Sermon from Clergy Retreat (April 18, 2012) “Love One Another as I Have Loved You”

Imagine that you are here in the dining room  at supper time and the food is so good that you’re taking a little bit of everything; you are carrying it all, balanced precariously in your hands. You’ve got a dinner plate, a salad plate and a cup of coffee and you’ve got a banana too because you’re planning to resist the cheese cake when it comes around. And now someone approaches you. If you just want to be reasonably cordial you can probably balance your salad plate on your dinner plate, catch your coffee cup with a finger and tuck the banana in the crook of your arm, and then you have a spare hand to shake theirs.

But if the person is in serious trouble, if they are very ill and about to collapse, you’re going to have to put it all down; you might even have to drop everything right there, because at that moment that person’s need is the more important thing than whether you get supper tonight or even whether there ‘s a mess to clean up later.

Jesus said, “This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you. Greater love has no one than this: that someone lays down his life for his friends. You are my friends if you do what I command you.” It is important to note that that  “if” isn’t really conditional, as if he were asking us to decide whether to obey or not. You are my friends, he says, not by your choice – I chose you.  Now love one another.

To the apostles who were with Jesus, these were his final words of preparation for all that was about to happen – his arrest and beating and crucifixion. And it was also his way of expressing his love for his friends. Later, after the terror and confusion and despair of Jesus’s death had been transformed into the joy and hope of his resurrection, they would remember these words and then they would understand that all of Jesus’s suffering, every step on the road to the cross. was an act of love for them.

But he isn’t just talking about what he does for us. His primary purpose in this discourse is to call us to follow his example. It’s a command that is humanly impossible to obey and even with the indwelling of the Holy Spirit, it is the work of our whole lifetime to obey this commandment, to learn to have the mind of “Christ Jesus who, though he was in the form of God did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but made himself nothing, taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. He humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross.” All of that is contained in those few words “as I have loved you.”

That  kind  of love is the central principle of the New Life, the sine qua non of the Kingdom. When John was very very old, it is said that he was carried in to the gathering in the arms of his disciples, and he would say only “Little children, love one another”. And finally some of his disciples, getting a little weary of this, asked him, “Master, why do you always say the same thing?” John’s answer to this was: “Because it is the command of the Lord, and if we do that it is enough.”

This is the command for every Christian but it is most particularly a command for us who are His priests, because we are called to represent Christ in a visible way in the world. Not many of us, at least in this time and place, are called to lay down our physical lives – though there are many of God’s people in the world who risk their lives every day as a witness to the love of God. For us, maybe we are called to lay down our lives in a multitude of smaller ways, to die many little deaths each day – to let go of our comfort, our dignity, our schedule, our possessions, sometimes our sleep as well. If we are to love one another and the people around us according to the perfect model of Jesus, we have to learn to live our lives with with empty and open hands, always prepared to be his hands, incarnating his love in the world.

Like the Levitical priests who were given no share in the land because God himself was their inheritance, our inheritance is not in the things of the world, all those things that give comfort and security in the kingdom of the world. We are children of God, adopted into a new Kingdom, and our inheritance is better than anything this world has to offer; it is Christ himself.

For now though, we are called to a life of sacrifice. The world despises the whole idea of sacrifice. The gods of this world demand that every appetite be satisfied, that each person seek to get ahead, to maximize our profits, to realize our full potential. To deny ourselves any of those things seems a kind of insanity; it certainly seems unhealthy,  and probably stupid. The cross is the ultimate disgrace according to the Spirit of this age. The gods get shuffled around from age to age, but they are always repelled by the things of the True God. Jesus warned his apostles – if the world hates you, know that it hated me first.

Loving the people around us well means that we work to satisfy their needs of body, mind and soul: to defend the rights of those who are abused and neglected, to feed the hungry, to visit the lonely and comfort those who are in pain, walking in the footsteps of our Lord, loving one another as he loved us.

But as we minister in this world that is passing away, we always minister as foreigners in an alien land. Our citizenship is in the Kingdom that is even now breaking in; we have died along with Jesus to this world and now our life is safely hidden with Christ in God. All that we are, all that we need, all that we will be, is safe in the hands of our Father.

If we are to be witnesses to the love of Christ in the world now, we have to do more than juggle our load of personal priorities so that we can reach out a spare hand. So many people we meet, our neighbors, the people we pass on the street or in the store, even people in our own churches, are dying, living lives with no hope, with no strength beyond their own efforts. And we know from our own experience how futile and hopeless that can be.

Our witness is first and always to Jesus’s acts of love, his life, death and resurrection, because he opened the way of life once and for all. But he calls us to witness, not just in words, but also by our lives, seeking to love as he love us, living our lives with open and empty hands so that we can be his hands of love in a world that desperately needs his touch.

During the retreat that I attended shortly before my ordination, Fr. Haskell said something that has haunted me ever since, and I pray that it may continue to haunt me, as a constant reminder. He told us that many priests do not end well. In other words, we begin with the best of intentions, full of promise and hope. But the long walk of faithfulness, the daily effort to resist the pull of the world and to die to ourselves – that can wear us down, if we do not come back continually to the fount of all our strength. My prayer for us all today is that we might be able to pray with Paul these words that he wrote shortly before his own death:

“I am already being poured out as a drink offering, and the time of my departure has come. I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith. Henceforth there is laid up for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous judge, will award to me on that Day, and not only to me but also to all who have loved his appearing.”

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