True Love - John 13:31-35
In the passage that Mary and I just read, Jesus calls his disciples, “Little children.” And as we hear his admonition, since we too are his disciples, the designation is for us. In his teachings and actions, Jesus held a special place in his heart for children. Despite being rebuked by church leaders when women brought their young ones to be blessed, he proclaimed, “Truly I tell you, anyone who will not receive the kingdom of God like a little child will never enter it.”
Children have an innocence and vibrant perspective that is often profound. We find delight in quips that come, “out of the mouth of babes.” Their insights and innocence can enlighten jaded hearts. My daughter’s pre-school teacher has a wonderful penchant for art and has the class regularly scribbling, sketching sculpting, and painting. Last week, as I admired some of the classroom art on display, I saw a quote tacked to the wall attributed to the great Spanish artist Pablo Picasso. It reads: “It took me four years to paint like Raphael, but a lifetime to paint like a child.”
In our passage, Jesus’ betrayer Judas has left the building. Jesus knows he will be sold out by one of his own. But rather than use the moment to spurn Judas and succumb, he tells his disciples to the darkness that awaits him, he uses that difficult moment to encourage. He tells them he will only be with them a little longer. He affectionately calls them children and orders them to love one another just as he loved them. It is the crux of his legacy—a legacy that we are called to maintain through faith.
Let us pray: Remove the daily dust that covers our eyes and hearts O God. As we hear your eternal command to love, by your Word and Spirit, give us the faith and sight akin to that of a child’s so that we can be joyfully obedient. And now, may the words of my mouth, and the meditations of all our hearts, be acceptable in Thy sight, O Lord, our Rock and our Redeemer. Amen.
Jesus calls us to love God, each other, our neighbors, and our enemies. Seems like a pretty tall order. Is it possible that Jesus’ command is merely a rhetorical exercise—an ideal to shoot for, but fully knowing that our self-interest, idiosyncrasies, and inconsistencies will always shatter the love ideal? Could Jesus really have meant, “give love a shot, but don’t worry, I know I am being idealistic?”
Love is a wonderful ideal. Our society’s notion carries a ring of purity and transcendence. Love is heroic. Love saves the day. All you need is love. But society also tells us that that even superheroes bleed, questions whether rather real love exists, and often ultimately points to watching our first and foremost for number one (over and about trusting in love.) You will remember Paul McCartney singing “Will you still need me, will you still feed me, when I'm sixty-four?” I was in Telluride, Colorado listening to the news on Paul McCartney’s sixty-fourth birthday, almost ten years ago. I recall a reporter acknowledging the “When I’m 64,” lyrics and pointing out that upon turning 64, McCartney was in the midst of a messy divorce and going through a difficult time of his life. The song was just an ideal.
Today’s sermon title may evoke the notion of romantic love between two people. Oh, falling in love. It is the source of books and movies. It causes family feuds and even wars. Falling in love is powerful and I recommend that everyone try it at least once. But, like other notions of love, we know it comes to an end—right? It is popularly understood that you that falling involves a brain chemicals like oxytocin, serotonin, and vasopressin that help intensify that feeling of attachment and obsession that often occurs and makes the world a beautiful place.
But, queridos hermanos y hermanas, when Jesus calls us to love, I do not believe that he insinuates we should take a stab at an ideal. Jesus calls us to love. As he speaks to his disciples, he is not simply giving a pep-talk and then moving onto to the next town of the pep-talk circuit. Jesus is about to be betrayed, turned over to authorities, and killed. Jesus is about to model the type of love that he calls us to. We might call it true love—love experienced by faith in the God of the universe. It is a love predicated upon what Jesus is about to demonstrate: sacrifice. It is a love that may contain the excitement and exhilaration and even euphoria of the popular notions of love—but it is a love that is eternal.
The Hellenistic culture that Jesus lived in had different words for different kinds of love. There was eros, philia, and storge. C.S. Lewis wrote a book about them called The Four Loves. In over-simplified terms, eros is romantic or erotic-based love. Philia is love based on common bonds and values—think Philadelphia—the city of brotherly love—or as Lewis pointed out, the biblical friendship of David and Jonathan. Storge is love based upon empathy and familiary—like familial bonds. Those are three Greek words for love, but there is a fourth. It is the same word that Jesus uses to admonish his disciples to love each other. The word is agape. I have heard it pronounced agape but my Greek teacher in seminary said agape and that we don’t really know precisely how the ancient Greeks pronounced words, so I imitate him.
Agape is a higher love. It is a love that persists in spite of changing circumstances and is concerned with the well-being of the other—even, over and above one’s own well-being. This is the love that is at the heart of a healthy functioning community, family, or marriage. It is a love that pulls us from self-interest to the interests of others. This is the love that lasts—and in the eyes of scripture is eternal. The Apostle Paul uses agape when calling love "patient and kind." Homer uses the word ten times in his published writings. The word appears 320 times in the New Testament. It may be characterized as the most idealistic of the loves but as far as I am concerned, it is then the most amazing. It is the confluence of ideal and reality.
