This sermon is offered to the glory of the most high God whom we know as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, and in the hope that my neighbors may benefit from it.
The gospel passages we read between Easter and Pentecost expose us to the evolution and emergence of the early church and lead us toward Pentecost when it changed from being a move-ment within Judaism to a universal community of believers. Its direction and leadership passes from Jesus to the apostles and then to future generation Christians like us. If we don’t know this, a casual reading of today’s gospel would seem strange or even unintelligible. And were I a jour-nalist I might call these readings the “backstory” – the story behind the story of Christianity’s rise from an obscure sect that started on the fringes of Judaism to become, within barely 400 years, the foremost religion of Western civilization. In today’s brief excerpt from John’s gospel, Jesus makes some remarks to his disciples after Judas had left the Last Supper and these have become part of what we call his “farewell discourse” where he addresses several issues with which his disciples will need to deal in order to continue his mission after his crucifixion. John devotes 4 chapters (14-17) to Jesus’ long speech, and I encourage you to read the full story. Meanwhile, I’ve done some preliminary homework for us and to get a quick boost toward understanding to-day’s gospel, this is the story behind the story.
Jesus’ long speech has several components and in other readings during Eastertide he will promise the gift of his Holy Spirit to guide his disciples, bestow his peace on them, give the alle-gory of himself as the Vine and the disciples as its branches, warn of imminent persecutions, and finally pray what we call his High Priestly Prayer – his longest prayer, an intercession for the uni-ty of his church. But in today’s reading John’s Jesus makes three straightforward points. He tells his disciples that God has been glorified by his life – that they cannot go where he is going, and finally, that they are to obey a new commandment to love each other as he has loved them. Over the centuries there has been very little wrangling about the first two of these because their meaning seems transparent. But lots of ink and not a little blood has been spilled interpreting the practical day-to-day application of what we call the Great Commandment because when you read it in context – at the Last Supper and one of the last things Jesus says to his disciples – you know it’s important and deserves our best understanding.
So what does it mean to love one another as Christ has loved us? How do we do that? We know what it means formally – it’s a command from the Lord – but what does it mean materi-ally and practically? Who to love (one another) is clear enough – but how do we love each oth-er as Christ loved us is much more problematic. My personal sense is that the short answer is that this is another of what we call Jesus’ ‘counsels of perfection’. They occur throughout the NT and are generally said to be poverty, chastity, and obedience – but they are not binding and hence not necessary conditions to attain eternal life. Rather they are (again what we call) “acts of supererogation” – acts that exceed the minimum stipulated in the Commandments in the Bible – and Matthew’s gospel is especially noted for them. Of course the history of Christ’s church is filled with stories of exemplary lives of holy women and men, and of even martyrs. But modesty and self-effacement abound when they are cited for a holy life – and from what I know of them, even facing death, they do not boast of how they lived perfect lives but plead for God’s mercy. They appear to know that we are not without sin, and remind us that we cannot be or do the same as Jesus. So their lives instruct us that ‘love as’ means ‘love like’ and not ‘love in the exact same way’. That helps make this commandment intelligible and we don’t think Jesus would ask us to do what is impossible for us to do. We can try and we ought to try, and on rare occasion we may come close; but to recapitulate Jesus, or reincarnate him in ourselves is our impossible possibility and our task. Trying to be ‘perfect as our Father in heaven is perfect’ is our impossible dream.
I have thought, as perhaps you have, that I have seen a few rare and deliberate acts that re-flected divine love. And I’ve marveled at that; and wished there were more. But there is also a dark side we don’t often talk about that recalls times when Christians have committed violent ter-rorist acts, like the murders of pro-abortion doctors or the perpetrators of the 2018 Pittsburgh Synagogue and the 2019 Poway Synagogue shootings. Each of those killers claims that their Christian beliefs or their interpretation of the Bible are the warrant for their behavior. And some Christians have even killed other Christians. Remember the Inquisition, the murder of Thomas Beckett, and the 16th c. burning of the Canterbury martyrs. When we remember these and other examples of our dark history, trying to interpret today’s brief excerpt from John’s account be-comes an urgent need that has to be more instructive than entertaining, more didactic than horta-tory, more descriptive than prescriptive of how a holy life gets lived.
As with other counsels of perfection, this one sets the bar very high. It’s as though Jesus knew his disciples very well – and that very like Judas and Peter and Thomas, our fidelity to him would also be incomplete and fragmentary. So we would not be able to keep this commandment or the other counsels of perfection, but he gave them nevertheless as a target to be striven for, a goal to be achieved, knowing that, as Robert Browning put it, our ‘reach should exceed our grasp, or what’s a heaven for’. And that means that even in the most occasional and hypothetical ways, our obedience to this commandment is always transitory and never finished.
