Monday, May 18, 2009

Easter 6, Year B, Sunday May 17, 2009

Acts 11:19-30; Psa 33:1-8, 18-22; 1 John 4:7-21; John 15:9-17

Preached by The Rev. Ellen Francis, OSH

This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you.

In 1911, a book was published about Native American Indians and their culture and their languages. The author of this book asserted that Eskimos use lots of different words to describe “snow” and this made sense because they live in a snowy, cold climate and snow is an important part of their lives and culture. It seemed logical that they would need to be able to describe snow in many different ways.

This idea took hold, and the number of supposed Eskimo words for snow began to grow in the popular imagination. In 1940, the number of Eskimo words for snow was reported as seven. In the 1970s this grew to 50, and by 1984, a reputable newspaper quoted the number of Eskimo words for snow to be 100.

It was a nice idea, but it’s not true. Eskimo languages have no more words for snow than we have in English. We do have quite a few words for snow in English: sleet, slush, flurry, flake, powder, and so on. Each of these words brings to mind a different experience of that cold, white stuff.

The English language is enormously rich in describing so many things and experiences and I have read that English has a larger vocabulary than any other language. Language is so critical in self-expression and communication, and even in helping us to define our experiences. Given all this, it seems odd to me that we have so few words in English for “love”. We can speak of the love of a parent for a child, and in the next moment say that we love ice cream or the movies. We often have to use an adjective to describe the kind of love we mean: puppy love, passionate love, steadfast love, devoted love, tough love, brotherly love, and so on.

Today’s readings focus on “love”, and the poverty of the English language requires that the same over-used word, “love”, be used throughout. In these readings the 1st Epistle of John uses the word “love” 26 times and in our reading from the Gospel of John the word “love” appears 9 times. These readings were originally written in Greek, and in that language there are at least three different words for love: “eros” for passionate love, “phileo” for loving friendship, and “agape” for divine love. The word “agape” or “divine love” is used throughout these readings.

In this Gospel reading, Jesus gives us a commandment, to love one another with “agape” or divine love. It’s a commandment, not a request or suggestion. It’s a commandment that stands alongside the two great commandments, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind… [and] you shall love your neighbor as yourself.” (Matthew 22:37-39) It’s not easy to do most of the time. It’s not only hard to love one another with divine love, but Jesus (as usual) raises the bar. We are to love one another even more than that; we are to love each other just as much and as well as he loved us.

How did Jesus love? He had compassion for the crowd who came to him to learn and be healed, even when he was tired and really wanted a rest by himself. He said to the disciples, “Come away to a deserted place all by yourselves and rest a while” because they had been so busy and had hardly had time even to eat. When they got to the deserted place, they discovered that the crowd had followed them into the desert. And Jesus “had compassion for them because they were like sheep without a shepherd”, and he taught them and fed all of them and they were satisfied before he sent them away. Jesus had compassion and took care of the people, putting aside his own needs, like a mother who will stay up late into the night, even if she is very tired, to comfort and feed and care for a fussy child.

How else did Jesus love? He was a teacher and healer who gave guidance for life not just for that moment. His teachings continue to inspire and help and challenge us after 2,000 years. The teachings of Jesus are like those of best teachers who teach their students to have self-confidence and to think things out for themselves rather than just giving them the answers to pass a test. The best teachers prepare their students for life.

How else did Jesus love? Every passage in the Gospels tells us something of the love of Jesus, especially the stories of his Passion and death on the cross. He knowingly and willingly gave his life for us and for the life of the world. This kind of self-giving and self-sacrificing love may be the core and the essence of divine love.

This love is like the love of a young boy who was asked if he would be willing to give a kidney to save his brother’s life. His family told him that he would be “put to sleep” so that they could take out one of his kidneys and then give it to his brother. The boy thought hard about this and then agreed to do it. What the doctors and his family didn’t realize was that he thought he would have to die to give his brother life. Some months earlier, the elderly family dog had been “put to sleep”, and had not come home again. It was only after the successful operation and his recovery that he told his parents that he had thought he would be “put to sleep” like the dog and not survive. He had accepted that he would give his life to save his brother.

God’s love is more complete, more lasting, and more constant and faithful than we can possibly imagine. The only way we can even come close to comprehending God’s love is to compare and to cherish the best experiences we have of love in our lives, and know that God’s love is even more than this. Divine love never loses hope; divine love never dims; divine love never grows impatient.

Jesus asks and commands us to love one another as he has loved us. This is the mark of a truly great teacher, who gives us a great challenge with the confidence that we will continue to strive to reach it, and maybe sometimes we will even come close. Jesus calls to Peter, “Do you love me?” when they meet on the beach after his resurrection. Peter answers, “You know that I like you”. And Jesus asks again and again, “Do you love me”? The rest of Peter’s life provides the answer to Jesus’ question.

Jesus asks us also: “Do you love me?” We can show that love in our care and attention and respect and compassion for one another, and for the least of God’s creation. It’s such a simple commandment, and it’s not easy to do. How do we learn to do this? Jesus says, “abide in my love”. We can practice living in God’s presence; walking in love; growing in community; practicing kindness and forgiveness; learning patience; letting God’s presence in our lives draw us into a peace where there is no fear but only hope and joy and all the blessings that God has prepared for each one of us. There is no greater love than this.

No comments:

Post a Comment