17 May 2020
The First Presbyterian Church of Whitestone
The Rev. Mark Koenig
I have heard many sermons about love over the years. I have preached many sermons about love over the years. You have heard some of them. Today you will here one more.
Working on this sermon, I received some insight into why that happens. Statistics. Courtesy of Jaime Clark-Soles. Writing in the Feasting on the Gospels commentary, he notes that John’s Gospel uses verb forms of the word love fifty times, Matthew thirteen times, Mark six, and Luke fifteen. Nouns for love appear thirteen times in John, Matthew two times, and Luke sixteen.[i]
In today’s passage from John’s Gospel, Jesus returns to love. John wrote these words some time after Jesus had returned to heaven. Perhaps as many as fifty years had passed. It is unlikely that anyone for whom John wrote had ever met Jesus. Most of the first followers of Jesus had died. The Rev. Dr. Thomas Blair notes that John’s “words of living hope” were addressed to “a community for whom Jesus was a holy memory.”[iv]
This morning we return to the upper room with Jesus and the disciples. He washed their feet. They shared a meal. And Jesus gave them a new commandment to love one another.[v]
After Judas left to betray Jesus. After Peter promised to lay down his life for Jesus. After Jesus replied Jesus that Peter would deny him. Three times. Before the morning came. After all that, Jesus returned to love.
“If you love me you will keep my commandments.”
Straightforward. Clear. Concrete. Leaves little doubt about what people should do. But difficult. Complicated. Challenging. Even for us as individuals.
We often love. We celebrate a special man’s special day. We feed those who hunger. We say the kind word. We offer a shoulder to cry on. We write a letter to an elected official for justice.
But I join the Rev. Jill Duffield in confessing that when I look at the world, I do not always see a whole lot of lovin’ going on. The cross on which Jesus died provides the prime example that sometimes, love is met with violence. White supremacy and patriarchy are woven into the fabric of our society and deny equity to many people. COVID-19’s toll grows. The pandemic impacts nearly every aspect of life in almost every place. Rev. Duffield observes that we have reached the point that using, or not using face masks proves divisive.[vi]
Like those first disciples, we sometimes fail to act in love. Even the most loving relationships know challenges—particularly when we quarantine together as the days blur together. It is not easy. The age of COVID-19 has led to an increase in domestic violence around the world.[vii]
But the challenges do not need to rise to that level. A friend told me yesterday, “We all get grumpy from time to time. We have been short on patience with one another.” There are five members of his family. “It’s tough staying home and not being able to go anywhere.”
That happens to those of us who live alone too. I got somewhat testy on a Zoom meeting on Thursday. I raised my voice. Said some unkind things. Turned off Zoom and left the meeting. Fortunately, the problem was that the sound on my computer was not working. No one heard me. I stood up. Made another cup of coffee. Figured out a workaround and joined the meeting again.
“If you love me you will keep my commandments.”
I know I can’t live up to that all the time. I suspect I am not alone in feeling that way. I suspect his first disciples did. Love does not always lead to love. Again and again, they failed to understand what Jesus said. Again and again, they made mistakes. We do the same.
In our passage for today, Jesus addresses the challenge of living up to the commandment to love. He tells us that God will provide resources so his people can live faithfully.
“I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Advocate, to be with you forever. The Spirit of truth abides with you and will be in you.
“I will not leave you orphaned; I am coming to you. In a little while the world will no longer see me, but you will see me; because I live, you also will live.”
Jesus says that while he would no longer be seen teaching and healing, but his ministry and witness would continue. In his followers. In us. As difficult as it may be, when we love – Jesus will be revealed to the world.
And Jesus says we do not attempt to love in response to Jesus unaided. We are not abandoned. We are not orphaned. We are never left alone. God sends the Advocate, the Comforter, the Holy Spirit to bind us together in Christ. It is together that we can best love. It is together that we most nearly follow Jesus.
The Rev. Dr. Thomas Blair notes that a principle of mountain climbing helps illustrate this point. I have hiked up and down a couple of mountains following well-marked trails. In high school, I climbed Baldy Mountain in New Mexico with the Boy Scouts–over 12,000 feet up and down. I had more hair then. My whole family trudged down Mount Washington in New Hampshire one summer our sons were younger.
Both those experiences and any other close encounters I have had with mountains involved putting one foot in front of the other and staying on the trail. No equipment needed.
The Rev. Dr. Blair points out that on larger mountains and expeditions, climbers tie themselves to one another. They do so to keep from getting lost or from walking over a cliff. Climbers further say that when they are tied together – and when the going gets tough – and one of the climbers is tempted to say, “I have had enough,” they know they are physically connected. The rope commits them to one another. No individual can turn around and go home. On they go, step by step by step, carefully, surely, climbing up or climbing down together. [iv]
As we try to follow Jesus, we may have challenges loving. We may want to give up. Throw up our hands, say some words we don’t want any others to hear, and quit. Jesus knew this well.
“I will not leave you orphaned,” said Jesus. “I am coming to you.” We are made one by the Holy Spirit. One in the Spirit, we can trust in one who is greater than we can understand, to keep us moving on the journey of faith, to encourage us when believing seems absurd, to strengthen us when loving seems difficult.
We are God’s beloved children, in whom God delights. Jesus says if we love him, we will keep his commandments. We are never left alone; the Holy Spirit binds us to Jesus and to one another. One in the Spirit, one in the Lord, we can walk with each other. Sometimes hand in hand and sometimes six feet apart. We can work with each other. Sometimes side by side and sometimes at an appropriate physical distance. However we walk; wherever we work, the world will know we are Christians by our love.[ix] This day and every day. Amen.
[i] Jarvis, Cynthia A.; Johnson, E. Elizabeth. Feasting on the Gospels–John, Volume 2: A Feasting on the Word Commentary (Kindle Locations 5172-5176). Westminster John Knox Press. Kindle Edition.
[v] John 13:35
[ix] Peter Scholtes, “We Are One in the Spirit”, No. 300 in the Glory to God hymnal