The Love Christ Calls us to Show

Hear a short recap of the Sunday service:

Watch the 11 AM Celebration of the Holy Eucharist

Watch the 6 PM Community Eucharist

The written version of the sermon is here:

When I lived and worked in midtown, I used to pass the big Robert Indiana sculpture that spelled LOVE in giant letters, arranged in a block. It was at 55th Street and 6th Avenues, though I understand it’s been removed for restoration. It used to be fun to watch people pose with it in interesting ways. Everyone was drawn to it. Everyone felt like they could approach it.

Love is like that. It seems approachable. But its easy proximity can also hide some of its complexity.

How can the same word express my love of chocolate, my love of a brown sweatshirt, my love of my mother and father, my love of my spouse, and my love of this parish? I love them all, but in truth, I love the things I just listed differently.

Jesus says in today’s Gospel, “Love one another.” That’s clear enough—but is it? If most of us were we’re honest, we might admit that Jesus’s commandment to love one another is overwhelming.

It’s an ideal, but it’s unobtainable by most of us. In my own life, I realize the impossibility of those words when I’m honest enough to admit that, in truth, I don’t always like everyone—much less, love them. Some people are difficult. And yet, I have the words of Jesus in my head, that I “Should” love… and without really thinking about what that means, I feel burdened and unworthy by the reality of how far I am from the goal.

We can all feel a bit unworthy, if we read about those first Christians with a kind of “stained glass” lens. We read how the earliest Christians were known by the love they showed for each other. And then we look at our church or denomination or the fragmented state of Christianity, and notice that we don’t always love very well. Us or other Christians are not especially noticed for being loving.

I recall the wonderful honesty of a former parishioner, who would say, “I know Jesus tells me to love my neighbor, but sometimes I have to love from across the street.” And while she meant that as a kind of confession, she was actually naming a kind of love that has just as much integrity as other kinds of love. It’s just that the English language doesn’t invite us to reflect on different kinds of love.

Just as love is not always straightforward or clear in our world—it’s more complicated in the scriptures, too. Especially in John’s Gospel, there is a lot of complexity around this idea of love.

John uses different words to talk about love—there is (the Greek word storge) the love that is really more of a simple affection for someone.

There is (philia) the kind of love one has for a friend.

There is eros, (not really erotic, in the way our culture uses it), but eros is the romantic love that involves feeling, romance, and a kind of longing.

And there’s the love John talks about most for Christians, the love of agape.

Jesus doesn’t call us to feel eros toward everyone we meet. We are not created for, nor expected to feel warm fuzzies every time we encounter someone. He calls us, he commands us, to love one another, but he commands us to love with agape love.

Agape love describes an attitude. This agape love has to do with a willingness to yield to the other, a kind of availability for others. In full expression, it has to do with giving of one’s life in sacrifice for another. Agape seeks to serve others and moves out of oneself into the realm of others—quite honestly, whether we like them or not.

This is the kind of love we hear about in the first reading from the Acts of the Apostles. We might get a little tripped up by the strange language of the “circumcised” and the “uncircumsized,” but this is basically spiritual shorthand to talk about those followers of Jesus who were raised as Jews and those who had come to faith in Jesus, but were foreigners, non-Jews, outsiders. In a preview of the Day of Pentecost, Peter is just astounded that God’s Spirit has fallen on these newcomers, these foreigners, just as fully as God’s Spirit has fallen on those who were raised in the faith, followed all the religious traditions, and always said their prayers. Peter is able to love the newcomers because he sees the fruit of their faith and sees evidence of God’s love for them.

Agape love is powerful stuff because it begins with God, not with a good feeling you or I might have. God gave himself to the world. God’s love came to live with humanity in the work and person of Jesus. That love of his has been let loose in the world making it possible for that same love to move through us, if we let it.

This is the love of God moving through us, and it has nothing to do with how nice I am, or how holy I am, or even how good we might be— it is the pure and perfect love of God that flows through us, sometimes in spite of ourselves. Agape love doesn’t even depend on the object of its loving power. This kind of love loves the other person not because they are worthy or good or in any way inspire love, but simply because it is the nature of God’s love to love. And that unloving person, by the grace of God’s love, can eventually be loved into being loving.

In C.S. Lewis’s little book, The Four Loves, Lewis quotes Ralph Waldo Emerson pointing out that when someone says, “Do you love me?” They’re really asking, “Do you see the same truth?” Or at least, “Do you care about the same truth, as I?”

C. S. Lewis elaborates on this. He points out that the person who goes through life simply looking for friends may never make any. This is because the very condition of making friends is that we should want something beyond the friendship. The friendship must be about something. Those who have nothing can share nothing, and those who are going nowhere can have no fellow-travelers.

Lewis points out that when friendship is based on agape love, the friendship doesn’t depend upon the particulars of this person or that. We become friends without knowing or caring about whether a person is single or in a relationship, how the person earns a living, or where the person lives. The real question remains, “Do you see the same truth?” “Do you care about the same truth?” Lewis suggests that friendship based in agape love is a little like world leaders from independent states who meet on neutral ground. In the neutral space they are freed from their contexts. They are freed to be something new.

This is a good day to think about love, this day many celebrate as Mother’s Day. Many of us have enjoyed a good and loving relationship with our mothers and today is a natural and easy day. But others have a more complicated relationship and the day shares in those complications. Some perhaps have never felt love from their mother and so find they find the whole notion perplexing.

But just as a mother’s love might be multi-leveled and complex, and our love for a mother might be complicated, we are called to be people of Christ’s love. The love of Christ is not a kiss to be caught, but rather, a willingness to look beyond the self for a truth that can be shared. To love one another means to give of ourselves—our money, our talents, our minds, our hearts, and to give to others that they may be loved into loving. This is how we will be saved. This is how the world will be saved.

Thanks be to God for the love of Jesus Christ that moves through us, that changes us, that brings us to God.

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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