April 28, 2013 Sermon

Sermon

“All We Need is…Love, Actually”

April 28, 2013

Fifth Sunday of Easter

The Reverend Christine M. Delmar

 

Acts 11:1-18    

11Now the apostles and the believers who were in Judea heard that the Gentiles had also accepted the word of God. So when Peter went up to Jerusalem, the circumcised believers criticized him, saying, “Why did you go to uncircumcised men and eat with them?” Then Peter began to explain it to them, step by step, saying, “I was in the city of Joppa praying, and in a trance I saw a vision. There was something like a large sheet coming down from heaven, being lowered by its four corners; and it came close to me. As I looked at it closely I saw four-footed animals, beasts of prey, reptiles, and birds of the air. I also heard a voice saying to me, ‘Get up, Peter; kill and eat.’ But I replied, ‘By no means, Lord; for nothing profane or unclean has ever entered my mouth.’ But a second time the voice answered from heaven, ‘What God has made clean, you must not call profane.’ 10 This happened three times; then everything was pulled up again to heaven. 11 At that very moment three men, sent to me from Caesarea, arrived at the house where we were. 12 The Spirit told me to go with them and not to make a distinction between them and us. These six brothers also accompanied me, and we entered the man’s house. 13 He told us how he had seen the angel standing in his house and saying, ‘Send to Joppa and bring Simon, who is called Peter; 14 he will give you a message by which you and your entire household will be saved.’ 15 And as I began to speak, the Holy Spirit fell upon them just as it had upon us at the beginning. 16 And I remembered the word of the Lord, how he had said, ‘John baptized with water, but you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit.’ 17 If then God gave them the same gift that he gave us when we believed in the Lord Jesus Christ, who was I that I could hinder God?” 18 When they heard this, they were silenced. And they praised God, saying, “Then God has given even to the Gentiles the repentance that leads to life.”

 

John 13:31-35     

31 When he had gone out, Jesus said, “Now the Son of Man has been glorified, and God has been glorified in him. 32 If God has been glorified in him, God will also glorify him in himself and will glorify him at once. 33 Little children, I am with you only a little longer. You will look for me; and as I said to the Jews so now I say to you, ‘Where I am going, you cannot come.’ 34 I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. 35 By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.”

 

Let’s Pray:

Gracious God, as you have loved us through your son, Jesus Christ, help us to love one another as he commanded.  And may the words of my mouth and the meditations of all of our hearts be acceptable to you, O God, our rock and redeemer.  Amen. 

 

As I was preparing this sermon, “All You Need is Love” by the Beatles kept running through my head.  Yes, I know, I am seriously dating myself, although my children, Greg and Anne, who are in their 20’s, also know every word by heart, as the lyrics are so simple and repetitious: All you need is love.  Love is all you need.  This popular song was one of several about romantic love featured in the British comedy, Love Actually, which came out about ten years ago.  (It’s a fun, upbeat movie, if you’ve never had the chance to see it, but a disclaimer: you cannot watch it with children or grandchildren, because there are a few R-rated scenes in it!).  That film has also been on my mind as I reflected on this Fifth Sunday of Eastertide as to what has been happening out in the world around us and in our shared life as friends in faith.

Love Actually begins with a voice over by the actor Hugh Grant, who says:  “Whenever I get gloomy with the state of the world, I think about the arrivals gate at Heathrow Airport.  General opinion is starting to make out that we live in a world of hatred and greed, but I don’t see that.  Seems to me that love is everywhere.  Often it’s not particularly dignified or newsworthy, but it’s always there.  Fathers and Sons.  Mothers and Daughters.  Husbands and Wives.  Boyfriends.  Girlfriends.  Old Friends.  When the planes hit the Twin Towers, as far as I know, none of the phone calls from the people on board were messages of hate or revenge.  They were all messages of love. If you look for it, I’ve got a sneaky feeling you’ll find that love, actually, is all around.”

Wouldn’t it be marvelous if that were actually so!  But, sadly, love, is not always all around.  Not in the world at large, nor always in our closest relationships, or in our communities of faith.  And yet, Jesus said, “I give you a new commandment, that you love one another.  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.”

What does it mean to love one another as Jesus commands?  Are we supposed to love those who hurt us, sometimes inadvertently, but often quite intentionally, or those who do not love us in return, or those who are impossible to like, let alone love?  Is loving someone as Jesus directs by what we do or refrain from doing?  And by the way, can anyone actually be commanded to love somebody else?  Can you make someone feel what they don’t feel?

