The Gospel According to John 15:9-17
My daughter Hannah’s middle name, Ruth, honors one of the most wonderful people I have known in this life, my paternal grandmother. My grandma Ruth was sassy and kind, funny and strong. Honestly, I would stack her up against any other grandma in this world, and I feel like she’d win most grandma competitions.
When my grandmother Ruth died, lots of stories came up about her at her funeral. As I read this text from John today, one in particular sprang immediately to mind. You see, in my family, we’ve had people come into all kinds of ways. Some of us have been born into it, some married, some of us have been adopted. I have a few friends that through time have become family to me, and so now they are in there, too. But, a family like this, even with a woman like Ruth Petersen as the matriarch doesn’t come together easily. And, at some point, a relative came to her and said, “you know, I see these people around, but I want you to know, that you need to treat our part of the family as blood.” But Ruth was the kind of grandma who was simply not going to get caught up in that kind of business. She responded immediately, “it doesn’t matter how they get here, if they are born in this family or adopted into it, or just here, but once they are here, they are mine. That’s how love is going to work in this family.”
That is how love is going to work in this family.
I learned a lot about love from my grandma, but I have also learned about love in the church. Love is a word we use a lot in communities like this. We hear it all the time- we’re supposed to love our neighbors, love ourselves, love our God. Many of us come here because we’ve experienced love here, despite ourselves, even when we have made a mess of the world or our relationships, we come here and people hold us and tell us that things are going to be okay and that Jesus loves us. If there is one thing that we should leave this place carrying, it is that message- a message of God’s deep and abiding love for us, exactly as we are, for the mere fact that we are a part of God’s family. There are no caveats to this love. You can’t shed it. You can’t buy it. You can’t get any more or less of it. No one can take it away from you. So love flows easily in this place. Or at least it should.
But, most of us know that love, whether it be in a family, among friends, or in our most intimate relationships is really really hard. Most of us know what it is like to feel love, to have a warming of the heart and the spirit toward someone, toward God, toward something. We learn about love all the time in this life, from those who love us, even when we don’t deserve it. We seek out love, want more love, feel good when we act in loving ways toward others.
Yet, ask around, watch a few romantic comedies, open a magazine, and you will encounter tales of a kind of love that is mostly about how you feel. If we don’t feel love, than we don’t need to act in love. If you don’t feel love, then it is either another person’s fault, or you simply get to do whatever you want to feel love again.
But here, in our text from today, we have Jesus, giving his disciples a command. Love one another as I have loved you. Jesus, in the continuation of one of his last conversations with the disciples, doesn’t really give us an out, doesn’t tell those gathered that they need to love if they are feeling like love, the need to love if the other people are acting loving back, he tells those disciples point blank- love one another as I have loved you. That’s it. No qualifications, no notes about how when someone is a real jerk you can write them off. Love one another as I have loved you.
On good days that sounds awesome. On bad days that sounds absolutely terrible.
Because for Jesus, love is certainly a feeling. But, it is also more than a feeling, and what I think can help us here when the going gets tough, is that love is a doing. There is most certainly a place for feeling love- but we lose the thread of this text if we think the only kind of love is a feeling. If we feel it, we’re good, if we don’t, than well, forget it. As Jesus tells these disciples to love one another, it is grounded in concrete action. In washing feet, in healing, in prayer and in sharing. Love is not just a feeling, love is an action. Love is laying down your life for your friends. Love is obeying God’s commands. Love is in caring and sacrificing for the good of the other. We learn to feel love by acting in love. We learn to love one another by showing love toward the other. We learn to love ourselves by more fully learning to love our neighbor.
This is both kind of fantastic, and utterly terrible. Because, you see, this kind of love means that we are called by God to do loving things even when we don’t feel loving at all. It means that when someone comes to us for bread, because they are hungry and they are scared, but they are also incredibly rude and ungrateful, we give them a place at our table, because that is what love does. As a friend of mine often says, “I learned in church that God loves you, even if I might think you are a real jerk.” We love because of God’s love shown to us, not because our neighbor has earned it, bought it, or sometimes even deserves it at all.
But it goes both ways, because not only does that mean that we are to love one another when we don’t feel it, we can trust that even when we can’t feel the love of God, even when everyday seems sort of rote and we aren’t filled with a burning fire, that God still loves us. The love that we show, and the love that we receive from God isn’t something that we only must feel, it is a choice, a sacrifice, a promise. Love one another as I have loved you. God’s love for us is not about feelings, but love as an action, a gift, a promise that can’t be taken away. That is how love works in God’s family.
Love as an action, when God calls us God’s children, that kind of love can’t be changed. We are in the gospel of John only moments from the arrest of Jesus, at the very beginning of the dark and frightening ride that is those three coming days. And love is the only topic Jesus seems to be interested in. Love is the word he is using over and over again.
Because love is what Jesus teaches, and love is what is going to hang him on a cross. Jesus lived, in concrete action, the love that he is calling us to. This is the love that found him at a table with tax collectors and sinners, with hands embracing the sick and the unclean, calling sinners to new life. This is the love that found Jesus over and over choosing to bring more people to the table, the love that was radically inclusive and deeply powerful. All this love, love that broke down boundaries and changed lives, this love, as sweet as it sounds was also profoundly threatening. To those who sought power and liked the way things were, love that called all people a part of the family, love that refused to put people on the margins, love that called even the most sinful God’s very children, that love could not be abided. And, so, for love, those in power, the empire, all those who were threatened by this love hoisted Jesus on a cross and thought that would be enough.
But it wasn’t and it isn’t. Hanging on that cross, surrounded by folks calling Jesus to save himself, the love that God has for us, was found right there. That is the way that God’s love was going to be known, that this God would lay down life for us, would be known as one who would go all the way to the grave for love.
So, you see, we know, that in this family, this is how love works. It sacrifices. It stretches. It grows. It doesn’t matter how you got here- if you have been here for years, or if you just showed up, because there is a place for you here. Love has made a place for you here.
But we have to be real. Because love comes at a cost. Love, when lived out in our politics, in our homes, in our relationships, it is profoundly threatening. It means that we trade in love and not power. It means we are willing to love the unlovable, that we are willing to make choices that cost us something for the sake of love.
When we want to transform lives, Jesus tells us that this is how we do it. We love one another as God has loved us. We love one another when we don’t feel like it. Doing this kind of love, being this kind of community, it is a sacred calling. And, that is a profound truth that carries us through the moments when we certainly don’t feel loving. The sacred calling to love one another in community is what calls us to bring dinner to people who are sick and grieving even when it isn’t convenient, it is what calls us to show up when someone is in need even when our to-do list is long, this sacred calling to love one another in community is what pushes us to show up to protests for a mental health center even when we would rather be at brunch, this sacred calling to love one another is what encourages us to sacrifice, both in the big ways and the small, because that is how love works in this family. That is how love works.
In this community, we get to be in loving relationship with each other. And sometimes, in these earthly relationships, we get a taste of what it means to be friends with God. We get a glimpse at what it might means to know the tangible love of God. To feel ourselves changed, transformed. So love each other. Love each other, love your neighbor, love and keep on loving, because in that love we see God. In that love we become friends with God. Amen, and thanks be to God.