Encounter: Love

HOPE Point @Wesley Memorial UMC
March 19, 2017

John 15: 9-17 (CEB)
“As the Father loved me, I too have loved you. Remain in my love. 10If you keep my commandments, you will remain in my love, just as I kept my Father’s commandments and remain in his love. 11I have said these things to you so that my joy will be in you and your joy will be complete. 12This is my commandment: love each other just as I have loved you. 13No one has greater love than to give up one’s life for one’s friends. 14You are my friends if you do what I command you. 15I don’t call you servants any longer, because servants don’t know what their master is doing. Instead, I call you friends, because everything I heard from my Father I have made known to you. 16You didn’t choose me, but I chose you and appointed you so that you could go and produce fruit and so that your fruit could last. As a result, whatever you ask the Father in my name, he will give you. 17I give you these commandments so that you can love each other.

Owen just turned two. Only recently has he started to say, “Yo-yo” when prompted. “Yo-yo” means, “love you.” Owen is a keen observer, and though he does not have a whole lot of independent words in his vocabulary, he will repeat almost anything if prompted. This week, we were working on mastering the colors and the compound word, “oatmeal.” In any case, when Owen really started repeating the words he was hearing, I just assumed that he would say, “I love you” whenever one of us said, “I love you.” But, of course, he didn’t. For months, and even still, there was no response from Owen, and even now he will only repeat, “Yo-yo” if we say to him, “Owen, say, ‘I love you!’” It took me several weeks to realize that the blank stare in response to our declarations of love was due to the fact that “love” is concept (really a rather complicated one), that Owen doesn’t grasp yet. “Diggers” and “firetrucks” and “dogs” are all objects that can be pointed to. But not love, not in the same way, at least.

So when I came to this realization, I decided that as much as possible, whenever I told Owen that I love him, I would also try to give him a hug, or a kiss, or maybe some sort of praise, so that he begins to associate love with these actions and feelings. If we are on a video call with my parents or others, when we get ready to sign off, I prompt Owen to say “Yo-yo” and to blow a kiss. I don’t know if it will really work or not, but I’m just operating on this idea that if Owen can see love and experience love in tangible ways as he hears about it, then maybe he will grasp the idea more quickly. He’ll come to understand what it means when Mommy, or Daddy, or others say, “I love you, Owen.”

That’s the thing about love, and what Jesus is conveying here as he speaks with his disciples. Love is more than just a concept or a feeling. Love is more than a psychological state or an internal quality. Love is an action; sometimes a really difficult action. It’s something that’s lived, something that’s embodied. Through this season of Lent, we are thinking about life-changing encounters with Christ. Last week, we considered how Nicodemus’ life was changed as he walked out of darkness and into Christ’s light. In the scripture reading we heard this morning, Christ is among his disciples, teaching them. And what he offers is a life-changing lesson about love.

So let’s consider love for a minute; the way we think about it, and the way Christ teaches about it. We often think about love only as some feeling that springs up spontaneously in our hearts. Stories are frequently filled with the tales of “love at first sight.” But there are two problems with love viewed in this way. First of all, when love is simply a feeling that we have for certain people, then it becomes easy to disengage from other people. The obvious result of that is that the division we already see in our world every day is further compounded. The second problem with love viewed in this way is that love founded simply on a feeling is a very fragile love than can easily crumble under the pressures of life.

When you consider the fact that we usually think about love in terms of some feeling or state of being, it’s almost surprising here to see Christ commanding love. “This is my commandment: love each other just as I have loved you.” In other words, love is something much more than a spontaneous feeling that wells up in our hearts from time to time. I want you to just think about that for a second: “love each other just as I have loved you.” “No one has greater love than to give up one’s life for one’s friends.” Love is something that can be commanded, summoned. And even more profoundly, I think the key thing Christ teaches us here is that far beyond any feeling, love is when we set ourselves aside and take action for the well-being of others. This is precisely what Christ does for each of us. God in Christ Jesus loves us so much that he gave his life for ours. This is an intense, radical love: a love that extends far beyond any feeling and is acted upon in our day-to-day lives.

I’ll admit to you all that I always though the parenting and marriage metaphors for God’s love were kinda cliché and pretty ineffective. But then I started living in those realities in new and different ways. And I know that not all of us have been married, but each of us has these sorts of relationships in our lives; whether with parents, friends, co-workers, nieces or nephews—these people we have made a commitment to, and they have made a commitment to us, and in one way or another we have to put some effort into making that work. That effort, that work, that sacrifice for the well-being of another, that’s the love Christ is describing here.

Like any couple, Ken and I have our “bumps in the road;” our disagreements, the ways we have disappointed one another from time to time. We deal with this stuff as it comes along. Sometimes we are able to get things resolved pretty quickly and move on. At other times, stuff lingers, it keeps coming up, it continuously causes problems. Recently, as Ken and I were trying to work through one of those repeat offenders that had reared its ugly head again, I realized that as difficult as it is to sort through these messes, it’s worth it, it’s what I want to do, I’m invested in it because I love Ken. I love him so much that I can’t even imagine not trying to work through the difficult stuff.

It’s the same in our relationships with our kids. Even when they’re at the worst, we don’t stop working for their well-being. We might discipline them, but we don’t stop feeding them, and clothing them, and otherwise looking after their best interests. And we do this because we love them. It’s the same with aging parents. Even when we have jobs to hold up and families to care for, we don’t turn away an aging parent who is no longer able to care for him or herself. We bring them into our homes, or set them up in a place where we know they will be looked after, and we do this because we love them. The same is true of our siblings. They played dirty tricks on us when we were kids, and they ratted us out to Mom and Dad, but they were also our strongest allies. They’re the people we can pick up the phone and call anytime day or night and know that it won’t be a nuisance. We know this because we love them.

Now, here’s why these sorts of relationships matter. The relationships we have with family and friends serve as training grounds. Our best relationships teach us how to love. Day by day and year after year, these enduring relationships are the places in which we practice patience, forgiveness, kindness, and justice. In relationship with friends and family we learn hospitality, mercy, generosity, and compassion. Certainly, not every relationship achieves such lofty goals, but it is often through these relationships that we learn to love and we begin to catch glimpses of what it means to radiate the goodness and holiness of God in the world.

And that’s really why the love we have for one another matters. Today, we are celebrating the wedding of Karen and Rick. By the renewal of vows, we are celebrating couples who have been married for a few years, or a few decades, some even sixty years or more. And what we are really celebrating when we celebrate marriage is the love that binds us together; the love that always wants the best for the other and strengthens relationships. But that love is incomplete if it does not then extend out beyond our closest relationships to the wider world, where the reality of love in our relationships becomes a witness of God’s love for all people.

The essence of Christian faith and life is love. Everything else, everything else, friends, revolves around this vital center—God’s love for us and our love for God and neighbor. And this love is most profoundly, clearly, and simply revealed in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Christ worked for us. Christ gave his all for us. And Christ did this because he loves us. We should practice the same total, radical, sacrificial love in our relationships—in our marriages, in our families, and in our friendships. Then, we should take that love into the world and not just practice it, but live it, with everyone we meet.

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