“The only sure way to know.”
A sermon for
the Sixth Sunday of Easter
May 6, 2018
Trinity Episcopal Church
Preached by the Reverend Donna J. Larson, Interim Priest
On this sixth Sunday of Easter Jesus gives his disciples yet another mandate for them to live by. Last Sunday we heard Jesus command his disciples, “Abide in me as I abide in you.” This morning Jesus tells them to “Love one another, as I have loved you.” But it’s the way Jesus issues these commands that gets my attention. It seems to me that Jesus really wants to get his message across. In the eight verses we hear from John this morning, Jesus tells us to love one another a total of eight times. Last week his vine and branches metaphor went on and on, as if Jesus thought his disciples were not getting his point. And this is the last time Jesus will be able to make these important points about the ministry they will take on in the world as he prepares to ascend to God. It also seems to me from our gospel account today that Jesus wants disciples like us to get it, as well. He wants his message to sink in to our own dense minds and our own resistant hearts. Why? Because Jesus calls the people of his church in every age to continue his ministry of abiding love in this world. His message has become our mandate to live by and to share with others.
In fact, it occurred to me as I read and heard these scriptural commands from Jesus these past two Sundays, that my mother sounded a lot like Jesus when she tried to teach me a lasting lesson. Like Jesus, my mother could be both repetitive and emphatic with my sister and me when she wanted us to obey her mandates. Then, again, when I read these scriptures with my teacher’s hat on, Jesus sounds a lot like I did when I tried to get an important teaching point across to my students. Teachers know that students don’t often learn what you what you teach them the first time they hear it. Research tells us that students need to hear (and practice) a teaching three or more times before they really learn it. Like Jesus, teachers also tend to be repetitive and emphatic about what we believe is important for our students to learn.
So we should not be surprised that Jesus is being intentional in repeating and emphasizing these most important teachings to his disciples. Like any good parent, or teacher who is preparing children to go into the world, Jesus knows this is his last opportunity to give his disciples the good advice they will need to make it on their own. Like any good parent or teacher Jesus knows that he must teach his disciples well and often if they are to be the best disciples they can be; disciples who will do the best work they can do to continue his ministry and teaching in their world.
We know, too, that Jesus really wants us to get is point. Because Jesus not only repeats this mandate eight times in our gospel lesson; he has been telling us and showing us throughout the gospels, over and again, how and why we are to love as God loves. Why? Because the kind of love Jesus teaches us is not easy to learn, and it is even more difficult to practice. Jesus knows that God’s love requires a lot more from us than the kinds of love we learn from this world; love which can be so completely self-centered, self-seeking, and self- serving. And Jesus knows that self-centered love will never become self-giving, self-seeking love will never seek God; and self-serving love will only serve its own needs and desires.
But It’s also important, I believe, that we see the connection between Jesus’ teaching in the gospel lessons we heard last week and the one we heard this morning. Last Sunday we heard Jesus say, “I am the vine and you are the branches; abide in me as I abide in you.” So, what does it mean to “abide?” The word “abide” has staying power. It means that we stay connected to, evenly deeply imbedded in, our source of love. And God knows this is not easy. Abiding in God’s love requires us to literally live in God’s love, “walk in God’s love,” and stay in God’s love so that we can BE God’s love for others. Abiding in God’s requires the discipline of prayer, and study, confession, forgiveness, and practice—a lot of practice if we are to become godly lovers, in godly relationships.
Now, I believe all of us want to be godly lovers; we would all like to be loved by others as God loves us. But if we only learn love by the teachings of this world, we will fail miserably at loving God and loving each other as God loves us. The loves of this world will hurt us and abuse us. The loves of this world will disappoint us and betray us. And when we don’t get the love we want, we will find ever more manipulative ways to satisfy our selfish needs. In short, by our inclination to sin and by the limitations of human love we become victims of love, and we victimize others by our love. This is why we need to hear Jesus’ lessons about God’s love over and again. It is too easy for us to fall into patterns and behaviors of loving which separate us from the truth of God’s love, and the experience of loving others as God loves us–patterns and behaviors which can never fulfill our human need for love, nor can they serve God’s divine purpose for love.
