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Sermon: The Meaning of Our Lord is Love

A Sermon preached at Immanuel Church-on-the-Hill in Alexandria, VA on May 10, 2015.

6th Sunday of Easter, Year B (RCL): Acts 10:44-48; Psalm 98; 1 John 5:1-6; John 15:9-17

May the words of my mouth, and the meditations of all our hearts,

be always acceptable, O Lord, our Strength and our Redeemer. Amen.

"I have said these things to you so that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be complete."

I love those words. For many years, "that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be complete" were words that epitomized the fruit of a marital relationship wedded in and through Jesus Christ. My wife Chrissie and I shared in the ministry of Episcopal Engaged Encounter for 25 years, a program endorsed by the Church for the preparation of couples wanting to be married in Holy Matrimony. This joy is not happiness. It's not a surface thing. It is something deeper. Imagine something being shared by two people as being twice the joy, and half the sorrow. Even in lament. It's a joy that manifest deep love in relationship.

Today’s image of the life that the risen Christ shares with us is the image of friendship. We are called to serve others as Jesus came to serve; but for John’s gospel, the image of servanthood is too hierarchical, too distant, to capture the essence of life with Christ. Friendship captures the love, the joy, the deep mutuality of the relationship into which Christ invites us. The Greeks believed that true friends are willing to die for each other. This is the mutual love of Christian community commanded by Christ and enabled by the Spirit.

          The Acts of the Apostles tells us Peter was sharing the good news of Jesus with a Gentile soldier and his family when the Holy Spirit comes upon them. Recognizing that the Spirit works inclusively in the lives of both the Jews and the Gentiles, Peter commands that these Gentiles also be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ.

          John's first epistle says that God’s children believe that Jesus is the Messiah and to love God by keeping God’s commandments. Thus the world will be conquered, not through military might, but rather, through faith and love.

          The Gospel according to John remembers the night of Jesus’ arrest in the Garden of Gethsemane. Jesus delivers a final testimony to his disciples to help them in the days ahead. Here, he repeats the most important of all his commands: that they love one another.

The word “commandment” has more negative than positive connotations. Yet in today’s readings, the commandments display God’s love, serve to hold the community together in God’s love, and provide the way that believers can live as Jesus did.

I invite you to consider your friends and how they sometimes care for you or others and how you minister to them. Through the power of friendship is that mutuality of love made manifest in the world.

          The fruit that comes from a life that abides in God is fruit that lasts. Take a moment and think about that! Even the image of fruit is insufficient to speak of life that manifests God’s love because, you may have noticed... normally fruit is short-lived and does not last.

          For many people both inside and outside the church, the commandments as found in scripture are often seen as a set of rules to be followed, and that Christian living is more duty than joy. However, John links joy with following God’s commandments, and the reader is invited to view God’s commands as being more descriptive than prescriptive: “This is what it looks like to live as God’s people” rather than “Do this, or else.”

          “Bearing fruit” is one of those illustrations Jesus shares repeatedly in his storytelling: Using common things to remind people of his uncommon message. Yet, in our time, is real fruit even that common? The Food and Drug Administration tells us to eat 5 servings of fruit a day, yet I've learned that the typical fast-food “strawberry” milkshake has something like fifty-two ingredients – none of which are actual strawberries. Surrounded as we are by processed foods, sometimes it is very hard to tell what we're really getting. It might smell, taste, and even look like real food, but it is the product of chemists in lab coats.

In our busy lives where convenience and cost-effectiveness oftentimes take priority over quality and authenticity, we can become comfortable with accepting a good imitation if we can’t have the real thing. If Jesus is telling us to bear fruit, is real fruit what we are producing and striving to give? Or are we satisfied with offering something artificial? And what is the fruit that lasts, anyway?

Real fruit is the fruit of the Spirit that we find in Galatians Chapter 5 – love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. These are all things we hope for in ourselves and seek in our friends, what we hope to help each other achieve, even if we lack one or more of these qualities!

