It's been a big week here at St. Sociable. I love these people so much...
I sometimes wonder, if someone had a lot of time on their hands and decided to search through all the sermons I’ve ever preached in order to count how many times the word “love” appears… how many would that be? I’d bet that would be a lot. I say “love” a lot in my preaching. In fact, I have a sense that “love” may just be the word I use the most in my preaching because “love” captures my understanding of the Good News. The Good News is this: God loves us. God loves us, each and every one of us, wildly and extravagantly. God is love.
Our reading from John’s gospel this morning picks up precisely where last week’s reading left off. In fact, I had a brief moment when I seriously considered titling this sermon, “Abiding, Part II.” Or “Abiding, The Sequel.” But when the love angle caught my eye, it captured my imagination. “As the Father has loved me, so I have loved you; abide in my love.” So, Love it was.
Love. Is there any word that is more casually tossed around in the English language? Think of all the ways you can say you love someone or something. I love my spouse, I love my children. I love that movie! I love Jesus. I love chocolate chip cookies, and that first cup of coffee in the morning, and Oriental chicken salads. I love my friends. I love my church family. I love the people I work with. I love you. How many kinds of love do you suppose I’ve just named?
C. S. Lewis, one of the great popular Christian thinkers and writers of the 20th century, described love exhaustively in his book, The Four Loves.
The first love Lewis describes is affection. He says that this is the kind of love we seem to have in common with the animal world, and anyone who has a pet knows: we can feel their affection. We love them, and they love us! And they show love for each other. Affection is the kind of love parents have for their children, and children for parents. It is a kind of love that arises naturally, probably out of a biological imperative to keep the species thriving. It is a kind of need-love and giving-love, all wrapped up into one. The parent gives to the child, and needs to give to the child. The child needs the parent’s giving, and the child’s need is a kind of gift to the parent.
Our love for God is need-love—why else would we always be calling God “Father?” God is all fullness, and by comparison, we are all need. We need God’s love the way we need air in our lungs and blood in our veins and food in our stomachs. It is very like the affection of parents and children.
Next Lewis describes friendship, and he comments on how little respect it gets in literature and entertainment. He wrote his book in 1960, and I think there have been a lot of “buddy” films since then, for men and for women. Still, think of the famous pairings: Romeo and Juliet, Tristan and Isolde, even, for some of us, Nick and Norah Charles. But who ever thinks of David and Jonathan, or Elizabeth and Charlotte? Friendship is not a result of a need-relationship, like affection. And that is precisely why, in the ancient world, friendship was valued more highly than other loves. Because friendship is freely chosen, because we are not compelled into it by our own emotional or physical needs, it was considered the kind of love that elevated human beings into the realm of the angels.
Of course, the word love is associated most frequently, in our culture, with romantic love, or what Lewis calls Eros. As he puts it, it is the kind of love lovers are “in.” Which gives us some sense of what Eros is like: it possesses us, it claims us, it feels bigger than we are. Think of Romeo’s words as he gazes up at the balcony: “What light through yonder window breaks?/ It is the East and Juliet is the sun.” These aren’t the words of someone who is merely attracted to someone. Romeo’s love has taken possession of his soul. Lewis doesn’t want us to simply reduce Eros to sexuality, either. Sexuality is a part of Eros, but not the totality. Rather, Eros is a kind of complete delight in someone, what he calls “a general, unspecified pre-occupation with her in her totality.” That is the kind of love lovers are in.
Finally, we come to Lewis’ fourth love: he calls it “charity.” I think we tend to associate “charity” with “charitable giving” (or receiving). It has even taken on a slightly negative connotation… no one wants to be on the receiving end of charity. But that’s not what he’s talking about.
The love Lewis describes is what the biblical writers call Agape. This is the love Jesus is taking about in today’s passage when he says, “As the Father has loved me, so I have loved you. Abide in my love.” And, “This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you.” What kind of love is this? This is the same kind of love we talk about when we say, “God is love.” The love Jesus is talking about is the kind that gives of itself completely and utterly. It’s the kind of love that gives up all the power in the universe to become a puny, relatively power-less human being. For those fans of “Grey’s Anatomy” who happened to catch this week’s season finale, it’s the kind of love that lays down its life so that someone else can live.
When Jesus is telling us to love one another, he isn’t talking about having affection for one another—though we may have that. He isn’t talking about being in love with one another—though we may, joyfully, find ourselves in that condition. He isn’t even talking about having true and deep friendships with one another—though we may be lucky enough to have those. He is talking about a love that transcends all the other loves, because it is ready to give of itself totally, wildly and extravagantly, without hope or expectation of receiving anything at all in return. It is ready to give even at the risk of its own life, its own welfare. That is agape-love. That is God-love. And that is what we are called to, as followers of Jesus. “Love one another, as I have loved you.”
Now, I realize: there is nothing like setting a standard of behavior that is completely and utterly unattainable to get folks bummed out in the middle of a sermon.
Where do we begin? I have what may seem like a somewhat radical suggestion. Why not begin by doing absolutely nothing? Why not begin, not by trying to figure out how to achieve the impossible, matching the crazy, all-out giving-love of God in Jesus Christ. Why not begin, instead, by receiving it, by letting it seep in, sink down, flood into our hearts, souls and bodies. Why not begin by trying to understand that the Good News really applies to us? Why not begin by seeing what it feels like to abide in God’s love?
I have some recent experience in this area. At the beginning of Lent I decided to take on a daily practice of prayer and scripture reading—understand, this is something I always aspire to do, but there’s something about Lent that gives us just the gentlest of shoves in the direction we always mean to go but never quite get around to. And so I began getting up an hour earlier than before, and reading scripture and praying. And the epistle for Ash Wednesday read, “See, now is the acceptable time; see, now is the day of salvation!” [2 Corinthians 5:2] As I read those words, something inside me awakened and stretched and opened its eyes to the possibility that it just might be time for me to trust in those words, that now is the acceptable time. It just might be time to see what it felt like to abide in that love. And with that little kernel of hope—that I might be able to abide in God’s love—I began to make plans to share the fullness of who I am with you.
And so today you know a little bit more about your pastor than you did last week. And today I feel so very blessed to be able to say that I know even more about the love of God than I did last week. I know that the love of God shines through your faces and echoes in your words. I know that the love of God bridges barriers we may have thought were insurmountable. I know that the love of God lets itself be heard in phone calls, and read in emails, and seen in face-to-face visits, and held in bunches of flowers and hand-carved crosses.
And I also know this: the love of God does not guarantee there will be no difficult times, but it does promise to abide through those times. The love of God does not eliminate the need for painful or hard conversations, but it does promise to abide in the midst of those conversations. The love of God does not take away our racing hearts when we finally have to speak our truth, but it does promise to abide, giving us whatever it is we need to let those words be spoken. The love of God abides, and abides, and abides.
Near the end of our gospel passage, Jesus says, “You did not choose me but I chose you.” For the past twenty months, I believe God has chosen to bring us together as pastor and congregation, to do God’s work—to bear, as Jesus says, “fruit that will last”, or as our mission statement says, “to serve our Lord, our congregation, our community, and our world.” God chose us. God’s love abides with us. And I believe that God has work for us to do together, before God sends us on our separate ways. But the first thing I believe God wants is for us to know—to comprehend—that wild and extravagant love God has for us. That giving-love. That God-love. That love in which we can abide, in which we can trust, and in which we can take risks, together. Thanks be to God. Amen.