Sermon preached at Crescent Springs Presbyterian Church for the Sixth Sunday of Easter.
As the Father has loved me, so I have loved you; abide in my love. If you keep my commandments, you will abide in my love, just as I have kept my Father’s commandments and abide in his love. I have said these things to you so that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be complete.
This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you. No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends. You are my friends if you do what I command you. I do not call you servants any longer, because the servant does not know what the master is doing; but I have called you friends, because I have made known to you everything that I have heard from my Father. You did not choose me but I chose you. And I appointed you to go and bear fruit, fruit that will last, so that the Father will give you whatever you ask him in my name. I am giving you these commands so that you may love one another.
As the youngest sibling, the youngest cousin, and the youngest kid in the neighborhood, I simply did not grow up around babies. I might be remembering wrong, but don’t think I ever actually held a baby until I was in college. Babies were kind of a mystery to me.
I’ve been lucky enough to get to know a few more babies in the intervening years, and I worry less now that I’m going to break them simply by being nearby. I still think babies are a mystery—but in the most delightful way, in the way that the Spirit’s gifts have yet to unfold in them. In the way where I can’t wait to see the humans they’ll become.
Still, as someone who was never a babysitter and currently has no desire to be a parent, I was grateful for my parenting friends I studied scripture with in seminary. The Bible is full of parent-child metaphors, and while I can understand them from the perspective of being a child, I can only guess at the parent side.
One of those seminary friends was a woman named Melissa, a mother of two who became a grandmother in her second year. Knowing that Jesus calls us to love one another, we were having a discussion about how we learn to love, especially people whom we taught to fear or distrust. Melissa reminded us that there’s more to the commandment to love: we aren’t just told “love people,” and left to figure out how on our own; we’re told to love one another as Jesus has loved us. And Jesus loves us because of how his Parent loved him.
I thought Melissa’s comment was so brilliant that I got it in writing, so I could always remember what she said.
“As infants, each one of us here was smiled into smiling, talked into talking, and loved into loving. If not by our parents, than by others. [And so,] Transformation by love is the root of Jesus’ Good News.”
We learn how to love from our parents’ love—or whoever in our life takes on that role. Psychology knows this to be true—that children who are not talked to struggle with language, and that children who are not given care and affection struggle to create loving bonds with others. We mimic the behavior our caretakers give us.
That’s a heavy weight for parents and caretakers to carry. And so we have the great gift of a heavenly parent, who is pouring love into us every day. Who is showing us the kind of behaviors to mimic.
In John’s gospel, Jesus gives this command to his disciples on his final night with them before his crucifixion. They are, in effect, a baby church. Perhaps even a preemie church—sent out into the world before they’re fully ready. And so Jesus is loving them into loving others. Like a parent, Jesus is modeling for them the kind of love he wants them to give to others.
And what kind of love is that?
It’s not baby love for sure, not cuddly, squishy, easy love. Jesus does not ask us to feel warm and fuzzy feelings about everyone we meet. It’s clear from scripture that Jesus so loved the world that he died for it—and it’s also clear from scripture that Jesus spent plenty of time angry, frustrated, baffled, and disappointed with the people in it. There are no group hugs recorded in scripture. What we do have is a God who came to earth, to sit with people and preach God’s love to them, when it was easy, when it was hard, when it was popular, and when it got him killed. What we have is love that is not just “strong as death,” as the Song of Songs says, but even stronger.
Church is at its best when we love each other as Jesus loved us—when we sit with each other and preach love to each other and forgive each other and eat with each other and make sacrifices for each other. Not because its easy and fun, but because when we love with that strength, that steadfastness, we will see lives transformed. God’s love gave Jesus strength to love us, even through pain; and Jesus’ love gives us strength to love others, even when it is hard. Our love gives others strength to love still more people, and the circle grows.
This morning the church made its baptismal vows to Bella and Arianna, and one of the things you promised to guide and nurture Bella and Arianna, by word and deed, with loveand prayer. That vow is every bit as important as any other vow you have made before God, when you were married, when you joined the church, when you were ordained as an elder or deacon. You have promised to love these two specific humans, with the kind of sacrificial love with which Jesus has loved you.
“No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.”
This is what Jesus did for us. He laid down his life for us. He held nothing back; he prioritized his love for us even over his own life.
Today I ask you to lay down your life for Bella and Arianna. Not in one grand gesture, as Jesus did, but over days, weeks, years. When you give up your time to teach them Sunday School, that is laying down a piece of your life. When you put a check in the offering plate to support the youth group they may join, that is laying down a piece of your life. When you add them to your prayer list when one of them inevitably breaks a bone or gets the flu, you are laying down a piece of your life. When you go to their soccer game or dance recital or graduation, when you sit in a committee meeting to plan a potluck they’ll attend, when you learn their names and their hobbies and their sense of humor, you are laying down a piece of your life for them.
This is church: laying down our lives for each other, in increments so small we may not even realize we’re doing it. But my prayer is at some point, when Bella and Arianna are older, they will look back and see, as I can: these people laid down their life for me. These people thought I was worth it. These people loved me that much. So must God.
This is what love can do: it can give us strength to face whatever life throws at us, because we know the solid ground on which we stand. Love cannot fix every problem; it’s no vaccine against heartache and struggle. What love can do is link us back to God, our heavenly parent who is with us, holding us tight as we face those challenges. What love can do is remind us we are worth finding solutions to those problems. What love can do is transform our lives, so that our priority is not how easy our life can be or how much money we can make or how comfortable our home can be but how we show Jesus’ love to others.
How we be a good friend to Jesus.
I look at Bella and Arianna today and I don’t know who they’ll be. I don’t know what will spark their interest or show their creativity, I don’t know what they’ll want to learn about or who they’ll love or where they’ll shine. But I do know who they are: so, so loved, by the God who knit them together with joy.
But how will they know that, if the church doesn’t show them?
Today we made a promise. Jesus will hold us to it.