So Jesus is reinforcing his teaching about love in today’s gospel account because we need regular reminders of the difference between what Jesus teaches us about love and what the world teaches us about love. One way we can know that difference is by knowing what God’s love is not. The self-centered, self-seeking, self-serving loves of this world would have us believe that we can MAKE people love us; that we can get the love we desire by controlling or manipulating others to give us the love we want. Messages from our world, especially in pop songs and romantic movies, would have us believe that we can achieve perfect and endless love in the intimate relationships we seek for ourselves.
So, I am not surprised, then, when two people come to me to be married that they choose (overwhelmingly) Paul’s famous passage about love in his first letter to the Corinthians. Couples choose this passage in good faith, I believe. They want so much for their marriage to reflect all the godly qualities Paul is shows us about love. But in this beautifully romantic time in their relationship they do not realize how difficult it is going to be to love in the ways Paul spells it out in his lesson on love. He tells us that God’s love is patient and kind. God’s love is not envious, or boastful; not arrogant, or rude. God’s love does not insist on its own way. Love is not irritable or resentful. God’s love does not rejoice in wrongdoing; love rejoices in the truth. Paul tells us that God’s love bears all things; believes all things; hopes all things; endures all things.” These are pretty rigorous standards for loving, aren’t they? And it does not take long for a couple to realize how difficult they it is to live by such standards. This is why Paul feels compelled to tell us why we fail so often to meet God’s standards for love.
Paul tells us we fail to love as God would have us love because our love tends to be so childish, so immature, even as we grow to become adults. This is why love is especially dangerous for teenagers and young adults. Do you remember when you were a teenager? Nobody could tell us about love. We knew all about it? We were quite certain we would not make the mistakes our parents and other adults made in their feeble and failed attempts at love. Then we fell in love, and many of us followed them right off the cliff of disappointment. We began to experience love’s snares and delusions; the love we desired did not measure up to our worldly and romantic notions of love. Because we were not able put away the childish things that kept us from growing and maturing in God’s love.
I am reminded of a song sung by Judy Collins in the late 60’s. called “Both Sides Now.” The singer reflects on her difficult and disappointing experiences of love. And the refrain of the song makes her point. “I’ve looked at love from both sides now, from win and lose and still, somehow, it’s love’s illusions I recall. I really don’t know love at all.” Truth be told, none of us really know love at all, not if we only seek the loves of this world. This is why Jesus feels he must teach us and show us over and over again how to love as God loves. He knows how inadequate, how difficult, even dangerous the loves of this world can be. He knows that learning to love as God loves will change our expectations of love, it will change our experience of love, and it will change the ways we show our love and share our love with others.
As Jesus prepares to return to God, he wants to reinforce the most important lesson of his life and ministry. Jesus wants us to put away our illusions of love. Jesus offers us the kind of love which transcends our worldly knowledge and our human experiences of love. He offers us a love which redeems us from all that would separate us from God’s love and from the love we are capable of sharing with each other in deep and abiding relationship. But it will not be easy to learn this new way of loving. It will not be easy to practice God’s love, no less to abide in it. But abiding in God’s love is essential to our life if we are to rise above the petty and childish and dysfunctional loves of this world. Otherwise we never become the mature, capable lovers God is calling us to be.
I am reminded of a story I heard several years ago which featured a mother who tried to teach a valuable lesson about the selflessness and generosity of God’s love to her two young sons as she made their favorite breakfast for them. Her boys were fighting over who should get the first pancake. Their mother finally asked them, “What do you think Jesus would do if his brother wanted the first pancake. The older son replied, “Jesus would probably offer it to his brother.” At which point he turned to his younger brother and said, “Okay, Mikey, “you can be Jesus.”
Well, nobody can make us be Jesus for others. Not even Jesus. Nor can God make us love him or others as he loves us. Because God has given his human creatures the freedom to choose his love, or not. That means every moment of our life we can choose to love as God loves, or to love as the world loves. Why, then, would Jesus give his disciples, and us, a mandate to choose God’s love and abide in it? It’s because Jesus wants us to be who we say we are. And the only sure way the world can know we are Christians is by our love.