At a wedding reception for a college friend of Melissa’s a number of years ago, each table was asked to come up with at least one song with the word love in it, and then serenade the happy couple throughout the dinner. There was one catch: no repeats allowed. Within a minute the first group popped up and began singing “All you need is love” by the Beatles. One by one other tables sang too, sometimes mumbling forgotten words, and often out of pitch. Songs like “I had a vision of love” by Mariah Carey or the B-52’s “Love Shack.” Whitney Houston’s “I will always love you” got belted out by a diva wannabe. Our table sang “Seasons of Love” from the musical “Rent” with its “Five Hundred 25 Thousand,600 minutes” refrain. After more tables went and some opted to go again, the remaining people got desperate trying to conjure up songs—this was the pre-smart phone era, so we couldn’t just Google titles online—and so one guy decided to do his best Tom Cruise crooning, “You never close your eyes anymore when I kiss your lips,” the opening lyrics to “You’ve lost that lovin’ feeling,” and immediately got booed down by the bride’s family. Oh, we could go on and on, and I suspect some of you may spend the next 10 minutes of my sermon trying to come up with other variations, but you get the idea.
A sermon based on John 15.
Love is not only what makes a Subaru a Subaru, it also comes front and center in Jesus’ words with his disciples as part of his Farewell Address in today’s reading. And that’s a reminder friends, that these words come on the last day of Jesus’ earthly life. In a couple of hours Judas will be entering from stage left leading a band of soldiers with torches and swords to come and arrest Jesus at the garden of Gethsemane. But before that Jesus tells his closest disciples, “As the Father has loved me, so I have loved you; abide in my love.” Ponder that for just a moment: as God the Father, God the Source of all things, loves the only begotten Son, so that Son, Jesus, loves you. Gregory of Nazianzus—Archbishop of Constantinople in the 4th century—described the relationship of the Trinity as a mutual indwelling, as a divine dance. It’s a love that gives all for the other in such a way that the beloved becomes the primary focus. A bond so great, so strong, that the loved and the lover are unable to act without first thinking of the other. A love for which no cost is too great. Jesus tell his disciples, that he loves them like that.
Which is a far cry from the seemingly trite songs like “All you need is love” that we sang. I mean, yeah, it is all you need, but to be held in such high esteem, to be regarded like God the Father loves and regards Jesus the Word? That’s way beyond pop song love. “Stay in that much stronger bond of love,” Jesus tells them. Abide in that love that Jesus has for his disciples.
Imagine what that would look like in your life. Take just a moment right now, and allow your mind and your heart to dwell in that deep and abiding love of Jesus. A love that comes without expectation or cost and with no hidden agendas. A love that fills you up to know that you don’t have to do anything to earn it. That you don’t need to be perfect, or know everything, or have all the right answers, or be the model person or spouse or parent. Just a strong and abiding love like the one shared in the Godhead for whom love is the very essence. Imagine—and know—that you are loved like that and that Jesus wants you to abide in—to live and remain in—the warmth of that love.
“If you keep my commandments, you will abide in my love,” Jesus explains. Which might sound a bit troubling because when we hear the word commandments we go to those list of dos and don’ts, of things done and left undone, right? We start seeing the ways in which we miss the mark and fall short. But Jesus himself just prior to these verses has given a new commandment, “Love one another as I have loved you. By this all people will know you are my followers if you love one another.” And then he says it again in a couple of verses down, “This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you.” See, that love of Jesus’ that we abide in leads us to love too. It moves us to share the love we experience from God and let it influence how we treat other people, and in that way keep his commandment.
All of this abiding and commandment-keeping and loving that Jesus desires for us, envisions in us, causes him to utter these words:“I have said these things to you so that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be complete.” Joy. That’s what this unconditional, all-encompassing love leads us to. That total state of happiness, the emotion of possessing or experiencing what we so strongly desire. Of being fully known and accepted and cherished by the One who created us and all creation. The One who desires nothing more for us than our utter bliss.
Jesus then goes on to fully describe what all of this love means in a concrete and practical way: “No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.” And before any of his disciples can start to back away from this sacrificial call, he tells them in no uncertain terms that this is exactly what he is willing to do for them. Jesus looks at his disciples and says that they are no longer just his followers and servants, but that they are indeed his friends. And he is willing to lay down his life for them.
While they likely don’t see it coming nearly as fast as it does, certainly John’s first audience knows what is about to transpire. By this time the next day, Jesus’ body will have been placed in that new tomb with the stone rolled in front of it, and his friends will be hiding behind locked doors. But these words would be a lifeline for John’s audience at the turn of the first century, the ones who were themselves dealing with intense persecution. They would hear that call to lay down one’s life for one’s friends in a very palpable way, as a call to embody the love of Jesus and save the life of others. They would understand that a love that gives to another, that makes decisions with only the concern of the friend in mind, well, that would be a gift when facing persecution and questioning to expose other Christ followers. They would be laying down their lives for a friend.
And what about us? We live in a world that sees us as consumers, that seeks to cater to our every need and want. We are told again and again that we are the most important individual in the world, that we should seek our own happiness no matter the cost to others. Why put others first? Why endure pain for another? Why would you want to do anything that would hinder your goals for your life? (All of this messaging, by the way, comes from someone simply wanting to earn a buck. The whole enterprise is based on puffing up our egos, so that we end up handing over some of our own resources to them.)
What would it look like if we engaged in a similar exercise as the one our friends did at their wedding, except instead of coming up with songs containing the word love, we imagined practical, joyful ways to love others just as Jesus loves us? You are a tremendously creative group, what sort of outside the box thinking would bubble up in our conversations if we spent a moment of two imagining how best to embody the sacrificial love of Jesus? How might we joyfully offer ourselves—our time, our resources, our gifts—for others? How might we lay down our lives—the lives that our consumeristic society so wants us to coddle—how might we do that for a friend?
So humor me for a moment, like we humored our friends on their wedding; let’s try this for a moment. What might that look like for us today? You don’t have to stand and sing, but what practical, creative ideas might you have about loving one another, about laying your life down for your friends?
Beloved, the power of Jesus’ love has and can continue to change the world. We just have to keep choosing it over our own desires. Our joy will come most fully when we shift the focus of our life to respond and notice and care for others. So let’s keep doing this. Let’s keep thinking creatively of how we can embody that love of Jesus. Jesus wants us to abide in that love so that we can in turn share that love ourselves. Let’s give of ourselves to others so that our joy might be complete.
Alleluia! Christ is Risen!