A sermon for the Sixth Sunday of Easter, Year C
(Preached at The Episcopal Church of St. John the Evangelist, New Brunswick, NJ)
Have you ever noticed that each Sunday after Easter has a theme? I can tell you preachers and church musicians have noticed. The Sunday after Easter is always called “Doubting Thomas Sunday”. Poor Thomas, but that’s a sermon for another year. The next Sunday we see Jesus and Peter reunited, usually enjoying breakfast on the beach. The fourth Sunday of Easter is traditionally called “Good Shepherd Sunday”, when we read the 23rd Psalm and reflect on Jesus as our shepherd. The fifth and sixth Sundays we flash back to Jesus in the Upper Room, talking to his disciples about things like love, abiding in his love, loving one another, and as we hear this morning, Jesus connects loving him with obeying him. “Those who love me will keep my word, and my Father will love them, and we will come to them and make our home with them.” Again, the themes of loving, obeying, and abiding.
“Those who love me will keep my word.”
Love. The C.S. Lewis Society that meets at the Canterbury House just finished a discussion of Lewis’ book, “The Four Loves”, led by our very own, Brandon King. One of the central ideas in Lewis’ book is that our English word “love” really isn’t adequate to capture all the varieties of love mentioned in scripture. Think about it. We love God. We love mom. We love cat videos. We love pizza. We love America. We love a rainy night. We love The Yankees!
Love, love, love. The word gets overused.
Lewis talks about nurturing love, affection, the love between a parent a child, between a human and an animal. That’s one word in Greek. A different word than what we call brotherly love or friendship. Then there’s Eros, passionate, intimate love. And finally we come to divine, self-sacrificial love, what in the King James we call “charity”. This ultimate love is so important, so central to our theology as Christians, we’ve brought the original Greek word into our churches, Agape. The simple word “love” just won’t do.
It is this love, Agape, that Jesus is speaking of in our Gospel lesson this morning. “Those who agape me will keep my word.” Jesus is not just saying, if you’re kind of fond of me, you’ll keep my word. This isn’t a parent saying to a child, “If you love me you’ll clean your room!” Or if we’re close like brothers, you’ll keep my word. No, if you love me with this ultimate, divine love, you’ll keep my word.
“You will keep my word.”
What word does Jesus mean? This snippet of Scripture we heard this morning is part of Jesus’ last conversation with his disciples in the Upper Room, the night before he died. That’s Maundy Thursday during Holy Week. Jesus’ talk to them lasts for four chapters in John’s Gospel. Jesus has many words for them.
During his final talk with his disciples we find many of the most beloved and some of the most challenging sayings of Jesus:
“Do not let your hearts be troubled. Believe in God, believe also in me. In my Father’s house there are many dwelling places.” Who grew up hearing that “many mansions”?
“I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.”
“I am the vine, you are the branches. Abide in me as I abide in you.”
“No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.”
All of these sayings of Jesus, and many more, can be found in this very intimate moment between Jesus and his disciples. Here, at the very end of their time together. But central to his message to them is love.
Remember at the very beginning of this their last meal and their last evening together before he died, Jesus washed their feet. What more symbolic act of love is there than this – to take on the job of a servant, a leader serving his followers by stooping down below them. He says to them, “See what I am doing? Do this to each other.”
I emphasize “act” of love because, as that great theologian of our time, John Mayer, reminds us, “Love is a verb”.
“Those who love me will keep my word.”
Jesus is calling us to do something, not just think about doing something.
If someone asked you to summarize how best to do this, to keep Jesus’ word, to love. What might you tell them.
Hear what our Lord Jesus Christ saith: “Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind. This is the first and great commandment. And the second is like unto it: thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself. On these two commandments hang all the Law and the Prophets.”
I believe that this is the essence of what it means to be a follower of Jesus – to make these commandments a reality in our lives. Be honest – it doesn’t come naturally. It’s not easy! If it were, we’d be in so much better shape as a country.
We are reminded almost on a daily basis how the default setting in our society seems to be set on discrimination. No! No! You can’t use that bathroom. You can’t drink from our water fountain. You refugees, you scare us. Go somewhere else!
How do we respond in the face of this madness? Do we protest? Absolutely! Do we work to change legislation? You bet. But our first commandment from Jesus is what? To love.
How do we love a bigot? We must choose to love them. How do we love someone trying to hurt us or those we love? We must choose to love them. Jesus doesn’t give us any other option.
Then turn it around. Who do we need to love that we might be pushing aside? Who are we ignoring? Who is our neighbor that needs our help? What would it look like if we truly loved those neighbors and not just the people we are comfortable with?
When by God’s grace we do love, when we keep Jesus’ word. Look at the reward Jesus mentions in this passage, “Those who love me will keep my word, and my Father will love them, and we will come to them and make our home with them.”
And Jesus gets a little mysterious after that -it wasn’t the first time, “I am going away.” “The Father will send an Advocate.” Can you picture the disciples looking at each other, “What is he talking about?”
We know what he’s talking about. Look on your calendars. What day is it this Thursday? Ascension Day! Jesus is going away, just as he said he would. But just 10 days later, on May 15th, we will celebrate the coming of the Holy Spirit, the Advocate, the comforter.
“Peace I leave with you,” Jesus says. We don’t always get this love thing right. We struggle to love. But Jesus reminds us that his peace is not as the world gives. His peace passes our understanding, and it cannot be destroyed when we fail.
May God forgive us the times we fail to love, and may God give us the strength and the grace to keep pursuing love. It is, after all, the best way we can obey. Amen.