Title: Love one another
Date: May 17, 2009
Text: John 15:9-17
Author: Monica Schmucker
Love. Our lectionary texts seem to be marinating us in passages on love these past few weeks. Our gospel text this week comes from one of my favorite parts of John. These scenes are an intimate portrait of Jesus with his disciples. Lots of well-known verses and words of great comfort come from this scene of Jesus’ last evening with them. The three incredible years they’ve spent together are about to come to a sudden and terrible end with Jesus’ impending arrest, trial, and execution. You can feel the love he has for these disciples, his desire to speak deeply to their hearts, to burn a lasting message into their lives that will go on guiding them. In this final evening together, he has washed their feet, shared the Passover meal, and promised the Holy Spirit. He calls them his friends—says he’s shared with them everything that the Father has given him. The charge he leaves them is this: “Love one another.”
These words have been rattling around in my head. I am aware of the irony that hearing a sermon on love is probably the poorest way to offer any illumination on what it means. Love is difficult to understand except in the context of offering and receiving it. So what follows are just my musings, my trying to put into words something that I can’t really explain, that I’m only beginning to learn.
“Love one another as I have loved you” (v12). It’s simple, straight-forward and heartfelt. But I notice the things this command leaves out. It does not say anything about preaching the gospel, loving our enemies, or caring for the poor. To be sure, Jesus does command these things in other places, but here the command seems very focused on loving each other. Herbert McCabe points out that John’s gospel and epistles aren’t about loving the world (God Still Matters, 2002). The world, or more specifically, the all-pervasive systems of this world, aren’t to be reformed by love, they’re to be overcome. In the verses just after our lectionary text, Jesus tells his disciples to expect the world to hate them. Love is central, but in John’s presentation, McCabe notes, “Love is rare and difficult and in one sense impossible” (p. 168). A child summed up the problem best when he wrote a letter to God asking, “Dear God, How do you love everyone in the whole world all the time? There are only four people in my family and I can never do it.”
One of the Greek words for love is agape. It’s used to denote unconditional love, God’s love. Now, let me just make it clear that my knowledge of New Testament Greek is pretty much limited to the words agape and koinonia—and I can’t even spell koinonia. Agape seems to be an important enough word that even a casual student of the Bible like myself is vaguely familiar with it. I checked to see, and yes, agape is the word used here when Jesus says, “Love one another as I have loved you.”
Unconditional love. Of course, that’s real love, love that we all need. But I’ve heard that definition too often for it to mean much to me. I blame this on feel-good pop-psychology. I need to see it from another angle sometimes. Isaac introduced me to another definition of agape-love: solidarity. Out of love, John’s gospel says, God sent his son, Jesus (3:16). The incarnation is God’s beautiful act of solidarity with us. He identifies with our human state by entering into it from birth to death. And as God, when he takes on our brokenness, he also heals it. Kallistos Ware writes, “However far I have to travel through the valley of the shadow of death, I am never alone. I have a companion. And this companion is not only a true man as I am, but also true God from true God”(The Orthodox Way, p.80).
When we enter into solidarity with each other, we are offering love and companionship. Our solidarity cannot redeem, but it can make God’s redemptive love visible. One of my favorite poems by Veneta Masson is titled “God and the Telephone” (Between the Heartbeats: Poetry and Prose, 1995). A homecare nurse tries to point out to a patient that her frequent calls and demands are a little unreasonable. The woman doesn’t see it this way at all. She replies, “Look here Sweetheart. There are only two things Lady Jane needs- God and this pink telephone. But God is a spirit, and sometimes I need a flesh and blood person. That’s you.”
This solidarity-love is sharing in the experiences of each other’s lives. Yesterday I went to a friend’s wedding. It was a wonderful occasion—and a good way to procrastinate on this sermon. In celebrating with Jennie and Matt, we were loving them, sharing in this joyful moment in their lives. It was easy. I wanted to be there for them. But there are other times, when solidarity is much harder. I think of Matt and Jen asking us to pray for friends whose marriage is coming apart. I remember how they are wrestling with how to love and support these friends as a couple and as individuals through a very painful season.
Some years ago, in the weeks preceding this most recent war in Iraq, MCC sponsored a women’s fast for peace. It was once a week for eight weeks, I think. I do not like fasting. It doesn’t do any wonders for my spiritual life, or at least not the kind of wonders I would like. I just feel crabby, tired, and in a sort of mental fog. I don’t pray better and being crabby certainly doesn’t give me a burst of love for anyone. But this fast did mean something for me. It was a tiny gesture of solidarity with the suffering of Iraqi women. It wasn’t much. It didn’t alleviate anyone’s suffering as far as I can tell, but it made me understand just a little more the huge personal cost of solidarity. It made me confront how difficult it is to get past my own needs and discomforts, to get beyond loving in word only.
