Sunday, May 17, 2009

Blah Blah Blah Love

Sixth Sunday of Easter – Year B (RCL)
Acts 10:44-48; Psalm 98; 1 John 5:1-6; John 15:9-17
Sunday, May 17, 2009 –
Trinity, Redlands

My first year of seminary, we had a dean who, whenever he preached a sermon, always seemed to focus on “love.” Even if the lessons didn’t contain the word “love,” Dean Lemler could still manage to make love the central theme. Since Tuesday was the Dean’s Mass where the dean preached, we could nearly always count on a weekly sermon on love. It almost became a joke among the seminarians. Jim was well aware of this as well, as evidenced by a story he told on himself. Apparently while a parish priest, there was an occasion when a young child was in church. For whatever reason, the child’s mother wasn’t there that day. When the child got home, the mother asked, “what was the sermon about.” The child innocently responded, “The usual. Blah blah blah love. Blah blah blah love.” As you can imagine, us seminarians had a field day with that one.

Dean Lemler would have been in heaven with today’s lessons, particularly the second reading and the Gospel, which are very similar, coming out of the Johanine tradition and therefore carrying the same Christological perspective. Blah blah blah love. Blah blah blah love. In a way, that’s almost what the lessons sound like. It seems as if every other word is “love.” Blah blah blah love. Blah blah blah love. As a result, today’s lessons can be mind-boggling, if not downright mind-numbing.

In fact, one commentator, a specialist in the art of homiletics, in examining the Epistle lesson from First John, says “Anyone hoping to track by means of linear reasoning through these few verses of 1 John is likely to emerge seriously frustrated—the author certainly seems to be going around in circles!” (Schlafer, 491). While the lesson from First John contains some central images and concepts that are intended to illustrate the meaning of Christian love, upon hearing them described, the logic, for the twenty-first century Western mind, is hard to follow. “We know that we love the children of God when we love God and obey his commandments.” We can get so wrapped up in trying to logically analyze what is being said that we get caught in a loop that is almost impossible to rationalize our way out of.

To spare us too much of a headache, our friend the commentator has synthesized this passage down into a few key concepts. In order of appearance, these are ideas about belief; relationship, both human and divine; love; obedience; commandments; conquest and victory; and faith. That’s a lot crammed into a mere five verses. No wonder we have a hard time wrapping our minds around all of this. In fact, this same commentator describes this section of biblical text as “a bloodless ballet of abstract categories,” as “an elaborate procession of empty theological circumlocutions,” and as “a vortex of sentimental religious jargon, sucking its audience down in a rhetorical swirl” (Schlafer, 491). Maybe blah blah blah love is a little easier to understand.

But to help us out, and to redeem the meaning of this potentially confusing passage, this homiletical expert provides another image that might just provide the clarity we need, shedding light on the meaning of blah blah blah love. He proposes the metaphor of “something like the orderly attraction of a gravitational field—one in which belief, kinship with God and one another, love, obedience, the commandments of God, triumph over the world, and ‘our faith,’ are all elements encircling each other, held in orbit by a centering energy point, named by the writer as Jesus the Christ” (Schlafer, 491). I think this is a wonderful image to help us understand what the author of First John is attempting to describe. Sort of translating it into a twenty-first century world view, or rather, cosmological view.

The only modification I would make would be that we have all these elements, all these attributes and characteristics of Christian life, held in orbit around and by a centering energy force called Jesus Christ, just as the planets orbit the sun. But instead of love being one of those characteristics, I would say that love is the attractive force holding all else in orbit around Christ. Love is the gravity that keeps it all together. Just as the sun is the source of the gravitational field that influences our solar system, Christ is the source of love that influences the attributes of Christian life. Love, that attractive force between us and our Savior, is what binds together our system of belief, relationship, obedience, God’s commandments, victory in the world, and faith. Without love to bind us with Christ, all else would be meaningless; all else would go flying off into the cosmos, set adrift to wander without aim or purpose.

And just as we require the force of gravity to keep us grounded here on terra firma, so too do we require the force of love generated by Christ and manifest through our relationship with Christ and one another, to keep us firmly grounded in the Christian faith. Without gravity, we would all float off into outer space. Without Christ and the love generated and made possible through him, we would similarly float off into a meaningless existence, drifting about without aim or purpose.

With all this talk of love, it is probably worth a little explanation of what love is and what it is not. When we think of love, most of us will naturally think of the warm, fuzzy, feelings we have toward those with whom we are closest and most intimate. We think of the emotional type of love epitomized in Hallmark cards. But that’s not what we’re talking about here. It’s not what Jesus or the author of First John are talking about. That emotional sense of love is far too narrow, far too limiting. That notion of love tends to be, although not always, possessive, dominating, containing a degree of self-interest, can be coercive, and in limited supply.

