May 17, 2020, What the World Needs Now…. John 14:15-21, Mtr. Kathryn Boswell
To listen to this sermon, click here: Z0000195
There’s a great method of Bible study, very hands-on, where you print out the text of the passage that you want to study so you can write all over it, and circle things, and underline and draw connecting lines, without messing up your Bible. And one of the first things you do to help you focus on the meaning of the passage is you notice repetition. If there’s a word in there more than once, there’s a good chance it’s important. And if it’s in there lots of times, well, you need to sit up and take notice. If you used that method with the gospel reading for today, you would notice the word “love” popping up all over the place. In fact, in seven short verses we find the word “love” eight times.
And that’s not even all, really, because we find the word “commandment” twice, and if we follow back just a few verses to what Jesus has had to say about commandments in this account of his Last Supper, we’d see that when he talks about his commandments, that’s all about love, too. In chapter thirteen Jesus says, “A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another: just as I have loved you, you also are to love one another. By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.” Four loves in one commandment! It might be fair to say, then, that each time Jesus mentions the word “commandment”, it actually contains four “loves”, which brings us up to sixteen mentions of love! If you were a math person, like my husband, you might notice that that makes sixteen “loves” in less than a hundred and fifty words, which makes “love” about ten percent of the text, which is a lot. But most of us would just notice that Jesus has a lot to say here about love.
But once we’ve noticed this preponderance of loves in our text, we have a slight problem, because as common as the word “love” is, as simple as it is to spell and pronounce, and as often as we use it in our daily life, “love” is kind of a slippery thing to define. Is “love” a noun? Or is it a verb? I think we’d have to say…yes. Is “love” a feeling? Or is it an action? Well…again….yes.
The world has always had a lot to say about love. Way back in the sixties, when many of us older guys were younger guys, Burt Bacharach wrote a song that said, “What the world needs now is love, sweet love/ that’s the only thing that there’s just too little of”. And the Beatles told us, “All you need is love”. But they didn’t offer much of a definition.
The classic portrayal of love in Western literature is the star-crossed love of Romeo and Juliet, which proved fatal, a love that led to despair and suicide. And strangely, and unfortunately, that absorbing, destructive kind of love also shows up in modern culture, where artists often describe love as an addiction. “I don’t care what people say,” Keisha sings, “The rush is worth the price I pay/ I get so high when you’re with me/ But crash and crave you when you leave/ Because your love, your love, your love is my drug”.
So, is love a nice, sappy feeling of generally friendliness? Is love an obssessive, desperate, sometimes destructive, passion? When Jesus speaks of love, what is it really that he means? We know that he is talking about something much bigger and more powerful than greeting-card sentiments. We believe that he is talking about something much, much better than an all-consuming lust. We know those things, because even though the world does so often get it wrong, we all catch glimpses of real love over and over in the course of our lives. Like a wonderful scent that we catch on a breeze even if we can’t quite name it, we know love when we see it.
Most of us were fortunate to recognize real love in the care our parents showed us, and the sacrifices they made for us. We recognize love when we see the faithfulness of a man and wife who have been married for decades, faithfulness even in the most trying of circumstances, like illness, or dementia. We recognize love when we see a child with a baby brother or sister. We recognize love when we happen to see someone quietly offering a small kindness to a stranger. As broken as this creation that we live in is, we see the marks of love all around us.
And most of us have also seen the pain and suffering that results when love is missing. We have seen that when children are born into homes full of fear and violence, or even just neglect, they often fail to grow and thrive, not only emotionally, but even physically and mentally. We have seen the terrible harm that people suffer in an abusive marriage. We have seen, all too many times, the evil that results when the policies and agendas of a nation or an organization are lacking in love and compassion.
But the truth is, love isn’t something abstract we can pin down with a definition. Whenever we recognize love, we recognize it as it is incarnated; in other words, we really only know love when it puts on flesh. Love is only love when it is love in person – the love of a mother, or of a kind stranger, or of a good friend, or of a faithful spouse, or of a benevolent leader. We recognize love when it is embodied, even though in human flesh it is always flawed. As beautiful as love is, no human love is perfect; at some point, it always fails. That’s why Isaiah can say, “Can a woman forget her nursing child, that she should have no compassion on the son of her womb? Even these may forget, yet I will not forget you.”
Those of us who have lived for a long time have certainly learned that even the most precious, devoted loves of our lifetimes are human after all. Perfect love can’t be found in a parent, or a child; in a romantic partner, or in a life-long friend. To expect perfect love is too much of a burden for any human being, or any human relationship to bear. That kind of expectation can only lead to disillusionment and bitterness. Most of us have experienced that to some extent in our lives, sometimes very painfully. But in Jesus Christ we are invited into a relationship of perfect, unending love. And that’s what we just read today, “They who have my commandments and keep them – in other words, those who love their brothers and sisters – are those who love me; and those who love me will be loved by my Father, and I will love them and reveal myself to them.”
What Jesus is telling his friends on this night before his death, is that we are being welcomed into the perfect circle of love that exists in the being of the Trinity, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, who are united in a never-ending relationship of perfect love. Every other love that we have ever known or observed radiates out from that one perfect love, like the rays of the sun. And sitting around that table on that very night, the heart of that burning love was about to be revealed. Because it was on the Cross that the fulness of God’s love was perfectly revealed in the world.
“No one has greater love,” Jesus had told his friends, “than the one who lays down his life for his friends.” But Paul later wrote, “God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, even while were his enemies, Christ died for us.” Perfect love was incarnated once for all time, in the sight of the world, on the Cross – a love that offers forgiveness freely – a love that embraces even an enemy – and even more than that, a love that transforms an enemy into a beloved child. That is the perfect love that we have received.
There was a holy woman named Julian, who lived in England about 600 years ago. She became very ill when she was about 30 years old, and nearly died. As she lay in bed, she was given a series of sixteen visions of the Crucified Christ. And years later Julian wrote, “from the time that [the vision] was shown, I desired often to know what our Lord’s meaning was. And fifteen years and more afterward I was answered in my spiritual understanding, thus: ‘Would you know your Lord’s meaning in this thing? Know it well, love was his meaning. Who showed it to you? Love. What did he show you? Love. Why did he show it? For love. Thus I was taught that love was our Lord’s meaning.”
I want to close by praying once again the Collect for this day:
O God, you have prepared for those who love you such good things as surpass our understanding: Pour into our hearts such love towards you, that we, loving you in all things and above all things, may obtain your promises, which exceed all that we can desire; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.