“Greater love has no one than this, that he lays down his life for his friends” (v.13). Jesus goes on to show us this, laying down his life, submitting to abuse, abandonment, pain and death for our sake. There are so many stories, in the far past and in our own day, of people willingly sacrificing themselves for another. We may or may not be in a situation where we are called to die for another, but we are all given the opportunity to lay down our lives. It’s rarely in the big things, but rather in the daily small choice that our lives are made of.
I once visited a center for malnourished and abandoned children run by the Sisters of Charity in Benin. Now that’s love—taking in these children and getting them back to health. But being there, I realized that this was a very unglamorous and often frustrating way to lay down one’s life. The day was an endless cycle of preparing food, feeding the children, changing diapers, cleaning up and then starting over again. Somehow I think the parents among us can really identify with this. In reality, there were far too many children and far too few of the sisters and other caregivers to fully meet the needs of the children. Caring for the poor, feeding the hungry is a lot more of a messy, heart-breaking process up close than the warm fuzzy feelings it evokes from a safe distance. I thought about how long I could do what these sisters were doing. Maybe a week, a month, tops, I thought, before I would really resent it. But despite the situation, there was a deep sense of peace pervading the center. These women knew something about laying down their lives that I didn’t.
Why is this one command, to love one another, so hard to practice? A good operational definition of this agape-love came to my attention recently. Madeleine L’Engle writes that the best definition for agape she knows is “’a profound concern for the welfare of another without any desire to control that other, to be thanked by that other, or to enjoy the process’” (A Circle of Quiet, p. 159). When I think about the people it’s difficult for me to love or the situations in which it’s hard for me to love them, basically it’s because they’re not fulfilling any of these underlying conditions. They aren’t affording me a measure of control of their lives (even though I have their best interests in mind, of course!), or making me feel appreciated, or just making it enjoyable for me to offer my love by giving me some in return. When love is difficult, I have to ask, what is it in me that causes me to react this way to someone else? I don’t usually do this. It’s too introspective. I usually just fume about the faults of that other person. I’m not the problem, am I?
Why does Jesus command us to do something so impossible as loving each other the way he loves us? “If you obey my commandments, you will abide in my love” (v 10). This isn’t Jesus being conditional about unconditional love. I think it is just this: you can’t really experience love if you are unwilling to give it. You simply can’t recognize it when it’s staring you in the face. Nothing we do or don’t do can change the reality of God’s love for us, but it can affect our ability to experience fellowship with God. Last week, Isaac spoke about the vine and the branches. He talked about what it means that we are connected to the vine and what it means to abide. He suggested that abiding in Christ means turning our lives into constant prayer. And let’s face it, if we are to love each other as Jesus asks, our lives will have to be covered in prayers: “Help me, Lord.” “Forgive me, Lord,” and maybe sometimes, “Lord, how do you want me to love this person today?”
And maybe it’s this, too – in our fumbling attempts to love each other, in our disasters and shortfalls, we recognize how much we need God’s love to fill us and heal us. Henri Nouwen spent the later years of his life caring for a profoundly retarded man. Others couldn’t see how this could be a good thing for the esteemed priest and writer. But in this experience, Nouwen found that he learned a great deal about what it is for God to love us. He received from Adam a precious gift. He wrote a little book, titled simply, Adam, outlining how the life of Adam displayed Christ to him.
Jesus says, “You are my friends (or my beloved) if you do what I command. 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 (beloved), because I have made known to you everything that I have learned from the Father” (v15). Notice that friendship with Jesus doesn’t mean we aren’t commanded. But in keeping the command, we are invited to be intimately involved in what God is doing, to work and walk along side Jesus, to be drawn into fellowship.
Now, I should really end the sermon here, but I want to be honest. There is one nagging issue for me. I know some wonderful folks who love others in beautiful ways, but they don’t do it because of Jesus’ command. Some of them don’t even believe in God. My friend, Moira, an agnostic, says she finds it annoying that Christians think the only reason you can love people is because you love God. When I served with Mercy Ships, the leadership asked a crewmember, James, to speak on one of core values of Mercy Ships. The one he was given was, “We love God.” I don’t remember everything James said, but at the end he said very candidly, “Now, I respect God. But love God? I’m not sure I love God.” Weren’t we serving on a Christian ship because we love God? But then again, how do I know that I love God? I saw James love people well. I don’t have the answers for all these questions. I probably am not even asking the right questions. But I do know this: Jesus says, “You didn’t choose me, but I chose you” (v16). And when Moira, and James, and I love each other, God is also drawing us, somehow, into fellowship with himself.
Beloved, let us love one another.
L’Engle, M. (1972). A Circle of Quiet. HarperSanFransciso.
Masson, V. (1995).“God and the telephone” in Between the Heartbeats: Poetry and Prose by Nurses. Cortney Davis & Judy Schaefer, (Eds). University of Iowa Press: Iowa City.
McCabe, H. (2002). God Still Matters. Continuum: London/New York.
Ware, K.(1995). The Orthodox Way. St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press: Crestwood, NY.