good Samaritan, the Samaritan was on a business trip and don’t you know that the last thing he needed in his life was to take care of a mugging victim. He could even have excused himself because a priest and a televangelist had already passed the victim by. He could have told himself that it was not his problem. But obedience to the law of love, treating others as you wish to be treated, made it his problem. He didn’t wait to get to know the guy to see if he liked him or not. That was irrelevant. He knew what the Lord would have him do and he did it. His act of obedience is love.
The next thing that Jesus teaches us about love is that love is connected to truth. That makes sense because truth opens the door to greater intimacy. Isn’t it so that the ones who love you the most know the most about you? “You are my friends if you do what I command you. I have called you my friends because I have made known to you everything that I have heard from my Father.” Jesus is calling them into a deeper relationship. As the disciples demonstrate their love for Jesus through obedience, He reveals more of Himself to them. And what an incredible statement that He is going to make known to then EVERYTHING the He has heard from His Father. Love and truth are joined one to the other.
The last time I gathered with the clergy of the Episcopal Diocese of Tennessee we were at St. Paul’s in Murfreesboro. The clergy were so divided that we could not elect a bishop. A meeting was called to see if we could find a way to heal our divisions, which were theological in nature. The speaker of the day suggested that what was dividing us was the writings of St. Paul and so his answer was to just pay attention to the red letters, which are the words of Jesus. It was presented as a loving approach to seek compromise for the sake of the unity of the Body of Christ. But when you dissected what the speaker was really saying, he was really saying that since truth was dividing us we just needed to have less. I have also heard a similar argument over the years from Christians who say that we should avoid theology altogether because it only leads to division.
Contrast that line of thinking with how love and truth are interconnected in our lesson from 1st John. Right after John declares that God is love he goes on to talk about Jesus being an atoning sacrifice for our sins and he weaves that theme several times in this lesson. St. John does not say, “God is love but let’s not talk about the theology of the atonement because it has the potential to divides us.”
It is not truth that divides us; it is those who refuse to walk in the truth that divides us. It is not truth that divides us. What divide us are the lies that come from father of lies. Truth brings us closer to Christ and as we each grow closer to Christ we grow closer to one another. It says in Ephesians, “speaking the truth in love, we are to grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ.”
Third, Jesus connects love with action and with sacrifice. “No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.” Earlier in the same Epistle St. John said, “Little children, let us not love in word or talk but in deed and in truth.”
Because this is Mother’s Day the obvious illustration of love connected with sacrifice is our Mothers. My Mom left the workforce to care for our family. She could have had a career, she could have built lasting friendships with coworkers, and she could have made a lot of money. She walked away from all of that to raise a couple of Navy brats. She gave up her life for ours. And I can tell you from personal experience, that while some men may believe that being a housewife is a breeze, let the man of the house have the kids alone for a few weeks and he will get on his knees and kiss the floor when Mom comes home. The next day he won’t have to drive, he will skip to the office, whistling with a blue bird on his shoulder.
It’s unfortunate that the people who make the news are the ones who break the laws or famous people in some kind of scandal. There are a myriad of examples of sacrificial love that people do every day to bring light to the darkness. These are the ones that we should focus on and hold before our children as true heroes. I’m thinking of the military and police and firefighters who risk their lives every day so that we can live in peace and safety. The teachers and social workers and volunteers of all kinds who accept low pay or no pay at all so that they can make a difference in this world. Missionaries who take the Gospel into hostile places. The religious, monks and nuns who lay down their lives through intercessory prayer all hours of the day and night. Politician who……..okay that was a bad example but you get the point. Think of these unsung heroes and you are picturing the kind of love to which Jesus calls us. The most famous Bible passage in the world tells us that love is not passive. It tells us that love is action and love is sacrifice. “For God so loved the world that He gave…” Our calling is to love God back by loving this way. To love not just in word but in deed. Each week I mention in the bulletin some act of love in the section 4HS & 4SO. I do this because when you boil it all down that is why we are here. We are here for His sake and for the sake of others. Love is action and sacrifice.
It is Jesus’ call to this radical form of love that makes Christianity a power that lightens the darkness. It also makes it stand out as unique in a world that thinks that all religions are basically the same. While they do share some attributes, I would argue that no one else taught as Jesus did that love fulfills the commandments and anyone who teaches that today is merely quoting Him.
I saw an interview last week of a Muslim cleric who said that Pamela Geller, the woman who sponsored the cartoon contest in Texas about Mohammed, should be tried under Sharia and if found guilty she should be put to death. Death because of a cartoon? It saddened me to see how their legalism had made him so void of love and it demonstrated to me once again the uniqueness of Christianity. I am not convinced that we worship the same God. If He were the same God He would be schizophrenic to have two such diametrically opposed revelations. “This is my commandment, that you love one another….but you can execute people who draw cartoons.” We need to understand how desperately this dark world needs the light of Christ’s love and be about His business obeying His commands. Also we need to proclaim Christ as not one option among many but as the only hope for this world.
It is Jesus’ call to radical love that makes Christianity so impossible to do under our own power. When I was in seminary, theology came to me easily, it was a more difficult to learn Greek and Hebrew but I nearly gave up trying to love some of my fellow seminarians. To learn Greek and Hebrew I had to study more but to learn to love I had to pray more. Perhaps that is why Jesus adds the words about prayer to this commandment to love one another. He says, “so that the Father will give you whatever you ask in my name.” If you take it out of context you could say that the Lord is promising you whatever you want, like a Mercedes Benz as Janice prayer for. But if you keep it in context the next line tells us what it is that we should be praying about. “I am giving you these commands so that you may love one another.” The kind of love the Jesus is talking about does not come through mustering up the will to do it. It is a fruit of the Holy Spirit and that is why we prayed in today’s collect for God to pour His love in our hearts. As Augustine prayed, “Command what you will, but give us the grace to do what you command.”
One of the things that I so much appreciate about Jesus was that He was no Pollyanna. He said that there would be wars and famine and earthquakes and yet in the midst of this darkness He tells us to be lights in the world. He tells us to love one another. More than kings or armies or even great philosophies, the love of Jesus is THE power to lighten the darkness of this world. So let your light shine. Amen.