a sermon for the 5th Sunday of Easter
In his final hours, Jesus gave his disciples their final instructions to continue his ministry. For three years, they had traveled together, healing and preaching and giving hope to everyone they met along the Way. Now finally, he explained everything they needed to do.
Today I have three questions and then three more questions. First of all the three questions: WHAT do we love? WHO do we love? What IS love?
If you listen to any popular music, or watch anything on TV or the movies, you probably know that LOVE is the most common subject of popular songs and movies. “You’ve Lost That Loving Feeling,” “I Wanna Be Your Lover,” “The Power of Love,” “If Loving You Is Wrong, I Don’t Wanna Be Right,” “Love means never having to say you’re sorry.” “Love is Like Oxygen.” “L is for they way you look at me.” We talk about loving our country, loving our cars, and loving spaghetti and meatballs. Parents love their children, children love their parents, and everybody loves a puppy.
But what IS love and where does it come from?
In today’s gospel, Jesus is saying farewell to his disciples. Judas has just left and he knows that this is the last time he will be with them, the last time he’ll eat with them, the last time he’ll be able to tell them how he feels about them. And as you might imagine, he wants to be sure that they understand, one last time, what their whole ministry together was about. They had traveled together for three years, healing and preaching and giving hope to everyone they met along the Way. Now, finally, Jesus knows that he only has a few hours left, and he wants to give them their final instructions.
Love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.
That’s it. That is the only thing that matters. Jesus didn’t teach them the Nicene Creed; that wouldn’t be written for another 325 years. He didn’t tell them to make sure they said the “Jesus Prayer” or that they had to believe certain things or had to read the Bible a certain way. Heck, the New Testament hadn’t even been written, yet. The #1 thing that Jesus said at the last time he had supper with his friends was to love each other, and this is how everyone would know that they were followers of Jesus.
Now I have three more questions:
First, do we believe that LOVE is really at the center of our faith? I know that it feels that way when we read the Scriptures: God so loved the world…, Love your neighbor as yourself…, You shall Love the Lord your God with all your heart and soul and strength. But is it really that simple? What about the Law? What about Justice? What about the Word of God? What about doing God’s work and God’s will in the world? Still, Paul seemed to think those weren’t the heart of being a follower of Christ when he said, “Faith, hope and love abide, these three, but the greatest of these is love.”
Second question: Even if we believe that love is at the heart of things, why do we sometimes find it so hard to love? Who do we have the hardest time loving? People who are different? People who have hurt us? People who see things differently? Who?
This is where the rubber meets the road. Jesus didn’t tell us that we only had to love the people who were lovable. He loved everyone – sinners and tax collectors and prostitutes and folks who dressed funny or smelled bad or had no place to live. If the way we will be known as Christians is by our love for one another, then how much more will Christ become known if we love those who are unlovable?
My third question is this: When we do love others, what’s it like? And, just as important, when we feel loved by someone – accepted for who we are, valued, honored, even cherished – what does that feel like? How does love change us? What might we learn from these experiences that can help us share our love with others more fully?
Too often, I think, we forget that love is a verb! We confuse the warm and glowing feeling of love with the hard work of loving someone. When Jesus said, “I give you a new commandment, that you love one another,” he wasn’t asking us to feel something; he was commanding us to do something. And it is only when we practice love that the fruits our actions become visible.
Once upon a time, a woman went to see a lawyer. She charged into his office full of hatred toward her husband. “I don’t just want to get rid of him, I want to get even. Before I divorce him, I want to hurt him as much as he hurt me.”
The lawyer suggested an ingenious plan. “Go home and act as if you really love your husband. Tell him how much he means to you. Praise him for every decent trait. Go out of your way to be as kind, considerate, and generous as possible. Spare no efforts to please him, to enjoy him. Make him believe you love him. Then, after you’ve convinced him of your undying love and that you cannot live without him, drop the bomb. Tell him that you’re getting a divorce. That will really hurt him.”
With revenge in her eyes, she smiled and exclaimed, “Beautiful, beautiful. Will he ever be surprised!” And she did it with enthusiasm. For two months she acted “as if” she loved him, showering him with love, kindness, listening, giving, reinforcing, sharing.
When she didn’t return, the lawyer called her. “Are you ready now to go through with the divorce?”
“Divorce?” she exclaimed. “Never! I discovered I really do love him.”
When we practice loving our lives are changed. Our ability to love is established not so much by promises to love as by doing the hard work of loving.
This brings us back to Jesus, who gave us this last commandment hours before he would be beaten, tried, and crucified on the cross. He didn’t do this because God was angry at us and needed to be satisfied. He didn’t do this as payment or penalty for our sins. He did this out of love for his friends and for us. It was out of love that he gave himself for us, betting against all odds that love is the strongest force in the universe – stronger than fear, stronger than death, stronger even than our own disbelief.
Jesus gave himself to show us that it is only when we completely give up concern for ourselves that our lives will ever be worth living, and our deaths will ever have meaning beyond the grave. Christ died, so that we could see that the only way we will ever be fully alive, to be fully human, is to pass through our concern for ourselves into love for one another.
In the movie, “City Slickers,” Curly said that the secret to life is just one thing. The secret to the Gospel is just one thing, too: Love. This is what God asks of us. This is what life asks of us. This is how the world will know that we are followers of Jesus Christ, by our love for one another.
Thanks be to God.