Sermon 5.19.19 The Love Laboratory

Scripture Lessons: John 13:31-35 and Revelation 21:1-6

Pastor:  Rev. Kim P. Wells

In an advice column, someone writes in about something and then the columnist answers it.  My mother in law did thus and so . . .  and it goes on from there.  The guy I am dating doesn’t . . .  Whenever we go shopping, my daughter insists on . . .  So, the columnist offers a response to the circumstances presented.  Parts of the Bible kind of work like this only what we have is the response, we don’t usually get the initial query.  We aren’t told the full details of the circumstances being addressed.  But many of the writers have a target audience in mind and are thinking about the needs of that group as they write.

So, why do you tell people to, “Love one another as I have loved you”?  Why is this included in the last set of instructions and teachings that Jesus gives to his disciples in this gospel?  Evidently, this targets an issue. This is what the original audience for the gospel is having trouble with.  This is what they need to be reminded of.  

For the community that the gospel of John was addressing, this was an issue.  They were fractured by doctrinal disputes and by differing responses to outside pressures.  This was after the fall of Jerusalem and faith communities were reeling and trying to find a new normal without the Temple in Jerusalem as a cultic center.    

The Jesus followers addressed by the gospel of John were told to love because that is what they needed to hear.  It’s easy to see how that would be the case in the first communities of followers of Jesus and not only because of the external circumstances and pressures.

The first Christian communities were very diverse and the people did not have much experience getting along in an egalitarian way, seeing the views of others, functioning outside of the social structures of the highly stratified Roman Empire and traditional Temple oriented Judaism.  So, now they were to be family to one another and this intimate community life among diverse peoples was stressful and rife for misunderstandings and conflict.  And then there was the stress from the situation between the Roman Empire and the Jewish community.  

So, the gospel writer feels his readers need to be reminded to love and he works this into the last teachings of Jesus.  It is perfectly understandable that the disciples in the story would also need to be reminded to love given the circumstances of their story.  So, the disciples need to be reminded to love, the community of John needs to be reminded to love.  And, we also need to be reminded to love.  

The idea of love as the core of religious identity and practice was not new.  The commandment to love is not something new within the Jewish tradition.   In the Torah, Deuteronomy 6:5, we are told:  “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all you might.”  And then in Leviticus 19:18, ”You shall not take vengeance or bear a grudge against any of your people, but you shall love your neighbor as yourself:  I am the Lord.”  Jews were taught to love God and neighbor. Love is the core of Judaism and Jesus was Jewish.  So what is new about the commandment that Jesus gives in the gospel of John?  In Judaism, love was defined by obedience to the Law, the Torah, and the subsequent teachings about the Law.  There were extensive guidelines that defined love so that people knew how to comply with the commandment to love God and neighbor.  

What is new in what is presented in the gospel of John is that now love is not defined by extensive rules and guidelines and regulations, but it is defined by the behavior and teachings of Jesus.  He is the model for defining love.  And what we see in Jesus is complete obedience to love, for everyone, regardless of the circumstances or the behavior of others.  

That is borne out in the story we heard today.  Jesus says love as I have loved you.  At the beginning of this chapter of John, there is the story of the foot washing associated with the last supper in this gospel.  And Peter misunderstands and wants to wash Jesus’ feet.  He still doesn’t get the nature of discipleship.  In this chapter there is also reference to who will betray Jesus and our portion of the chapter began with, “When Judas had gone out. . .”   So there is reference to the betrayal of Jesus to the authorities by one of his closest companions.  And the chapter ends with the arrest of Jesus.  So, amidst all of this misunderstanding, betrayal, denial, and death, Jesus tells the disciples to love one another as he has loved them.  Nothing stops Jesus’ love.  Not the worst humanity can sink to, and that’s pretty low, not even that can stop Jesus from loving the disciples.

Jesus’ love is for everyone, no exceptions.  Even death does not deter or restrict Jesus from loving.  There is no cap on the forgiveness, acceptance, and generosity of Jesus’ love.  There are no limits, boundaries, or restrictions to Jesus’ love.  This is a new way of presenting the concept of love.  

We often use the word love to refer to a feeling.  An emotion.  And we know that emotions can be powerful and can influence behavior.  But Jesus was not talking about love as an emotion.  There was no sentimentalizing love in his commandment.  There was no trivializing love in his commandment.

Jesus’ commandment is not a directive about a sentimental emotion.  It is about an ethical, moral imperative.  It is a way of being.  It is a choice.  It is true freedom and liberation, because Jesus has decided that nothing someone else does will stop his love.  He does not give up his life, he gives away his life in the cause of love.  Jesus’ love is not a denial of agency.  Jesus’ love is the full expression of identity and vocation.  It is beautiful.  Jesus’ love is liberating because it frees you from being controlled by others.  Others no longer have control or power over his being because he is choosing love regardless of what others say or do.  They will not control him.

