A Sermon for the 6th Sunday of Easter
Year B – 13 May 2012
Eleanor Lee Wellford, Associate Rector
Jesus said to his disciples, “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.
“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. 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 Father will give you whatever you ask him in my name. I am giving you these commands so that you may love one another.” (John 15:9-17)
In something called a free-association test, a person is asked to say the first thing that comes to mind in response to a word, concept, or image. So, in the spirit of free association, what immediately comes to mind when I say the word “love”?
Is it a specific memory or perhaps a picture or image? Maybe it’s a poem or song about love such as “All you need is love.” Maybe because of what today is, a picture of Mom comes to mind (or not!) Or better yet, maybe it’s something David said in his sermon last week such as “God is love.” For me, pictures of my children as babies pop into my mind just as I’m sure there is no greater love than what Clara and Kevin Lang feel right now for their baby son “Bo”.
The word “love” is complicated by the fact that it is so misused. We humans are famous for doing that to some of our best words. And apparently there are organizations that track such misuse.
One such organization is Lake Superior State University in Sault Ste. Marie, Michiganwhich publishes each year its “List of Words Banished from the Queen’s English for Misuse, Overuse and General Uselessness.” In 2011, its 37th year of compiling such a list, the word that topped it was the word “amazing”. It has apparently finally replaced “awesome” as the most annoying misuse of a word.
The word “love” it seems, is used just as broadly as the word “amazing” in that the list of words that we connect to love is endless. We can love just about anything – a color, a car, the beach, the mountains, clothes, jewelry – which dilutes and distorts its meaning when we want to use it in reference to and in reverence of a person.
It’s interesting to me that the Greeks got around the complications of this word by breaking it down into three separate categories. One word for love meant friendship; another meant romantic love, while still another, agape, the word used in this morning’s Gospel reading from John, meant divine love which one commentary said is “what God has by nature and in which we participate by grace”(Feasting on the Word pg 498 “Theological Perspective”).
It’s the love that doesn’t try to possess or dominate the other and is free from self-interest. It’s the gold standard or maybe the platinum standard of love.
John used the noun version of this type of love 7 times throughout his gospel while he used the verb version 39 times. It makes me wonder if John who was writing about Jesus was more interested in the actions that flow from this type of love – the doing of love – rather than the idea of it.
Agape love is a selfless giving of ourselves – almost an emptying – which is at odds with our nature to want to receive or be filled up, instead. I do believe we humans are very capable of selfless acts – just not most of the time. Jesus was capable of selfless acts – all the time – and we have a written history of all the many times and ways he acted out of love. He was completely secure in his Father’s love for him and it was as real as life itself, yet at the same time, it cost him his life.
The verses that we heard this morning from John’s gospel are all about love and are a continuation of the vine/branch analogy that we heard in his gospel last week. He uses this analogy to explain how we are connected to our Creator. Love is the glue that holds that relationship together. Because God loves Jesus, Jesus loves us. So, when we abide in his love, we also abide in God’s love, making our joy complete. (Lectionary Homiletics, Volume XX, Number 3, “Pastoral Implications” pg 54).
Jesus said all of this to his disciples in a farewell discourse which they didn’t understand because they didn’t know that Jesus was about to lay down his life for them purely out of love. They didn’t yet understand how his death could possibly be a source of joy for them.
Theologian Paul Tillich observes that, in general, “Christians are poor examples of embodied joy.” He wonders if that’s due “to the fact that we are Christians, or to the fact that we are not sufficiently Christian.” He points out that many Christians, even the most devout, are surrounded by an air of heaviness which may have something to do with not knowing what real joy is or with the guilt that we feel when we are joyous (The New Being New York/London Scribner’s Sons, 1955) as if we don’t deserve it when there is so much suffering in the world.
So, perhaps “joy” is as misunderstood a word as “love” is and when Jesus talks about both love and joy in the same sentence, what are we to take away from that?
I think what we can take away is that agape love, the love that brings us joy, is much like grace, in that it’s not something we can seek out. Rather, it comes as a gift in seeking us out in the context of giving unselfishly of ourselves.
None of it happens apart from God because as we heard Jesus say in John’s gospel: “Just as the branch cannot bear fruit by itself unless it abides in the vine, neither can you unless you abide in me. I am the vine, you are the branches” (John 15:4-5). “You did not choose me but I chose you. And I appointed you to go and bear fruit, fruit that will last” (John 15:16).
What we do for others may simply start out as random acts but they will eventually lead to intentional acts of kindness. And according to Tillich, the awareness of how our true being is fulfilled by those acts is what causes us joy.
Just a few weeks ago I saw a rerun of a 2008 movie that expresses this so clearly. It’s called “Gran Torino” and stars Clint Eastwood as an aging, newly widowed Korean war veteran named Walt Kowalski, whose anger, prejudice and bitterness are given new life when an Asian family moves into his neighborhood, right next door to him. It consists of two teenagers and their mother and grandmother.
When the teenage boy is bullied by street gangs into trying to steal Walt’s prized possession – his 1972 mint condition Ford Gran Torino Sport – Walt feels even more contempt for his new neighbors than when they first moved in. And to make matters worse, the Asian family treats Walt with great respect and deference which just increases his irritation.
Despite Walt’s repeated and heated requests to leave him alone, the boy, at the insistence of his family, begins hanging out at Walt’s house and willing to do whatever it takes to make up for having tried to steal Walt’s car. Finally Walt begrudgingly begins to let the boy help him out with some odd jobs around his house and slowly, very slowly, and in spite of himself, he begins to take an interest in the boy’s life.
All the attention that Walt used to lavish on his prized possession of a car and the joy he thought he was getting from that, eventually shifts to the well-being of the teenage boy. He becomes the boy’s strongest advocate in helping him find a job and finally a hero not only to the boy, but to his family and to the entire neighborhood as Walt risks his life to bring the terror of the street gangs to an end. Once Walt let that boy into his hardened, angry heart, he was able to look beyond his own unhappiness and find real joy in the acts of kindness he did for a family he once despised.
The doing of love or the acts that become the fruit of the vine can only happen as a result of God’s loving us first. And if God’s love never ends as Jesus revealed, than neither will the potential for us to be the fruit and to find joy in our true being. Unfortunately, we often have trouble getting out of our own way long enough for that to happen.
So maybe we start being the fruit with small steps, such as giving a minute of our time that might lead to an hour next time. Or maybe it starts by giving $10 in Outreach before giving $1000; or maybe it’s by loving the person sitting next to us in church instead of loving our neighbor; or as Walt Kowalski showed, maybe it’s loving our neighbor who used to be our enemy (Lectionary Homiletics, Volume XX, Number 3, pg 58). Being the fruit by giving of ourselves is hard, but thankfully, it’s a process that begins with God. Is there any better time or place to continue that process than right here and right now?