Our society classifies love as a feeling. But we know that feelings rise and fall. Some people spend their whole lives trying to maximize the feelings of comfort and euphoria—and that goal consciously or unconsciously drives all that they do. But the love that Jesus calls his disciples to is not first a feeling, but a commitment. Author Frederick Buechner corroborates this in his book, Beyond Words,
“To say that God is love is either the last straw or the ultimate truth. In the Christian sense, love is not primarily and emotion, but an act of the will. When Jesus told us to love our neighbors, he is not telling us to love them in the sense of responding to them with a cozy emotional feeling…On the contrary, he is telling us to love our neighbors in the sense of being willing to work for their well-being even if it means sacrificing our own well-being to that end, even if it means sometimes just leaving them alone. Thus in Jesus’ terms, we can love our neighbors without necessarily liking them. In fact liking them may stand in the way of loving them by making us overprotective sentimentalists instead of reasonably honest friends,” (Pg. 231-232).
Even though agape is “real,” to do it, to love with agape, it is necessary to trust like a child. There is so much darkness out there to quell innocence. But through faith, God helps us transcend those forces that exist out there, and in here. A recognizable figure that promoted agape was Dr. King. He used it to further justice. In spite of all of the social ills, he never abandoned the ideal of a love that could foster transformation. His message was always artfully and innocently weaved together the ideal of love with the harsh realities of the world. In his final speech, he shared a vision of a renewed love and capacity for change:
It’s all right to talk about “streets flowing with milk and honey,” but God has commanded us to be concerned about the slums down here, and God’s children who can’t eat three square meals a day. It’s all right to talk about the new Jerusalem, but one day God’s preacher must talk about the new New York, the new Atlanta, the new Philadelphia, the new Los Angeles, the new Memphis, Tennessee.
The agape that Jesus leaves us with is awesome. As we consider how we might further infuse our community, mission, lives, relationships and marriages with agape I leave you with a story from twentieth century Greek author Nikos Kazantzakis’ autobiographical work, A Report to Greco:
“I knew that no matter what door you knock on in a Cretan village, it will be opened for you. A meal will be served in your honor and you will sleep between the best sheets in the house. In Crete the stranger is still the unknown god. Before him all doors and all hearts are opened.
Night had already begun to descend as I entered the village. The doors were all shut; in the courtyard the dogs caught the intruder’s scent and began to bark. Where should I go, at which door should I knock? At the priest’s home, where all strangers find refuge. The priests in our village are uncultivated, their education meager; they are incapable of any theoretical discussion of Christian doctrine. But Christ lives in their hearts, and sometimes they see Him with their eyes, if not by the pillow of a wartime casualty, then sitting beneath a flowering almond tree in springtime.
A door opened. A little old woman came out with a lamp in her hand to see who the stranger was who had entered the village at such an hour. I stopped. “Long may you live, madam,” I said, sweetening my voice so that she would not be frightened. “I am a stranger and have nowhere to sleep. Would you be so kind as to direct me to the priest’s house?”
“Gladly. I’ll hold the lamp so you won’t stumble. God-his holy name be blessed- gave soil to some, stones to others. Our lot was the stones. Watch your step and follow me.
She led the way with the lamp. We turned a corner and arrived at a vaulted doorway. A lantern was hanging outside.
“This is the priest’s house,” said the old woman.
Lifting the lamp, she threw the light on my face and sighed. She was going to say something but changed her mind.
“Thank you, my fine woman,” I said. “Sorry to bother you. Good night.” She kept looking at me, not going away.
“If you wouldn’t mind a poor house, you could come and lodge with me.”
But I had already knocked on the priest’s door. I heard heavy steps in the yard.
The door opened. Standing in front of me was an old man with a snow-white beard and long hair flowing down over his shoulders. Without asking me who I was or what I wanted, he extended his hand.
“Welcome. Are you a stranger? Come in.”
I heard voices as I entered. Doors opened and closed, and several women slipped down hastily into the adjoining room and vanished. The priest had me sit down on the couch.
“My wife, the papadhiá, is a little disposed; you’ll have to excuse her. But I myself will cook for you, lay the table for your supper, and prepare a bed so that you can sleep.”
His voice was heavy and afflicted. I looked at him. He was extremely pale, and his eyes were swollen and inflamed, as though from weeping. But no thought of a misfortune occurred to me. I ate, slept, and in the morning the priest came and brought me a tray of bread, cheese, and milk. I held out my hand, thanked him, and said goodbye.
“God bless you, my son,” he said. “Christ be with you.”
I left. At the edge of the village an old man appeared. Placing his hand over his breast, he greeted me.
“Where did you spend the night, son?’ he asked.
“At the priest’s house.”
The old man sighed. “Ah, the poor fellow. And you didn’t catch wind of anything?”
“What was there to catch wind of?”
“His son died yesterday morning. His only son. Didn’t you hear the women lamenting?”
“I heard nothing. Nothing.”
“They had him in the inner room. They must have muffled their laments to keep you from hearing and being disturbed...
“My eyes filled with tears.
“What are you crying for!” exclaimed the old man in astonishment. “Oh, I see: you’re young, you haven’t gotten used to death yet. Pleasant journey!”
In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
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You will find sermons preached by Rev. Robert Woodruff and guests preachers.