Sermon on John 15:9-17 for May 6, 2018, Easter 6 B
[Jesus said:] “As the Father has loved me, so I have loved you; abide in my love. 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. I have said these things to you so that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be complete.
“This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you. No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends. You are my friends if you do what I command you. I do not call you servants any longer, because the servant does not know what the master is doing; but I have called you friends, because I have made known to you everything that I have heard from my Father. You did not choose me but I chose you. And I appointed you to go and bear fruit, fruit that will last, so that the Father will give you whatever you ask him in my name. I am giving you these commands so that you may love one another.”
A man whom I have great respect for once told me that he thought all truth is paradoxical. Whether or not you would agree, it seems to me that at least most truth is. I see paradox everywhere. Probably, being a limited, finite creature contributes to this.
One of the greatest paradoxes of all is how love is related to our faith. The paradox is simple: Jesus taught us that love is the main thing, but we have treated belief as the main thing. All the commandments are summed up, Jesus said, in the commands to love God and to love neighbor. On the other hand, according to the synoptic gospels, Jesus had very little to say about what people believed.
I am going to be received into the Presbytery of Arkansas on June second, and so we will have a formal installation service for me here June 24. Our Constitutional Book of Order requires that in a liturgy of installation, the candidate has to answer a list of questions. If love is the main thing, you would think the questions would be about love. But most start with “Do you believe…?”
I do not believe that believing should be treated as if it were the main thing. According to Jesus, love is the main thing. So I began to dream up my own alternative constitutional questions for an installation service. They began with questions like, “Will you seek to love God with your whole heart, soul, mind, and strength?” “Will you seek to love the people you will serve as pastor?” “Will you seek to love the people in the community you have been called to?” It seems to me that if we believed that love was the main thing, we would focus on love.
Love is what this text from John’s gospel is about. So let us look at it. Jesus says,
“As the Father has loved me, so I have loved you; abide in my love.”
Jesus begins here with his own personal experience of being loved by God. Jesus’ favorite metaphor for God is Father. Now, we do not believe that God is gendered. Scripture says that male and female bear the image of God. God is beyond gender, so it would be fine to use female, mothering metaphors for God, as scripture itself does sometimes too.
But either way, as Father or Mother, Jesus taught us that God’s orientation towards us is parental and therefore loving. Our original condition is loved by God because we are God’s children.
The sad fact is that a lot of people do not experience God’s love for them. There are many reasons for this, but one big one is that many of us do not love ourselves. We think we are inadequate or guilty for things that make us dislike ourselves, so how can God love us? Again, the family metaphor helps us. God, as perfect Father, or Mother, loves his or her children infinitely more than we human parents love our imperfect children. The point is simply this: God loves you. That is the foundational truth with which we begin.
Jesus as Cipher for God
So, after calling God Father, and noting that the Father loves Jesus, Jesus announces that in the same way, he has loved his followers. Here we see John expressing an essential element in our faith: we believe that Jesus shows us what God is like. Jesus teaches, by both words and example. Jesus is the cipher for God. Jesus loved his disciples, just as God loved Jesus, showing us in a concrete, practical way, what God’s love looks like.
Abide in Love
Then Jesus says, “abide in my love.” How do you do that? Well, Jesus said,
“…I have kept my Father’s commandments and abide in his love”
– so keeping God’s commands is the way to remain in his love. But it is not a matter of keeping innumerable laws because, Jesus says,
“This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you.”
How has Jesus loved his disciples? Two ways are given here: by willingly laying down his life, and by embracing a non-hierarchical relationship of equal friends.
“No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends. You are my friends if you do what I command you.”
Of course, that brings us back to love: to be a friend of Jesus, we obey his command to love one another.
What does love look like in practice? Another way to ask the question is: what do friends of Jesus do?
In his book Love, Power, and Justice, theologian Paul Tillich says love involves three practices: listening, giving and forgiving.
First, to love, we must listen. No human relation, he says, is possible without mutual listening. Love listens. This is true of intimate relationships, and also true in group relationships. We all experience this. It is only when we believed that we have been listened to that we feel loved.
