Thursday, May 17, 2012

Sermon for Sixth Sunday of Easter, Year B: "Changed from Glory into Glory: Friends"

Sermon 5/13/12
John 15:9-17

Changed from Glory into Glory: Friends

When I was in high school, I particularly liked a song that was added to the movie version of the Andrew Lloyd Webber musical Evita, a song called “You Must Love Me,” added for the star of the movie, Madonna, as an additional solo ballad. The song has a double meaning. It features near the end of the movie, when Eva Peron, the first lady of Argentina, is dying of cancer. The song features a series of questions that suggest that Eva is amazed that her husband, President Juan Peron, is standing by her side even though her body is failing. “Why are you at my side? How can I be any use to you now?” she sings. The chorus repeats the mantra, “You must love me,” as words of discovery. “Oh, because you are doing this, staying with me, it means that you must love me.” It is a refrain of wonder, awe that she is so loved by her husband.
            But the song has a double meaning. Eva Peron had a strong desire to be loved by everyone, at least according to some accounts. She wanted the love of the poor, the middle-class, the wealthy, the political leaders, the military, the leaders of other governments, and certainly her husband. She wanted to be loved. And so “You must love me” is also her command. “You have to love me! I insist on it.” Many of her actions are variations on attempts to make sure that everyone adores her.
            Of course, we know, don’t we, that you can’t demand someone love you. Well, you can, but it isn’t very effective. Since we are talking about songs, another favorite of mine is a Bonnie Raitt standard: “I Can’t Make You Love Me.” It is the ultimate unrequited love song. “I can’t make you love me if you don’t. You can’t make your heart feel something it won’t.” If you have ever fallen in love with someone, but not had your feelings returned, you know that you can’t simply get someone to love you, at least not romantically, by sheer force of will, right?
            So, can you make someone love? Can someone demand that you love? Command it? Despite our wisdom gleaned from pop music, Jesus seems to think differently. “This is my commandment, 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. You did not choose me but I chose you. I am giving you these commands so that you may love one another.” Well, Jesus says he commands us to love one another! And he says that if we are friends, we will do what he commands. Now, I don’t know how your friendships work, but I try to command my friends all the time, and for some reason, they get really cranky about it! But seriously, what are we to make of a commandment to love? The Bible is full of commandments, but Jesus has only a couple that he seems to spend any time on at all. He commands us to love God, and love one another.    
On the one hand, this might seem like an easy out. I think the Old Testament lists 613 commandments for us to follow. Jesus doesn’t ever say these aren’t important commandments, but he does say that we often miss the point of it all, the spirit of it all, which is love. So remembering to love God and neighbor rather than 613 other things seems like a good deal. But on the other hand, to be commanded to love, when we start to think about it, may not be as easy as it sounds. For example, when Jesus commands us to love, I think we sometimes play this mental game with ourselves. Well, I love everybody, but I don’t like everybody. I love you, I just don’t like you very much. That doesn’t sound like very powerful, deep love, does it? Jesus says that great love is love where a friend will give up life for a friend. Would you give up your life for someone you didn’t like? Someone about whom you would say, “Well, I love you, but I don’t like you?” Jesus is talking about something deep, and we tend to want to make his words more shallow, which strips them of all their power. Can you imagine Jesus saying, “I love you, but I don’t like you very much?”
Still, how do we love one another? Because even if “I love you, I just don’t like you” isn’t a very deep love, sometimes, it is just exactly how we feel, isn’t it? So what can we do? How can we follow Jesus' commands? I don’t have a pat answer for that, but I have some ideas. Jesus says he has made know to us everything he knows from God. To me, that means that in Jesus' teaching and example, we have all we need to love like Jesus loves, like Jesus commands. When I look at Jesus, I see first someone who was in relationship with people! That means he spent time with people – quality time, real time, in real conversation with all kinds of people. Jesus spent an enormous amount of time with people who were not like him, with people who did not like him, with people who wanted to kill him actually. Jesus isn’t asking us to love in the abstract, to love from afar. Jesus wants us to love one another, real love, real people. And to love one another, we need to be in relationships.
Jesus acted with compassion rather than judgment. I've talked with you about the word compassion before – one of my favorite Greek words – splanchizomai – literally stomach-in-knots with concern for someone. Remember last Sunday when we talked about the vine and branches, I mentioned how branches don’t prune other branches? You can’t really love someone if you are too busy judging them and thinking about the things they do wrong all the time. Jesus looked at people and certainly could see to their souls, sins and all – but his reaction was to be moved with compassion, not judgment, not judgment disguised as concern, but gut-wrenching compassion. Can you see from your neighbor's point of view? Walk in their shoes? Practice compassion, and open a place for love in your heart.
Jesus commands us to love, and it is both a lifelong challenge, and the very thing we were created for. 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)
Finally, remember that Jesus, who calls us friends, commands us to love not to drive us crazy, or give us an impossible standard to live up to, but to give us exactly what we seek. He says, “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 today, 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, and love and be loved. Amen.

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