If we look at our prayer books and ask ‘what do they say about abortion or genetic engi-neering, about capital punishment or adultery, about surrogate motherhood, or suicide’ – or about a large and broad range of other behaviors that we commonly designate as right or wrong – the answer turns out to be not much at all. On the other hand, if we ask what do they say about peace and unity and resisting evil and striving for justice, we would say quite a lot. Apart from the pre-scriptive behaviors in the Decalogue and the Catechism and certain disciplinary rubrics, our pray-er books are long on rich and powerful resources for advocating godly graces but short on pre-scribing behaviors. Scripture, tradition, and reason are the only other helps laid down in our prayer books. Synods and conventions may make resolutions on matters like poverty and racism and sexuality, but they have no magisterial authority for us. And it’s similar with advisories and pastoral letters from our bishops – they invite agreement and cooperation, but they do not compel agreement. Bishops in our tradition have a limited role for oversight and continuity with the uni-versal church. They are pastors to a diocese and have a teaching office but their pronouncements are not binding on our behavior. Again, the burden of proof lies to each Episcopalian to act per-sonally and conscientiously. When our bishops favored gender-neutral bathrooms. Some parish-es agreed and made changes, but most didn’t. And that’s why on any moral issue we show diver-sity in our behavior.
Discerning how a holy life gets lived is of bedrock importance for us, because in Angli-can traditions we are not given a behavioral recipe for how to do what Jesus commands us to do. So diversity in a holy life has become an essential ingredient in Anglican moral theology because we believe that how we love as Christ loved us is left to us personally and our rightly-formed consciences. But we don’t undertake that responsibility individually and all by ourselves – we have help from the church’s traditions, its ministries, our neighbors, and God’s Holy Spirit – and our consciences get formed, and the theological virtues of faith, hope, and charity get learned and cultivated in and through our worship. It’s just that brilliantly simple. Think about it. In our choreography every Sunday we approach God in faith, we listen to his Word and receive his sac-raments for the cultivation and sustenance of our hope, and the charitable outcome of all this is our recognition of diverse other persons as equal fellow creatures of God and sometimes fellow members of Christ..
And we still ask how do we obey this new commandment? I think our marriage vows are instructive. They are promises, not prescribed behaviors. They tell us what to covenant but not how to act out the promise “to be my wife or husband, to have and to hold from this day forward, for better or worse, for richer or poorer, in sickness and in health, to love and to cherish”. We think earlier prayer books crossed an orthodox line when they included a patriarchal promise by the wife to “love, honor, and obey” her husband – so the book we currently use eliminated that promise and substituted a pledge from both wife and husband to ‘love, comfort, honor, and keep each other’ – unspecified general duties that may be significant for gender but more importantly they tell us how marriage is meant to exhibit the mystery of the union between Christ and his church. So native affection – ‘the more we get together the happier we’ll be’ – is not the norm here. We’re trying to learn how to comprehend a crucified Messiah whom Paul knew to be “a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles [I Cor 1:23] – how this Jesus is the image of the heart of God – and how this Jesus revealed in his life and ministry and death the unrelenting sacrificial love of God for us and the whole world.
Dictionaries provide the definition of words, cultures decide their meaning – and I wish we could clean up our use of the word ‘love’. It’s common nowadays that love gets used to say ‘I love ice cream’, ‘I love my dog’, or ‘I love a good steak’, etc. But Jesus makes plain when he says “as I have loved you” that there is no wriggle-room in Christian faith between referencing love to persons and referencing love to things. More important, we know that even the possibili-ty for our loving at all is rooted in God having first loved us. “In this is love,” says 1 John, “not that we loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the expiation for our sins”. [4:10] So this radical commandment follows from an extraordinary and radical gift and I’ve begun to restrict my use of this word ‘love’ so that it means something very special and doesn’t get diluted with casual application. I’m trying to reserve ‘love’ to my true loves: God – my wife – my child-ren – you and other people at more or less distance from my nuclear family. That’s the difference – I love living persons, not things. And chastening our language can be a way of preventing ‘love’ from melting into a soggy mush. When Jesus tells us to love, he doesn’t mean for ‘love’ to melt into a soggy mush. “I give you a new commandment,” he said, “that you love one anoth-er. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another.”
I believe that today’s gospel is of bedrock importance to us who venture to be Jesus’ fol-lowers. It commands us to love one another as, like our Lord has loved us – and when we under-take to do that, we know that we struggle to act out his love in in lives that are rooted in the now but not yet – in a time between the times – when we have one foot in the kingdoms of this world and another in the kingdom of God. Still, we know that just any kind of love won’t do – and that it will only become apparent that we belong to Jesus insofar as we do our best to display in our love for each other the love with which he loved us. So we work at being Jesus’ followers and get sometimes surprised at how close we come. Of course we get a glimpse of what all this means by reading scripture and praying intercessions, singing hymns and listening to sermons, making offerings and celebrating eucharists, and enjoying refreshment and fellowship together. In fact, all that we do here is among the ways by which we learn how God loves us, and how we are meant to love each other. So we remain a work in progress, and and that’s alright – we’re saved by faith and not by works (Gal.2:16) and if ever we learn these things, all that remains is for us to do as best we can to act them out in our lives. I think that’s a reassuring and comforting thought, don’t you. Amen. So be it. Deo gratias.
Rev. Harmon Smith, Ph. D.
Emeritus Professor of Ethics, Duke University
Harmon Smith is an Episcopal Priest, Emeritus Professor of Ethics, and an avid golfer.