John 15: 9-17
New Ark United Church of Christ, Newark, DE
May 10, 2015
Sometimes the way we read the language used in scripture can get in the way of, as Marcus Borg put it, what the Spirit is trying to say to the Church. So I’d like to unpack some of the biblical baggage we carry around with us.
[Jesus said:] "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. I have said these things to you so that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be complete.”
First off, let’s deal with John’s use of the word ‘Father’ for God. When the gospel of John was written, some 60 to 90 years after the death of Jesus, calling God ‘Father’ was a radical notion. For more than two thousand years, Israel referred to God as YHWH, a name that one did not speak, because how does an individual or a faith community address the creator of the heavens and earth, of the whole cosmos? ‘Father’, on the other hand, implies intimacy, vulnerability, and yet a sense of one’s place in the creation. When Jesus used ‘Abba’, which translates as ‘Daddy’, he went a step further and implied a childlike dependency and trust in the One who was also Adonai or Lord and El Shaddai, the God with the power of a mountain. There really isn’t an inclusive version of this relationship, other than ‘Mother’ or ‘Mommy’. ‘Parent’ does not convey quite the same level of intimacy as ‘Papa’ or ‘Mama’. Many Native Americans refer to the Spirit that created humankind as Grandfather or Grandmother, recognizing the wisdom of our elders and yet implying that same sense of tenderness and closeness.
Since we are celebrating all families, of shapes and sizes, with a variety of relationships, we could read it this way:
"As the One upon whom I am dependent for everything has loved me, so I have loved you; abide (or live, make a home) in my love. If you keep my commandments, you will abide in my love, just as I have kept the commandments of the One upon whom I am dependent for everything, and I live in, I have a home in that love. I have said these things to you so that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be complete.”
Now for the word ‘commandment’. The Greek word entolé means ordinance, injunction, or command but with a little twist. It is a command more concerned with the outcome than with just obedience. The outcome is that we love one another as God has loved us. The outcome is to have a deep and abiding, that is, live-in relationship with Jesus, a lifelong friendship.
"This is the outcome that must follow from my loving you, that you love one another. 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. I do not call you servants any longer, because the servant does not know what the master is doing; but I have called you friends, because I have made known to you everything that I have heard from my Father. You did not choose me but I chose you. And I appointed you to go and bear fruit, fruit that will last, so that the One upon whom I am dependent for everything will give you whatever you ask in my name. I am not asking you but giving you these commands because I desire with my whole life that you love one another."
We who have a thousand other loves—God desires that we excel at one love: that we love one another.
But it’s not just a love that improves our own lives. Friday morning I had a Facebook conversation with a friend of mine who posted a quote from the 19th c. Unitarian clergy and author William Henry Channing:
“To live content with small means; to seek elegance rather than luxury, and refinement rather than fashion, to be worthy, not respectable, and wealthy, not rich; to study hard, think quietly, talk gently, act frankly, to listen to stars and birds, to babes and sages, with open heart, to bear all cheerfully, to bravely await all occasions, hurry never. In a word, to let the spiritual unbidden and unconscious grow up through the common. This is to be my symphony.”
While all of this is beautiful and laudable, it is a sentiment born of privilege. Love is not love if it does not impact those whom the world deems unlovable. Jesus said that if we love those who love us, what is that? Anyone can do that. The love that Jesus desires we impart to one another is a love that goes hand in hand with justice. Not that we just get along with each other, but that we love one another in a way that liberates the oppressed, heals the anger of our enemy, pays a living wage, and sends the rich away ready to serve.
But this is not a love we can give with the intention that it change someone else’s life. Like prayer, unconditional love is something that changes us. Unconditional love gives us the courage to effect change in systems and communities and policy; to raise our voice, go out and vote; to keep company with and give what we can to those who are starved for a love that holds hands with justice. To love with the intent that our love will hopefully change someone’s life is to impose a condition. Unconditional love changes us and transforms our lives. If it’s going to change another person, then it’s up to them to figure that out.
Earlier this week I was reading a blog post written by a mother giving advice to her daughter, who was trying to decide whether to keep dating a certain boy. She was unsure as to whether this boy loved her. The mother quoted 1 Corinthians 13 and asked her daughter, is he patient and kind? Is he envious, boastful, arrogant, or rude? The mother counseled the daughter to use this passage as a way of discerning whether or not this boy’s love was worthy of her.
If 1 Corinthians 13 is to be used as a measuring stick, then we use it to measure ourselves and the love we give to others. Am I patient and kind? Am I envious, boastful, arrogant, or rude? When was the last time I insisted on my own way? Have I been irritable or resentful? Do I cheer louder for wrongdoing or for the truth? How am I doing at bearing all things, believing all things, enduring all things?
No one can pass this test with flying colors. There’s always room for improvement, which is why we have grace. With the thousand other loves in our lives, the only one that really matters is how we’re doing loving others. The outcome that must follow from God loving us is that we love each other, no strings attached, no yardstick to measure. It’s this kind of love that transforms us into lifelong companions of Jesus and creates a family that spans across color and creed, sexual orientation and gender identity, ability, ethnicity, culture, and socioeconomic class. As it reads on the door out front, we love. We are Church.
Jesus said that people will know who we are by our love. And yet two-thirds of the younger generations who are not in church think that either white mainline Protestants do not welcome LGBT folks or they don’t know that we do. So many people who are not part of a faith community but have a spiritual life do not know that there is a church, the United Church of Christ, that extends an extravagant welcome to everyone—to all families and people seeking a family. This is why we are commanded to love and where we need to do more work, not just so we will love each other but that others might know that there is a powerful love waiting for them—love that can heal and transform a human life.
So I leave you with a question: how can we work on loving each other that we would be known by that love?
May it be so.