Whatever else can be said about it, I think we all can agree this morning that LOVE is the essence of our Christian faith. What’s more, I think that most of us understand that LOVE, as we define it in faith, is meant to be unconditional, sacrificial and never ending. We know this because of Jesus; throughout the gospels, Jesus is very clear in telling us that LOVE is what is expected of us as his disciples. It’s right there at the start of our reading this morning: “If you love me, you will keep my commandments.” And what does Jesus command? “…love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another.” (13:34) As a matter of fact, when asked about it, Jesus was quick to point out that the two greatest of all the commandments were to love God and to love one’s neighbor! Simply stated, friends, as Christians we are all about LOVE!
So… given, as I said before, that we know all this, the question becomes… why is it that sometimes LOVE is so incredibly difficult?
Well, here’s why, friends: LOVE is hard because you actually have to do it(!); because as our faith defines it, as scripture proclaims it and Jesus commands it, LOVE is more than mere warm and fuzzy sentiment; far more than hearts and flowers, more than even hugs and kisses. LOVE is, in fact, determined action – it is an act of will.
Frederick Beuchner writes about this in an essay defining the word love: “When Jesus tells us to love our neighbors,” he writes, “he is not telling us to love them in the sense of responding to them with a cozy emotional feeling… on the contrary, he is telling us to love our neighbors in the sense of working for their well-being even if it means sacrificing our own well-being to the end… In Jesus’ terms,” he goes on to say, “we can love our neighbors without necessarily liking them.” Or, might I add, we can love our neighbors when they are very difficult to love, or even when they make it very clear that they don’t love us!
Or let’s look at this another way – what is the single most important question that the majority of brides and grooms are asked at the moment of their marriage? That’s right: “Will you love her, comfort her, honor and keep her in sickness and in health?” Do you promise to love him “as long as you both shall live?” And the answer is, “I will.” Granted, as was the case here with Hannah and Dan yesterday, we’ll sometimes ask it in a slightly different syntax – “Do you promise to love him, comfort him, honor and keep him” – so the answer becomes the more traditional, “I do,” but the intent is the same: the commitment that’s made, you see, is not so much to feel the love “as long as they both shall live,” but to live it, and to live it no matter what. As I like to tell the couples I work with, all that stuff about “for better, for worse, for richer, for poorer?” It ain’t boilerplate!
In other words, it’s not always going to be easy to live in love when the stresses of life are piling high, when personal struggles are tearing at your relationship, or as the winds of change blow all around you. I’ve always loved a quote that’s attributed to Ruth Bell Graham, the late wife of the Rev. Billy Graham: at a press conference prior to one of his crusades, Ruth was asked by a reporter if she had ever considered divorcing her husband Billy; and after a moment pondering this question, Graham replied, “No, I can honestly say I’ve never considered divorce; I have, however, considered homicide!” The fact is that every marriage goes through its ups and downs, and for every couple there will be storms in life that would threaten to damage or even destroy that relationship; oftentimes, it takes an act of will to keep going amidst everything else. That’s what love requires; but, as so many who have been through the storms can tell you, very often that’s also love’s blessing.
In our gospel reading this morning Jesus essentially “cuts to the chase” with his disciples as to their (and our) relationship with him: “If you love me, you will keep my commandments,” and follows that up by saying that “those who love me will be loved by my Father, and I will love them and reveal myself to them.” At first read this kind of seems like a mixed message: on the one hand, there’s this God who loves us unconditionally; and yet, here’s Jesus giving us conditions and standards by which we’ll be loved by him, and not only by him but also by which we’ll be loved by his Father in heaven! And it’s an impression that only runs deeper once one of the disciples asks why Jesus intended to show himself to them and not to the world as a whole: “Those who love me,” Jesus says, “will keep my word, and my Father will love them, and we will come to them and make our home with them. Whoever does not love me does not keep my words.” In other words, to love Jesus is to keep his word, and not to do so is to risk the relationship altogether!
But lest we think of this as being all about sin and judgment (because, sadly, there are those who will jump on these words of Jesus as laying out a sort of “three strikes and you’re out” scenario!) what Jesus is talking about here has more to do with the true nature of love and its effect on relationship; specifically the fullness of our relationship with God in Christ! It’s how our commitment to follow his commands to love will lead to that fullness; and conversely, how a lack of loving behavior will slowly and steadily erode it.
