What love looks like

Mendoza Madonna, All Souls Church

A sermon for the Fifth Sunday of Easter, May 2, 2010. The lectionary readings are Acts 11:1-18, Psalm 148, Revelation 21:1-6, and John 13:31-35.

What does love look like?

At yesterday’s wedding, I met a young woman who was getting ready for the ceremony—she had bags and curlers and clothes and stopped for a break in our library room, just next to the church, where the acolytes put on their vestments. In that room, just over the fireplace, there is a large painting of the Blessed Virgin Mary, holding the baby Jesus. The young woman wanted to ask me about the picture. “Why does Jesus look like so old? He almost looks like a little man,” she asked. I tried to remember something I had learned in art history years ago and bluffed my way forward talking about how I thought that in some pictures of the Madonna and Child, Jesus looks like an adult to remind us of his wisdom and of his timelessness as the Christ. It also reminds us that just as Mary holds and cares for Jesus no matter what, God also holds and protects and watches over us, no matter what age or condition or circumstance we find ourselves in. Love may look like a mother and child, or it may look like a loving parent holding a child of old age. “Cool,” she said, and went on looking for her curling iron.

That painting of the Blessed Virgin Mother and Jesus reminds me that love can look and feel different as we move from infancy through life. Sometimes there are experiences that jolt us into recognizing God’s love in places we might not have expected.

In our first scripture from the Acts of the Apostles, love turns out to look different from what Peter had expected. Peter gets into trouble because he’s come to understand that the love of God not only looks like Jesus coming to save the Jews, but it looks even bigger and broader than most people imagined: love encompasses all of God’s children.

The old thinking was that the messiah was to come only for Jews, but Peter begins to explain how God brought him to a new understanding. He tells them about his dream or vision. He saw what looked like a big sheet, coming down from heaven. And in the sheet were all sorts of animals– four-footed animals, beasts of prey, reptiles, birds of the air. A voice said to Peter, “Get up, Peter, go and kill these things and eat them,” but Peter kept the dietary laws of a good Jew. There’s no way he could eat all those different things. It would be against his upbringing. It would be against his tradition. It would violate the sanctity of his religion. But the voice came again and told Peter, “What God has made clean, you must not call profane.” In other words, if God says it’s good, it’s good. The very next thing that happens is that this new insight of Peter is put to the test as he encounters Cornelius, who was a soldier. Cornelius has also been prepared for Peter by a vision, and after they talk, Cornelius is converted. Cornelius and his entire household receive the Holy Spirit and are baptized.

In today’s Gospel, Jesus says to his disciples, “Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.” Earlier in this same chapter of John’s Gospel, Jesus has joined his friends to celebrate the Passover meal. But before they eat together, Jesus does this radical display of hospitality and he washes their feet. The Gospel describes what Jesus is about to do by saying, “It was just before the Passover Feast. Jesus knew that the time had come for him to leave this world and go to the Father. Having loved his own who were in the world, he loved them to the last.” That last phrase can also be translated that Jesus “showed them the full extent of his love.” That “full extent” point to his dying on the cross, but it also includes the ways in which Jesus gave of himself, the ways in which he showed us what love looks like, during his life.
We had a week’s worth, if not a life’s worth of looking at what love looks like just about a month ago in the liturgies of Holy Week. We saw it on Maundy Thursday as we set up a chair and a bowl, and we washed feet. During the foot washing, the choir sang anthems and the antiphon repeated throughout comes from the thirteenth chapter of John: “I give you a new commandment: Love one another as I have loved you.”

This past Holy Week, we continued our tradition of inviting twelve volunteers from the congregation. The priest washes the people’s feet. And while this has some symbolism, (of Jesus washing his disciples’ feet), it misses the main point of the Gospel. The point is that we should show this love to each other, not simply remember how Jesus did it. And so next year (here’s a warning), we will invite people to come forward sit at one of the chairs and wash the feet of the person who comes next.

Like me, some of you may have participated in this kind of foot washing in other churches. One comes forward and kneels before the other person. It might be a stranger, a visitor, a homeless person, or a bishop. But we look for Christ in that person and there is something of Christ that indeed seems present. For me, that’s the easy part, the washing of the other person’s feet.

Jesus asks us to love one another, and he does so in the context of the washing of feet and the Last Supper. Those are things we use as spiritual practices—the washing of the feet only once a year, but the celebration of Holy Communion, weekly or more often.

But these remind us of what it means to love like Jesus loves.
In some places, the first Sunday in May is used as a special day for honoring the love of God as reflected in the Blessed Virgin Mary. Special hymns are sung. Children sometimes place a crown of flowers on the head of the Blessed Virgin. May is the month of Mary, traditionally. One way that many people have come to know the love of Christ is by thinking about that simple, yet profound love, of a mother for a child—a special mother and a very special child. We honor Mary who helped teach Jesus the meaning of love, the cost of love, the danger of love. It was she who stood by him in love when he was crucified, and who helped spread his love to the other disciples and to all she encountered.

Mary’s love for Jesus began when she said Yes to God. Like her, we can say “yes” as we allow God to teach us what love looks like. We can follow Jesus even when we’re not sure of what lies ahead. And we can continue to lead others to him, pointing to where he has gone, saying, “watch him, do what he says, follow him, and love like him.”

What does love look like? It looks like Mary gazing on her son. It looks like Jesus washing feet. It looks like the sharing of the bread and wine, the Body and Blood of Christ. And it looks like all the countless ways that God leads us to serve one another. Love looks like us being faithful.

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

About John F. Beddingfield

Rector of The Church of the Holy Trinity (Episcopal) in New York City on East 88th Street between 1st Ave and 2nd Ave.
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