This is the sermon I preached last week, the Sixth Sunday of Easter, though perhaps I should say, “This is more or less the sermon I preached last week,” because I preach from the aisle without a manuscript or notes. You can find the lectionary here.
A seminary colleague once said, “I hate to use the word ‘love’!” She said this in response to another colleague who was talking about something, I don’t remember what exactly, and who said, “I just love …!” To say that the rest of us were surprised is probably an understatement. Shocked. Astonished. Speechless. Those are words that begin to describe our initial reaction as we held our collective breath, waiting to see what would come next.
When the first colleague saw our reactions, she explained what she meant, which I will say did help quite a bit. She went on to say that she thinks the word “love” is overused and so we have lost sense of what it means.
I think about this fairly often. I am one who tends to use the word to describe my affection for things I like a lot. You’ve probably heard me use it a time or two, perhaps in connection to something yummy, like hot fudge. It is an easy word for many of us to use. It kind of rolls off the tongue, if you’re in a hurry to say what you want to say: “I just love it!” You can savor the moment: “Thank you so much. I loooove hot fudge.” Folks who are listening understand what you mean.
And yet my colleague was right. We do run a danger of losing the full meaning, the potential impact, when we use a word too often or without thinking about the fullest of its meanings.
Today’s lectionary is all about love. The Collect, the Epistle, and the Gospel talk about love. And not in the way that I stand by my statement about loving hot fudge. They are talking about love in the greatest sense. The love God has for all of us. The love Jesus showed us up close and personal, as it were. The love that Jesus says we are to share with one another.
This is love in the most unimaginable, indescribable, and unconditional sense. It is not an easy love, as is my deep enjoyment of hot fudge. It is a love that often is not easy at all.
I talk to people all the time about their relationship with God. I often find myself asking if there is any room in their heart or their mind for them to believe that God loves them. And more times than I can count, the answer is “No” or “I’m not sure.” When I ask if they can tell me more about that, the answer almost always is some version of “I’m not good enough.” Or “I don’t deserve it.” Or “How could God begin to love someone like me?”
It isn’t easy, sometimes, to believe that God could possibly love you all the time, regardless. It isn’t easy to wrap your head around the kind of love that is freely given and undeserved. The kind of love that you can never do anything to earn and never do anything to lose. The kind of love that is yours for one reason only – that God is God.
I get it. I’ve been there. And I think some of why it is hard to believe is that we try to understand it from our human point of view. There are limits to trying to understand God from our perspective, using our experiences, using our language. And yet, there are also examples that help to point us in that direction.
In today’s Gospel, Jesus says that we are to love one another the way he loves us. Now, for those of us who did not live with Jesus the man, we cannot know first-hand exactly what that means, though the Bible gives us some really good, clear clues. We are to understand love as Jesus meant it, as Jesus shared it with the apostles and disciples, and with all he encountered as he went about his life. This is love that means respecting each other, treating each other with dignity, paying close attention to each other, taking care of each other.
Love in this way means doing whatever we can to ensure that all God’s people – everyone – whether we know them or not, whether we like them or not, whether we have lots in common or nothing at all, has everything they need to survive and to thrive. This is the kind of unconditional love that says, “I will do all in my power to see that you have everything you need to live a good life, to flourish. Through my care of and for you, you will have an inkling of what it is to be beloved of God.”
Now, I can think of a couple of examples that come close to this kind of love from my own life:
- You probably have heard me say that I have siblings. I am the oldest of four children born within 50 months, which is basically the assurance of some phenomenal sibling rivalry and lots of bickering. Add to that mix the fact that my parents were foster parents for a number of years. For a couple of years, from the time I was 10 to about 12, I was the oldest of seven, with the youngest being six years younger than I. (And, yes, I think my parents must have been saints.)
Now, despite all the ways we very creatively and imaginatively came up with to show each other we did not always like each other, far be it for any of us to stand by and let someone else say a bad thing, or cause some kind of trouble for one of us. In those moments, it became crystal clear that the love we shared as a family was far greater and far stronger than any of our child-like and childish squabbles.
- I’m pretty certain that I am not the only parent or grandparent here at Grace who has said once or twice or a bunch of times to one of our children or grandchildren, “It’s a good thing I love you because I don’t much like you right now.” And this to a child I love so unconditionally, a child I would willingly lay down my life for without question or hesitation.
This is part of what my colleague was reacting to: the conflating of like, even liking a lot, with love. And nowhere in the Bible does it say that Jesus told us to go out and like each other. No. What Jesus says quite simply (and repeatedly) is that we are to love one another as he loves us. And that, my friends, is not easy. In fact, it is sometimes one of the hardest things we can be asked to do.
Sure, I can choose to not spend time with someone, for any number of reasons. I can choose to remove someone as a friend on Facebook or take their phone number out of my phone. Those are the decisions I get to make based on whether or not I like someone or have enough in common to want to spend my free time hanging out with them. But what I can’t do, what I must never do, is to ever stop wanting what is best for them, to ever do anything that even begins to suggest I don’t think they are good enough to have a good life or to know that they are beloved of God. In fact, I am to do all that I can to ensure that no one goes without what they need to survive and to thrive, to have a life that gives them a glimpse of the immense and unconditional love God has for all of us.
This is not always easy. There are times when it seems so hard that it is easy to wonder if it is possible, hard enough that we throw our hands up or cover our ears or close our eyes to the ways in which we confuse like with unconditional love. But I’ll tell you, there is no better way for each of us to express our gratitude, for us to thank God for loving us even when we don’t think we are lovable, when we know we’re not likable, than to take seriously Jesus’ call to love one another as he loves us.
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