6th Sunday of Easter
May 10, 2015
Acts 10:44-48, Psalm 98, 1 John 5:1-6, John 15:9-17
Love Is Our Teacher
For me it is an occasion of great rejoicing when the theme of the Gospel from the week before very nicely carries over into the narrative of the Scripture I have to preach on! In fact, this week’s sermon could be entitled, Life In the Vine, Part II ! In last week’s Gospel, Jesus described for us how we are to live in relationship with him– as branches connected to him in a life giving vine and connected to each other through him. We learn that we cannot thrive apart from our connection to him; in fact, without that connection, we will wither and die. In order to keep the branches healthy, sometimes they have to be pruned and we have to let go of what is not life-giving for ourselves and the community. Only then will we bear fruit. In today’s passage, we learn that love is both the gift that empowers us to minister to the world in Christ’s name, and the first fruit of life in the vine, the community. This love is sacrificial, abiding, and truth-seeking. It is something we can never do in our own strength, but only through the power of the Spirit living in us.
By way of background, last week’s Scripture passage, as well as the portion for today, are part of what is known as Jesus’ Farewell Discourse to his disciples. In the Gospel of John, Jesus uses the time before his betrayal and death to instruct, challenge, comfort and strengthen his disciples in preparation for his leaving them and coming into his glory. In the earlier part of the Discourse, he tells them he is going away but that he has a place prepared for them. He encourages them to take heart during times of suffering and persecution, and promises an Advocate, the Holy Spirit, who will live in them and empower them to minister in Jesus’ name. He doesn’t claim to protect them from strife and struggle, pain, and death, but instead promises them something even more wonderful-his peace and eternal presence that nothing can take away. His strong, encouraging, yet tender words can be understood in the context of his impending death, and yet also apply to John’s community in the first century church, who was struggling with the conflict with the religious authorities, as well as factions within their own church. His teaching transcends time and speaks as clearly today as it did in the first century.
So how does this passage apply to us today, here in the early 21st century? What is so unique about life as part of the Vine, the Body of Christ? First, I think that love is the first fruit of life in the vine. It is the outgrowth of living closely knit to Christ and to one another. We are commanded to abide in his love, and to love one another as he has loved us. The Christian life, you see, is not something that can be lived in isolation, but in communion and fellowship with others. In a sense, love is our teacher in the ways of Christ and the school is the community of faith, in the company of our brothers and sisters in Christ. Community is a great classroom because there, in relationship with others, we learn to love. We bump up against the messiness of family life, and each others’ rough edges, and sometimes there is conflict. In community we learn to let go of the need to fulfill all of our own desires, and to show empathy and compassion. In community, we learn to extend the love and hospitality of God to those outside of our comfortable little circle, and to grow and be changed in the process. In community, we learn to humbly allow God to prune our rough and tangled parts so that we may grow into health. In fact, life in community has a way of pruning us and keeping us humble! So love is the gift of God that comes from our connection to the vine, and it is also the fruit of life in the vine.
What are some of the characteristics of this love? What gives Christian love such power? First, I think we can say that it is sacrificial. In today’s Gospel Jesus declares that “No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.” I am reminded of the young man in the Colorado theater shooting who threw himself over his girlfriend to protect her and was then killed by the gunman. There were the civil rights marchers killed in Selma, laying down their lives for the freedom and dignity of others, their brothers and sisters. There are countless soldiers who have risked their lives to save their buddies. There are the Maryknoll sisters who sought to bring dignity and hope to the poor in El Salvador, and were gunned down on a dark deserted road, And the list of the faithful goes on. But I would also submit that there is another form of sacrificial love that is every bit as powerful—the love of people who quietly give themselves for others in patience and compassion, joy, pain and grief, in their everyday lives and relationships. There is the family who tenderly takes care of aging parents, walking through the shadow lands of their decline and death, faithfully loving them to the very end. On this Mothers’ Day, I am reminded of so many mothers who offered their lives and hearts to love us, nurture us, challenge us and encourage us to be the people of God we were created to be. I think of the faithful people of this congregation, who after a long hard week of work, lovingly prepare our house of worship for services, work around the grounds, and offer food and fellowship to the community, week after week after week. Then these same people prepare food for the homeless and share their love with them. This too, is laying down one’s life for one’s friends, in compassion, humility, and gratitude, in a lifetime of self-giving service.
Another mark of the love of Christ is that it is abiding. It doesn’t give up on other people when they are difficult to love, but keeps on extending itself. My clinical pastoral education supervisor called this the kind of love that is “willing to climb in the hole” with someone else. This is the kind of love that doesn’t need to change or fix, but is willing to be with people wherever they are as a companion on the journey. Are we able to love in this way? Can we let go of our need to “fix” others or solve their problems? Do we make love conditional on people’s behavior, or their willingness to change? Or can we climb right down in the hole with them, no matter how dirty or dark it is, because that is what God does for us? This kind of love is countercultural. It is lavish, outlandish, and wonderfully foolish. It makes no sense, yet makes the most sense of anything in the world. It has the power to bring hope and transformation.
The love of God also seeks the truth. It doesn’t shy away from conflict, or confrontation. While loving can involve sacrifice for the good of another, it doesn’t mean being nice all the time and never thinking of our own needs. Love is meant to build mutual support and caring. And if we truly love the community, we have to be willing to compassionately confront if people are behaving in a way that is destructive to themselves or the community. This is not easy because we are called to confront in a way that tells the truth but is respectful of each person as a brother and sister in the Body of Christ.
Finally, loving in this way is not something we can do in our own strength. We need the Holy Spirit living in us to empower us and help us. I know that on my own, my love is conditional, and it is easier for me to love others who think like me. All too often, I love others with an eye to “what is in it for me.” I can too easily give up on loving someone, even though mercifully God doesn’t ever give up on people, me included! Unless we are connected to the life- giving vine who is Jesus Christ, we cannot love the way he does. . As he heals and transforms us with his love, our hearts are changed and we will be able to love the way he does. He considers us not as servants, but as beloved friends, and we are called to extend that friendship in the Body of Christ and in the world.
“No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends. Are we willing to follow our Lord in this radical offering of sacrificial love? Can we quietly and patiently weave the beauty of the love of Christ in our day to day lives so that in us others may see the Divine pattern of grace and compassion? Let us pray for the strength each day to truly love others as he has loved us! Amen.