          In light of that, isn't it amazing that Jesus calls us friends?

“What a friend we have in Jesus” is a beloved hymn originally written as a poem by Joseph Scriven in 1855 to comfort his sick mother. He wanted to remind her and maybe even himself that Jesus is not only our Savior and Lord, but is also our friend. A friend who wants to hear every prayer concern, every worry, every joy, every longing. A friend whose voice we will hear speaking to us if we only to pause and listen.

          Words about love help us to understand Jesus' command to "abide" in him, to understand ourselves as living our lives within his Being. To be a part of him in the Body of Christ, as sheep of his flock, as branches of a vine that bears rich fruit for a world hungry for love. These words about love help us to understand what love really is, and what it means to make our homes, or to abide, in Jesus.

          Jesus wants to be our friend. It can feel like such a trivial, sentimental thing. But think about how many actual friends you have. How many people can you actually count on? Not just to hang out every once in a while, but to do things like help you move, pick up your kids, show up for dinner on a Tuesday, cry with you when you get bad news. Those people are precious. This is a level of relationship that cannot be overestimated. And the astonishing thing is that Jesus is initiating this friendship with us, not the other way around.

          This is what it all comes down to – Love. The bottom line is not what we believe, as if Christianity were only about creeds. It is not even whether or not we believe in Love. It is about actually loving. In today’s Gospel Jesus speaks of “commandments.” (John 15:10) What!? Where’s the list? We can look all through the New Testament, and we find Jesus only giving one single commandment: that we love one another (John 15:12). He said that even the Ten Commandments come down to, are summarized, in love (Matthew 22:36-39). Jesus was more of a Beatitudes sort of guy. He tells us to love one another as he loved us (John 15:12). Then he goes on to talk about how he loved us: by laying down his life for us (John 15:13). That’s how we are to love one another.

          Whenever we do for others, we lay down something of ourselves. When we visit the sick, we lay down something of ourselves. When we refuse to bully (adults do that too, you know), and stand up to those who do, we lay down something of ourselves. When we befriend those whom others shun, we lay down something of ourselves. When we share of our own short supply of food with those who are hungry, we lay down something of ourselves. We sacrifice our lives. We put our lives on the line. We love.

          This is not always easy. Love is not a warm fuzzy feeling. Love is a decision that we make every day when we get out of bed. The decision needs to be renewed every day because feelings are fleeting and come and go. Augustine’s advice to love and then do what we want is not permission for licentiousness. What he means is that when we decide to love, our intentions will always be for the welfare of the other. We do this freely, as friends, not as slaves. The paradox is that while we are not selfishly looking out for ourselves, we nevertheless become enriched.

          This past Friday, May 8th, in the life of the church we remembered Dame Julian of Norwich, an anchoress, mystic, and spiritual counselor.

          At age thirty and gravely ill, after having received last rites, Julian experienced fifteen visions of our Lord's Passion, which brought her great peace and joy. She wrote, "From that time I desired oftentimes to learn what was our Lord's meaning, and fifteen years after I was answered in ghostly understanding: 'Wouldst thou learn the Lord's meaning in this thing? Learn it well. Love was his meaning. Who showed it thee? Love. What showed he thee? Love. Wherefore showed it he? For Love. Hold thee therein and thou shalt learn and know more in the same.' Thus it was I learned that Love was our Lord's meaning."

          God Incarnate, as Jesus Christ, came into the world, free from sin, to live, preach, teach, and heal. Ultimately, he took the sins of the whole world upon himself to the cross at Calvary, to reconcile the whole of creation back to God. If that isn't Love, then I fail to know what Love could possibly be. Ever.

          God is Love. Dame Julian of Norwich knew this then, and we know this now. Love was, and is, and always will be, the meaning of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Let us follow His example. Let Love be our meaning as well, for we are created in God's own image and likeness. Let us strive to be like God and Love, so that God's joy may be in us, and that our joy may be complete.