Fifth Sunday of Easter,
Preached on Sunday, 24 April 2016 at the Church of St. Matthew and St. Timothy.
It is my final semester at Union Theological Seminary, and I am taking a required class called “Religions in the City.” In this class, we are learning about the core teachings and practices of the other major world religions: Judaism, Hinduism, Islam, and Buddhism. In addition to reading about each of them, we have also tried a main spiritual practice of each religion: for Judaism, we were to practice Sabbath. For Hinduism, we practiced reciting mantras. For Islam we practiced Salah, or the five daily prayers, and for Buddhism, we practiced Zen Meditation.
Studying these religions, and trying the different spiritual practices of them has led me to wonder: if we were to expose someone from another faith to Christianity for the first time, what would we say is our core teaching? And what practice would we tell them to do? My answer is given by Jesus in our Gospel today: our core teaching is love, and we are to practice love!
John’s Gospel recounts Jesus giving the disciples a new commandment, as he realizes that he is going to die. It is a sweet and poignant moment: Jesus addresses the disciples, this ragtag group of grown men, as “little children.” This is the final, intimate and intensive conversation that Jesus will get to have with them before he dies, and he wants them to remember his last words. Jesus gets right to the point, there are no parables or puzzles. Jesus gives a new order to love one another. It is both simple enough that a young child could understand, and yet profound enough that a mature believer can struggle with putting it into practice.
Jesus says, “By this, everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.” I realized while working with the Spanish translation of my sermon that, if one were to translate the Spanish literally, it is “love some and others.” I like this – we are not only to love the ones we know – the ones with whom we are comfortable – but we are to also love those who are “other” to us. What makes one a follower of Jesus is therefore not one’s ability to memorize and recite a creed or a Bible passage. Jesus did not say, “they will not know you are my disciples if you believe the right things.” Instead, this commandment is about how we are to live: we are to practice love.
What do we really mean by love? Writer Glennon Doyle Melton describes love in this way: “Love is not a feeling. Love is the result of hours and days and years of using your hands and heart and mind to show up in a million different ways for other people. We don’t wait to act until we feel loving — we act so that we will feel loving. You don’t wait for love – you create it.”** I really like her definition.
Jesus gives this new commandment as the inauguration of the new covenant between God and the new community of Jesus’ followers. It is a new way for the disciples and for us to commit to being and acting in the world. Unlike the previous commandments – like the ten commandments, this one does not start with a “Thou shall not.” Instead, it is positive, and it is completely open ended! Can we ever love enough? There is always a need for more love in the world. Jesus does not tell us how this love should be, but to say, “just as I have loved you, you should also love one another.” Two chapters later in John’s Gospel, Jesus says that “no one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.” If we follow Jesus as our model for love, his love goes beyond compassion and care: Jesus gives all. There are no limits – love asks for everything. Love asks for every bit of life we have in us.
We could say now: “really, Jesus? That’s a lot to ask.” It can be really hard to love others. It can seem impossible to love others. There are many people out there that seem utterly unlovable. There are those we try to love who just continue to hurt us.
I think Jesus would encourage us to keep practicing. We need to love in ways that will stretch us, yet not exhaust us, or hurt or abuse us. We need to start by practicing love for ourselves first. What have you done to love yourself lately? We have to love ourselves before we are able to love others! If we can love ourselves well, then that love will start to spill over – and we will love others. We need to practice that love, too. We practice it by reaching out and creating love. We practice it by volunteering for ANGELS Basketball, or for the Soup Kitchen. We practice it by singing in the choir – one can really show long through music. We practice it by showing someone grace. We practice it by helping others, and – sometimes – allowing others to help us! Love is a two way street.
As individuals and as a church community, today we can recommit to how we will be and act in the world. How can we use our hands and hearts and minds to find new ways to love? What are the small ways in which we can show up for others? What new risks might we be willing to take, knowing that we may never receive love in return? How can we take a chance on love, while still keeping healthy boundaries and protecting ourselves from undue harm?
As Christians, we are called to live and act so that there IS love in this world. We are called to keep practicing, so we can get even better at loving. Jesus loved his disciples even though they betrayed him. If we are committed to Jesus, then we are committed to practicing love. Author Karen Armstrong writes that “Religion is not about having to believe or accept certain difficult propositions. Instead, religion is about doing things that change you.”*** By practicing love we show Jesus to others – we show them that we really are his followers. By practicing love, we can bring about change and transformation: in the world, in others, and in each of us.
***Karen Armstrong, The Spiral Staircase: My Climb Out of Darkness, Reprint ed. (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2004) 270.