Monday, May 25, 2009

Sermon for Sixth Sunday of Easter

(Sermon 5/21/06, John 15:9-16, 1 John 5:1-6)

Commanded

This past week, I travelled to Atlanta for a conference called The Festival of Homiletics, which is a preaching conference. As unappealing as it mind sound to many lay-folks, about 1600 clergy gathered to hear several days of back-to-back sermons and lectures. It’s one of my favorite events to attend – the preaching is excellent, given by some of the best, most well-known preachers in the Church. One preacher who was new to me, Julie Pennington-Russell, preached a sermon called “Picking Us Out in a Crowd,” that focused on texts similar to the ones we read today, focusing on Jesus’ teachings about us loving God and loving neighbor. Pennington-Russell said that according to Jesus, love is how you “pick Christians out in a crowd.” The authenticating mark of who belongs to Jesus is love. She said that there are no substitutions for love of course, and yet, we try to make them all the time. She imagined three well-known scripture verses about love and substituted other words: The steadfast niceness of the Lord… For God so tolerated the world… Faith, hope, respect abide, these three… Obviously, she said, love is the only thing that works.

Today, again, our lessons from John in the gospel and the epistle are about love. The language these past few weeks in our texts is so repetitive that it is hard to miss the point. Three weeks ago both texts repeated the phrase “laying down his life” or “laying down our lives” several times, as John sought to show us what it means to put love into action. Last week, the word “abide” appeared eight times between the two passages, teaching us clearly about the intimate relationship we have with God, at home in God’s love. This week is no different. Between our two passages, either command, commanded, or commandments appears a total of eight times in our readings. What could the theme be this week? John, sharing Jesus’ teaching with us, wants to make sure we don’t miss the message. We are commanded. So what is it that we’re commanded to do? Let’s look more closely.

In the epistle lesson, we continue in the chapter following last week’s reading, where John concluded by saying that we can’t truly love God, who we can’t see, if we don’t love our brothers and sisters, who we can see. In this chapter, our author picks up with continuing to expand on these family images. He says Jesus is born of God, and everyone who loves the parent loves the child – the child being both Jesus, and all people, adopted brothers and sisters of Jesus. And, John argues, we know that we love God’s children if we love God, and we love God is we obey God’s commandments.

In the gospel lesson from John, we hear similar language. We again pick up immediately where we left off last week, when Jesus was describing himself as the vine and us as the branches. Jesus was telling us that we should abide in or be at home in him, and let him abide or be at home in us. Today, we listen as Jesus describes in more detail what this means. He explains how we go about getting this abiding love – “if you keep my commandments,” he says, “you will abide in my love, just as I have kept my Father’s commandments and abide in his love.” And Jesus is clear about what commandments he’s talking about: “This is my commandments, that you love one another as I have loved you. No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends. You are my friends if you do what I command you.” Jesus concludes, “I am giving you these commands so that you may love one another.”

I think I’ve shared with you before about a book by Gary Chapman calledThe Five Languages of Love. Chapman talks about how problems in relationships happen because people have different understandings of what it means to show love. We all might be able to say “I love you.” But for some, love is only really communicated to another in certain ways. Chapman outlines such ways of showing love as quality time, acts of service, receiving of gifts, physical affection, and words of affirmation. He talks about how knowing someone’s “love language” can help you better show your love. We often tie love to other things – and Chapman urges us to believe that figuring out how we can best communicate love to others is essential for strong, lasting relationships.

Lucky for us, Jesus tells us straight out what his love language is – and it’s not one of the ones listed in Chapman’s book. Jesus is pretty specific. Jesus very plainly ties love and obedience to his commandments together. He tells us how he wants us to love him, and tells us how he loves us. He says, “if you keep my commandments, you will abide in my love . . . this is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you . . . You are my friends if you do what I command you.” It sounds very much like Jesus is saying our relationship with him is contingent on our following his commandments. In other words, Jesus says we’ll get along great as long as we do what he says. “You are my friends if you do what I command you.” In any other situation, we’d call this setup a pretty unhealthy relationship. It doesn’t work this way! How can love work if one person is in control? Our independent natures bristle at the thought. You can’t make us love! You can’t command love, can you? But there it is: “This is my commandment, that you love one another.”

Perhaps some perspective is in order. Jesus lived and taught in a day when being a faithful person meant following the laws of the Torah, the laws that had bound the community together from generation to generation. The people Jesus lived among also were people who lived in a very highly structured society, where masters and slaves and every status level in between lived according to rules and customs that governed behavior. Commandments? The teachers of the law counted over six hundred that faithful Jews were meant to follow. So Jesus comes along, as one more person who talks about commandments. But is he talking about the same old same old? Instead, Jesus’ idea of making rules is to require love. Commanded to love.

In the epistle lesson, John also ties love and commandments together, saying almost the same thing as Jesus said in the gospel. “By this we know that we love the children of God, when we love God and obey his commandments. For the love of God is this, that we obey his commandments.” And John adds a tag, as if prepared in advance for our complaints, “And his commandments are not burdensome.” Today, we’re not so different from the Jews Jesus was teaching. We just think we are! We, too, live our lives surrounded by rules. We can live by laws and maybe grudgingly but usually dutifully obey household rules, school rules, rules at work, rules of order for the church, rules for society, national rules, rules for the international community. We manage to live under so much law – so many commandments. Really, to be commanded to love – indeed, how can we find this burdensome? If we obeyed this command, this one – to love – how many of those other rules would we need? And, what’s more, we’re being commanded by Jesus simply to do the very thing we most want to have.

Thinking again of the Languages of Love book, the real point of it is that no matter what way we want to receive love, we do want it – we want to be loved. Rev. Edward Markquart, a pastor whose sermons I love, writes this, “It’s about love, love, love. From the moment you are born until the moment you die; and every second and every minute and every hour and every day and every month and every year and every decade, the purpose of life is God giving you and me the time to learn how to love, as God loves. The purpose of time, of every moment and every day and every year is that God is teaching us what it means to be truly loving people. That’s what it is all about. That is what it has always been about. God commands us to love one another in these ways. It is like God commanding fish to swim. It is like commanding birds to fly. It is like God commanding daffodils to be beautiful. When God commands us to love as God loves, God is simply commanding us to be the kind of people that we were created to be in the first place. We were created in the image of God; we are like God; and God is love.” (1)

So Jesus takes it a step further than John in his epistle. It is not just that obeying Jesus’ commandments are not burdensome. Jesus talks about something much more than that. “I have said these things to you so that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be complete.” Complete joy. Have you ever experienced such a thing as complete joy? Think over your life experiences. Think about the times in your life when you have felt the most joy – the most sheer, unblemished, undiluted joy. I’m going to guess that these experiences of joy probably have something to do with experiences of love as well, that our experiences of joy are never just about us, but always have something to do with the relationships in our lives. Jesus speaks to us of commandments, not to burden us, but to free us, because he wants us to have this joy not just in fleeting moments, but in complete, as a regular part of our living. “I have said these things to you so that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be complete.” So let’s be followers of the rules. And of all the rules we’re bound by, of all you can choose to follow, why not choose obedience to the one commandment that promises everything in exchange for your obedience. Let’s love, and be loved. Amen.

(1) http://www.sermonsfromseattle.com/series_b_its_about_love_love_love.htm

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