Sermon preached for Crescent Springs Presbyterian Church for the Sixth Sunday after 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.
Growing up, my childhood pastor had three kids. The oldest one, whip-smart and the very model of a good kid, was about eight when she told her mom she wasn’t going up for the children’s sermon anymore.
“The answers are always the same,” she said, rolling her eyes. “God-Jesus-Love. It’s not even hard.”
She’s a lawyer now, by the way.
That line became infamous in our youth group. Because yes, sometimes it does feel like the answers in church are always the same, no matter what the question is: God-Jesus-Love.
I have a friend who said it was his mission to preach love every week. No more, no less. Don’t your people get bored? I asked him. “They complain,” he replied. “But I tell them I’ll stop preaching when they start practicing.”
I don’t have my friend’s guts nor his fortitude, but I hear his point. Love is easy to talk about. It’s a lot harder to practice.
But the thing is, love isn’t optional in the Christian life. Jesus makes it a command—THE command, even. “Love one another as I have loved you,” he tells us, and folks, there’s no wriggling out of this one, no tricky Greek to trot out or contextual hoops to jump through. Jesus says what he says: obedience to Christ means loving like he loved.
Which asks the question: Can we be ordered to love? Can loving others be a command performance?
Most of us think of love as something spontaneous, a rush of emotion that hits us out of the blue. We fall in love, we’re swept away by love, we’re captive to love’s impulses. Real love can’t be faked, forced, or rushed.
Anyone who’s worked with kids knows this intimately. You can force kids to go through the motions of loving each other—“say you’re sorry,” “share your things,” “don’t hit your brother,” “use your nice words”—but you can’t make them mean it. Everyone knows that a sibling’s apology given with gritted teeth and rolled eyes isn’t the same thing as the kind of love Jesus calls his disciples to here in John. Most of us have a pretty well attuned barometer for fake love from adults too—we know who really loves us, and when “loving” acts ring hollow.
It would have been nice if Jesus had commanded us to act like we loved each other. I maybe could have faked my way through a discipleship like that. But Jesus asks for more. Don’t just act like you love each other. Love each other.
And that’s hard.
I’m beginning to wonder if my resistance to preaching love again this week isn’t really about being bored by a repetitive and reductive answer. Perhaps I don’t resist preaching love because it’s too little. Perhaps I resist preaching love again because it’s too much.
Christ calls us to love, love whole-heartedly, love generously, love truthfully. And that costs us something. Because love doesn’t solve everything. It isn’t some magical potion that will make your days easy and your relationships a breeze. Love can be helpless. Love can hurt. Love takes it out of us, and it doesn’t always—always—give back.
We’ve all loved people who were difficult to love, who we pour more into than we get back from. We’ve all been in situations that love couldn’t cure—you can’t personally love someone out of cancer, depression, addiction. Sometimes it can seem like we’ve been loving and loving and loving and loving and not really getting anywhere. It’s painful, and it’s exhausting.
And in this particularly difficult season, when there is so much grief and anger and heartache, do we have enough love left in the tank to do what Jesus wants? Is it even fair for Jesus to ask this much of us?
I was moved this week by an honest reflection by the theologian Debbie Thomas. She wrote about her own struggle with Christ’s commandment to love—not just the easy people, not just the people of her choosing, not just with the externals, but everyone, with all her heart. She calls it an impossible commandment. An impossible love.
“So what can I do?,” whe wrote. “Where must I begin? Jesus offers a single, straightforward answer: “Abide in my love.” Following on the heels of last week’s Gospel, Jesus extends the metaphor of the vine and branches and calls us once again to abide. To rest, to cling, to make ourselves at home. Not simply in him, but in his love.
My problem is that I often treat Jesus as a role model, and then despair when I can’t live up to his high standards. But abiding in something is not the same as emulating it. In the vine-and-branches metaphor, Jesus’s love is not our example; it’s our source. It’s where our love originates and deepens. Where it replenishes itself. In other words, if we don’t abide, we can’t love. Jesus’s commandment to us is not that we wear ourselves out, trying to conjure love from our own easily depleted resources. Rather, it’s that we abide in the holy place where divine love becomes possible. That we make our home in Jesus’s love — the most abundant and inexhaustible love in existence.
As is so often the case in our lives as Christians, Jesus’s commandment leads us straight to paradox: we are called to action via rest. Called to become love as we abide in love. In other words, we will become what we attend to; we will give away what we take in. The commandment — or better yet, the invitation — is to drink our fill of the Source, which is Christ, spill over to bless the world, and then return to the Source for a fresh in-filling. This is our movement, our rhythm, our dance. Over and over again. This is where we begin and end and begin again. “Love one another as I have loved you.” “Abide in my love.”
Debbie is a source of grace for me, because she reminds me that there is no Christian life without Christ—Christ who is always, always enough for us. We are called to love others, but that call does not draw us away from Christ. The Christian life draws us to others by taking us right into the heart of Christ himself. That is, as Debbie says, our home.
It is easy to berate ourselves for not loving enough. Easy to tell ourselves that we need to love more, love more, love more. But love is never a fruit of guilt. Only love creates love. So when we find ourselves feeling like we need to love more, perhaps what we really need is more love. To fill up our cup, as the saying goes.
And we know where the source of all love is.
Debbie’s words reminded me of those of another faithful woman this week, one of my favorite medieval mystics, Julian of Norwich. She lived in the 1300s, when the idea of God’s love was not as popular as it is now. She was far more likely to hear theologians and preachers speak of God’s righteousness, God’s judgment, or God’s wrath. Yet Julian was convinced through a series of visions, and her own tenacious faith, that God held her and indeed of all humanity in love.
Julian wrote, “God showed me a little thing, the size of a hazel-nut, in the palm of my hand; and it was as round as a ball. I looked on it with eye of my understanding, and thought: What could this be? And it was answered generally thus: It is all that is made. I marveled how it might last, for I thought it might suddenly have fallen to nothing for little[ness]. And I was answered in my understanding: It lasts, and shall always last because God loves it. And so everything has its Being by the love of God.
In this Little Thing I saw three properties. The first is that God made it, the second is that God loves it, the third, that God keeps it.”
It may seem like the world is falling apart. It may seem like our own hearts are tearing at the seams. Yet all those centuries ago, Julian trusted that the world exists because God made it, loves it, and keeps it. The same is true of us. God made us, God loves us, and God keeps us. It is an enormous love, that holds us all still.
It was Julian’s ability to trust in God’s love—not her own love, not her own wisdom, not her own faith, not her own heart, and certainly not that of any other person she knew—it was her ability to trust in God’s love that led her to pen the famous promise: “all shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of things shall be well.”
All manner of things are not well. You know that. I know that. And love is not a magic potion. And yet in all of human existence, I have seen nothing more powerful, more life-changing, more rule-breaking, more pain-healing, more transforming, and more saving than God’s love, and the people who carry it to one another.
So yes. The answers are always the same. God, Jesus, Love.
When you find yourself at the end of your rope. When you’ve tried everything with no success. When the grief is too heavy. When your faith is faltering. When your heart is burned and raw and aching. When even God seems out of reach.
Just then, at the end of your rope, at the breaking point, in the weariness, that’s when, against all odds, you’ll find…
 Julian of Norwich, Revelations of Divine Love.