Love one another.  Seems straight forward enough.  But then why is it so hard for us to live into this command?  We Christians say that we love one another, our sisters and brothers in Christ, but we do not always act as if we do.  We hold onto grudges and hurts, and we do not really forgive each other, settling for a false peace when there is no real peace between us.  We jockey to be first, rather than last, pursuing our own interests over the common good.  As one New Testament scholar observed, this “new command is simple enough for a toddler to memorize and appreciate, and it is profound enough that the most mature believers are repeatedly embarrassed at how poorly they comprehend it and put it into practice.”[1]  Paul’s letters to the early churches are full of the struggles of sincere Christians trying to put this command into practice.  And we continue to struggle today.

As some of you know, I serve as a Co-Chair of the Committee on Ministry for my Presbytery.  And that means I get to sit through a lot of really long, and sometimes tedious, meetings about ministers serving in various places, including churches in transition or facing some difficulty.  But I also attend ordinations of newly minted ministers and installations of newly called ministers.  Happy times when the larger body of Christ gathers locally to worship and celebrate the new relationship between a particular minister and congregation.

Earlier this month, I was at one of these services, and the esteemed guest preacher told stories from his many decades of ministry, including at his first parish, where another staff person was consistently rude and insulting.  The minister described this brother in Christ, as “a real royal pain in the neck,” which, I suspect, was the toned down version, because he was telling this story during worship!  When the minister went on to serve another church, his parting gift to the staff member was, The Great Big Book of Insults.  He had wanted to flag the insult that said, “You’re a big hairy monkey!”  But he didn’t, because, he said, although he didn’t like this man, he loved him!  Wow, that doesn’t sound very loving.

And then I thought about when I was Clerk of Session at my old home church and there was another church leader who aggressively undermined anyone who didn’t agree with his agenda for the church.  It was his way, or the highway!  And he was absolutely certain that it was God’s plan that he was pushing.  I wanted to throttle him, because he refused to consider other points of view.  When I asked one of the pastors what I should do, she said, to my surprise, “Just love him, Chris.  Just love him.”  And when I asked what that meant, she told me to read everything the Bible said about love, beginning with the command to love one another!   I did what she suggested, but I confess, I did not really understand how to love this unloving, unlovable man.  And after my term as Clerk ended, I avoided him.

To understand what Jesus means by this command, it helps to know that he said it during a long farewell dinner and conversation that he was having with his disciples the night before he died.  After they finished their last supper together, Jesus kneels before them and washes their feet, giving of himself in humble service and hospitality.  Jesus knows that Judas is going to betray him, and Judas leaves so he can turn Jesus over to the religious authorities.  Then immediately after Jesus gives the love command, Peter vows that he will lay down his life for him, but Jesus’ responds, “The cock will not crow until you have denied me three times.”

So, it is Jesus’ last opportunity to speak to his disciples before he goes to the cross.  Now, we know that the last words of a person about to die are sacred and important.  When I was at Yale New Haven Hospital, the chaplains sometimes helped patients who were dying to compose ethical wills.  Unlike a last will and testament that directs what happens to worldly goods, an ethical will expresses one’s most important values.  It’s a spiritual legacy loved ones can hold unto after the dying person is gone.

Jesus knew that his life was coming to an end, so his last words are his ethical will for us – what he considered the most important value to pass on to his beloved disciples who would soon have to live without him.   He wanted to give them what would help hold them together, when the going got rough.  So he gets right to the point, and gives them the new love commandment.  And it’s so important, he repeats it several times in the chapters that follow.

What is new about this “new” commandment?  Doesn’t the Old Testament already command us to love God and to love our neighbors as ourselves?  And in the New Testament, Jesus cites these commands as the greatest commandments, expanding who is our neighbor, through the example of the Good Samaritan, and by telling us to also love our enemies.  What is new is Jesus asking the disciples to love each other as he has loved them.  Jesus becomes the model for how they are to love.

Jesus didn’t love by simply feeling love for others.  He revealed and embodied God’s love in everything he did, which he also demonstrated by washing the disciples’ feet.  He was love in action.   And he loved them unconditionally, as God loves unconditionally.  Even Judas, who would betray him, and Peter, who would deny him.  Jesus poured out his love with extravagant self-giving, ultimately laying down his life for them on the cross.  And he is calling his disciples and us to love the same way: through self-giving, other regarding acts of service, hospitality, and generosity, no matter what we might actually feel towards another person.  It is not about how we feel.  It is about how we do or do not act.