Jesus was talking about a far broader definition of love. Unlike English, which only has one word for love, the original Greek of the New Testament has four words for love, each with a differing sense and set of characteristics. The word consistently used in both today’s Epistle and Gospel lessons is agape. While we translate agape as “love,” there are probably more accurate translations that better convey the sense of what it means and of what Jesus was talking about. Agape is translated into Latin as caritas, which made its way into English as “charity.” Rather than love, it means more of a concern for others. The full extent of what agape means is a concern for others that is not possessive or dominating, not coercive, and which allows the other to be who he/she is or is called to be. And most importantly, it is not limiting or limited, but is expansive and in great abundance. With these characteristics, it can be applied, and Jesus even commands us to apply, agape, love, not just to those whom we like or are close to, but to everyone, even those we do not particularly like, to our enemies.

Perhaps this is easier said than done, but when we remember what agape really means, what this definition of love really means, it leaves a little more room to have love for those whom we would not want to or be able to love under our more emotional definition. But remember, we are talking about a love that is a grounding force in our lives, as humans and as Christians – a love that is made possible by and through our relationship with Jesus Christ, the grounding force of our life and faith. Jesus provides the example. Remember, after all, that Jesus, out of his love for us, was willing to die so that we might be saved. And if we’re brutally honest with ourselves, we may not always be the most lovable of individuals. We may have things about us that are not that easy to like. But Jesus had such concern for us, regardless of who we are, that none of that mattered. His love for us extends to all of us, regardless of who we are.

As I said, it’s not easy. It takes practice. Lots of practice. Perhaps a lifetime of practice, to love in the way Jesus has called us to love. But with time, with practice, with the example and help of Christ, the one who first loved us so that we might love others, love becomes less and less of an emotional, even a superficial expression, and more and more a transforming power in our lives.

Part of how that slow and gradual change happens is in our communal life together, in our communal life of worship. This is expressed in the concluding section of our lesson from First John, in which the author gives very specific information about our central, grounding force, about Jesus Christ. “This is the one who came by water and blood, Jesus Christ, not with the water only but with water and the blood.” In this addendum to the explanation of the meaning of love, of the centrality of Jesus Christ to the outpouring of love, to our living that love in our daily lives and ministries, Christ is explicitly described in terms of water and blood. For us, these are tangible signs and reminders of who Christ is. They are tangible reminders of not only who he is, but of all that flows from and is held together by him – our beliefs, our relationships with God and with one another, our expressions of love, our obedience to him, particularly in following God’s commandments, in our striving to conquer the world to bring victory to the kingdom he has ushered in, to our every expression of our faith. Water and blood are the central signs of who we are as Christians. They are the central signs, the grounding influence in our communal worship, which is itself an expression of our life together. They are the ultimate expression of Christ’s love for us, and as such, reminders to us of the love we are to have for one another and for all whom we encounter.

While not explicitly used every time we worship, water is the sign and symbol of our full inclusion in the community of faith, through baptism in water and the Holy Spirit. It is through water that we are made members of the Body of Christ. In water we die to our old way of life and are born again to new and eternal life in Christ. Every Sunday, either directly or indirectly, we remember the waters of baptism, of what that means to us, and through whom that has been made possible, Jesus Christ. This is an expression of our inclusion in God’s family, and a reminder that we too must welcome all we encounter as fellow brothers and sisters in Christ.

And every Sunday when we come together to worship, we employ the sign and symbol of blood, or more explicitly, of body and blood. Every time we celebrate the Eucharist at this table, we take the bread and the wine, and through our prayers and the words of the Great Thanksgiving, we remember what Jesus said at the Last Supper – “this is my body” and “this is my blood.” We remember that these holy gifts were given to us and to all for the forgiveness of our sins. We remember and celebrate that through these holy gifts, we are made one with Christ in his Body, that we are made one with each other in his Body. Through these holy gifts we are nurtured and fed, giving us the strength we need to go back out into the world, carrying the gift of Christ’s love to all those whom we encounter in our day-to-day lives.

Water and blood. Washing and feeding. Inclusion and sending out. This is what the signs of our worship are all about. This is what love is all about. That is how we receive the love that Christ freely gives to us. What we do with it is up to us. We can keep it for ourselves and feel all nice and warm inside. Or we can take it out into the world, and spread it among all those we encounter – those we love, those we like, and even those we do not particularly like. Only by doing this will we be loving as Christ has commanded us to love. And in so doing, we will truly be living as Christ has commanded us to live.

Or put another way, blah blah blah love, blah blah blah live.

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Schlafer, David A. “1 John 5:1-6, Homiletical Perspective.” In Feasting on the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary – Year B, Volume 2, Lent Through Eastertide. Edited by David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor. Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2008.

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