LOVING TRUE IS HARD TO DO
A SERMON FOR YEAR C, SEASON EASTER 5
By Nathan L. Bostian
A SERMON FOR YEAR C, SEASON EASTER 5
By Nathan L. Bostian
Wow. The last Eucharist of 2007. The end of a year together. It has been a year of triumph: For some of us, this has been our first successful year on our own in the big world, with all of the stupid mistakes, and fun times that come with it. Others of us have arisen victorious over the evil forces of tests, projects, and papers to receive our diploma. And me… I survived becoming a college chaplain. A year of triumph.
But it has also been a year of tragedy. We have lost friends close to home, and seen lives needlessly lost in murderous rampages. We see terrorists blowing up the innocent on TV screens, while elected officials from every side use tragedy as an excuse to get "face time" to fund their election campaigns. As Charles Dickens said in that book that nobody in English class wanted to read: "It was the best of times, it was the worst of times".
And now, most of you are going away for the summer, and I ask myself: What do I want to leave you with as you head out? What does God want me to say to you, to help you deal with the joy and pain that comes from living in a world like ours?
And its days like this that I am glad I minister in a Church that uses a lectionary. A lectionary is a reading schedule that picks the readings for every week during a three-year cycle, so that they are thematically connected with where we are at in the Church year.
That's right, I don't just pick this stuff at random, or play "Bible roulette" to figure out what I am going to talk about.
The lectionary will take you through nearly all of the "preachable" parts of the Bible- minus most of the endless lists "begats", and strange dietary laws- so that, if you prayerfully listen hard every three years, you will know the Bible better than any fundamentalist. I promise.
And it is amazing how the lectionary almost always fits with what we are going through, right here, right now. [Sarcasm] It's almost as if the Bible were really inspired by God, and God really speaks into our lives through it! What a thought…
Anyway. If I could leave you with one thought this summer, it would be precisely what Jesus leaves His disciples with in our lectionary reading today: "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."
Now, it is just like God to say something that is so simple, and so complex, at the same time. It is something we understand in an instant. In fact, I believe God programmed it into our souls, so that we are born knowing that love is, what we were made for. But, even though we understand it, we spend the rest of our lives figuring how to live it, rationalizing why we don't live it, and repenting to try again.
In fact, I want to do something I don't normally do. I want to unpack this command piece by piece. Because, if you look at this command deeply enough, you find something like a mini-systematic theology.
Jesus starts with "just as I have loved you". How did He love us? Well, if Jesus is the Lord God in human form, and not just a liar or a lunatic, then the answer to this does not start with how Jesus loved in his earthly ministry. It starts in who God is.
And Scripture does not say God IS truth, or God IS justice, or God IS power, or even that God IS existence. But, the first letter of John does say "God IS Love" [4.8]. God does not exist to Love. God exists as Love. God's attributes, such as truth, justice, power, and existence flow out of God's essential nature as Love.
And Love cannot exist alone, by itself. I cannot say "I am loving" or "I am in love", and yet have no person to Love. Love requires a beloved. And so, based on what God has shown us about Godself, in Scripture orthodox Christianity comes up with the most outrageous claim that anyone has ever made about God:
That God's being is Love, and that this being is Love because it is made of three eternal persons: The Lover, the Beloved, and the Love they share- The Father, the Son, and the Spirit- that have forever been sharing in each other, dancing with each other, and caring for each other. When we say that God is eternally Three Persons in One Being, the only way to grasp that is to KNOW Love.
But God did not want to keep this Love to Godself, because if you ever encounter true Love, you find that it has one key characteristic: It longs to give itself to others, to share itself, to bring others into the beauty of itself.
So, this undulating, pulsing, dancing Love of God did what Love does: It overflowed. And that overflow is US. All of creation is the result of that cosmic dance of union and separateness, that has always been inside God. And if God is this eternally bonded, interpenetrating, joyfully dancing, self-giving Love that creates life, then you begin to understand the reason for a lot of things: From the playful dance of sub-atomic particles, to the mystery of marriage and sexuality.
It ALL mirrors God.
And this Love made us to share in God's own life, forever. But to do that, God had to give us a choice. God had to give us freedom to deny Love, to hate, to hurt, to destroy the goodness God made. God Loved us enough to risk everything- including His Love- to make us in God's image.
And we took him up on the offer. From hatred, to wars, to adultery, to overdoses… we took Him up on the beautiful, awful, offer of freedom.
But Love did not stop. It did not give up. It did not relent. Love pursued us. Love ceased being an Ideal in Heaven, and became a man on earth. Jesus IS Love Embodied- in human flesh- fully God, fully human, fully Love.
