Year C, Easter 5 April 24, 2016 The Reverend Dr. Brent Was
“Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another.”
Jesus just never lets up, does He? This scene here in St. John’s Gospel is amazing. There He is, at the Last Supper, Judas is on his way to betray Him, Peter’s going to deny Him the next morning and Jesus is going on about being glorified? That is a hard kind of glory. And to the end, there He is, these terrible things are about to happen, terrible things that people are about to do to Him and He is offering a new commandment, the Maundy Thursday mandatum, that we love one another. “Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another.” He never lets up.
The love Jesus is commanding us to offer is agape. Remember, there are at least four different Greek words that translate into English as “Love.” Philoeo which is brotherly, affectionate love. Eros, which is erotic, passionate love. Storge, which is about natural affection, “I love running or Pasta carbonara,” it has its basis in our own nature, it is more about us then the object of our love. And then there is the biggie, agape. What does agape mean? ____ From the source of all that is right and true, Wikipedia, agape means “a universal, unconditional love that transcends and serves regardless of circumstances.” This is God love, the biggest kind of love we know about. It transcends human affections, it implies a consuming passion for the well being of others. It is all about giving and happens even when the loved one is unresponsive, unkind, is unworthy of our love or is just plain unloveable. That is certainly the kind of love that you need to offer to a Judas, right? Not getting much back on that love investment. Even a Peter, the poor hapless soul that he sometimes was, a mixed bag is offered in return. It is certainly the kind of love that I know I need in all my messy humanness. Do you ever feel hard to love? Sometimes I do. And to even imagine receiving agape kind of love… To receive that kind of love, particularly when we are feeling kind of cruddy, kind of unloveable, to feel that we are loved with a selfless, consuming passion for our well being without condition, that is a pretty daunting thing to receive; just about as daunting as it is to offer to someone else.
And that is really too bad that it is so hard because this is sort of it, the point, the raison d’etre of Christianity, agape. The purpose of Christianity, of Christian community is to create an economy of agape, a free exchange of that kind of all-consuming conditionless love for the sake of love, for God’s sake. Remember, Jesus didn’t preach much on orthodoxy, on correct belief, but He was incredibly concerned with our orthopraxis (our big word for the day), orthopraxis, correct conduct or correct practice; how we act in the world. And the central practice that we have is love, agape. This is the second half of the Great Commandment, loving our neighbor as ourselves, and then the even higher bar, “Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another.” Because Jesus, oh did He love and oh, does He have some expectations of us to do the same.
But how do we do that? How do we express anything remotely like that divine consuming love to anyone, let alone those who seem undeserving of our love? Really, I don’t know about you, but I lose it when I don’t get the answers I want from the phone company? I pray for customer service people. Just being around church, we are all trying to build a Christian community together in a loving way and sometimes, not often, but sometimes even that seems to bring the worst out of us. If we can’t consistently love like that here, what hope is there? How do we do it, practice agape?
Well, we do have a model of it: Jesus Christ. He is the model of agape. Even the word, it is a Jesus word, found only in a few places besides the New Testament. He completely experienced the love, the agape of God the Creator. He knew that love perfectly. There was no separation, the love was felt so truly that He experienced God as daddy, abba. “The Father and I are one.” We heard that last week. And in receiving, experiencing that love so perfectly, He in turn poured that love back out to everyone He encountered.
He’s the model, I think we can all agree on that. But how did He do it? Specifically, how did Jesus love? What are some examples of Jesus expressing agape in the gospels?
- Raising the Dead – He loved Lazarus
- Teaching and Preaching– The parables (the Good Samaritan, the Prodigal Son and the Widow’s mite are key examples)
- Feeding the Hungry
- Casting out demons
- Praying for people
- Giving His life
Those are the easy ones. How about:
- Rebuking: “Get behind me, Satan!” “You brood of vipers!”
- Setting things right: Cleansing of the temple
- Telling the truth: “If you wish to be perfect, go, sell your possessions, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me.”
- Warning: Repent for the kingdom of heaven has come near.