In her book all about love:  NEW VISIONS, bell hooks discusses how to define love.  She affirms the definition given by M. Scott Peck in The Road Less Traveled.  Peck describes love as “the will to extend one’s self for the purpose of nurturing one’s own or another’s spiritual growth.”  That is far beyond a casual sentiment or the expression of desire.  And in Jesus we see someone who extends himself unto death for the well-being of his friends, of all humanity, and of all of Creation.  This is what Jesus commands his disciples, to love as he has loved them.  He commands this because it is for their highest good, for the nurturing of their spiritual growth.  He wants nothing less for them and for us.  

Maybe you noticed that Jesus refers to the disciples as little children.  While he is with them, they are depending on him, like a parent.  But as he teaches, he tells them that he is going away and they cannot come.  They are going to be on their own.  They must learn to function as adults; no longer dependents.  They must learn to discipline and control themselves.  They are not going to have their teacher around to set them straight and help them understand everything any more.  They must grow up and become more mature in their discipleship.  So he tells them, as a group, about a new commandment so that they can help each other grow into living full and complete love.

We listened to a beautiful portion of a vision from Revelation.  This gives us a glorious image of a new reality.  This hopeful vision is needed for the people of the time because the Temple and Jerusalem have been destroyed and they are trying to come to terms with that.  Jesus teaches that when we love as he loves, we experience God’s presence and the comfort, peace, and healing we need.  We live into this new world portrayed in Revelation.  We experience the commonwealth of God here and now.  

In the first century, the faith community, the church, was to be a place to remember Jesus, to remember Jesus’ love, to retell his stories and teachings as a continuous reminder of who he was and who we are to be.  We do this still today in church each Sunday: we remember the love of Jesus because that is to define who we are.  And when we have communion, we do it remembering Jesus and his death which is the fullest expression of his love.  

Beyond that, in the first century as well as today, the church, the faith community, the gathered people, who eat together and pray together, and serve together, are to be a laboratory for love.  It is with these people that we practice forgiveness and try to get better at it.  It is with these people that we try to practice reconciliation when there are differences and hurt feelings.  It is with these people that we experiment with being generous.  It is with these people that we increase our capacity to be understanding and accepting.  Being part of a church doesn’t mean everyone is going to get along and it will all go smoothly.  Not at all!  We are going to have differences.  Feelings will be hurt.  There will be misunderstandings.  But it is with these people that we practice and experiment with loving fully, freely, and without limits.  It is in this community that we learn, grow, and improve our ability to love with Jesus’ love.  

We turn to bell hooks again who points out:  “Realistically, being part of a loving community does not mean we will not face conflicts, betrayals, negative outcomes from positive actions, or bad things happening to good people.  Love allows us to confront these negative realities in a manner that is life-affirming and life enhancing.”  [bell hooks, all about love:  New Visions, 2000, p. 139].

Church as a Christian community is a love practicum.  A lab class.  Where we try things out.  Assess outcomes.  Try to come up with a better solution.  Where we experiment and grow in our capacity to love with Jesus’ love.  It is a place to overcome our limits.  To wrest control from society and others who are testing the limits of our love.  It is the place where we are honest with each other and help each other learn and grow in love.  Here we are Jesus to one another trying to love each other with Jesus’ love.

During the Civil Rights movement, Dr. Martin Luther King focussed on the power of love.  He put into practice the new commandment that we are given in the gospel of John.  He did this by intentionally training people to be loving especially toward those who hated them and wished them ill.  When they were preparing for a non violent protest, people were trained in how to respond to hostility, to ridicule, to debasement, and to violence, with love.  No violence.  No retaliation.  No revenge.  The only tactic to be used was love – Jesus’ love, the love without limits, the love that suffers even unto death, but that eventually triumphs.  

Learning to love at church helps us to be more loving to people out in the world.  We spread the love.  We take the love out to others.  We learn to function from love for all.  And we know that when we love others, when people feel loved, it makes people friendlier.  It makes people more patient.  It makes people less self absorbed.  It makes people more at peace. So our loving with Jesus love brings peace and joy to us, to those we are engaged with in the church, and to the world.  

Really what is Christianity?  What is church?  What is following Jesus?  This teaching from John makes it very simple.   “Love one another as I have loved you.”  There’s no complicated theology or doctrine or dogma.  There are no extensive laws and rules and guidelines.  There aren’t even 10 commandments to remember.  Just one:  Love one another as I have loved you.  It is simple.  But it is not easy.  Most of us will spend our lives trying to get the hang of it.  Amen.  

A reasonable effort has been made to appropriately cite materials referenced in this sermon. For additional information, please contact Lakewood United Church of Christ.

Author: Rev. Wells

Pastor of Lakewood United Church of Christ since 1991. Graduate of Wellesley College and Union Theological Seminary of New York.

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