It’s actually sort of like how we deal with our children, isn’t it? Ninety percent of the time, as parents we’ll do just about anything for our kids because we love them and we want absolutely, positively the best of everything for them; we want to give them the fullness of our blessing. Yet, we also know that to be a good parent means occasionally holding back those blessings; from time to time, our children all have to be held accountable for bad behaviors in order to learn the right way to go. That means they don’t get everything they want; that they will get grounded at the worst possible time, and that maybe they will have to face a little embarrassment and shame for what they’ve done or not done. Does this mean we don’t love them anymore? Of course not! It’s precisely because we love them and we want the best for them in their lives that we make them go through this, even as so often it hurts us to let it happen!
Well, that is very much the dynamic of our relationship with God in Christ: we always, always have the promise of his eternal and holy presence; we will always know that that God is urging and supporting and comforting us, no matter what. But even given that sure and certain promise we’re reminded here that you and I will only see and feel the full glory of that gift when we are living in right space: the loving space, the space of righteousness to which God leads us by adherence to his commandments.
And yes, very often that is for us a very hard space in which to dwell. To love as Jesus loved is often so difficult that it becomes, as theologian Reinhold Niebuhr once described it, “the impossible possibility.” Niebuhr wrote that he believed that pure love was possible, but it was also impossible because “we can never rid ourselves completely of our egotism and free ourselves for the sacrificial passion that love of Jesus requires.” The bottom line is that on our own, our very human nature and our propensity to sin does tend to keep us from the fullness of our relationship with the Lord.
That’s why it’s good that, in fact, we aren’t on our own; that we’re not, spiritually speaking, left as orphans. We do have “another Advocate, to be with [us] forever… the Spirit of Truth,” the Holy Spirit, whom the Father sends in Jesus’ name. And thanks be to God’s own Spirit, it is possible for us to grow toward pure love, simply by allowing that Spirit to work within us for the sake of love; awakening us to the opportunities to love; stirring within us the will to love in all the comings and goings of our lives.
Because make no mistake, dear friends; there are always opportunities to love… it is ever and always a question of our will to do so.
Sometimes it’s as simple and as utterly powerful a matter of treating those closest to us as persons worthy of all respect and dignity, honoring them as individual precious gifts of God. Other times, it involves caring for someone in need; taking the risk to share our lives with them. And often it will be in the moment when a well-placed bit of affirmation or encouragement will be what’s needed; perhaps a word of confession and repentance that leads to forgiveness and reconciliation. By love, we are drawn closer to others – even those whom we’ve never known and perhaps never will know – and in the process we draw closer to Jesus himself.
And there are an infinite number of possibilities of how we can love; but what it takes from you and me is the commitment to say, “I will.” And then, by the grace of God and the company of the Holy Spirit, to actually do it.
The story goes that in the early days of the Berlin Wall, hostilities were particularly tense between East and West Berlin; conflict which was exacerbated when truckloads of stinking garbage were dumped over the wall from East Berlin into West Berlin. Many residents of West Berlin wrote the mayor demanding revenge for this offense, but he ended up responding in a very unique way. He asked the people to gather all the flowers in West Berlin and bring them to a certain place at the wall – and then, on the given day, as a great avalanche of flower was poured over the wall, a large banner was raised. Written on the banner were the words, “We each give what we have.”
We each give what we have! The people of West Berlin could have retaliated by sending their garbage over the wall in return – or worse – but revenge doesn’t heal, it doesn’t make for peace, it doesn’t show love; it only fuels the fire of hatred. Love, on the other hand, holds us accountable and leads us to aspire to a higher level of life and living; and it deepens our relationship with others.
Jesus tells us that we have ability to love others because that is what he was about, and that is what he taught. The situations we face in this life might well be different from those of the cold war, or for that matter those of the early disciples who were about to embark on a faith-filled odyssey that would encompass a whole new world; but like them and like so many others who have come before us and those who walk with us today, it’s LOVE… love given us by a God who is with us in every circumstance, that remains the crucial tool in everything we face.
But we only give what we have; and what we have is only made real when we give it away. Jesus said, “This is my commandment, that you love one another.” A powerful word, indeed; and a word that can change a life and a world. But for this word to have real meaning for you and me in this time and place; for it to inspire true transformation … it requires from us a response. “I Will.”
Will you? Will you?
Thanks be to God.
AMEN and AMEN.
c. 2014 Rev. Michael W. Lowry