- Speaking Truth to Power: What did he say to Pilate, to the Temple authorities?
Do not confuse expressing agape with being nice. Nice has nothing to do with it. The agape kind of love does not have to be nice, what it needs to be is honest and authentic. If truth will help the person you are loving on, then truth is what needs to be on the menu, even if it hurts.
This is really hard stuff. The joy of it all is phenomenal, but goodness gracious… what if we really understood that our primary religious practice is to try to walk around loving everyone you encounter? That is what Jesus did. He loved the centurions as they nailed Him to the cross. He loved those broods of vipers enough to risk His life pointing out the error of their ways for THEIR sakes. And He loves us, utterly without condition, He loves us even with all of the terrible thoughts we have, the lousy things we do, the kind things we fail to do, the aggression, passive and other that we sow, all of it.
I work out on the street with some very difficult people. People making choices, doing things that I can’t understand, from my well-loved, comfortable, middle-class, educated perspective. It is more birth than choices that determine our fates, but sometimes the choices folks make are horrendous, and these bad choices sometimes leave people helpless and dependant and they even sometimes act ungrateful, even resentful when help is offered. How rude! And… does that mean that they do not deserve our love? Our Christian love? Aren’t those the folks Jesus spent His time with? I am not saying everyone needs to be your new “bestie,” but ignoring them, rejecting them, judging and excluding them is just not an option, not a Christian option at least.
Or here at church. Did you know that not everyone is thrilled with everything I do here? Sometimes I make mistakes. Sometimes I have bad ideas and wrong thinking. Sometimes I am not as nice as I should be (and not because I am offering tough agape love, but just because I am not as nice as I should be sometimes, not as kind or forgiving as I need to be). And I am not the only one in our beloved community that makes mistakes, that has bad ideas, wrong thinking, or is not as nice as they should be. Sounds a little like the disciples who gathered around Jesus, doesn’t it? We’re all in that brood of vipers sometimes.
What Jesus means when He commands, “Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another” is that it does not matter who someone is, or what they do or think or feel or believe. Those things are perishing. They are fleeting. They are shadows cast by a fire on the wall of a cave, an illusion. What matters is that we are all here, together, in this magnificent world, sharing the air and water and soil, the sun and the wind all the bounty of the creation that we are part of, together. Our psalm today, 67, all of it… all of it held tenderly together in love, agape.
Seriously, we have a baptism today. We are welcoming Leifde into our midst, we are welcoming her into this community of people trying to be disciples of Jesus Christ. We are about to promise to help Rob and Hope and her godmother, Jolyn, to what, help her grow up in the church? We can do that, we have the technology. But what about “…help this child grow into the full stature of Christ?” That is one of the questions I will ask. Renouncing Satan, renouncing evil powers and desires, even accepting Jesus as “Lord and Savior,” trusting his grace and love, promising to follow and obey him… those are tall enough orders, but growing into the full stature of Christ. That’s the deal. That’s the promise we make in baptism, that we make to the child we embrace, that we make to ourselves that we will actually do it, the promise that we make to God one of our two principal sacraments, Baptism. And the heart of that promise, “Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another.”
How do we do it? How do we love with everything we have? How do we share the love that God in Christ shares with us? Maybe that’s it. Sharing. Because it is really not our love to hold onto, is it? All the love we have in our hearts is given to us by God, right? It is not really ours to hold on to in the first place, right? So share it!
But sharing is hard. Really hard. Sharing space is hard. Sharing resources is hard. Sharing a pew can be hard especially if they are short and keep dropping the Crayons. Taxes are just communal sharing, and people hate sharing so much that they have to be legislated. But sharing agape, now that is something different. We share agape, the unconditional love of God from a unemptying purse. It is boundless. It cannot be depleted. You can never love too much. (You can give too much but not love too much). It is like you have one child and you can’t imagine room in your heart for anything else, well, maybe your partner. But then you have another child and your love capacity doubles, and can double again and again and again… just because God is that good. And our hearts were made that big. And we all have the capacity to love that much. “Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another.” AMEN