And that Love loved us to the very depths of our pain. The Love sat at the last supper with Judas, who would sell his life for 30 coins. That Love ate with Peter, who would deny that he even knew Jesus when He needed Peter the most. That Love shared food with ten other disciples who would completely abandon Him in a few hours.
Then that Love took up a cross, and endured the death that we all deserve, as a natural consequence of walking away from Love. And, like we have been celebrating over the great 50 days of Easter season, that Love conquered death.
So, when Jesus says "as I have loved", this is a short roadmap of all that this entails. He wants us to love with that same intensity. And the crazy thing is that, if we have joined ourselves to Christ by faith and sacrament, we actually CAN love with that intensity.
Because just one chapter over in John, Jesus tells us "Very truly, I tell you, the one who puts their trust in me will do the works that I do. They will do greater works than these, because I am going to the Father" [14.12]. And from the Father he pours out His very own Spirit of Love, the Spirit that brought Him back from the dead, so that we too, can bring back to life a culture of death.
Thus, Jesus follows "as I have loved" with the imperative verb "Love!" It is a command. A verb. An action word. A choice. It is not a sentimental feeling, or a gushy warmth. Love is something you do, even if you don’t feel like it. Liking others is a feeling. But Jesus did not say "Like others as I have liked you". He said "LOVE!"
Now, feelings are nice, and I am not dissing them. But they are not the core of what Love is… although, as you seek to really, truly, selflessly love others, you will find that will start to actually LIKE them too. In fact, you will find all kinds of warm, gushy, sentimental feelings once you start DOING Love. But the doing comes first.
So, what exactly does this "doing" look like in a more general sense? I mean, we know what Love looks like embodied in a first century Jew in an age without the internet or flush toilets. And the example of Jesus does in fact transfer in a whole lot of ways to our own day. But, there are some things that "What would Jesus do?" simply will not answer.
An example is great, but we need a definition too.
And, it just so happens that God thought the same thing, because he had a guy named Paul write a definition, that we hear read at weddings all the time… But if divorce statistics are right, only half of the people actually pay attention to what it says in any lasting way.
It says that Love is "patient". That literally means "long suffering" in Greek. Real Love is willing to suffer with others to do good to them.
It says "love is kind". That means it gives itself for the good of someone else, even when they don't really "deserve" it.
It says "Love is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude". That means that real love does not put others down, in sneers or snide remarks, to try and raise itself up and feel superior.
It says Love "does not insist on its own way". Another way to translate this is "Love does not grasp things for itself". It isn't selfish. It's selfless. It isn't taking. It's giving. It does not use people as means, but treats them- all of them, even the ones we can't stand- as children of God.
College is a time when it is incredibly easy to be self-centered. No accountability. No spouse. No kids. It is easy to think "it's all about ME!" Love begs us to re-think that.
It says Love "it is not irritable or resentful", and it "does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth". In an age when people are more than willing to believe the worst of their political opponents, and hope for the suffering of those who have wronged them, we need to remember that love is precisely opposite from this.
It doesn't gossip. It doesn't say things to make others look bad. It doesn't make checklists of bad deeds the other person did, to pull out later and beat them over the head with guilt.
Paul's definition of Love ends by saying that Love "bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things". Love is like God, because it IS God's essence. And God never retreats, never surrenders, never stops, never gives up, never rests until he has brought every single one of his children, every last one of his lost sheep, to know Him and Love Him.
If our Church practiced that kind of Love, how different would we look?
How different would the world look?
How different would you and I look?
And it is not that we do not have the ability to Love like that. We do. We have Christ's resurrection Spirit, the Spirit of Love. We can do "greater things" than Christ, because no longer is there one Christ on the world stage living in God's Love.
There are now millions- even billions- of Christ-ians, little Christs, filled with Christ's Spirit, who could Love like Him if they would just surrender their whole self- body, spirit, and soul- to that Love.
But we don't surrender because we can't conceive it, or don't believe it, or we just find that we have better things to do…
Things to make ME happy…
Man, I am glad God didn't have better things to do. I am glad Jesus isn't just concerned with making himself happy…
What about you?
Can you conceive it? Can you get a vision of this awe-inspiring, world-transforming Love that existed before all time, and has become embodied in Jesus, and now has been poured into you?
Can you believe it? Can you believe that it is this Love that has always Loved you, and wants to transform you into something so beautiful that you can scarcely imagine it?
And if you can really, truly conceive it, and believe it, how can you possibly have something better to do with your life? [PAUSE]
As we leave here and go our separate ways this summer, I have one prayer for each of you, and it is this:
"May Christ fill your life, so much that the Cosmic dance of God's Love overflows from you, so that you may TRULY Love one another as He has Loved you. Amen+"