Sermon for the Sixth Sunday of Easter, May 13, 2012. Delivered by the Rev. Margaret Bullitt-Jonas, Grace Church, Amherst, Massachusetts.
|Acts 10:44-48||1 John 5:1-6|
|Psalm 98||John 15:9-17|
Love one another as I have loved you
Twenty-five years ago, when I was in seminary, someone told me that a preacher should never say the word ‘love’ in a sermon unless the readings assigned for the day clearly justify it. It turns out that this is advice that I’ve managed to ignore in pretty much every sermon I’ve ever preached. Of course, the difficulty in talking about love is that the word is overused, misused, and trivialized in this culture, just as Mother’s Day, which we mark today, can be sentimentalized as nothing more than a “Be Nice to Mom” day — though, hey, that’s a good start.
For all its misuses, love is a valuable word, pointing to one of the most essential qualities of human life. And love is a gateway to God, for God is love. So let’s talk about love — today’s readings are practically awash in it. By my count, the word “love” shows up a full nine times in today’s Gospel: Jesus said to his disciples, “As the Father has loved me, so I have loved you; abide in my love. If you keep my commandments, you will abide in my love, just as I have kept my Father’s commandments and abide in his love… This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you” (John 15:9-10, 12). And so on. The passage from the First Letter of John covers the same territory and mentions the word ‘love’ five times.
Today we proclaim the love of God, and that message may ring especially sweetly in the ears of those of you who just saw the film “Love Free or Die,” a documentary about the first openly gay bishop in Christendom, Gene Robinson, and those of you who walked in yesterday’s Gay Pride march in Northampton. We’ve been reminded this week of the damage that blind hatred has caused — and continues to cause — to our gay, lesbian, transgendered, and bisexual brothers and sisters, and we grieve that so many Christians are still proclaiming a gospel of hate.
What I want to lift up this morning is that Jesus preaches a gospel of love and calls us to bear witness to love. That’s a message that we and the whole world need dearly to hear. In fact, Jesus gives it to us in the strongest possible terms — he commands us to love. In the two passages I just cited, the word ‘commandment’ shows up almost as frequently as the word ‘love’ — five times in the Gospel reading and three times in the epistle. “If you keep my commandments,” Jesus says to his disciples, “you will abide in my love, just as I have kept my Father’s commandments and abide in his love…This is my commandment… that you love one another as I have loved you…” And so on. (John 15:10, 12).
But can love really be commanded? You know as well as I do that we can’t force ourselves to feel loving. We can’t make ourselves love anyone by sheer force of will, and we certainly can’t compel someone else to love us. By its very nature, love can only be freely given and freely received. So what’s all this talk about Jesus commanding us to love each other? Besides, isn’t there something in us that resists being told what to do, even if we know it’s the right thing?
I’d like to repeat a story that I know I’ve mentioned before — a true story. A friend of my husband was driving with his young daughter, and the girl was sitting in the front seat beside her father. I don’t know what they were talking about or what was going on in their relationship, but for some reason the little girl took it into her head not only to unbuckle her seatbelt, but also to stand up in the passenger seat.
“Sit down!” her father said, with some alarm.
The girl refused.
“I’m telling you — sit down!” he cried.
Again the girl ignored him.
“I mean it,” said the father, by now quite upset. “Sit down right now.”
The little girl glared at him, slid back down into her seat and buckled her seat belt. They drove on for a while in what I imagine was a rather electric silence, and then the girl turned to her father and announced, “I may be sitting down on the outside, but I am standing up on the inside.”
No, we don’t like commandments, even when they are issued for our own good. So if we imagine God as an authoritarian, power-hungry boss “out there” whose job is to control us and order us around and tell us what to do, when we hear the word “command” we are likely to rebel quite a bit, or at least to dig in our heels. And if we do carry out what we think we’re supposed to do, we may do it with a kind of grim compliance, while feeling secretly resentful — in short, sitting down on the outside but standing up on the inside. Where’s the joy in that?
I don’t think that a dutiful or sullen obedience was what Jesus had in mind when he commanded his disciples to love. The God that Jesus loved was not some belligerent commander-in-chief with a habit of issuing directives, but an intimate Presence that Jesus discovered in his own depths and whom Jesus adored in all things and beyond all things. I take Jesus’ “commandment” that we abide in his love and that we love one another not as an external directive but rather as a description of the inner structure of reality. Maybe the commandments of God are something like the laws of nature — like gravity, maybe, or like the speed of light. When we love each other well — when we try to be real with other and to tell the truth in love; when we give each other encouragement and support; when we try to ‘be there’ for one another, even if it comes at a cost to ourselves; when we reach out in love to those who are different, to the stranger, the marginalized, the forgotten and the lost — then we’re living in alignment with divine reality. We are tuning in to the hidden life of God that is circulating through all things.