When we listen, we learn. There are some voices we hear all the time. They are the voices of those in power. They are the ones we cannot help listening to because they are the ones that get public attention. But, following Jesus’ example, we ask ourselves, whose voices do we need to listen to? Whose voices have not been heard? Who is not at the discussion table? Jesus listened to women, he listened to non-Jews, he listened to lepers. Why? Because love listens.
We have learned so much recently from listening to the stories of black Americans. I thought I understood racism in America, but the more I listen, the more I learn. It was not until I heard the conversations on race that started after Trayvon Martin was killed that I heard anything about “the talk” that black parents give to their sons as they enter adolescence. White families don’t need to give this lecture about how to behave if you are ever confronted by the authorities, but “The talk” is standard in black families with male children. As I listened, I learned that their experience of pain and discrimination has not ended. Love listens.
We have learned so much from listening to the stories of our brothers and sisters in the LGBTQ community. We have heard anguishing stories of their personal struggles. We have heard them describe praying to be different, of enduring counseling therapies and programs designed to re-program them, and how none of these has any effect besides increasing shame and despair. We have heard of the pain they have experienced in their homes, in schools, and in churches where, instead of receiving the love that comes from listening, they were despised and rejected. Love listens. Listening is what has made us a radically inclusive community.
Love does not stop with listening, love gives. Tillich says that giving is essential because every living being presents themselves to us asking to be acknowledged as persons. We can love only if we are willing to give the other person the dignity of being treated as a person; as an end, and not a means to an end. In the words of Martin Buber, as a “Thou” and not an “it.” Loving requires giving the dignity of personhood to every person. This is what Jesus was doing when he called his followers “friends” instead of “servants”. He was giving them dignity.
After recognizing the human dignity in all persons, giving means literally giving oneself for the sake of others. We will probably never be called on to lay down our lives for our friends, but we give in all kinds of concrete, practical ways. We give our time and energy, making muffins, sack lunches, and suppers, right here in Fort Smith. We give our resources as we respond to needs both within our community and beyond it. We give our hearts as we learn about injustice and unfairness in systems that harm people. Love is why we give.
Love listens, love gives, and love also forgives. The act of forgiving is what Tillich calls the creative side of justice. Strict justice gives what is due. But forgiving goes beyond.
Forgiving is crucial for personal relationships and for communities. The only way to keep loving one another is to practice forgiveness, which is why it was such a huge theme for Jesus.
The necessity of forgiveness for the sake of love is seen most clearly when it is absent, as when there is resentment. Resentment is the desire for revenge when we have been hurt, or snubbed or humiliated or otherwise offended. I’m sure you know people who harbor resentments; they are toxic. They poison communities.
Once resentment is planted in the heart, it becomes a lifestyle. Whole classes of people can be resented. Some resent the poor for being indolent and feeling entitled to handouts. Instead of listening to their stories and giving them the dignity of personhood, they are resented as a class.
Some resent the rich for being rich. Sometimes a call for justice is only a veiled desire to bring down the mighty because they are resented for their wealth and advantages. All resentments are unloving. Authentic calls for justice and fairness must come from love. This too is how Jesus lived.
Keeping the Main Thing the Main Thing
I have been reading a book about the time of the Nicene Creed. There were times when angry mobs dragged people out of jail and killed them for believing the wrong things. How in the world do you go from the goal of loving one another to lynching one another? I do not know, but I do know that to act in a non-loving way is to un-friend Jesus.
You have heard the saying, “The main thing is to keep the main thing, the main thing.” The main thing, according to Jesus, is love. We are the beloved community, loved by our Father/Mother in heaven, and therefore, we are called to be a loving community.
There is just nothing complicated about love. Love simply wishes the same thing for another person as we wish for ourselves. Treating people as we wish to be treated. It means working to make sure our whole society treats people the way we want to be treated. It means bearing the fruit that comes from listening, giving and forgiving.