Frederick Buechner writes, “In the Christian sense, love is not primarily an emotion, but an act of the will.”[2]  It’s a choice.  Jesus is not telling us to love with a cozy emotional or romantic feeling, which cannot be summoned on demand, but he is telling us to love others in the sense of being mindful of their well-being.  Thus, we can and are to love others without necessarily liking them.  And thus, we can and are to love others without necessarily liking what they do.  Jesus did not like what Judas and Peter did, but he still acted in love towards them.

Loving one another is complicated.  It does not mean that anything goes or that we are not to confront behavior that is unloving or harmful to ourselves or others.  Theologian Margaret Guenther writes, “Jesus is not commanding us to be doormats, to let ourselves be hooked into unhealthy and manipulative entanglements in the name of love.”[3]  And Jesus also taught in the Gospel of Matthew, that disciples are to confront other Christians behaving badly.[4]   Living in Christian community, means there will be times when we need to speak the truth in love to each other.  As Dietrich Bonheoffer wrote long ago, authentic Christian fellowship requires that we do “admonish one another to go the way that Christ bids us to go,” but we do so “out of forbearing with each other in love.”[5]

Friends, the love commandment doesn’t have a loophole that lets us off the hook when we do not like someone, or we deem them unworthy of love.  But Jesus’ command is also not a heavy-handed scold.  It’s more of an earnest plea that we will practice self-giving love, because it builds up the body of Christ in God’s love, unity, and peace.   And I will acknowledge with you that in some ways, it is much harder to love each other in our closer circles of family and faith than it is to love those outside them, because we spend more time together, bumping up against each other, which gives us more opportunities to hurt one another.

So, if we take into account all that the Bible does say about love, including the other Gospels and the letters of St. Paul, then what might loving one another as Jesus wants us to love look like?  It does mean regarding the well-being of those we do not like, and those who have not loved us.  It means being humble servants to each other, rather than lording it over each other, or being right at all costs.  It means not retaliating when someone has hurt us.  It means clothing ourselves in Christ and being patient, and compassionate, and kind with each other.  It means not being envious, or arrogant, or rude (or insulting, for that matter!), or insisting on our own way or agenda over the common good.  And it means bearing with each other in love, and forgiving each other when we are hurt.[6]   None of this is easy for us to do.  But we are not left without help.

For Jesus also promises the disciples that after he returns to God, he will send the Holy Spirit to help them to remember and to live into all that he taught.  I think of the Holy Spirit as a divine nudge, that moves us towards doing what is truly right and what truly reflects God’s generous love through Jesus Christ.  We see the Holy Spirit at work in our reading from Acts, when Peter is led and helped by the Spirit, breaking through his own limiting, unloving prejudices and those of his fellow Jewish Christians, so that others might be embraced by God’s love and grace.  We also need God’s nudging and grace to help us live into loving one another, and to keep us open to God’s leading here.

As we prepare to say goodbye to Skip, we are also in an in between time of transition and leave taking.  In between times are challenging, because we don’t like change and uncertainty. We tend to get anxious and impatient and unloving, which can lead to division and wanting control.  I have been listening to many conversations about what the church needs to go forward.  Yes we need a plan, and search committees, etc., and folks may disagree about what is needed and how we should get there.  But, brothers and sisters, what we really need now and in the months ahead is to remember what Jesus repeatedly told his disciples to hold onto after he was gone – that they love one another.  This means as we go into the future God has in store for us, we need to consider each other’s well-being and the well-being of the entire congregation.  We need to be patient with each other, and to truly forgive each other when things get a bit sticky, as they inevitably will.  But, dearly beloved, if we stay open to the leading of God’s Holy Spirit, as Peter did, and we practice loving one another as Jesus loved us, we will hold together, no matter what, and we will show others that God’s love is actually all around.   Amen.

 



[1] D. A. Carson, The Gospel According to John (1991), p. 484.

[2] Frederick Buechner, Wishful Thinking, “Love,” (1993), p. 65

[3] Margaret Guenther, “No Exceptions Permitted,” Christian Century, May 3, 1995

[4] See, e.g., Mt. 18:15-20.

[5] Dietrich Bonheoffer, Life Together (1954), See p.103-6.

[6] See, for example, Col. 3:12-17; 1 Cor. 13:4-7.

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