Conversely, when we hold back from love — when we refuse to notice how our actions affect other people and the rest of creation; when our underlying purpose in every conversation is to get attention and to be admired; when we cling to our own opinions and insist on winning and being right; when we turn up our noses at certain people and write them off as lesser than ourselves or get busy trying to force them to change — well, we’re living against the grain of divine reality. We’re cutting ourselves off from the flow of love that God is always pouring out to us in Christ through the power of the Holy Spirit. We’re stepping away from the dance, turning away from the feast.
Some of us have been watching a video series on Wednesday nights that features contemporary theologians, and in one of them, Cynthia Bourgeault commented that we tend to think that we need to reach out for God, as if God were some far-off destination that eventually we might get to. In fact, she says, through an attentive practice of prayer we come to realize that God already abides within us, that God is our Source. Then every day, in all our decisions large and small of what to say and how to say it, of what do and why to do it, we can show forth that invisible, holy Presence within us, and can make it real and give it form. We don’t need to invent love from scratch; love wants to flow from us already. All we have to do it to let it happen.
That, I think, is what Jesus meant when he said to his friends, “I appointed you to go and bear fruit, fruit that will last” (John 15:16). Fruit emerges naturally from the vine; it is connected to the vine; its source is in the vine; its DNA comes from the vine. And so it is for us: when we are intimately connected with the vine of God’s love, we can’t help but bear fruit.
Priest and writer Henri Nouwen once made a useful distinction between “products” and “fruits.” Products are what the isolated ego creates; “fruits” are what the self-connected-to-God creates. When our isolated ego-self makes a product, we claim all the credit. We strut; we’re proud; we imagine we did it ourselves. But when our self-connected-to-God creates, we bear fruit. Even if our accomplishment took a lot of individual effort and determination, it emerged out of a loving relationship with God. It is filled with God; it is animated by God. And Jesus assures us that such fruit will last. Even if what we’ve done is very small — if love has moved us simply to smile at a stranger on the street, or to take a breath and center ourselves instead of reacting angrily to some perceived offense — even if what we’ve done is as small as picking up the phone to call someone who is lonely or sad — Jesus assures us that these fruits of love will last. They will make a difference in the long run, even if we know nothing about it.
I had a chance a couple of weeks ago to meet someone who knows how love can change your sense of who you are. I was on the grounds of the National Cathedral in Washington, D.C., watching poet-farmer Wendell Berry receive the 2012 Steward of God’s Creation award from the National Religious Coalition on Creation Care. Like many of you, I’ve admired Wendell Berry’s work for a long time. His poems, novels, and essays are full of reverence for the Kentucky land that he has farmed for almost fifty years, and his perception of things is lit up with a sense of the holy. He is an old man now, and deeply connected to everything he loves, and when he was singled out for this award, he didn’t express one bit of interest in taking any credit for himself as an isolated human being. In his acceptance speech 1 he remarked that what he had done wasn’t really traceable to any gifts that were innate to him. In fact, he said, “If you subtract from me and what I’ve done — my birthplace, my family that I got by birthright [and by marriage], and all that has been put in this world and that is still left in it to admire and be grateful for, all the beautiful things there are to read and look at and be grateful for, all the teachers I’ve had, a good many of whom didn’t even know they were my teachers, and all my friends and allies — if you took all these things away from me and what I’ve done” — and here he grinned and looked slowly around the room — “I and what I’ve done would disappear with a barely audible pop. I can’t thank you for this on behalf of myself. I thank you on behalf of my good fortune, which includes everybody here and a lot who aren’t.”
That’s the voice of wisdom and humility, the voice of someone whose life has born fruit because he knows his deep connection to everything he loves.
How is God luring you to grow in love right now? What happens when you rest a while in the company of that deep inner voice that says, “Abide in my love”? I suggest we take a few moments to breathe in God’s love in the silence, for the God we’ve been searching for is already here, closer than our heartbeat, inviting us to bear fruit, and blessing us with joy.
1. My husband, Robert A. Jonas, videotaped Wendell Berrys remarks, which are posted here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=phPBJlJmWXM